A Beginner’s Guide to CrossFit: 8 Things to Know Before Your First CrossFit Workout

Today we teach you everything you want to know about CrossFit.

This guide will tell you everything you’ve ever wanted to know about CrossFit but were too afraid to ask (Including Is CrossFit good for losing weight?).

If you’ve ever questioned why people run around parking lots with sandbags, you’re in the right place.

Many of the coaches in our Online Coaching Program have been CrossFit instructors or gym owners, so this is what we do best: help people start strength training confidently and without injury.

CrossFit can be AMAZING…for the right person, with the right CF coach.

Luckily, this guide is going to help you figure out both of those things!

In this Beginner’s Guide to CrossFit, we’ll cover:

Let’s jump right in!

What is CrossFit?

These people are doing box jumps as part of CrossFit.

CrossFit is advertised as “the sport of fitness.” 

With constantly varied, high-intensity functional movements, CrossFit is a training philosophy that coaches people of all shapes and sizes to improve their physical well-being and cardiovascular fitness in a hardcore yet accepting and encouraging environment.

Here’s the definition of CrossFit from the official site:

CrossFit is the principal strength and conditioning program for many police academies and tactical operations teams, military special operations units, champion martial artists, and hundreds of other elite and professional athletes worldwide.

Our program delivers a fitness that is, by design, broad, general, and inclusive. Our specialty is not specializing.

Combat, survival, many sports, and life reward this kind of fitness and, on average, punish the specialist.

CrossFit contends that a person is as fit as they are proficient in each of ten general physical skills: cardiovascular/respiratory endurance, stamina, strength, flexibility, power, speed, agility, balance, coordination, and accuracy.

Or, in nerd speak – CrossFit is a training program that builds strength and conditioning through extremely varied and challenging workouts.

Each day the workout will test a different part of your functional strength or conditioning, not specializing in one particular thing, but rather with the goal of building a body that’s capable of practically anything and everything.

I guess this would fall into a CrossFit like workout.

CrossFit is extremely different from a commercial gym…and not just because you won’t find any ellipticals, weight machines, or Zumba.

Not that there’s anything wrong with some of those things. We work with our coaching clients to find the style of exercise that works best for them.

If you want to mix up strength training with other fun exercises…

Can Beginners Do Crossfit? (8 Things to Consider)

Running around the gym with sandbags is common at CrossFit gyms.

According to the CrossFit site:

This program “is designed for universal scalability, making it the perfect application for any committed individual regardless of experience.

We’ve used our same routines for elderly individuals with heart disease and cage fighters one month out from televised bouts. We scale load and intensity; we don’t change programs.”

What that means is that every day there is a particular workout prescribed (you’ll often see this written as “Rx’d”) for everybody that comes to CrossFit. 

Rather than having one workout for older women and another for hardcore athletes – there’s ONE workout each day that is completely scalable based on your skill.

A box jump at CrossFit

For example, if the workout calls for barbell squats with 135 pounds but you can only do squats with the bar (45 pounds), then that’s where you’ll start.

If you’re injured and can’t do squats at all, a similar movement will be substituted, and if the number of reps is too many for your current ability, that will be reduced.

As you get stronger and more experienced you’ll work your way towards eventually doing the workouts as prescribed.

Now, although CrossFit can be for everybody, it certainly ISN’T for everybody. In this blogger’s humble opinion, CrossFit is perfect for a few types of people:

#1) Beginners to weight training  If you have NEVER weight trained before (or trained only on machines), CrossFit is a great place for you to start (provided you have a great coach, which I’ll cover shortly).

You’ll learn how to do all of the important lifts in a super supportive and nonjudgmental environment. You might even find that…GASP…you love strength training!

#2) People looking for support and community – This is the appeal to CrossFit for me: every CrossFit gym has a really tight-knit community feel to it.

Two women high fiving at crossfit

You’re not just a membership payment to them; you’re a person that needs support.

When Nerd Fitness gyms start popping up (don’t think it won’t happen!), I’ll be drawing a lot of inspiration from CF as to how members are so supportive and inclusive of each other.

