CrossFit for Beginners

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A change might be better than a rest – at least when it comes to training. If you’re in a rut, the experts at Coach’s sister title Men’s Fitness have assembled everything you need to know to give something new a try. Next up: Crossfit.

Crossfit 101

What is it?

A fitness company, exercise style and competitive sport, incorporating elements from high-intensity interval trainingOlympic weightlifting, gymnastics, calisthenics and strongman.

Strict CrossFitters might follow the “mainsite” workouts of the day (also known as WODs), following a three-days-on, one-day-off format, but most CrossFit gyms will run their own programming, incorporating strength and skill work.

What’s it good for?

“Developing an all-round base of fitness that includes metabolic conditioning and strength and skill and mobility,” says CrossFit London coach Andrew Stemler. “I think there’s a lot of truth in the idea that we fail at the edges of our competence – so the further we can push those edges out the better. If two runners who have done the same endurance regime line up on the starting line, the one who can do snatches or handstands or pull-ups seems to have an edge over the one who can’t.”

What are its limitations?

“As a fitness regime – if you do it twice a week for fun – it can suffer from a lack of specialism,” says Stemler. “If you’re practising snatches, handstands, pull-ups, rowing, running and deadlifting, the gains won’t be as great in any one area than if you specialise – but, of course, if you specialise, you neglect another area.”

The outside view

All that intensity doesn’t come without issues. “The problem I have with CrossFit’s gymnastic elements is that the sole focus seems to be on the volume of repetition with little regard for control, body alignment or required strength,” says calisthenics specialist Darren Onyejekwe.

“Kipping pull-ups and muscle-ups, handstand walking with massively extended spines and wall-assisted handstand press-ups where the legs are thrown up into the air to generate momentum to make the movement easier… Once you combine these movements with fatigue and a competitive environment it’s a recipe for disaster.” The lesson? Build up to them properly.

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Instant Expertise

Know your WODs

The best-known workouts are named after girls – Elizabeth, Diane and Cindy are some of the best-known – or deceased soldiers, known as “The Hero Workouts”. The latter are usually vicious, and a solid time on Murph – 100 pull-ups, 200 press-ups and 300 squats, bookended by one-mile runs – is essential.

Do the penguin

If you can’t do a double-under – the skipping trick where you twirl the rope twice per jump – you’ll get nowhere in CrossFit competition. Master it fast with the penguin hop: jump in the air, slap your hands to your thighs twice before you land, and repeat at speed. You’ll get calf work and co-ordination.

Talk EMOMs

Newbies do the mainsite WODs, but all the cool CrossFitters use “every minute on the minute” (EMOM) training to pack in work without compromising form. Pick two or three moves, set a clock going, and do your reps at the top of the minute. The quicker you move, the more you get to recover. Try it with front squats and dips.

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You’ve made it when…

The “kipping” pull-up and the ring muscle-up are the first things to master: both take skill and co-ordination. “After that, the aim is to do a classic WOD such as Fran – 21, 15 and nine reps each of pull-ups and thrusters (a front squat into a press) with 42kg – in a reasonable time,” says Stemler. Aim for under ten minutes.

Get go-anywhere conditioning

The WOD Kalsu, named after ex-NFL player Bob Kalsu, who died in the Vietnam war, is CrossFit’s most deceptively brutal workout. Hardcore CrossFitters do it with a 60kg barbell, but you should start light. Start with five burpees and continue (for the rest of the minute) doing thrusters. On the next minute start over again with five burpees and keep going until you’ve done, yes, 100 thrusters. Rest, and cry.

  • Burpees: Drop into a press-up position and let your chest hit the floor, then hop back to your feet, jump and clap your hands over your head.
  • Thrusters: Holding dumbbells at your shoulders, squat and then stand up, using the momentum to help drive the dumbbells overhead.

Photography Glen Burrows; model Tom Eastham

Joel Snape

From 2008 to 2018, Joel worked for Men's Fitness, which predated, and then shared a website with, Coach. Though he spent years running the hills of Bath, he’s since ditched his trainers for a succession of Converse high-tops, since they’re better suited to his love of pulling vans, lifting cars, and hefting logs in a succession of strongman competitions.