The Welcome Mat: 7 Tips to Getting Started Right in CrossFit

Interested in beginning a CrossFit program but not sure what to expect? STACK has seven tips from successful CrossFit coaches to get you started the right way.

CrossFit Coach Liz Spragins

Amity CrossFit sits on one of the busiest roads in Palo Alto, Calif. Situated in Silicon Valley, a CrossFit hotbed, Amity is a successful gym that is "old-school" CrossFit for sure—a corrugated steel Quonset Hut where both CrossFitters and members of the Palo Alto Barbell Club train. The gym is outfitted not with elliptical trainers and Nautlilus machines but with Olympic lifting bars, bumper plates, pull-up bars, sledgehammers, tractor tires, sandbags and lifting stones. Visually, it looks as hardcore as a gym can get.

Like most CrossFit boxes, Amity offers an on-ramp program for beginners. People who sign up and show up for their first workout often look worried. Many have either heard or read stories about the CrossFit strength and conditioning phenomenon: that the culture is fanatical; that you can expect to be sprawled out and puking on the floor in no time; that it was designed for and by Special Forces types; and that unifying principle is "That Which Does Not Kill Me Makes Me Stronger."

However, Amity owner Aaron Ryan has set a tone that thoroughly contradicts this blood-and-vomit image. In addition to his CrossFit training, Ryan has a decade of experience as a Catalyst-trained Olympic lifting coach, an NSCF-certified personal trainer and a martial arts teacher. Yet he uses an especially calming and encouraging tone with first-timers, as do his two coaches, Zack Height and Liz Spragins.

Rather than putting newbies through a high-intensity gauntlet to see what they're made of, Ryan preaches patience. As he said to one new member in an on-ramp session that included kettlebell technique, "Don't push yourself so hard that you'll be overly sore." Rather, he said, ease into the program in a way that you can keep coming back.

In an interview with the Amity CrossFit coaching staff, we asked what advice they might have for those new to a box. The following are 7 tips that will help you embrace CrossFit training in such a way that you'll safely get the best the program has to offer.

1. Go in with a positive, patient attitude.

"The initial months are the toughest," says Height, who writes the programming for Amity's schedule. Height played baseball in college and he's an up-and-coming Olympic lifter who qualified for the 2013 U.S. Open. "The movements in CrossFit will be new, and confronting the anaerobic training will be uncomfortable."

Height says the keys are to focus on doing your best each step of the way and have faith in the program. "It's essential you remain focused on the process," he says.  "Listen to the coaches to gain an understanding of the movements and do your best to follow their cues."

2. Your first mission: Get to the door.

"Your only goal in the beginning should be to show up every day," Height says.  "Starting out, most people don't know enough about themselves physically to set a CrossFit goal. Once you are aware of the movements and the flow of your gym, you can start to come up with some individualized goals."

3. Feed the beast.

The mixture of lifting and high-intensity metabolic training places tremendous demands on the body for energy and rebuilding muscle tissue. Most CrossFit coaches introduce a nutrition program that works in concert with the physical training to help you achieve certain long-term goals—from losing weight to adding lean muscle mass to running a half-marathon. But Height says many beginners make the mistake of failing to get enough fuel. "Make sure you eat enough," he says. "If you don't know what that means, ask your coach. If they can't give you a good answer or recommend someone who can, go to another gym. Nutrition is that important."

4. Focus on technique rather than heavy weight or speed.

Ryan repeatedly emphasizes this idea when working with new clients. He says, "It's my understanding that it takes 550 reps to establish a new motor pattern, whereas it takes somewhere up to 5,500 to unlearn a bad habit." In your first months and first year in CrossFit, pay special attention to mastering the nuances of the most basic movements. "Don't rush the big weights or 'fast times' in the beginning," Ryan adds. "Ultimately, this work will pave the way for greater gains.

5. Attack the soreness.

As the training takes on a high-intensity edge, and as you perform more demanding functional movements, Height says do not let the soreness stop you cold. "Getting sore and having minor issues are part of the game in the beginning," he says. "Buy a foam roller for your house. Stay after class for 10 minutes and stretch before you take off."

At some classes, time is reserved for mobility and restoration work, but often the strength work and WOD (Workout of the Day) eat up the class period. "Even the most well-organized classes can't encompass all of fitness in one hour," Height explains. "You have to take responsibility and do a little extra work to keep your body up and running. Life is a 24-hour-per-day job. One hour of exercise will not override 23 hours of bad behavior."

6. Pick your battles.

CrossFit is an extensive (possibly never-ending) mix of movements from gymnastics, Olympic weightlifting, powerlifting and cardiovascular sports like rowing and running. At first, everything might feel uncomfortable and foreign, like the stress on your wrists the first time you try a Front Squat. Spragins, whose background includes cycling, marathon running, and, most recently, competitive weightlifting, says that as you get acquainted with the complexity of CrossFit, you and your coach might want to set specific goals for learning new movements—like a first Kipping Pull-Up or a PR for a Back Squat. After you have gained confidence with CrossFit, it might be time to narrow your long-term focus on a certain arena. "One of the best and first things to learn is how to pick your battles," Spragins says.  "CrossFit is by its own definition constantly varied, and therefore frequently frustrating for new athletes." It's the same for more experienced athletes, she adds. "The range of skills you need in order to excel at CrossFit is very wide, and can feel extremely overwhelming. Do you try to get a strict Pull-Up first, or do you learn the more technically difficult Kipping Pull-Up? What about Muscle-Ups? Or how much time should you spend working on Olympic lifts? These are good discussion points to take up with your coach as you develop your goals within the program."

7. Get a handle on the program.

Specific long-term goals will make CrossFit more satisfying and help you sustain energy for the work. The theoretical hierarchy of CrossFit directs participants toward the eventual application of athletic capacity to a sport. Many CrossFit gyms have specialized groups for competitions outside the gym, such as marathons, triathlons, obstacle-course races and Olympic lifting.

As you specify a goal or set of goals, or pick a sport to apply CrossFit training, consider any of the specialty programs, or, as Spragins recommends, align yourself with the general program. She says, "Frequently a program written for an entire gym has built-in goals. For example, the weekly Pull-Up/Push-Press workout at Amity for the last couple of months is directed toward improving clients' pulling strength, and thus will hopefully allow someone who doesn't have a strict Pull-Up to get closer to one, or will allow someone who can already do strict Pull-Ups to get more consistent and stronger at them." In talking with your coach about the program, Spragins recommends writing goals that are in concert with the gym's programming, or figuring out how much freedom the coaches allow for training outside of the workouts. "If you have more freedom in picking your own goals, or have access to the gym outside of class hours, you can exercise more independence in choosing your goals."

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