#3) Fitness fanatics – You know those people that love to work out every day and feel like something is missing if they don’t?

The way CrossFit is structured, you are working out with regular consistency.

The general protocol is 3 days on, 1 day off, but many CrossFitters end up at the gym more frequently. It’s addicting.

#4) Masochists – I mean that in the nicest way possible. CrossFit often rewards people for finishing workouts in the least amount of time possible.

This means that you’ll often be in situations where you are using 100% of your effort to finish a workout, exhausting yourself, and forcing yourself to push through the struggle.

#5) Former athletes – CrossFit has built-in teamwork, camaraderie, and competition.

Almost all workouts have a time component to them, where you either have to finish a certain number of repetitions of exercises in a certain amount of time, or the time is fixed and you need to see how many repetitions you can do of an exercise.

You get to compete with people in your class, and go online to see how you did against the world’s elite CrossFit athletes. There is even an international competition for those that become truly dedicated.

There are a few people for whom I don’t think CrossFit would be as beneficial, but this doesn’t mean they won’t enjoy it:

#1) Specialists – CrossFit prides itself on not specializing, which means that anybody who is looking to specialize (like a powerlifter) will not get the best results following the standard CrossFit workout schedule.

If you want to be good at a specific activity, that’s where your focus should be.

#2) Sport-specific athletes – Like the specialists, if you are an athlete training for a sport, you’d be better off finding a coach that is trained in getting great performances out of athletes in your specific sport.

Every sport has special movements that require certain types of power in specific muscles.

CrossFit prepares you for everything, but won’t improve your specific sport skills unless you are training for those specific sport skills! Many athletes choose to combine CrossFit with sport-specific workouts (see things like CrossFit Football) in their off-season for conditioning, but that’s up to each sport’s coach.

#3) Solo trainers – Some people, myself included, love to work out alone: my training is my meditative time each day. CrossFit is group training, which means you won’t have that opportunity to get your stuff done on your own.

If you are somebody that likes the IDEA of CrossFit, but you like to train on your own and you still want expert guidance and accountability…

I have a great solution for you!

Our 1-on-1 Coaching Program helps people EXACTLY like you! We create custom workouts and nutritional guidance based on your personality, the equipment you have access to, and your busy life. Let us help you get strong.

How Dangerous is CrossFit?

Is CrossFit safe?

In short, yes, CrossFit can be dangerous. 

But that could be said of literally any sport or exercise.

Or driving a car.

Or using a Q-tip.

Yeah, don't just stab your ear with a Q-Tip.

In the wrong situations, with the wrong coaches, and for a person with the wrong attitude, CrossFit can be dangerous:

1) During a CrossFit workout, you’re often told to complete a number of strength training or endurance exercises as fast as possible, or complete as many repetitions as possible in a certain amount of time. 

For that reason, it’s REALLY easy to sacrifice form in exchange for finishing the workout quicker. If you don’t have somebody spotting you or telling you to keep your form correct, then you’re in trouble.

When it comes to strength training, improper form (especially at high speeds with heavy weights) is the FASTEST way to get seriously injured.

If a CrossFit gym is run by inexperienced and unproven coaches – which definitely happens – then things like this happen and they happen frequently.

2) CrossFit attracts a certain type of person – namely folks who push themselves so hard they actually do bodily harmAsk any CrossFitter if they’ve met “Pukey the Clown” and they’ll probably tell you yes.

Due to the nature of competition, the motivating atmosphere, and people’s desire to do well, many people in CrossFit often push themselves beyond their personal limitations (which can be a good thing)…but oftentimes they push themselves too far.

I totally get it.

In my first CrossFit experience three years ago, I almost made myself puke because I wanted so badly to finish with a good time.

Last year, I did another CrossFit workout that I hadn’t properly prepared for and cranked out 100 pull-ups quickly…and I ended up walking around with T-rex arms for a WEEK because I physically could not straighten them.

A T-rex with short arms

Not kidding.

