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Crossfit: Learning and Self-Preservation

You may or may not have heard of Crossfit. If you have, cult is a word that’s become almost synonymous with this “sport of fitness.” For those of you not glued to YouTube videos of workouts like “Fran”, “Grace” or the Reebok CF Games, here is the skinny on this new trend. Crossfit founder Greg Glassman created the Crossfit company and fitness program based on his determination to find a better way to measure fitness. Glassman arrived at the conclusion that fitness should be defined as an “increased work capacity across broad time and modal domains.” Crossfit is “that which optimizes fitness: constantly varied functional movements performed at relatively high intensity.” Hence his fitness program incorporates many different modes of training including gymnastics, powerlifting, Olympic lifting, kettlebell work and metabolic conditioning, to name a few. Despite such a seemingly logical mission statement, the verdict is still out on Crossfit. Numerous articles have surfaced, discussing risks of injury, quality of coaching, the business model along with the growing Crossfit cult{ure} on a global scale. This week a Pilates Instructor and myself share our experiences with Crossfit and what exactly we find to be the takeaways worth mentioning.

Meet Emily*, former dancer and now Pilates practitioner. With an appetite for challenge and learning new skills, she considered a colleague's suggestion to try Crossfit. After completing the essentials course, where Crossfit's fundamental movements are learned, she started taking classes and has been going at least once a week since.

A: What is your background?

E: I have been an instructor for 5 years and have been practicing for 7 years. I am also a former dancer trained in ballet and modern dance. I’ve also done some kettle bell introductory workshops and worked with personal trainer focusing on weightlifting techniques.

A: What drew you to Pilates?

E: I am a former dancer and because of dance I eventually took some Pilates classes. My gym offered classes as well. 

A: What is the correlation between dance and Pilates?

E: Joseph Pilates, was an athlete and a boxer, but as kid was really feeble and wanted to figure out how to strengthen his body. So he came up with this system using the reformer and at the time was working with war victims who were bed ridden. Pilates was the thing to do with dance, Joseph Pilates later moved his practice to the same building as where the American Ballet Company held their rehearsals.  Naturally dancers started to learn about Pilates. It didn’t become mainstream until a few years later.

A: What drew you to Crossfit?

E: A Pilates instructor who has been doing it and thought I might like it. She has had a lot of injuries but because of her background she knows very well how to modify and she was a completive snowboarder. I definitely was intimidated, I can’t say no. I got bullied into it, that’s really what I’m saying [laughs]. Also a client of mine started the intro program and she absolutely hated it and because of that I was curious about it. Now she is doing various boot camps, so it’s not that she doesn’t want to work hard, she just felt it was not instructed well.

A: What was your experience of the 'Essentials' course?

E: The coach I spoke with recommended doing the private sessions because with my background and experience I could do it in less time. I did 3 private sessions. She packed everything into 6 hours. The two classes I’ve taken since then have been very different. I think it depends on who is coaching.

A: What does Pilates have to offer CF?

E: Interesting story, the Owner of the CF gym actually takes private sessions with my trainer in Pilates. That gym also holds yoga classes, so they are definitely trying to be aware of mind-body connections to some degree.

A: What does CF offer your practice?

E: I’m not really dancing anymore because of a foot injury so I was looking for something that would kick my butt. I think it’s also nice when you’re teaching a bunch of sessions all week to have someone else tell you what to do.

A: Can you talk about the quality of coaching you’ve seen at Crossfit from your experience as a licensed Pilates instructor?

E: One of the things that I was concerned about as I did research about the CF coaches was what are the requirements to become a certified as a CF instructor. When I think of a Pilate’s certification it takes lots of time and practice hours, but the only requirement for a Crossfit instructor is that you have to be 17 years old. So potentially you could be taught by a 17 year old that has zero background but is really good at Crossfit. Sure, maybe a 17 year old could be a really good teacher but I’m sure there are others who without experience will not be very good.

It's also not regulated. If you look at Pilates, they are not state regulated either. But at least with my certification you had to put in a certain number of practice hours and have continuing education courses. In Crossfit, you don’t need to have an anatomy background. You could be good at doing “Fran” but if you’re teaching it and someone is doing it wrong can you see that? And can you address it? And how are you teaching it?

A: What draws you to take different kinds of classes in different approaches?

E: I’m a Pilates instructor but there are so many modalities to learn from out there. It's human movement at the end of the day and by opening myself up to different modalities I’m going to learn something about human movement that I can incorporate into my sessions one way or another. It’s also nice if you’re an instructor and you have clients who struggle with a movement. They’re scared of it or can’t do it. They’re intimidated.  Its good to do something that also intimidates me. I’ve had clients who were really worried to come to their first session and I didn’t understand why they were so worried and then I understood they must feel how I felt when I went to my first CF sessions.

Unlike Emily, I am not a licensed or certified fitness instructor. I do however share her deep respect for what our bodies can teach us and have been trying to sustain a relationship with fitness for more than 15 years. I played team sports growing up and later delved in weightlifting, teaching myself the movements and creating my own programs. But I have always been looking for something different.

What initially drew me into Crossfit was the concept of functional movement training and like most Crossfit aficionados, the “Leave it all on the floor” warrior attitude. I wanted to have a long-term intention and purpose behind my training program. Yet probably the most intriguing and main phenomenon that originally draws people in and back for more is the Crossfit culture. For anyone who’s played on a team sport you know the feeling, it’s all about a team bond, it’s cheering each other on and embodying a genuine desire to see others perform at their best. If you don’t know the feeling, just imagine one person who’s ever given you unconditional support and whose support helped you get a little further than you thought you could go. Now multiply that by fifteen and you’re in a Crossfit class.

As an activist, I spend a lot of time thinking about what mobilizes people together, what makes people eager to learn something new or perform at a higher level, and definitely what makes them feel empowered to create change in their lives and the lives of others. So for me trying out Crossfit is more than just finding a challenging fitness regimen, it is also about learning what makes people’s spirits rise to the occasion. I want to know can I also dig deeper within myself. So far I am finding that there is always still room for growth.  I am also reminded of Audre Lorde’s words, Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” But with that said, I have to also look around in that CF class and wonder just who can really afford to be here? Make no mistake; I am talking about myself here. This is just as important to me as the question of adaptability is to Crossfit gyms. If everything can be scaled, can access be scaled too? This is a political and relevant question in regards to our self-preservation. I continue to be fascinated by these questions that Crossfit evokes.

And as my body and mind continue to teach me new things about myself, I’m here to rise to the occasion. And while the verdict may still be out on Crossfit, I’ll gladly take on the challenge of thinking through how can Crossfit rise to the occasion in an even more profound way and for more people.

*Trainer preferred to remain anonymous. Blog by Ana Chavez.