Recently, a friend posted this article to his Facebook wall.
I believe this quote sums it up best:
“I think the name CrossFit now tells you about as much as saying ‘I’m going to go out and get a burger,’” says Werner. “It could mean grass-fed, pull out the stops, try to make a great burger. Or it could be mass-produced like McDonald’s or something. It could be some truly awful hole in the wall.”
After the many blind panegyrics or equally ignorant tirades I’ve seen for and against CrossFit, this one was a welcome, more even-handed assessment of the current state of CrossFit. Because CrossFit has taken such a hands-off approach in the management of its brand, for the uninformed individual choosing a new CrossFit gym, it’s kind of like playing fitness roulette. Just a couple days ago, my mother introduced me to one of her coworkers who tried CrossFit for a day, sustained a shoulder injury, and vowed never to return.
“We’re not all like that,” I found myself saying. Though, in my travels, I’ve also seen too many gyms “like that.” CrossFit has introduced me to some of the most passionate, gifted, and attentive coaches I’ve known. It’s also thrown me into some of the most disastrous “fitness” settings. To extend that burger metaphor—right now, if we’re trying to discuss “injury rates” in CrossFit, it’s like trying to assess incidents of food poisoning in all people who ate burgers. I’d be much more suspicious of the plastic-wrapped, lukewarm patty from a gas station than a gourmet platter from a Michelin starred restaurant.
So with such diversity in the experience of CrossFit gyms, I’ve found myself wondering a lot lately—what makes a good gym? What defines a good gym, even? Without much guidance from HQ, where does a new gym look for inspiration?
CrossFit CSA in the early A.M.: the calm before the storm
EVCF: the weightlifter’s dream. CrossFit rig visible in the back. Not pictured: strongman equipment to the left, an ample supply of sleds, GHDs, KB’s, rowers…
Something I’ve observed from both CSA and EVCF (my home-gym-away-from-home): good leadership helps—someone with a clear vision of what s/he wants the gym to be and to do for its athletes. Coach told me a while ago that CSA took really good care of its athletes, and I got to witness this firsthand when I visited. The owner conducted regular meetings with the competition team to check up on their needs and progress. He promotes the shit out of them, constantly updating their social media and getting their names into the public. Meanwhile, CSA also takes care of its tremendously diverse clientele. There are designated spaces for the powerlifters, the MMA fighters, the CrossFitters. There are coaches with clear programs that manage all of these clients and their unique needs. The coaches know how to coordinate a busy class and still tailor to the individual—diagnosing the needs of each person before the session and scaling everything to his/her ability. While visiting CSA, I had the immense fortune of working out alongside the competition team as well as dropping in a normal class. With the competitors, intensity reigned and I saw the ferocity we admire so much in our Games-level athletes. However, with the regular classes, I saw a much wider range. There was a regionals-level competitor who completed each round with 100 unbroken double-unders and decided to challenge herself on unbroken ring push-ups until her shoulders gave. But right beside her, there were much more everyday exercisers who got in a good workout with a different pacing. These were people who, after the workout, had to clean themselves up and go to meetings or classrooms, etc… who CrossFit for wellness rather than competition… who might need to be able to lift their arms later in the day and wouldn’t benefit from shoulder-failure. And that was okay. Despite the wide range of objectives and work capacity in the participants of the CSA CrossFit class, the environment was such that every individual felt comfortable working at his or her own pace—and the coach that managed each class was skilled and comfortable enough to coordinate all these differences at once.
I saw that same balance at EVCF. My favorite Phoenix gym has gotten even bigger since the last time I was in town. They have the broadest offering of classes I’ve ever seen—from a massive weightlifting program with world-class coaches to a dedicated mobility class, a kettlebell class, powerlifting, sprinting… There’s separate programming for normal CrossFit and for EVCF’s rather successful competition team. On Saturday mornings, their competition team trains together, there’s a mobility course and the kettlebell class, as well as the “Big 3,” which focuses on the major powerlifting movements. There’s also two weightlifting classes—one at 11:00am and 12:30pm. In addition, there are sometimes a few drop-ins doing their own thing, or private coaching sessions. With that much going on, I expected it to be chaos. But somehow EVCF has enough space and confident, authoritative coaches that everything proceeds smoothly.
