CrossFit – One year in…
First Morning Chalk Up post, and it's a long one. Grab your favourite protein shake and settle in!
I'll kick things off with some perspective. At the time of writing this I’m 41 years’ old, have been training/exercising in some form or another since I was 18, and I’m currently the fittest and strongest I've ever been. How?
Let’s wind the clock back a touch. When I was 18, I started working in an office environment for the first time. Long days stuck at a desk after years of running around school and a McDonald’s store was instantly noticeable, in a negative way. Luckily for me the office was not too far from a Taekwondo gym, and after growing up watching and loving Bruce Lee, Chuck Norris, JCVD, and the rest of them this was the perfect fit. I started training in Teakwondo and using the in-house gym equipment; this is where my fitness journey began. Since then, I have worked my way through multiple martial arts and fighting techniques while one thing remained consistent: the gym.
I’d like to say that my style of training in the gym evolved through the years, however if I’m being honest, it didn’t. Chest and tri’s, back and bi’s. That was my foundational recipe for approximately 20 years. Legs? You ask. This guy most definitely skipped leg day!
Despite how bad this seems, the combination of the above with martial arts kind of worked. Upper body strength mixed with the inbuilt cardiovascular work required while sparring had me reasonably fit at various points throughout the 20-year period. Legs? You ask. There are lots of different kicks required in Taekwondo - valid excuse to keep skipping leg day!
While I don’t recall the exact timing, I do recall the exact thing that introduced me to CrossFit – A documentary called ‘Froning: The Fittest Man in History’ – You may have heard of it. I’m guessing it was toward the end of 2016 after returning to Australia from 18 months working abroad in the USA. The documentary led me to hours of further CrossFit related viewing, going back through all the previous Games events and other related content.
With the need to be cross-functionally fit for martial arts – well, more of an advantage than a need – I could immediately see how the ‘style’ of CrossFit training would complement my Jiu Jitsu (the martial art I had moved to by that time).
Although I didn’t join a CrossFit box straight away, the various exercises – or at least a self-taught version of them – slowly started creeping their way into my gym workouts. I won’t claim to have been doing any of them ‘correctly’, however the change I noticed was almost immediate. The only way I can describe it is that I felt like I was building strength from the inside out.
More and more I followed each of the Games and their lead ups, more and more my gym workouts became cross-functional, and just as I was about to make things official toward the end of 2019… COVID – You may have heard of it.
Fast forward to the beginning of 2022.
Building up the Courage
January 2022. The previous two years had been horrible in multiple ways, for obvious reasons. Even though I’d known for a while that a CrossFit box – CrossFit Adelaide – was a measly 2-minute walk from where I lived, I always used the most popular excuses not to join: time and money. Time was totally invalid as I’ve always been a morning person and all I had to do was get up a bit earlier each day. Money was not totally invalid, however after looking at what I was spending on other gyms, the difference was minimal. The real reason I hadn’t joined? I was scared. Yes, that’s right, I’ll put it out there… I was scared. Joining a new gym was not a big deal as I’d done it many times before and when you’re training by yourself you really have little to be worried about. For me, the thought of going to an established CrossFit box and joining WOD sessions with 15 other experienced people freaked me out. Especially when my only real experience with CrossFit was watching the Games! Let’s face it, those athletes are straight up animals.
I’m not entirely sure what finally got me across the line, but in the first week of January 2022 I went to my first WOD session at CrossFit Adelaide. I’m stoked I did!
If you’re in two minds for similar reasons to mine, just give it a go. What’s the worst that can happen? You don’t enjoy it, so you don’t go back. No harm done. Let’s be honest, it’s not going to be for everyone, but you won’t know if you don’t try.
A Big Year
Finally, we get to the guts of why I’m writing this (and likely why you’re reading it). It’s been a big year! On average I’ve been going 5 times a week, which generally allows for 2 recovery days in the 7 (yeah, math!).
Let’s look at some randomly collected stats from the past year (at the time of writing):
- 539 total workouts (there can be 1 or more in a single WOD session)
- Programming breakdown:
- 35% Gymnastics (my favourite)
- 22% Monostructural/Metcon (my least favourite)
- 43% Weightlifting (most challenging for me)
- Deadlift 1RM prior to joining was 142.5kg (which injured my back) and when last tested I pulled a 143kg 3RM (with no resulting injury)
- Back Squat 1RM prior to joining was 90kg and when last tested I lifted 105kg.
- Clean 1RM prior to joining was 0kg (what was a Clean?) and when last tested I pulled 90kg multiple times in a workout.
Stats without context really don’t mean much, but at a meta-level this gives you an indication of the year that was for me. Some solid progress, and no signs of slowing down. As previously mentioned, this has led to me being the fittest and strongest I have ever been, at the ripe old age of 41.
Takeaways & Lessons Learned
Writing this has given me the opportunity to reflect on some key moments at the box. In no particular order I’ll share some of the standout memories, both good and bad.
