In this series, fitness pros investigate how exercise trends measure up to the hype.
If you enjoy weight training in an intense and competitive – yet friendly – atmosphere, then CrossFit could be for you. There are gyms across the country, and I tried two classes: One with my up-for-anything dad (age 70), at CrossFit Plateau in Montreal, and another with my friend and fellow trainer, Tara, at the new boutique-style CrossFit YKV gym in Toronto's Yorkville neighbourhood.
According to CrossFit Montreal's website, CrossFit "combines a variety of functional movements inspired by sports like Olympic lifting, gymnastics, track and field, strong-man contests and more."
What to expect
Drop-in classes average between $20 and $30 a class and memberships range in price. The facilities are usually not fancy (I have been to many that don't have showers); typically, you pay for the intensity of the workouts and the non-traditional aspect of the gym.
CrossFit gyms ("boxes") are typically located in warehouse-like facilities that contain virtually no traditional weight machines.
The workout prioritizes multijoint exercises such as squats, deadlifts, bench presses and pull-ups, and uses equipment including barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells and medicine balls. My dad described CrossFit Plateau as having an "old-school, boxing club, no-nonsense vibe permeated by the smell of chalk, rubber and sweat." Over the years, I have done CrossFit workouts in varying locations – including Las Vegas, New York, Toronto and Montreal – and this hard-core vibe is fairly typical.
This vibe tends to attracts a certain type of person – competitive and athletic. My dad noted a number of times how fit everyone in the class looked, and how many of the participants had tattoos. CrossFit is not just a workout, but a unique and intense fitness culture.
CrossFit YKV in Yorkville is an exception; it markets itself as an "all-new boutique-style facility … with natural light, luxurious amenities and the highest quality equipment."
Regardless of how gentrified the space is, the format is fairly standard. The class starts with a warm-up; participants do cardio and whatever movement pattern is required for the strength set, which follows. It entails one or two key moves done with relatively heavy weights for minimal repetitions. To finish, participants power through higher repetitions of multiple exercises with minimal rest.
Tara and I suffered through a 20-minute AMRAP (as many reps as possible) of wall balls, rowing, box jumps, push-press and deadlifts, during which Tara said only half-jokingly, "I am not going to be able to walk tomorrow."
Tara and my dad both enjoyed the experience more than they expected. This is possibly because they are athletes; both felt doing CrossFit during their off-season would improve their performance. CrossFit prioritizes multijoint functional movements; these full-body moves – in some iteration – are beneficial for everyone, but particularly for athletes.
Another positive is that since CrossFit workouts are fairly uniform, you always know roughly what to expect; I often do CrossFit when travelling because I am basically guaranteed a predictable calibre of workout.
That said, CrossFit is absolutely not for every "body" – or all personalities. CrossFit Montreal's website states that the workout "is accessible to everyone regardless of age, gender or fitness level," but not everyone will embrace the CrossFit vibe or be able to do the exercises. Sure, my dad did enjoy himself, but that is in large part because of his decision to "lean in to" an experience with his daughter; he said the space was intimidatingly hard-core.
Not only is the vibe not for everyone, the exercises themselves are not uniformly suitable. The exercises are intense and neurologically demanding, and since the workouts start at an advanced level, even the scaled-back version is not appropriate for many. This – compounded by the fact that many new lifters don't know what weight is an appropriate challenge – often leads to injury.
My advice is that if you decide to try CrossFit, take the introductory class. All boxes offer one but not all make it mandatory. Also, leave your ego at the door. My dad didn't feel negative peer pressure, but since the other participants seemed athletic and strong, he had to "check himself" to take it easy.
Tara agreed; as a triathlete, she didn't want to injure herself and not be able to compete, but said it was hard to watch others lifting and not be able to match their weights. The competitive atmosphere that CrossFit fosters – although motivating – doesn't make it easy to scale back a workout.
CrossFit is absolutely not for everyone – and that is okay. All that matters is if it is right for you. If you are an athlete, ex-athlete or generally enjoy a competitive yet friendly workout – and you can keep your ego in check – you can probably experience the benefits of CrossFit without injury. Try a class, but be careful. Don't take the instructor's word that an exercise or weight is appropriate. Listen to your body. Stop if something feels wrong.
Kathleen Trotter is a personal trainer, Pilates equipment specialist and author of Finding Your Fit. Follow her on Facebook or Twitter @KTrotterFitness