Flipping giant truck tires, pushed heavy metal sleds across a parking lot for no practical reason and doing something called the Fran—as many pull-ups and barbell “thrusters” at one time before someone yells to stop. If you’ve seen these mystifying feats of strength typical of the CrossFit Games, to be held July 25 to July 27 in Carson, Calif. this year, you’ve likely wondered what the hell these people were doing and why. And perhaps you’ve even asked yourself, can I do that, too?
The short answer to both questions is that it’s called CrossFit, and yes, anyone can do it, including you, although it takes some time—and certainly successful completion of the following seven steps—before you can flip a 1,000-pound tire, which was a murderous exercise at a recent annual Games competition. Here, past Games champ Jason Khalipa, who placed second last year, and two-time bronze medalist Ben Smith explain the seven steps you need to take to get off your couch and get yourself to the CrossFit Games.
Perhaps biggest step for the CrossFit-curious is overcoming the apparent widespread notion that the fitness approach is too difficult or baffling for the everyday exerciser to undertake. “CrossFit is for everyone. You just have to want to do it,” says Smith. And what it actually is, according to CrossFit founder Greg Glassman, is “constantly varied functional movements performed at relatively high intensity.” In simpler terms, this means cramming a myriad of workouts taken straight from the training books of gymnastics, Olympic lifting, power lifting, running, rowing, and plyometrics into one non-stop session, usually an hour-long, completing each workout for time to guarantee a lung-searing, muscle-burning level of exhaustion by the time you’re all said and done. “All CrossFit did was bring a bunch of different fitness programs together that we already know work, like gymnastics and running, and put a stopwatch on it,” says Khalipa, who won the 2008 Games.
We’re not talking about a box on which to do box jumps (which, by the way, you’ll being doing plenty of if you take up this sport), but a CrossFit “box” or affiliate, otherwise known to the layman as a gym. Today, there are more than 7,000 CrossFit gyms in the world; find one near you by visiting the official affiliate locator online at map.crossfit.com. Anyone is welcome to stroll into a box and catch the vibe there, maybe even nose into a class, says Smith, who owns CrossFit Krypton in Chesapeake, Virg. “It’s like finding a doctor: Every gym is a little different, and you have to find one that fits you,” he says. Many affiliates offer introduction classes or weeklong courses that let you get a feel for the sport while teaching you its basic movements. Sign up for one and learn this acronym: W.O.D., or workout of the day. Most classes start with a warm-up and strength work before taking on the WOD—often a series of grueling strength and cardio exercises combined—with vengeance.
There’s a reason this process takes seven steps: Go full-speed ahead from couch-sitter to professional CrossFitter, and you’ll likely return to your couch just as quickly. “I think what happens is people jump in too hard—they become diehard about CrossFit and start eating a strict paleo diet [recommended by the program],” says Khalipa, owner of NorCal CrossFit in San Jose, Calif., the base for one of the largest affiliate chains in the world. “If I have someone come in off the street [to a gym], I have them start slow and try to help them realize fitness is a lifelong journey.” Adds Smith, “You wouldn’t walk onto a golf course the first day and expect to know what you’re doing. Everyone has to start somewhere. And if you’re starting block is a little further back than others, that’s OK—just stay on it.”
Get a few classes under your (weight) belt, and it’s time to set your eyes on a prize—and almost any prize will do. “Without a goal, you’re really just treading water,” Smith says. “You gotta have a goal or something you’re striving for, something you’re living for.” While this may sound transcendental when speaking about exercise, both Smith and Khalipa emphasize that a target, whether to lose weight, add muscle, or simply do 20 real pull-ups in a row, helps members stay motivated in the challenging CrossFit environment. “If people don’t have a goal, they don’t have a reason to be doing what they’re doing,” Smith says. “That’s why some people call CrossFit a cult: because we’re so focused on our goals.”
Visit the official website for CrossFit, and you’ll find a nice, pithy summary of the program entitled “World-Class Fitness in 100 Words” that, ironically, doesn’t begin with fitness, but with diet: “Eat meat and vegetables, nuts and seeds, some fruit, little starch and no sugar. Keep intake to levels that will support exercise but not body fat.” This is the nutritional mantra of CrossFit, and many who get involved choose to adopt a paleo diet, espoused by the program’s founders, on which it’s encouraged to eat only what our ancient ancestors ate, meaning no dairy, alcohol, or processed carbs. “Without good nutrition, you’re not going to change much of your physique. It’s hard to outwork a bad diet,” Smith says. Going paleo doesn’t mean, though, that you need to hunt boar and forage for berries after CrossFit classes. “I tell my clients to work at changing one thing at a time until they’ve changed their whole diet,” Smith says. Khalipa outlines a more specific program: “First, get rid of sugar and soda—they’re empty crap and calories. From there, you can start pinpointing little things to change. And if you just start eating real, whole foods, that’s a good way to make those changes.”
You’ve heard CrossFit is a cult—and in a way, it absolutely is. According to Merriam-Webster, a cult is “a small group of very devoted supporters or fans.” Spend time with anyone who’s super into CrossFit, and you’ll see the fitness program isn’t just a gym membership, but a way of life that affects the work life, social life, eating habits and, oftentimes, overall priorities of its members. “To me, CrossFit is a way of living your life,” Khalipa says. “You feel like you’re part of a community and that makes you never want to leave.” And guess what happens when you never want to leave your gym? You get stronger, faster, leaner, and better. Join the CrossFit cult, and you’ll be one crucial step closer to punching your ticket to the Games.
Once you’re hooked and training five to seven days a week, you can start considering whether you have the physical and mental fibers to go to the Games. The first step, says Khalipa, is to take a hard look at why you want to compete in “The Fittest on Earth,” as CrossFit calls its world championships. “If you want to compete in the Games for the money or fame, you’re far off,” Khalipa says. “If it’s because you want to get more dedicated than you’ve ever been in your life, that’s the reason.” If your dedication odometer is ready to rev, the next step is to participate in the Open, a five-week-long, international competition in the spring when anyone is encouraged to complete specific workouts at his or her local gym, judged and scored by fellow members; more than 209,000 people completed the 2104 Open. If you finish top 60 in your region (there are 17 regions in the U.S.), you earn a berth to the Regionals Games. If you place top three at Regionals, congrats: You’re going to the Games. And then you’ll not only be a world-class CrossFitter, you’ll also be able to flip your couch instead of just sitting on it.