No Thinking Required
So that’s not entirely true of course, however what I’m referring to is the programming. After years of rolling up to the gym with little idea of what I was going to do, having everything programmed for me has been a significant positive.
I often find myself talking to others in the box and saying things like, “I would never do this if I was training by myself.” It’s not dissimilar from a good PT session, and when you start seeing it that way, the touch extra you may pay very quickly starts to make sense.
Beating That Timer
One of the workouts in my very first week at the box included legless rope climbs for time. Having reasonable upper body strength, I managed these pretty well, until I tried to be a hero and beat the clock with my last rep. I rushed to the top of the rope in the final seconds and after the timer sounded, I relaxed my grip – big mistake. I hadn’t locked the rope with my feet, so I slide all the way down and tore shreds of skin from multiple places on my hands and fingers.
Beating the timer on that final rep is a great feeling, but I’ve learned to maintain my composure and awareness while doing so!
All The Gear, No Idea
Wrist wraps, elbow sleeves, lifters, belts, finger tape! The list goes on and on.
When I started, I was aware of CrossFit specific training shoes, but had no idea of just how much more gear is available to assist with workouts. While I wouldn’t say that any particular piece of gear is 100% necessary, there are a few that I do believe have helped me so far:
- Wrist wraps – The first time I did snatches my wrists felt like the weakest part of the lift. They were sore quickly into the lifts, and while the wraps don’t resolve these issues completely, they do help and give me more confidence with my structure overhead.
- Grips – Kipping movements on the bar, say no more! I’m certain these have saved layers of skin over the last year.
- Knee sleeves – I’m not totally convinced these make a big physical difference, however they do offer psychological benefits in that any bend in my knees feel more solid. They are also very handy for lunges when hitting your knee against the ground.
- Shin guards – Rope climbs! Along with the legless rope climb incident mentioned above, the first time I did leg locking rope climbs I tore my lower shin apart. The shin guards were a very welcome addition to the gym bag after that.
I think it’s important to remember that even if the gear is not making a real physical difference, it can help with your confidence – for me that's more than enough of a reason to give it a go.
It's All About What You Know
Given it’s been a year I’ve managed to work through a few different testing blocks in the programming. This involves a week of WOD sessions where we test certain movements/workouts, multiple weeks following where we work on elements that will build on them, then a final week of retesting.
On almost every occasion I managed to beat my initial testing by a significant margin. Yes, the weeks building in between definitely helped with the final retest, but as a newbie I can safely say that becoming familiar with the movements/workouts made the biggest difference. This is especially true for me in the metcons. Heading into these for the first time I had no idea what I was capable of, and I would second guess myself throughout – slowing down, taking longer rests, etc. Coming back to complete the workout a second time I was much more comfortable in knowing my limits and therefore naturally pushed harder.
Knowing the workout, and more importantly knowing myself, helps push me much further.
It's A Neck Up Game
Ever done a workout with multiple rounds? First few rounds are solid, middle rounds are horrible, final round is solid again (sometimes the best)? That’s the mental game at play.
Leading on from the previous lesson about what you know, I’ve come to realise that the mental side of CrossFit is just as important as the physical. There have been multiple times where I’ve gone into a workout worried about being able to finish it, to not only finishing it, but doing so with plenty left in the tank.
Looking at the whiteboard and contemplating what lies ahead can be extremely daunting. There is no magic cure for this. For me it’s about learning to be comfortable being uncomfortable. No doubt my martial arts training has helped with this, but it never truly resolves itself.
Remember that your least favourite moments are when your mental game matters the most. Take that nervous energy and convert it into something useful!
Something Always Hurts
To be clear, I’m not referring to injury related soreness. That of course is not a good thing. I’m referring to DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness), the ugly but also beautiful creature that has been part of my life constantly for the past year. Be it my legs, my chest, my calves – something always hurts.
I remember the bittersweet moment that I finally managed to string sets of double-unders together. Sweet because it was a huge achievement for me (especially with the drag rope), bitter because I then couldn’t walk properly for close to week! My calves were so sore I had to walk with straight legs for a few days after the workout.
If you’re going to push yourself, this is unavoidable, and I really don’t mind all that much as it’s a great reminder that I’ve worked hard. It is also a great reminder that rest is important. As mentioned previously I try to give myself 2 recovery days a week, and I’m also lucky to have great coaches that program workouts with an even spread of movements.
Don’t be ashamed of a rest day, we need them!
Also don’t be ashamed to scale a workout if you’re just not ‘feeling’ it. You’re still there, still moving, still getting after it – and that’s what it’s all about.
Dropping The Ego
One of the very first lessons I learned in martial arts was to never underestimate your opponent. My Taekwondo Grandmaster was a small elderly man, who was also an absolute weapon!
Joining a CrossFit box has resulted in a similar lesson for me. I’m surrounded by people who are smaller and older, lifting way more than I can even dream of lifting right now. They are also minutes quicker or reps ahead in timed workouts. It’s been a reality check and has forced me to drop what little ego I had coming in.
