Dean Robertson is the Founder and Head of Elysium Edinburgh Training Systems. He's been a coach for over ten years and has a Master's degree in strength and conditioning. Dean is Edinburgh's top performance coach and hosts EDOX CrossFit at his self-built gym; Elysium Edinburgh
WHAT IS CROSSFIT?
Chances are if you’ve been to a gym in the past 5 years or so you’ve probably heard of CrossFit by now. It actually started way back in 1996 and was ‘created’ by Greg Glassman, who in my opinion is a marketing genius. He basically took various training styles such as gymnastics, Olympic lifting, powerlifting, endurance events (running, rowing etc), calisthenics (bodyweight training) and put them all together and called it CrossFit.
‘So, it’s not ‘NEW’ I hear you ask’?
Well, not exactly. All of the training disciplines within CrossFit have been established, for decades, even centuries. But what Mr Glassman did was bring the concepts together and create a ‘sport’ where people can train for and compete against themselves or others.
CrossFit describe their training methods as a system that delivers a fitness that is, by design, broad, general and inclusive. They state that their specialty is not specializing.
CrossFit also explain that people should be fit as possible within ten general physical skills including cardiovascular/respiratory endurance, Strength, stamina, flexibility, speed, power, agility, balance, coordination, and accuracy.
To make that easy to understand, it basically means that you will train a wide variety of skills that will challenge all elements of your fitness. All in all, you will have a well-rounded exposure to fitness, rather than focusing on one thing like strength or flexibility.
Why would I work on every element of fitness instead of focusing on one area?
The most important thing to ask here is WHY does someone NEED to be FIT? What even is ‘fitness’. The term fitness gets thrown around a lot, and not a lot of people really think about what it actually refers to. To cut the nonsense I want you to think about fitness as a person’s ability to complete a task. What task? Whatever task they choose, and that’s the kicker. People talk about being super ‘fit’ but for WHAT exactly?
Sumo wrestlers don’t exactly look the picture of health; they probably couldn’t run the length of the street, nor jump very high but you ask them to do sumo wrestling and guess what, they’ll be fit for THAT purpose – This is specificity. When someone chooses to do/practice/compete in a specific task, then they train towards that task. Like Usain Bolt probably wouldn’t be much good in a wrestling match, you can guarantee he’s gonna smoke anyone at a sprint!
How does CrossFit compare to other training methods when it comes to getting ‘Fitter’?
Well, the majority of people that get into CrossFit are people looking to improve their fitness and health. So, the general nature of CrossFit’s training philosophy is an amazing platform for people to get better at every element of fitness and I fundamentally believe that everyone should have a well-rounded approach to fitness. CrossFit places high when people are looking to get better access to coaching, education, fitness and improving their health. That’s why I love it so much. The general population can massively benefit from this style of training and system that CrossFit has created.
Does CrossFit get people fit then? Absolutely…. fit for what though? Well it depends how they train. Overall however, a person who participates in CrossFit and practises a broad spectrum of activities will most often always be fitter when it comes to general fitness standards such as:
- Cardiovascular/respiratory endurance
So, if someone is looking to improve their fitness in order to be more fit for their life, then it is highly likely that CrossFit will tick all the boxes.
Furthermore, it must be stated that there are a lot of sports persons/athletes that have successfully utilised CrossFit and its methods to improve their conditioning for the sport they compete in. I believe that this is because CrossFit focuses on a broad range of skills that always benefit sports when improved.
But what about the high-level CrossFit athletes? How do they compare to the normal-level participants? Well, here is where things get skewed. People need to understand that CrossFit created CrossFit. This means that events and workouts are designed to be constantly varied, which is one of its appealing factors. But it rarely allows people the opportunity to excel at one specific discipline. You will rarely see people at a high level in CrossFit compete at the highest level in another singular discipline such as powerlifting, sprinting, marathon running, netball etc.
Why? Because they are NOT specialist athletes. Plain and simple. Remember CrossFit’s speciality is not specializing. It is therefore unlikely you will become GREAT at an activity, unless you focus on that discipline. So, what CrossFit effectively does is enhance people’s ability for a broad spectrum of activities rather than focus on making them great at specific things. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. But if someone wants to be great at a specific thing such as a single sporting discipline then CrossFit may not be the most effective choice, but would likely help improve the skills required for said sports.
