Aim for a fitness goal rather than a notch on the scales: CrossFit is the new gym-class trend that rates strong above skinny
On first inspection, CrossFit does look a bit scary. You might mistake it for a repackaged World’s Strongest Man workout - tractor-tyre flipping included.
But this intense exercise technique, developed by personal trainer and US police fitness coach Greg Glassman, exploded in popularity across the US and is steadily gaining more and more female fans in the UK.
Glassman opened the first CrossFit gym in 2005 but now there are more than 5,000 affiliate gyms worldwide. They are run by qualified CrossFit professionals certified under Glassman’s training programme.
What’s more, 2007 saw the inaugural CrossFit Games; now an annual worldwide competition to crown the ultimate fittest of CrossFit.
Why athletic is the new sexy
So what exactly is CrossFit?
‘CrossFit is for everybody. It’s fully scaleable and workouts can be adapted to every woman’s ability,’ says CrossFit trainer and gym owner Giovanna Fitzgerald.
Gio first found CrossFit as a complement to her triathlon training. ‘I got into triathlons as I wanted a variation to just running, which I took up seven years ago to manage my weight. I since completed Ironman Switzerland - in July last year.’
Inside her CrossFit gym in Harrogate, North Yorkshire, there are no treadmills or weightlifting machines. Instead are stacked ranks of kettlebells, bar bells, boxes, dumbbells and, of course, the tractor tyre.
‘Women are often reticent when they’re first introduced to the CrossFit concept,’ says her husband and co-owner Simon. ‘But then they become hooked.’
Why we should all aim for strong not skinny
Contrary to popular belief, CrossFit isn't about weightlifting. It's a programme designed to help you reach your optimal ‘elite’ fitness level using techniques to improve the 10 core elements of Glassman’s definition of fitness: cardiovascular/respiratory endurance, stamina, strength, flexibility, power, coordination, agility, balance and accuracy.
‘Constantly varied, functional movement, performed at high intensity; that’s CrossFit,’ says Gio.
‘In terms of functional movement we’re taking about everyday movements like sitting, standing, pushing, pulling, jumping and running.’
It sounds simple but in fact CrossFit has a strict standard for every movement. Before you can join in with Gio’s CrossFit classes you must complete a seven-session introduction course to master the techniques of each movement.
Gio starts me off with a squat: arms up, back straight, knees over toes, get the bum right down below the back of the knees and drive back up through the gluteus. One body part out of line and it’s classed as ‘no rep’.
‘CrossFit incorporates core movements like these into the workouts, using your own body weight. As you progress you’ll start to use additional weight added onto that to help improve your fitness level.’
We move on to Wall Ball: the same squat technique but holding a large weighted ball that you must throw to hit a line on the wall – never dropping the ball below your nose.
Make friends with your gym: why lifting weights burns fat faster
There’s no getting comfortable in CrossFit. An athlete is tested on their ability to perform in any exercise thrown at them at any time – especially during the CrossFit Games. ‘It is a complete contrast to your traditional gym class. Every time you come into a class your workout session will be completely different. No two classes within the course of six months will be the same.’
Gio points to a large metal bar above my head. ‘Pull-ups next,’ she declares. ‘With pull-ups you’ll begin with a band to assist you while you learn the movement and how to perform the correct technique. Even when men begin weightlifting within CrossFit they’ll begin with a PVC pipe and progress until they get to a weight they’re comfortable with.’
‘A traditional gym circuit class would consist of constant push-ups and sit-ups, for example. In CrossFit the intensity of the movement, the combination of those movements and adding some weight will help improve your overall fitness more.’
Gio combines the exercises I’ve learned in the skills session – plus her favourite move of kettlebell swings – into a high intensity AMRAP7 workout (as many reps as possible in seven minutes). A huge timer begins the countdown and to a deafening alarm I race to begin the gruelling workout.
4 ways with kettlebells
There’s a second key element to the training and it sets CrossFit gyms apart from traditional gyms: community.
‘You come in and you know everyone. There’s real camaraderie between people about improving and developing. It’s not about whether you can or can’t do something. It’s about how long it will take until you can do it. It’s all about achievement and within a CrossFit class everybody celebrates that.’
Track your progress
CrossFit has internationally recognised benchmark workouts, which are exercises or groups of exercises. Athletes record their weight or time achievements for each. Gio’s members celebrate their PB benchmark workouts both on their Facebook page and displayed on a leaderboard along the gym wall. She also provides log books to encourage members to track their progression.
I certainly didn’t make it to the leaderboard but I did manage to get through seven rounds of my AMRAP7 workout before collapsing.
In the same way Gio boosts her triathlon training, CrossFit can help you reach your fitness peak and enable you to outperform in your other fitness hobbies. There’s no obligation to lift heavy weights, and every opportunity to simply refine muscle and get super fit.
‘A female member lost between two and three stone doing CrossFit alone. One of our male members, who started about eight or nine months ago, went back to his doctor for a routine health check-up recently. The nurse nearly fell over. She said, “What have you been doing? You’ve got the heart and lung capacity of a 20 year old.”’
But for many, CrossFit becomes the hobby itself and there are now growing numbers of fit females in the UK enjoying see their body shape change and embracing the 'strong not skinny' look.
And I can't deny I'm envious of the outcome their hard work and healthy lifestyle produces.
If you’re interested in trying out CrossFit you can find out more at Crossfit.com, watch this great introduction to CrossFit and search their map of CrossFit gyms to help you locate your nearest class.
Like us on facebook
Follow us on twitter
Other Hearst Magazines UK sites