Every time I start getting overly confident and think I’m a total bad ass, something comes around that knocks me on my cushy tushy and says, “Look here, young grasshopper, you still have much to learn!”
And that’s exactly what CrossFit did to me.
As a runner with a history of chronic knee issues, I learned the importance of strength training / weightlifting in college. Building and maintaining muscles meant keeping all body parts working together and injuries at a minimum. It meant building enough leg muscle so I don’t get very sore if at all during and after half marathons. Granted, this also means I have problems finding women’s boots for my giant calves and going up a jean size because of my booty.
But, hey, I can’t remember the last time a guy complained that I have a big booty.
Yet the past couple of years, I really struggled with keeping my strength training up. In college, it was easy: write a 10-page paper on the sexist undertones of Shakespeare’s As You Like It OR go workout. Hmmmm…let me NOT think about that.
I was a gym junkie. I did weights 4-5 times and ran 3-5 times a week. Besides an awesome student fitness center, campus also had several beautiful routes to run…
This made for a pretty long workout, usually 2 hours or more. It also allowed me to eat and drink almost whatever I wanted while still looking fabulous. I did eat decently healthy, although the definition of healthy and what works for my body has definitely changed over time. Where I used to get away with eating Dillon’s leftover Chinese food late at night and drinking lots of Mountain Dew isn’t true anymore.
Part of it is that I’m older, and my metabolism isn’t the same. But a lot of it has to do with not being as active. Instead of walking to class several times a day and long workouts, I’m now trapped in a cubicle. Granted, I have a standing desk, but it still isn’t the same as scaling hills on my way to English class in the highest tower of the tallest castle.
Full-time job, freelance work, cleaning, cooking, taking out the trash, getting married, binge-watching Netflix, raising two cats and a dog, trying to consistently write a blog…where does time for working out fit into all this?
So with time short, I needed something that would give me the most effective workout for the least amount of time (this is why running is so great – you can go to a yoga class for an hour while I can burn 300+ calories in 3 miles in under 30 minutes; I might not be good at math, but that’s a BIG difference).
I also needed some direction and better motivation. Since I worked with a personal trainer at KU, I knew my way around the weight room. My trainer was not phased by me being a girl and trained me to load up the leg press or try 5 lbs heavier next set because, hey, you never know what you can do til you try. But it was getting boring coming up with my own workout – clearly there were exercises I hated doing (arm day!), and my motivation to actually go to the gym was weak. Anything that came up after work, whether it be happy hour or a nap, was immediately more appealing.
Enter CrossFit. The much talked about, much misunderstood, and most misspelled workout in the industry. I’d done some reading on it, was a bit skeptical how all over the place it seemed in the Workout of the Days (WODs), and, of course, had read all the horror stories of people over doing it (Uncle Rhabdo).
But it looked pretty hardcore. And any pictures you see of CrossFit athletes told me this could definitely give me the results that I want (I actually DO want muscle; being skinny helps me accomplish NOTHING; being strong and healthy does so much more). From my past workout history, I wasn’t worried about it being too hard – I was worried it’d be too easy. I tried various group exercise classes in college, and although it was nice to try something new on occasion, nothing consistently gave me the physical workout and satisfaction I got from running and weight-lifting.
I joined my first CrossFit gym by finding one close to where I lived that also offered a Groupon. For just $30, I could go to unlimited classes for a month. I waited until June when our 6 half marathons were over. It was getting hot – time to go inside and take some rest from running too.
This gym required you do one On-Ramp class, so you can be properly trained before doing the official CF workouts. There are a lot of exercises where having the correct form is very, very important. We learned proper push-up position, squats, and kettlebell swings (they did Russian-style which only lifts the KB to chest height and doesn’t require as deep of a squat to start the swing). I left feeling prepared – maybe over-prepared. After all, my adverse weightlifting experience should help too, right?
Wrong! Wrong. Wrong. So so wrong.
My first official WOD was a DISASTER. I hadn’t been new to a gym in a long time (I worked at one for a few years after college). Being the newbie was so awkward. I didn’t know where to put my stuff. I didn’t know what to do while we waited for class to start. I’m an extroverted introvert: I like people in small doses and only people I know. My confidence and social skills were floundering.
I began second guessing why I was trying this. This didn’t feel comfortable. And we hadn’t even started the workout yet. But I wasn’t a quitter. I had to at least try this and then I would have justifiable reasons for not continuing it. I embraced running half marathons, but I was balking at CrossFit because I felt shy around new people? Gahhh!
We started out with an easy warm-up – running laps around the gym, moving our arms, doing high-knees, etc. We stretched for mobility. Next was doing 2-5 reps of squats and increasing the weight by a certain percent each set (so 75% of your max weight, then 80%, and so on).
That was fine with me. I was great at going heavy, and the On-Ramp class made me realize how bad my squat form had gotten. Time to get my squat on! I met a few girls to share a squat rack with. But then someone asked me what my one-rep max was. I don’t know. A LOT? Your one-rep max weight is the heaviest weight you can do for at least 1 single rep. I had never done that. And here I was thinking I knew everything to weight lifting.