What about the CrossFit Games?
The CrossFit Games is an annual event where the best CrossFit athletes go head to head to claim the ‘fittest on earth’ title. The Games essentially place all of the athletes that have trained extremely hard to improve at all disciplines together to show how well they can complete every task.
They were first launched in a small ranch in Aromas, USA, by Dave Castro, who is seen as the architect of the Games since he programmes and manages them each year. When it was first launched, it was very basic with no fancy equipment or mass media attention like being on TV, as it is now. Due to the simplicity and versatility of CrossFit, it is an amazing way to get into exercise, learn how your body works and moves, meet other people on the same mission, have fun training and progress your fitness at your own pace. So, CrossFit was originally designed for every body!
This is reflected in the way the Games are usually structured. Usually, they’ll be split over multiple days that test different elements of someone’s ability.
One day participants might be running a 10k testing their endurance, the next day they might be testing a 1 rep max on a clean and jerk. In order to be so good at many different disciplines, the athletes at the top of their game in CrossFit treat it as their LIFE. More often than not, they have become full time athletes because it demands literally all their time in order to compete at that level.
The difference between CrossFit and many other sports is that people often view conventional sports such as football, rugby, etc as something you need to get into when you’re younger, but because CrossFit is so new in comparison, it’s something that naturally people have had to get into at their current age, regardless of whether they’re young or old. And here’s the thing – because it comprises many training disciplines, it can be scaled to any level. Which brings us to our next point…
Can Beginners Do CrossFit?
There is absolutely no question whether a beginner can do CrossFit. In actual fact, everyone that has done CrossFit was a beginner at one stage. The only thing that makes someone NOT a beginner is consistently practising whatever they are a beginner at and progressing. I want to make one thing crystal clear – CrossFit does NOT have to be an elite level sport. Yes, you see the people at the top, but they have worked extremely hard to achieve that!
You do not NEED to be an elite level athlete or even an intermediate to do CrossFit to get started. You need a body (any shape/condition) and a positive attitude to just get started and learn.
But WHERE did the idea come from that CrossFit is elite?
My opinion? The CrossFit Games. Simple. CrossFit has done an amazing job of highlighting and promoting the CrossFit Games since they began. They have evolved massively since they started and have turned into what I believe is one of the most amazing events to watch each year with the best of the best going head to head to claim the title. But here’s the thing, just because these athletes are crazy strong, lean, flexible powerful … doesn’t mean they always have been. I guarantee that the majority of them started out because they enjoyed training and progressed year in year out. Sure, you get the ‘freaks’ that have come from a sporting background and naturally transitioned using their lifelong skills they learnt from other sports (like Mat Fraser and Tia-Clair Toomey that came from high level weightlifting backgrounds).
But that’s not WHY CrossFit was started, and it’s still not how the majority of the +15,000 CrossFit affiliates operate on a daily basis. The elite guys are like a portfolio of the people that have pushed it to the max. There are tens if not hundreds of thousands of people doing CrossFit worldwide that are nowhere near that level, and probably never will be. And that’s totally ok! Most people don’t want to be at that level anyway.
To back up my point here, CrossFit-HQ actually just had a massive U-turn in their marketing because I believe they realised that CrossFit was being marketed in the wrong way. They realised that people were beginning to see it as an elite thing because it was all about the Games and the human machines that were at the top. So, recently they totally altered their marketing and media from the headquarters and started promoting activity for EVERYONE, (some of their marketing looks like it’s being aimed at people pretty out of shape using a couch at home for a workout). This is a huge change from the sexy games promos that they pushed for so long.
So how does CrossFit appeal to beginners?
Simple, ANYONE CAN DO IT. It’s fully scaled, meaning no matter what ability you have, whether it’s struggling to walk upstairs or whether you can walk on your hands, you just do the variation of the exercise that’s correct for your level. And that’s why the coaches are so important as they are your guide to knowing what to do in a class. It’s why CrossFit CLASSES are so popular. Because training under the professional supervision of a trained coach will always be superior to going it alone. The coaches are the KEY toward you improving in a safe and effective environment.