This was drilling home quickly for me in one particular workout. It was a multiple movement piece, with one movement being the deadlift for 5 reps (multiple rounds). While our programming suggests an Rx weight, it is always up to the individual if they want to scale to suit their current ability. Did I scale? No – big mistake. I went Rx on the deadlift weight, and it was too heavy for me. My ego got the better of me and I paid for it with a mildly injured lower back for roughly a week.
In a way I’m glad it happened. Not only did it help me realise that I need to chill out, but also drove home the importance of getting back to basics and focusing on technique first. It was somewhat of a CrossFit revelation for me, and my progress since has been solid, maintainable, and injury free.
Speed Or Form?
I’ll admit it, when I first saw kipping pullups, I was pretty confused. I’d only ever done strict pullups from a dead hang, so I was really intrigued with the kip. After a bit of research, it appeared that this and other elements of CrossFit movements were somewhat controversial in the wider fitness industry.
When I first spoke with the head coach, he was very open about it all and was happy for me to go with whatever felt right for me. He also mentioned that with time, I would see why the kip existed and that it’s a genuine technique in its own right. He was correct. To this day I find the kipping technique one of the hardest to master.
With so many workouts based around reps and time, it’s easy to see why many people assume that speed trumps form in CrossFit, but in my experience it’s simply not true. Our coaches are constantly focused on technique, and with good technique comes more speed.
Something we say often in Jiu Jitsu which fits well, which I believe originated in the Navy SEALs – “Slow is smooth, smooth is fast.”
This may just be me, but I’ve been caught out on more than one occasion thinking that I was done with a workout only to realise I had another round to do!
I recall a mini-chipper style metcon involving running and burpees – two of my least favourite movements. I blasted through it and stayed close to the front runners, and while I was only 10-15 burpees behind I saw them finishing and heading back out of the box for another run. I was shattered, both physically and mentally. I barely finished the second round because I’d gone way too hard on the first. It was devastating at the time, more so because I felt pretty stupid.
For some strange reason I’ve been double and triple checking the whiteboard ever since!
Record Your Results
Like many CrossFit boxes, CrossFit Adelaide uses a digital whiteboard app to program the WOD sessions and this also lets me record my results. With some of the longer workouts this just isn’t possible for me as I tend to lose count of reps when I get tried, but wherever possible I keep everything in the app.
This not only helps with keeping track of my progress and highlighting gains, but also with setting weights when a ‘your choice’ style workout is on the menu. At times it’s a bit difficult entering data into an app with tired shaky hands, but it’s well worth it in my opinion!
OK, so magic is not the technically correct term for this, but it sure felt like it.
Approximately 6 months in I tried pistol squats for the first time, and failed miserably. I had to scale them for the entire training block. Fast forward to more recent times, without practicing pistol squats, and they ‘just happened’! I ended up doing multiple rounds of 5 on each leg without pause. The same thing happened with my strict ring muscle ups.
This really is a credit to the programming by our coaching team. You manage to progress without even realising it. This feeling of ‘surprise’ is one of the best in CrossFit.
Fire Whoever Invented The Chipper
That’s it, that’s the lesson. Whoever you are...
Some Days Just Suck!
Make no mistake, CrossFit is hard. If you let it, and you should, it will test every part of you. If it was easy, it wouldn’t be work, and you wouldn’t be learning.
While my overall experience over the past year of CrossFit has been overwhelmingly positive, there have been bad days. There will always be movements that I don’t enjoy, or that I’m not good at, and some days will be filled with them. These are hard days to head into the box. On each of these days I have hated almost every minute of the workout, but have then been equally glad that I did them once they were over.
Thanks for getting this far!
Given all the above, I’m still hooked. I want to continue being the fittest and strongest that I’ve ever been, so I’m going to continue doing CrossFit.
I’ve never been a competitive person, so entering any form of CrossFit competition is not high on the agenda. However, I may do it one day if only to test myself. For now, I’ll stayed focused on the basics and foundations of the techniques and movements. As mentioned previously this has proven to be a good formula for my progression, and I think I can safely assume it would be for others also.
Some notable personal achievements in the past year:
- Stringing together double-unders (both speed and drag rope)
- Strict ring muscle ups
- Running 5km without stopping
- 20 minutes on an assault bike to measure FTP (twice!)
- Handstands and handstand walking (this was epic - very proud moment!)
These are some of my goals (long and short term) at the timing of writing:
- Double bodyweight deadlift (~160kg)
- Back squat 120kg
- Bench 120kg
- Clean 100kg (with good form!)
- String together kipping bar muscle ups
- Land a kipping ring muscle up (and perhaps string a few together)
- Hold a handstand for 30+ seconds
Those should keep me busy for a while. So, let’s get after it!
PS. I'm hoping to do semi-regular posts as another way to track my progress, so feel free to follow along!
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