Then we got to the WOD, which involved The Clean-and-Jerk. I had heard of it, probably because it was one of the exercises commonly posted on gym either NOT to do or NOT to do unsupervised or something. According to me, a clean-and-jerk sounded like something boys discovered sometime during middle school. I mustered up the courage to ask one of the girls I’d squatted with what a clean-and-jerk was. She tried showing me and then one of the instructors came over. He went over it for the whole class quick and tried helped me with it during the actual WOD.
But it was hard. It’s a very coordinated movement, and if trying Zumba and Racquetball have taught me anything, it’s that I’m NOT coordinated. I can run for hours at a time in a straight line. And it’s great. This involved a lot of thought, focus, and being in tune with various body parts all at once. I was getting very frustrated. I was pissed because I couldn’t move onto the next part of the WOD until I did these 5o clean-and-jerks (or whatever high number it was). And I was pissed because what then had been the purpose of the On-Ramp class if it left out this hard movement? (wait until I learned about The Snatch! Another Olympic power lifting move with a delightfully dirty name)
I left almost crying, which isn’t something I want to admit. I’m a BAMF but was falling apart because I wasn’t good at something new on the first day. Good grief. I wasn’t just going to physically get stronger but hopefully my personality would shape up too. Suck it up, Buttercup! I told myself. Nothing worth doing is ever easy. Except eating. Eating is awesome…
I went back. After showing up a few times, people started recognizing me, and we would chat and exchange names. That made things less awkward. I know it’s hard to go out of your way to say something to the new person – you have your comfort bubble. And it’s even harder in CrossFit I think because the gym goes through so many people. With Groupons and trials, you get lots of new faces coming and going, but very few who decide to stick with it. I realized this more at my second CrossFit gym, which is the one I ended up joining. Once you’re dedicated to being part of the group, the conversation goes beyond saying ‘Hi.’
I also started learning and recognizing more of the CrossFit movements. The movements were weird to me at first. There are so many different free weight, machine, and barbell exercises you can do and so many different angles and way to focus on various muscle parts. CrossFit had a much smaller list of exercises we did, and yet they were WAY harder than a lot of what I’d done in the weight room.
For example, I know how to squat. But I’d never tried squatting holding the bar in front of my body or over my head. Overhead squats use so many muscles versus the leg press which focused mostly on my quads. Where I was used to doing heavy weight, I was started to have to scale back. First, I needed less weight so I could focus on form. Second, several of the exercises I did on my own isolated only certain muscle groups, these new exercises needed several muscle groups working all at once and not just the big muscles, but the smaller stabilizing muscles too.
Because I’m a runner, I definitely have a few exercises I do on my own that we either don’t do in CF at all or not very often, such as abb and adductors with the cable machine and doing more one-legged squats. If I didn’t run and need to focus more on my legs, CF class would be all the strength training I’d do.
I liked the first gym I went to, but it still wasn’t quite what I needed. The WODs soon seemed kind of short and really random, and the only morning class was really really early and the commute was almost 20 minutes. I figured I could at least try another one before deciding where to stay. But I knew I wanted to stick with it.
My second gym was also awkward at first. Another newbie trying CF who would probably be gone when her Groupon was up. But this place definitely had improvements over the previous one – you just have to find a place that works for you. Even though the new gym was a smaller, less fancy facility, I found it a much better fit. The quality of the workouts really stood out.
The workouts were structured into 3 parts – Warm-up, Skill, and WOD. And there was always a goal or purpose to the workouts – maybe it was focusing on conditioning for competition or focusing on strength when we were stuck outside in the winter – but it had more cohesion to it and was more challenging for me. We also finished with stretching and got all this done in one hour!
It also required 3 On-Ramp classes, which included learning clean-and-jerks and snatches. What a concept! In fact, we still work on learning and perfecting form even outside the On-Ramp classes. My motivation was back – a place I felt comfortable going to with a program I believed in that didn’t take lots of time. Going in the morning sucked at first, but it’s made the time I would just use for sleeping more productive.
Most CF gyms you have to sign up for a specific time slot because there is limited room in the class. By signing up, I was committed to getting my butt up early and going. I had paid for my three classes a week, and I was going to get my money’s worth. No one was paying me to sleep in. And it’s more motivating to go workout when you have other people working out with you.
But no matter what your experience is, CrossFit is hard and awkward when you start. There is so much to learn – even things you though you knew will have a new or better way of doing them. But CF is great at scaling exercises, so you do get a great workout while working towards getting stronger. I still can’t do a pull-up yet, but I can use the green band as assistance and complete a pull-up that way. Now I’m using the lighter purple band. Soon, all by myself??? My tiny T-Rex arms dream of this day!
I’ll have been doing CF for a year in June. I’ve already seen a lot of improvement, and have lots of goals to work towards. I’m glad I didn’t let my insecurities and my fear keep me from trying something new.
One day, I’ll have the best darn looking snatch in the box.