That is one of the primary reasons I believe CrossFit has exploded in popularity – because it’s a group exercise-based environment and people feel connected to their box (a box is what CrossFit call a CrossFit Gym). This isn’t only through the coaches but the people that are there, with them, doing the classes, doing the work, growing together. THAT’S what makes people love CrossFit so much. It’s what has been lacking in the fitness world for so long. CrossFit has done more for people’s connection to fitness and health than any other mode of training alone in the past 30-40 years. That’s a bold statement, I agree, but you show me a mode of training that individually has increased at the rate of CrossFit and I’ll admit I’m wrong. Until then, I’m sticking to my guns here.
Is CrossFit Dangerous?
BOOM, there it is…. The big question. ‘But CrossFit is dangerous right?’. My answer to this question is simple –
‘CrossFit is no more dangerous than any other mode of exercise when it is properly supervised and executed.’
In fact, it doesn’t even rank in the top 10 methods of exercise (sport included) where people are admitted to A&E let alone overall reasons for injury. The injury rate in weight training in particular is extremely low compared to other sports such as rugby, football, American football, hockey, etc, when properly supervised.
To add to that, CrossFit have even developed a program for working with youths (CrossFit Kids) as it’s an education-based system to help them move better and build their skills in exercise. This is a huge benefit to a child’s physical and cognitive capacity. If children can be taught to exercise in this way, which I 100% support, why can adults not be taught in the same way to progress safely and effectively? They can.
The issue of injury potentially arises when people are in a class and there is a competitive element added to it, like AMRAP (CrossFit language for - As Many Rounds As Possible), which means people just push things too fast, and sometimes the level of output exceeds their technical proficiency. To say it simply, they do stuff they shouldn’t do and then this increases the risks. It’s a bit like driving too fast around a corner – done at the right speed, fine. Done a bit too fast when pushing the boundaries, crash.
So how do you avoid/minimise risk of injury doing CrossFit?
- Know your ability – understand what you can do safely (a good coach will show you).
- Take it slowly. Just start small and build progressively.
- Listen carefully. Coaches are there to build you, not break you.
- Understand these skills take time to learn.
The activities in CrossFit are very diverse and becoming good at them takes time and consistently applied effort. So, don’t be too proud to take the easier version rather than jumping in head first. I’ve had a fully functioning box for over a year now and we have never experienced a single injury needing first aid treatment. That is down to our awesome coaching team at EDOX CrossFit. Follow the guidance of the professionals and you’ll be on your way to becoming better safely.
What is a CrossFit Class Like?
This is a very difficult question to answer. Why? Well the very nature of CrossFit is that it is constantly varied functional movement. This means that there is very little ‘structure’ to it. CrossFit HQ actually takes a lot of pride in stating that structure is the enemy. I however disagree with that statement. As a Strength and Conditioning coach, I know just how beneficial structure can be in making steady progress.
But on the other hand, the large majority of people could literally do anything in a training session and still make progress. But once they reach a certain level, the requirement of structure increases.
Originally, CrossFit was largely random. You could turn up to the box and have something very random and unknown on the board and just ‘go for it’. But as stated previously, CrossFit has evolved massively and in turn, the overall organisation has changed to allow people to keep progressing to higher and higher levels. I also believe an absolute necessity for optimal progression is understanding where you place certain things in training cycles/weeks etc.
CrossFit has evolved and so too has the way it should be taught. Coaches now programme weeks/months in advance, and I believe this is what’s led to the rise of the level of athleticism we see in CrossFit now.
So, at ground level, what should YOU expect when walking into a box? Well its very dependent on what box you walk into. Some boxes like to specialise in different types of training – it really depends what types of coaches they have there. More often than not, there will be a range of different coaches at any box and the coaching will be varied too, meaning you will get a good range of activities included in the programming.
At EDOX CrossFit, we have a varied week that encompasses every element of fitness – what CrossFit is designed to facilitate. This means that over the course of a week there will be days that are dedicated to more strength-based work and there will be days dedicated to more skill-based work.
