The first time I walked into a CrossFit gym, I almost walked right out. Even though I'd been an athlete through college and had been weightlifting for the five years since graduation, I was overwhelmed. It was a Saturday morning, and twenty-five people, mostly shirtless bros, were lifting barbells and then dropping them from overhead.
Between the music and the crashing weights, it was so loud that I had to scream at the first person I saw: "Where's the owner?" She was sitting on the ground, and as I introduced myself (again, shouting), she held up a finger. She'd just done the workout and was too winded to respond.
Two and a half years later, CrossFit has become a home for me—not in the cultish way that people describe, but in the sense that I look forward to going there every day, I'm friends with most of the people in my regular class, and as a freelancer, it's one of the few sources of stability in my life. Every night at 8:30, an alarm on my phone goes off so I know to check the following day's workout as soon as it's posted.
But that doesn't change the fact that CrossFit is intimidating, especially when you don't yet know the difference between, say, a hang snatch, a muscle snatch, and a power snatch. To help newcomers push through that initial cringiness, I recruited Ben Bergeron, who has coached six of the Fittest People on Earth (the title you get when you win the CrossFit Games) and recently published a book about training champions. These are the five most important pieces of advice he'd give to any newcomer.
Accept that you'll feel uncomfortable—at first
Walking into a CrossFit gym—or “box”—can be particularly nerve-wracking: the strangers, the unfamiliar equipment, the new vocabulary. It can be tempting to delay the moment by trying to train on your own, but Bergeron recommends people take the plunge no matter what physical condition they're in. A fundamental tenet of CrossFit is that it's scalable to any age, experience level, and body type, so even if you can't do a single push-up, that’s fine—the coach should be able to offer you a more beginner-friendly alternative.
More from Tonic:
When I tell Bergeron that some people may want to start training before they visit a box in order to be less intimidated, he's adamant that this is the wrong approach. "If somebody's learning something beforehand, they're probably learning bad habits," he says. "So if they can't squat, if they can't do a pull up, if they can't run a mile, that's awesome. I want somebody who's looking to get better." When I push him again for a pre-CrossFit regimen, he unleashes a torrent of metaphors: Do you need to know a water start before you learn to windsurf, how to play chords before you learn the guitar, how to navigate a highway at 100 miles an hour before you become a racecar driver?
If you absolutely must train beforehand, CrossFit has instructional videos (in English, Spanish, French, German, and more) for practically every movement, from the burpee to the hang clean and jerk. A good place to start is with the three foundational movements: the push-up, pull-up, and air squat. And if mobility is your concern, the company also has online programming, called ROMWOD, devoted exclusively to helping you expand your range of motion and live with less pain, and it comes with a free seven-day trial.
Do a little bit of homework
You may have heard that you can open a CrossFit gym after nothing more than a weekend training course and paying the affiliation fee, which is true. But the level-one certification isn't the only credential CrossFit offers, and if you’re concerned about the experience level of the coaches, ask how many advanced instructors they have. For example, at Bergeron's gym—CrossFit New England—every coach has at least a level-three certification, which means they’ve all put in at least 750 hours of coaching.
Also, choosing a box based off its proximity to your house alone can be a mistake, Bergeron says. If you don’t have anyone in the CrossFit community whose opinion you trust, a good rule of thumb is to try at least two boxes—each will likely have its own vibe. "Some are going to be hardcore, and some are going to be young, and some are going to cater more toward newer people,” Bergeron says. Find what works for you, even if it means a longer commute.
Avoid signing up with a drill sergeant
Many people who've been turned off from exercising can identify the person who ruined it for them, whether it was a screaming PE teacher or a spin instructor with a microphone and a vendetta. While some people may respond well to being verbally berated, Bergeron recognizes that most don't.
"Some people want to be whispered to," he says, "and it's not my place to change them." For him, pushing an athlete can be as simple as asking an open-ended question: "What do you want to get out of your experience here?" If the coach you're working with can't adapt her style to each athlete, she probably isn’t experienced enough.
Communicate as much as possible
A good coach should be able to intuit how best to motivate you, but he isn't a mindreader. Be upfront about what your goals and training style are. "I have a few people in my class that I've been working with for ten years," Bergeron says, "and they don't want to be pushed. If I push them the way I push [2015 and 2016 Fittest Woman on Earth] Katrin Davidsdottir, they aren't going to come back tomorrow."
Likewise, you can help out your coach by asking him to adjust your body position instead of showing you the movement himself. A good coach will be able to use verbal, tactile, aural, and visual cues to explain his point, Bergeron says.
Recognize the difference between pain and discomfort
CrossFit prioritizes intensity over volume, meaning it's not supposed to be easy. "I want my athletes to be a little uncomfortable," Bergeron says, "but being uncomfortable is very different from being in pain. Pain is a signal that you're doing something wrong."
It won’t always be easy to distinguish between the two feelings, so Bergeron has this advice for beginners: "If you did so much that you feel like you can't come to the gym the next day, then we did too much."
Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of Tonic delivered to your inbox.