I don't know that I'd understand what to do with myself in a regular gym at this point in my life. I've been at CrossFit Akron for a year and a half now, and if my body is sore, it's because I made the decision to push myself, not because there was a militant coach screaming in my face threatening beatings and forcing me to do those extra pull-ups and try to finish four rounds of a workout instead of the three I knew I could accomplish. If I get rhabdomyolysis, let's get it on record that it is my own fault.
Before I continue here, let me be the first to tell you that I am not a person who gets overly excited about anything, really. It's just not in my genes. I am not an extremist. I don't flaunt my eating habits, religious beliefs, or toilet paper choices to the world because I don't see the point in it. That is part of the reason I have held off until now to write this post. Another reason I've waited a while to profess my CrossFit love is that I wanted to be sure--absolutely, positively certain--that I was fully-informed and experienced before I joined any ongoing conversations regarding CrossFit. Arguing is really just not something I enjoy doing, and neither is being extreme. However, I think a lot of people believe that CrossFitters are extreme by the sheer fact that they do CrossFit. [Sidenote: I like how CrossFit is functional as a verb and a noun.]
I have no qualms about saying that there are, in fact, people who take CrossFit way too far. People make it into their whole lives--and that is awesome if that's where their careers are, but if it isn't, I find it a bit puzzling. Do I love the sport? Yes. Do I want to spend my entire day at the gym? Uh, no. One of the reasons I do CrossFit is so I don't have to spend all day working out. I like to socialize with other CrossFitters, and I do, in fact, have some friends at the branch I attend, but I've always been a kind of get-in-get-out person when it comes to working out. People seem to think the organization is some kind of cult--and, sure, I can see that, as there are definitely cliques and that kind of selective pack mentality in some places, but really, when you put a bunch of people together two to seven or eight times a week, bonds form, and with those bonds, that whole popularity thing kinda kicks in. If you ask me, that situation isn't really different from the cool kids at work or school. Groups form in any place where there are three or more people getting together. The part where people push you to join CrossFit and post all over Twitter and Facebook about it all the time could definitely be toned down, but I think with strength comes excitement and change, and people just get crazy and want to share that newly found enthusiasm with others. Most people have heard of Runner's High, right? Well, it's kinda the same thing when you do your first double-under or execute your heaviest clean ever. There's a definite rush that accompanies accomplishment--especially if that accomplishment is unexpected or one that you never thought you'd achieve. (Can one achieve an accomplishment? I'm going with it.)
I'd read a lot about CrossFit before I ventured into my introductory meeting. I was hesitant to walk into an environment where I would be working out in front of, with, and against others. I remember driving into the parking lot and thinking seriously about just turning around. I was generally happy with how I looked and felt, and I believed I was in shape for the most part. But I was also bored with the workouts I'd been doing for the past nine years, and I knew that if I kept doing the same things, I'd eventually just quit doing them. So, in the summer of 2012, I made the decision to change my life completely--though I didn't know that at the time.
I didn't start moving--I'm serious--until I was in college and gained the dreaded Freshman 15, and back in 2003, I was so self conscious of everything I did physically, that when I started moving for the first time ever--running--I did it in the dark so no one could see me. Getting made fun of in gym class quickly turned me off to sports and all kinds of athleticism before I even really had time to try any of it. I have an eye condition that compromises the way I see the world, accounting for my weak peripheral vision and my lack of depth perception. As you might imagine, the simple act of catching a ball or even just picking something up is totally different for me than it is for most of the population. However, because I can't even remember what it was like to see how everyone else sees, I never really realized why certain things were so difficult for me to do.
Stepping up to kick a ball into the outfield in gym class and missing it--over and over again--was humiliating. It didn't have to be, but it was thanks to kids who didn't know better and grown-ups who chalked my poor athletic skills up to me simply being physically deficient. It wasn't until college when I realized I actually was pretty athletic, and that I could, in fact, do sport-like things--I just learned them very differently than most people. What I'm trying to say here is that stepping into CrossFit for the first time was not a natural move for me. And working out wasn't either--not at all. I worked hard on my own, alone, learning what to do in a gym from watching other people and reading online and all of the time being rather self conscious about everything I was doing to get stronger and feel good about myself again after too much late night pizza and little sleep. Once you resign yourself to thinking in terms of "never"--in my case, "I'll never be able to do that stuff, so I won't even try"--you accept the term, call yourself clumsy, and dive into other aspects of life where you feel you can be accomplished. Calling myself an athlete was never, ever something I thought I'd ever consider doing, but here I am. It is still hard for me to say and believe. But I am a CrossFit athlete. I used to be a runner of sorts, too.
The conversations surrounding CrossFit are quick to gain attention and those attacking it seem to lack real information about what actually goes on in the garages across the world. Again, not all CrossFit branches (or as we call them "boxes") are the same. But neither are gyms. Or supermarkets. Or tampons. So, yeah, you can buy a box of tampons touted as the best ever and then ruin your whitest white pants two days later--but you also know that this does not mean all tampons are crappy. While the creation of the unique-to-CrossFit vocabulary could be construed as pretentious and the promotional material certainly proclaims it the best form of athletic activity across the board, it doesn't mean that there isn't variety from branch to branch. Some CrossFits are crappy; others are not. It's up to the user to decide what works best for him/her. It's important to do a little research and know some things about what your body can withstand and what it cannot before physical activity of any kind. Ultimately, it is not CrossFit or a coach or the box's responsibility to keep you safe and healthy: it is your own. If you know that doing Murph after pushing yourself hard two or three days in a row is probably going to rip you a new asshole, well, then, you probably should cut reps in half or--hey--just not do it!
