The first time I tried CrossFit, I didn’t really get it.
I had been going to conventional gyms regularly since high school and had dabbled in some bodybuilding. To me, working out was about routine. A set number of exercises, performed in a set order, for a set amount of time. But around 2006, a friend of mine showed me this website for something called CrossFit, and at first glance, it piqued my interest.
The first routine I ever tried was called “Fran,” and it was a mix of thrusters and pull-ups. I went through the instructions and tried to follow them as closely as I could. I slowly went through the motions, and at the end of the routine, I didn’t feel all that satisfied. I actually recall wanting to do sit-ups afterwards so I felt like I got a more complete workout. If I had judged CrossFit based on that one experience, I don’t think I would have pursued it at all. But I decided to stick with it.
Nine years later, it’s fair to say that CrossFit has, in many ways, defined my life. I won the second-ever CrossFit Games in 2008 and now own 20 gyms worldwide with my wife. And what made this all possible is the key ingredient to CrossFit that I hadn’t considered the first time I tried it: intensity.
The first time I attempted Fran, I put about 75 percent of myself into it, so I only got 75 percent of the results I was hoping for. While other fitness regimens focus on repeated individual workouts that target certain muscles, CrossFit is based on a number of very different workouts performed to the very best of your ability that complement one another. Your self-determination is the driving force for everything.
It took me a couple of weeks of trying it to see the bigger picture, and then about three-to-six months to be completely hooked. I wasn’t an easy convert because I was so used to the bodybuilding idea of spending two hours in the gym doing bilaterals and trilaterals — splitting everything up by body part. But after joining CrossFit, I started seeing these great results while working out for less time, and that definitely caught my attention.
When people ask what makes CrossFit so different or special, I usually point to two things. The first is that it puts a timer to your workout so that you can quantify them, and then push yourself against your previous time. This isn’t about doing the same workout every time, but always striving to do the best workout you’ve ever done. The internal competition is a lot more motivating than plugging in your headphones and zoning out.
And the second is the community aspect of it. Having friends cheer you on and push you to succeed is an unbelievably powerful force, and it’s also just flat-out fun. The energy in CrossFit gyms is always unbelievably positive, and in many ways, those vibes can be as beneficial to you as any other aspect of your workout.
Interestingly, one of the common knocks on people who do CrossFit is that they become obsessed with it.
In a country facing an epidemic of diseases related to poor health and fitness, I don’t think having more people take their fitness seriously is the worst thing. CrossFit doesn’t strictly cater to any one type of person. Walk into any gym and you’re bound to find a range of people of every shape, size and age. Everyone in that gym is supporting one another because ultimately they’re all working toward a personal goal. There’s a reason people are passionate about the community aspect of CrossFit: It works.
I could sit here until I’m blue in the face citing examples, but I’ll give you just one. We had a gentleman at one of our corporate sites (for the purposes of this story, I’ll call him “Mike”). He walked into the gym one day and started looking around. I introduced myself to him and asked if he was ready to give CrossFit a try. He said “No,” explaining that it’s not really a good time for him, and then he left.
A few months pass, and one day I see him again and I say, “Hey, Mike, you ready to do CrossFit? I’d love to get you started. I could work with you one-on-one, and I’ll keep it really simple and easy.”
Mike paused, looked at me and said, “You know what, Jason? I am ready.”
The next day, we started private lessons. Mike was about 150-200 pounds overweight, and you could see that it affected his self-esteem and the way he carried himself. We started out slowly, and I encouraged him to cut soda and excess sugar out of his diet. Mike began coming into the gym regularly, and within one year, he was down 100 pounds. But the truly amazing thing about his transition was how it affected him between the ears. Now, two years later, any time I see him, I’m amazed by how much his personality has changed. He doesn’t slouch anymore and he carries himself with so much more energy and confidence. It’s clear that the work he’s done in the gym has resulted in positive effects outside of it, and that’s what it’s all about.
One of the reasons some people are hesitant to get into CrossFit is this idea that it’s dangerous. The reality is that any sport is going to have some kind of risk of injury, and many people do suffer injuries with other types of training, whether it’s for a bodybuilding competition or a marathon. But for whatever reason, the idea has been perpetuated that CrossFit is particularly dangerous.
As anyone who has trained will tell you, injuries mostly occur due to poor habits. There are good coaches out there who actively prevent injuries by following a methodology of mechanics: Can you perform an exercise well? Can you perform an exercise with consistency? Finally, can you perform an exercise with intensity? Coaches ensure that all three of these boxes are checked off in order to curb any possible injuries.
Once someone can perform an exercise with intensity, only then do we ask them to increase the load and volume. At my gyms, the injuries are minimal, and when I do hear about people getting hurt, it’s often because they attempted to perform these exercises at home without getting any previous guidance or supervision. I can’t speak for every CrossFit gym, but at our gyms, we have close to 3,000 people per day work out and rarely see injuries occur.
But ultimately, CrossFit exists to help people avoid injury by teaching them how to move properly. A good CrossFit regimen includes varying functional movements executed at your best ability. These are exercises created for practical use in the outside world. Our entire goal — and this, to me, is really important to understand — is to get people as fit as possible in the gym in order to help them outside the gym. It’s to help them do things like lift up their grandkids, pick up boxes or go on a hike. You do CrossFit so that you can excel at all of these other things.
It’s been an honor to compete at the CrossFit games amongst some of the best athletes in the country, but that competition is just one expression of CrossFit. The real magic happens in small garages and warehouses all over the world where everyday people are pushing themselves to get better.
Trust me, I get it now.