Photo by Megan Ellery

Sometimes you can’t see the forest for the trees. You may have just rolled your eyes, but it’s an adage our own STRONG Creative Director Erin Lutz learned the hard way after two years of dedicated CrossFit training. Despite awesome initial gains in strength and ability, her progress had come to a crashing halt and her confidence and interest was plummeting. The worst part was, she couldn’t understand why.

Rather than quit, she enlisted the help of LA-based strength and conditioning coach and Olympic weightlifting competitor Camille Brown, who immediately identified the problem: Lutz had become too concerned with the numbers, like how fast she completed the workout and how much weight was on the bar. As a result, her mechanics were thrown off and she was missing the all-important mind-muscle connection. “I’d failed to understand that all CrossFit movements were designed to complement each other and contribute to overall performance,” says Lutz. “I’d missed that the focus shouldn’t be narrowed to weight numbers, but to each movement’s purpose, how your body moves through it, and which muscles are engaged.”

Armed with this knowledge, Lutz is attacking her workouts from a new perspective and is back on the road to Gainsville: “I finally feel confident approaching the bar.”  Her only regret is that she didn’t learn these crucial lessons earlier in her CrossFit experience. To ensure that your journey starts off (and stays) on the right foot, we tapped Brown’s expertise for more too-often-overlooked aspects of CrossFit.

1. Your biggest competition is you.

Bodybuilders measure success by symmetry of their physiques, and powerlifters measure it by the weight of their lifts. In CrossFit, success is measured by crushing personal bests and pushing your body as hard as possible. “The great thing about CrossFit is that it gives you tangible goals to strive for rather than just trying to get generally stronger and more muscular, which can get boring,” says Brown. “It’s all about getting stronger, faster, and more conditioned to beat your previous personal best.” The key is to keep in mind that your biggest adversary is your own mental and physical endurance. If, like Lutz, you become too focused on outperforming the person next you at the gym, you’ll lose sight of your personal progress and your workouts will suffer.

2. CrossFit borrows from all other training methods.

Every untrained observer has their own assumptions about CrossFit. Some say it’s like Olympic weightlifting, others say it’s like powerlifting, and others still say it’s like gymnastics training meets calisthenics. The correct answer? All of the above. “CrossFit incorporates elements from each of these wildly different sports and energy systems for an extremely complex workout that produces some of the fittest individuals,” says Brown. In any given WOD (workout of the day), one can expect to perform moves as varied as push presses, wall balls, and box jumps for a grueling test of power, speed, coordination, and endurance. If you think you’re the cat’s pyjamas just because you can lift a lot of weight or run fast, prepare to be humbled.

3. Every movement has a purpose.

What makes CrossFit so effective as a training method is that it’s centered around building functional strength and conditioning, not just getting stronger at a specific lift or adding a few more inches to a particular muscle. “One thing I’ve learned about CrossFit is that nothing is random,” says a now-enlightened Lutz. As an example, rowing, box jumps, and kettlebell swings may all seem like very different exercises, but they all work together in a synergistic way to improve big moves like power cleans as well as basic hip mobility. As you progress in your training, expect to see physical benefits not just in your workouts, but in everyday life. “The more you perform a movement, the more your body will learn to become efficient at it and not waste energy,” says Brown.

4. It brings into play different energy systems.

The human body has three different energy systems that it uses to perform various activities: phosphagen, anaerobic, and aerobic. While the phosphagen and anaerobic systems come into play during short, intense movements like powerlifts or standard bodybuilding-type workouts, the aerobic system is used for cardiovascular and endurance training. In CrossFit, the energy systems merge into a unique, total-body workout unlike any other. “You might have highly explosive movements mixed in with a few laps around a track, or swim a mile then row 2,000 meters,” says Brown. “The energy systems collide and you develop each in different ways.” It’s no wonder why CrossFitters consider themselves among the most well-rounded athletes, and why the winner of the CrossFit Games holds the title of “The Fittest on Earth.”

5. Specific nutritional requirements.

When it comes to nutrition, CrossFit teaches the “Zone Diet,” which involves eating a specific ratio of nutrients at specific times during the day, with the goal of keeping the body in an efficient metabolic state (hence, “The Zone”). Developed by biochemist Barry Sears, the diet emphasizes whole foods, simple carbs, and proteins while eschewing refined sugars and highly processed foods. “One of the reasons CrossFitters are so lean and lose weight seemingly so easily is because of the nutritional emphasis on lean meats, vegetables, and timing healthy carbs for optimal performance and recovery,” explains Brown. Side note: CrossFit is also leading the fight against diabetes by taking on big soda companies. Earlier this year, CrossFit founder Greg Glassman called for a government investigation into how donations by big soda companies impact government-funded health research.

Alex Zakrzewski
Alex is a Toronto-based freelance writer and fitness enthusiast.