I just got back from my first CrossFit workout session and I can hardly hold my arms up to type. (But that’s good!)
The gym is in an old military warehouse in a huge park that used to be Fort Something-Or-Other. It’s just a big room with a bunch of equipment. Like at the boxing gym, there are no lockers or showers and all the focus is on the intensity and technique of the workout. The CrossFit concept puts a lot of emphasis on strength training through Olympic lifts, starting with the deadlift and the squat. We do very little with weights at boxing, so I don’t even know what most Olympic lifts look like, let alone how to do them. One of the coaches, Nick, spent the whole session with me so I started to learn a little technique for some lifts. (Video and slide shows for all exercises are here.)
The first thing we did was talk about my fitness level and how I maintain it. I told him about boxing and jumping rope, bicycling, and all the yard work I do. He asked me if I can do pull-ups, and had me show him. I was able to do four and a half, as usual. He seemed to indicate that put me at a slight advantage as a CrossFit beginner.
Next he demonstrated the deadlift, explaining as he lifted that you have to lift your chest, arch your back slightly, and pull backwards with your weight on your heels. This was all completely new to me and there were some gigantic-looking plates on the bar that I assumed he was going to take off. Nope! “Now you try it.” Through boxing I’ve gotten good at following instructions on physical tasks, so Nick was quite happy with my form considering it was my first time. He asked me how that amount of weight felt. I said once I stopped being so nervous just from the look of the weights, and the fact that I’m to drop them with a deafening clank after each lift, the weight would feel heavy but comfortable. Every time I dropped it, I clapped my hands over my ears.
He said the place people are most likely to hurt themselves in weightlifting is on the eccentric lift, meaning when they’re trying to put the weight down gently. Apparently the exercise is the lift only—not the setting down. So there are thick rubber mats and you drop the weights.
One thing about the deadlift has confused me in hindsight. I could swear he said I was lifting almost my body weight (he asked me what it was), but much later I thought I saw that the bar held two 15-kg plates. That would be about half my body weight. Maybe that’s what he said, I don’t know. Or maybe somebody had changed the weight in between, also a possibility.
After practicing a few deadlifts to make sure I was understanding how, he told me my first workout would be to do three drills as fast as I can, three times through: 500 meters rowing, 20 box jumps, and 12 deadlifts. I was starting to feel confident and validated; none of those intimidated me. It was tiring to do them three times through as fast as I could, but so what. I was tired. That’s what I came for. A box jump is jumping with both feet onto the top of a block the height of the tops of my knees, and back off again, and back up, 20 times in this case. I was relatively quite slow the third time through, although I maintained a time of about 2:12 for all three 500-meter rowing sessions. My total time was 19:13 for the workout. Nick said that was decent.
Next we talked a bit about the structure of the “classes,” which are based on a daily workout that he posts on the wall. People come any time between 5:00 and 7:00 and work through it, then work on whatever they want. This can include strength training, gymnastic drills, kettlebell workouts, and I’m not sure what else.
The workout Nick had put me through was kind of a benchmark workout that he said new people do to get established, and that people return to every so often to measure their improvement. I’m not sure how they time themselves because Nick can’t possibly stand over everybody every time.
Then he suggested I try doing an assisted muscle-up on the rings. That means doing a pull-up as high as you can and then rotating the rings as you pull your head forward and elbows in, eventually “standing” vertically with your hands at your sides supporting you on the rings. This is one of the most difficult challenges and everybody wants to be able to do it. Several men can do it and only one woman, as far as I know. So I put on this VERY TIGHT harness, stood on a chair, and learned how to hold the rings with the false grip. Harness or no, I couldn’t muscle myself up. The thing that seemed not to be working for me was the low end of my triceps, right above my elbow. It’s as if that part of the muscle is weak and not ready to cooperate. I tried several times because I really wanted to do a muscle-up, even with mechanical assistance! Finally Nick helped me more by pulling down on the ropes while I tried to transition from pull-up to pressing, and ta-da! I muscled up and felt triumphant up there in mid-air, with my arms quivering, wishing I could have miraculously done it on my first try.
I could have quit at that point, but hey, I drove all the way up there so I was going to get all the punishment I could stand before I left. Nick observed that I’m in good condition and am ready to make a lot of progress. I was glad about that because it speaks so well of Cappy’s boxing workout (which I’m still going to do once a week even if I join CrossFit). Of course, just now I got up for a minute and am already stiff all over!
Next I learned a few more lifts (or drills with weights): the thruster and the push-press (I think these are CrossFit-originated drills but I’m not sure), and the forward squat (a “real” lift). All of the lifts and weight drills emphasized the legs, like the boxing drills do, so as my legs tired I could feel myself resisting the urge to do the lifts more with the upper body. I think I stuck to reasonably good form and Nick seemed comfortable with letting me try a few more of each after asking questions. The forward squat was especially challenging for me because I didn’t like the hold: elbows completely bent and as high as possible, with the weight bar resting on the fronts of the shoulders, the fingertips, and the throat. You have to keep the chest high (“Big chest!” he kept reminding me) and refrain from gripping the weight—it’s supposed to just rest against the front of the body and shoulders as you squat and stand.
I tried it with the empty bar and then with 20 pounds added when I wasn’t quite comfortable with the technique, so it didn’t go very well at first. We removed the plates. He explained in more depth about how to breathe (and not breathe), holding your breath during the squat and pressing with the diaphragm to tense the abdominals and strengthen the core. It worked! Each time I remembered to not only hold my breath but press against the held breath, the squat felt much more natural. I still had trouble with the high chest position because it and the weight bar caused me to tip my head back in a way that wasn’t comfortable for my neck. Also, my wrists did not like being flexed all the way back with my elbows up and the weight resting partly on my fingertips. I think I’m going to recover just fine, so I’ll keep trying and hope to get used to those postures.
Just for fun, I then tried a few push-ups on some rings that were lowered to a foot off the floor, and I collapsed onto one knee on the third one. Nick wondered if I could do a pull-up on the rings at the normal height. I was confident enough to try that even though I was tired, because I did a few ring pull-ups yesterday in a city park. I only did two tonight, and decided it was quitting time.
The next step is to have a few personal sessions to teach me more of the lifts. Then I’ll be able to show up (if I join) and do whatever workout is posted on the board, with coaching as needed from Nick and Dave.
I feel good about this because though it’s demanding, and I’m not up to speed, I’m ready to work up to it. I’m not sure if I’m going to find strength training “addictive” as Nick described it, though I think his expertise and enthusiasm for it is inspiring. I want a lot of variety and don’t think I want to spend too much time doing the same lifts over and over. But maybe it will become compelling as a means to achieve the variety of skills I do want, like the ability to do a muscle-up or to hold a handstand and walk on my hands. Why do I want to do these things? I don’t know. I just do. I feel like, it’s my body, I own it, and I want to be proud of it. I’ve felt that way as far back as fifth grade so I think it’s organic.