Here is an example layout of the way we work things at EDOX:
STRENGTH (PULL) + WOD
deadlift/snatch/clean + suited WOD
STRENGTH (SQUAT) + WOD
squat/lunge-based strength work + Suited WOD
STRENGTH (PUSH) + WOD
overhead work/jerks/thrusters/bench + suited WOD
repeatable progress assessment
SKILL (GYMNASTICS) + WOD
pullups/dips/ring work/ handstand etc + Suited WOD
STRENGTH (varied) + CHIPPER
variable strength work (alternates each week)
(longer endurance-based WOD)
Longer-based skill only coaching
As you can see from this table, you will be working on a large range of skills throughout the course of a week. The exact details of each workout are different and stay true to the nature of CrossFit being varied, but the overall structure allows for progression in a safe and effective way. Although the programming is done in advance, the exact WOD (workout of the day) is never released in advance meaning that there is no way of knowing what workout you will be doing until you turn up. This means that it’s a surprise, always varied, and people can’t cherry-pick workouts based on preference. This leads to them actually doing the stuff they suck at and actually getting better across the board – something that never really happens in the general gym community.
Is CrossFit For You?
Apart from offering a whole range of physiological benefits, there is a real social and community aspect to CrossfFit that I would like to emphasise. Over 10 years in the fitness industry, I’ve seen a lot of different training methods come and go and so I’ve witnessed a lot of different communities form in the gym. CrossFit takes the community and social aspect of exercise and the fitness industry and accelerates it rapidly. It’s such an encouraging and motivating environment for anyone who enters it.
So, is CrossFit for you? Well it depends on what you’re looking for from training. If you’re a lone ranger and want to come into a gym and put the headphones in and zone out for an hour then CrossFit is not for you.
If however, you are looking to:
- Learn new skills
- Gain support from coaches and a community of like-minded people
- Get confidence in the gym/training
- Progressively build every element of your fitness
- Lose body fat/lose weight*
- Feel motivated for training and look forward to going to workout and much more
Then YES! CrossFit is 100% something that you should try!
Exercise and training have evolved massively. Long gone are the days of getting signed up to a membership at a gym or health club and slogging away for countless hours on a treadmill/bike whilst the trainer stands and observes. We are now in a position where we have access to the most amazing coaches and training methods ever, all across the globe, united by a love for all things – fitness, health and performance.
The whole reason I got involved in the industry in the first place was to take advantage of this curve in it and do all that I could to facilitate it, to make sure that as many people in our beautiful industry had access to a better way. CrossFit has allowed me to really show people that we are there to guide them and support them in their journey to be their best self through continual progress, no matter if it’s slow, or rapid transformation with long term maintenance. CrossFit has taken literally hundreds of thousands of people and given them the love for exercise again.
This is why I believe CrossFit will be here to stay for a long time in our industry and I couldn’t be happier. So if you are looking to get the love of fitness, health and performance then I would strongly encourage you to get along to your local CrossFit box, or travel to one that you feel connected to, because it will change your life and you’ll never look back!
What do I need to wear at a CrossFit class?
- Loose comfortable clothing. Shorts and T-Shirt/vest is a good idea.
Do I need any equipment for CrossFit?
- To begin with, no. Your box should have everything you need. Over time you may want to invest in some personal comforts to help you such as some skipping ropes, hand tape, knee sleeves etc, but all in all, just get started and find your way forward.
Do I need to be Fit to do CrossFit?
- CrossFit will take your current ability and scale it for you so you can participate at any level.
How long is a CrossFit class?
- It depends, on what the WOD (workout of the day) is, but classes are normally scheduled for 60 -minute slots.
What should I eat when doing CrossFit?
- This is a VERY open-ended answer as each person is so individual. But starting on a diet that is rich in high quality whole foods and limiting the amount of processed foods is a great idea. From there you can manipulate the variables of your diet to allow you to perform optimally or achieve specific goals such as weight/fat loss or performance.
What if I currently have/get an injury?
- You need to heal. But subject to what that injury is, you may be able to work around it and still train effectively. So always speak to the coach in charge and ensure you are not exacerbating it.
Dean is currently offering free CrossFit trials at EDOX. The budding community there is lookng to grow, and grow with the right individuals to continue to see the culture of Elysium stand at the height of training facilities. Not just in Edinburgh but I'd argue across the U.K and Europe!
All images used within this article came from EDOX's most recent open workout!