In the past couple of weeks, I’ve loved watching the EVCF competition team train. They actually work, well, as a team. Perhaps because CrossFit began with a certain individualized spirit (for the lone warrior who could train in his sparse garage gym), I’ve sometimes felt that some of the “team” efforts feel strangely detached—more like separate people working out beside each other than an actual team endeavor. But EVCF’s head coach, August, tailors his programming so that the athletes have to work together. They often go through the day’s workout in pairs and, though they need to train at different times throughout the week, they carve out that Saturday morning slot to come together. Like Kirian of CSA gym, August takes care of his athletes. He stresses to them the importance of recovery and mobility and oversees their individual needs. I’ve seen him sit around to direct his clients through specific stretches or assistance exercises—and I’ve seen him do this for everyone from his veteran athletes to the newbie who just walked through the door.
With a lot of younger gyms, I see such concern over labels and regulations, over what “is” or “isn’t” CrossFit. We do or don’t do certain movements. We must warm up or not warm up a certain way. We have to go at a certain intensity or we have to offer only these sorts of classes. But the success of CSA and EVCF shows that the spirit of CrossFit isn’t about any of that… it’s not about introducing all your members of Pukie. Not every class needs to follow the traditional metcon structure; not every CrossFitter needs to or wants to follow a standard “CrossFit” template. Part of the beauty of CrossFit is that it adapts to so many different individuals—and for that reason, we should remember that it’s not a one-size-fits-all program. CSA and EVCF have shown me what a diverse group of people and needs and training methodologies can come together in one place while still maintaining a tightly-bound community. Yes, there is definitely the danger that certain gyms will become too scattered trying to pursue too many shiny new interests at once– but CSA and EVCF have expanded their offerings (and their fitness-ings) without becoming chaotic by providing what can help their members rather than just what’s shiny and new.
Just there’s no single training approach that will build a great CrossFit athlete, there’s no single approach to creating a fantastic CrossFit gym… and it seems to me the most successful gyms recognize this. They aren’t afraid to experiment—to think, well, “outside the box.” Leading a successful CrossFit team involves treating them as such—as a group, yes, but one composed of unique individuals that must address disparate weaknesses and learn to work together. Creating a truly standout CrossFit box requires fostering an environment that encourages members to “go hard,” but also cushions them on the off-days—makes it okay to fail, and encourages them to come back the next day hungry for something better. For boxes that claim to welcome a wide range of skill-levels, they must juggle the needs of professional athletes and weekend warriors, and meet these needs on an individual basis rather than shoving everyone into a single mold.
I think because CrossFit began so simply—with Mainsite posting a single WOD for all the people—some gyms forget the unique guidance that their box can offer. If everyone would get the same quality workout doing burpees and pull-ups in their garage, no one would pay the $100+/mo gym dues at a CrossFit gym. We have the opportunity to treat members as individuals even as we create a larger, supportive community. I can’t imagine that meshing an MMA gym with a CrossFit gym with a powerlifting gym was easy for CSA… I can’t imagine that EVCF thought it would be easy to run a kettlebell class alongside a powerlifting class just as the weightlifting class begins warming up… But they’ve done so, maintaining a strong vision for what would best serve their community and their members. Though CrossFit CSA and East Valley CrossFit are very different places, what they share in common– and what I think makes them such effective powerhouses in their respective regions– is that they’re led by committed, level-headed in individuals that aren’t concerned with trends or what Rich Froning is doing in his garage. They aren’t trying to follow some paradigm of CrossFit, nor wasting their time trying to see what all the other gyms are doing. They’re concerned with the members of their own gyms who are already there and working their butts off day in and day out. They prioritize giving these people the best return for their hard work, and cultivate the most supportive environment for these specific individuals in their specific contexts.
Happy New Year, readers! Let’s make this one better than the last.
Bonus footage of CSA’s competition team training
(ignore the scrawny Asian interloper)