Every person who trains or competes with CrossFit pushes it too far. You have to do it a few times to understand where your boundaries lie. For those of us with little to no backgrounds in athleticism or really physically draining ourselves, this isn't the easiest line to understand or find. It takes a few times of really pushing the line to be sure of where it is. It takes time to understand what you can comfortably lift and push yourself to lift before you know where you should stop weight-wise. This is where good coaches are essential to athlete performance and improvement. If you have coaches who know your background with training and who pay attention to your abilities, they should be able to guide you on weights and reps and stop you if they see you taking things too far. If your coaches are hands-off and offer little instruction or lack genuine interaction with you, you should probably consider a new box. If they're pushing you to do just a bit more than you believe you can do, consistently correcting your form, and are applauding you when you succeed, they're probably doing a pretty good job. You're going to be sore--you're going to hurt--and you're going to fail--but that's all a part of CrossFit training, and after a while, you'll know how sore is too sore and when to take it easy. If you take it too far, sure, you could get Rhabdo from CrossFit. You could also get it from walking around a lot. Or doing two-a-day football practice. Or moving a lot of heavy boxes. You can't get it from sitting on your couch a lot. You could get it, however, from sitting on your couch a lot and then suddenly shocking your body with movement. Rhabdo isn't a new thing that CrossFit created. And it isn't unique to CrossFitters. I can even tell you about it firsthand!
Remember when I went from doing nothing to running and going to the gym? I generally went about it the right way. I started just running. I increased my mileage as I continued. Then I slowly added exercises at the gym. I had no idea what I was doing really, but I at least had the idea that gradual increases in activity were probably safe. But then there was that one day where I decided to do a lot of incline sit-ups. I'd done plenty of sit-ups before. They'd long been in my workout progression. And they got boring. So I got the bright idea of trying out the incline board that I'd seen so many people use. I got on and thought, "Hey! I can do this! I will get abs of steel faster! And I can do these so easily!" So, ya know, I set the board on the highest setting and went to town. The next day, I woke up so sore that I could not stand up straight. I am in no way exaggerating this either. I was the hunchback of Notre Dame. I couldn't even walk to class. It was mildly embarrassing to send professors emails saying "I am not coming to class today because I can't stand up or walk," but things got real embarrassing when I went to put on pants. At this point in time, I was pretty darn small. I wore size 0 and 1 jeans very comfortably. However, after many incline sit-ups the first time, I was unable to zip up my pants. My stomach had ballooned to something like twice its normal size. I stayed in bed most of the day--and upon discovering later that my stomach was not the only piece of me that had swollen to abnormally and disturbingly large proportions, I confessed my rather odd situation to my roommate who insisted (thank goodness!) that I go to the wellness center. Long story short: I ended up in the hospital briefly, lying on a table with a team of doctors staring at and poking around my swollen parts trying to figure out what was wrong with me, aside from the fact that my bloodwork showed a tripled amount of some kind of protein in me. After all the hype about CrossFit and its link to Rhabdo and doing some reading about the actual condition, I absolutely believe that is what I had. Why the doctors had no idea what my problem was is another story. At any rate, I Rhabdo-ed myself--unknowingly--and without CrossFit.
So, yes, CrossFit can do bad things to a person. But so can anything. Mostly, though, I want to talk about the good things it has done for me. As I said earlier, I am not an enthusiastic person. I never have been. If there was a fire and people were running and screaming out of a building, I'd be the one walking and just looking at the flames about to lick my behind and wondering if I was in real life. I feel like my lack of excitement is probably some kind of character flaw. All this is to say that if I'm actually bothering to talk about something that everyone else likes to argue about, it's kind of a big deal for me. CrossFit has not changed the foundation of who I am, but it has changed a lot of the things on top of that foundation.
I remember watching CrossFit videos online and thinking how cool the people doing it were--how awesome it would be just to know what to do with a bar and weights. And I really never thought I could be one of those people. My fear of embarrassment and negative experiences with movement in general really kind of crippled me until I went to CrossFit. I was scared of getting laughed at, I was scared of not being able to do the things everyone else could do, and I was scared of disappointing myself. I avoid things I am scared of most of the time: roller coasters, jumping out of planes, climbing high ladders, eating Jell-O,etc.
I avoid doing things at which I may fail. CrossFit kind of changed that. The first time I was told to grab a bar, I am pretty sure I felt sick to my stomach with nerves, but the feeling has since dissipated and picking up a 35 or 45 pound bar and doing a few things with it no longer fills me with fear and that nagging doubt that I had in myself for most of my life. I still have nervousness a few minutes before we start a workout, but I generally know what to do with that bar I mentioned before, and I can even put weight on it now. No one has ever laughed at me when I've stumbled or done something wrong or haven't been able to do things at CrossFit; in fact, I am my own worst enemy when it comes to working out. I will not push myself to lift as much as I can because I don't think I can do it--and that's where the community and coaches have been key for me. They walk by, look at my bar, shake their heads, and point at more plates. I add more, and I lift more successfully and consistently surprise myself by the gains I make. Maybe it doesn't seem like that big of a deal, but sometimes when I face things outside of CrossFit now that I doubt myself about, I reflect on some of the moments where I've lifted way more than I thought I could and think, "That was a more difficult experience. And no one laughed at me. And if someone chooses to laugh at my lame skills now in whateversituationIamcurrentlytryingtoavoid, does it really matter?" Other times I'll think, "Hey! I just did 100 push-ups yesterday--I can certainly gather my 900 shopping bags from the trunk of the car and get them to the house in one trip!" I've experienced a change in confidence that has been incredibly freeing for me--and it's from lifting heavy things and learning to use my body in ways I didn't know I could. And it is awesome!
At the risk of no one reading this at alll, I'm going to publish it in two parts. Onto Part II.