CrossFit: Beyond the Box

Separating Fact from Fiction 

CrossFit. The word evokes a sort of awed terror in couch potatoes and regular gym-goers alike. The intensity of this popular fitness movement is an intimidating prospect for the average person, myself included. Prior to researching for this article, I’d only heard bits and pieces about CrossFit and its culture of pushing one’s body to the limit of athletic performance. Mostly, I’d heard horror stories about people permanently crippling themselves from dangerous workouts. How can we sort out facts from fiction, the exaggerated from the understated? I’m determined to try and make sense of this new world of workouts known as CrossFit.

Let’s Talk CrossFit

First, a little lingo for those of you who aren’t in the know. You don’t work out at a CrossFit gym, you work out in a Box. This seems to evoke a sort of claustrophobic image, but in actuality, it’s a huge space that’s shaped like, you guessed it, a box. There’s no standard equipment of a normal gym, either. As they state in the promotional video, “People walk through the door and say, ‘Hey, where are the machines?’ We are the machines.”

Like yoga, CrossFit uses a person’s own body weight to drive the course of the workout toward higher levels of fitness, but unlike the slow progression from one form to another, CrossFit emphasizes a breakneck pace that is admirable, if somewhat disturbing to watch, especially when combined with free weights. As far as what type of exercise CrossFit really is, it’s closest to a combination of gymnastics, Olympic weightlifting, and calisthenics—in short intensity-focused routines. I’m sweating just thinking about it.

The Proof is in the Pudding 

I can’t argue with the results or the people who swear by it. Each person’s experience is ultimately their own. According to an article in the New York Times, Brian Anderson, who almost died after experiencing rhabdomyolysis from his CrossFit workouts, returned to CrossFit after his recovery.

Michael Donaldson, a former military man and current CrossFit enthusiast told me, “Overall, I’ve had an excellent experience with CrossFit. My coaches really care about the team members, and they advocate good form over more weight, which decreases the risk of injury. I have more endurance, more strength, and I’m in the best shape of my life.”

The Fear of “What-If”

Mr. Donaldson’s statement seemed to have directly contradicted my earlier assumptions of CrossFit, beginners being thrown into the deep end of a pool with little to no coaching or assistance.

Every fitness regimen has its share of horror stories, including ruptured discs, broken ribs, even cardiac arrest. Sports activities have an even longer list of injuries and tragic deaths, some preventable, some accidental. Therefore, it wasn’t fair to assume that just because some people had sustained life-threatening injuries didn’t mean that it was the norm nor a typical result of participating in said activity.

“Any kind of exercise has the potential to be unhealthy or hurt your body if you aren’t doing it correctly,” Mr. Donaldson stated. “CrossFit can be modified for any level of fitness, but like anything else, you only get out of it what you put into it.”

I don’t know if I’d agree with “any level of fitness,” but Mr. Donaldson does have a point. If people are willing to put in the work, aware and careful of the potential hazards and are seeing good results, then the rest of us should let them be.

Crossfit’s Popularity

People have a devotion to CrossFit that goes beyond the enthusiasm of a really great Zumba class. From an outside perspective, it’s hard to look at the CrossFit environment and figure out the why behind the devotion. However, after some thought, deeper research, and a moment of self-reflection, I think I’ve finally got a handle on it.

Most gyms are a solitary experience. You put in your earbuds, lift some weights, or go for a jog around the track. Even if you take a class, no one really has much to say, with the exception of an instructor trying to motivate you into better shape. In other words, the environment lends itself to being a you-and-your-iPod experience. CrossFit is anything but.

There is a camaraderie, an interaction, a complete push from every member to push a little harder, go a little longer and achieve what you were sure was going to kill you 30 seconds ago. In that way, CrossFit offers for its members not only the most challenging routines since Insanity, but the feeling of a team sport. You’re celebrated so long as you push yourself, which is something every other gym could learn from. Maybe then we’d all take our earbuds out and participate more.

A Word of Caution

Greg Glassman, CrossFit’s founder, is very honest about the risks associated with CrossFit. “It can kill you,” he said. “I’ve always been completely honest about that.”

Even if you’re in great shape, the risk exists. Most CrossFitters take that as part of living on the edge, a risk they gladly take as part of the thrill. Here are some words of advice if you’re thinking of pursuing CrossFit:

  • The fitness is high intensity and high speed, something that requires both good technique and a good coach to walk you through the do’s and don’ts. Good technique and consistency are far more important than banging out a million bad-form reps that will end up putting you out of circulation for months.
  • Since not all “Boxes” are created equal, do your research and make sure you’re not walking into a place where injuries abound and responsibility doesn’t exist.
  • Know your body’s limits. The condition that CrossFit is famous for is called rhabdomyolysis, a potentially life-threatening syndrome resulting from the breakdown of skeletal muscle fibers with leakage of muscle contents into the circulation. Overexertion causes the condition, along with a host of other potentially debilitating conditions. Push your body, but also care for it. It’s the only one you’ve got.


I hope you’ve learned a little more about CrossFit and feel a little more informed when thinking about taking it up. Good luck!

What other sorts of fitness movements are you interested in? Comment below!