3) In some extreme cases with a VERY small portion of CrossFitters (or similar types of workout programs), an incredibly serious medical condition called rhabdomyolysis can take place.

When people push themselves too hard, too much, too fast, their muscle fibers break down and are released into the bloodstream, poisoning the kidneys.

At CrossFit, some coaches refer to this as “Uncle Rahbdo,” though it’s not something funny or enjoyable.

You can read all about the condition and issues it can cause here. This typically occurs with ex-athletes who have not exercised for a while and come back trying to prove something, and end up working at a higher intensity than their body can handle.

So, like with any activity, you can have people that like to push themselves too far, too hard, too fast, and too often.

Unfortunately, due to the nature of CrossFit (where this behavior can be encouraged and endorsed by the wrong coach), you can end up in some serious danger if you don’t know when to stop or have a coach that will tell you when to stop.

Personally, I find these issues to be more with individual people than with the CrossFit system as a whole, but it is the nature of CrossFit that attracts these people and encourages them to behave dangerously.

If you like the idea of strength training, but are a bit worried about starting with CrossFit, I hear ya.

We help people like you with our 1-on-1 Online Coaching Program. We create workout programs that are tailored to your experience, and adjust them based on your progress.

We do video form checks, you can text back and forth any questions with your coach, and more.

We also have our massive Strength Training 101 guide so you know exactly how to get started and even provide you with specific workouts to follow! Get it free when you sign up in the box below and Join the Rebellion!

What’s a CrossFit Class Like?

These people are in the middle of their workout for CrossFit.

Let’s say you’re interested in joining a CrossFit class, but you don’t know what you’re getting into!

Practically every CrossFit gym around the world will let you come in and try out a class for free, so contact your local gyms and find out what dates and time they’re having newbie sessions.

This is how CrossFit classes are usually structured:

  1. Introduction class – For people who have never tried CrossFit before. Usually, there’s a quick overview, and then a basic bodyweight movement workout, and then they talk to you about joining. These are usually free.

  2. On Ramp/Elements – If you’re interested in joining the regular CrossFit workout, you’ll most likely be required to go through the On Ramp/Elements course. The purpose of these is to teach you the nine foundational movements of CrossFit and all about proper form. No matter how experienced you are, these are valuable and worth the time and money. Even if you think you have perfect form on your squats, deadlifts and/or overhead presses:

    Here Staci is pressing just the bar, a could practice for warming up.

    It’s amazing what can be fixed when you have a trained set of eyes watching you do them.

  3. Regular classes: This is what you’re probably used to seeing or hearing about. A regular CrossFit class takes anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour. Everybody starts at the same time, there are instructors walking around helping out and keeping track, and everybody is supporting each other and probably swearing a lot.

Most CrossFit gyms will split their classes into three or four sections:

  1. Dynamic warm-up – Not jogging on a treadmill for 5 minutes, but jumps, jumping jacks, jump rope, squats, push-ups, lunges, pull-ups. Functional movements, stretches, and mobility work that compliment the movements you’ll be doing in the workout that day.

  2. Skill/Strength work – If it’s a strength day, then you’ll work on a pure strength movement (like squats or deadlifts). If it’s not a strength day, then you’ll work on a skill and try to improve, like one-legged squats or muscle-ups:

    The muscle-up is one of the most badass exercises you can do!

  3. WOD – the workout of the day. This is where you’ll be told to do a certain number of reps of particular exercises as quickly as possible, or you’ll have a set time limit to do as many of a certain exercise as possible.

  4. Cooldown and stretching – Either as a group, or you’re allowed to stretch out on your own. This would also be the time for people who pushed too hard to go puke in a trash can and stretch their stomach muscles.

How to Find a CrossFit Gym

A common scene of a CrossFit gym.

So, let’s say you’re interested in trying out a CrossFit class or maybe joining a CrossFit gym.

If you happen to live in a city, there are probably more than a dozen CrossFit “boxes” in your area.

Other than picking the one that’s closest to you, why not put a bit more thought into it? This isn’t like picking a commercial gym – the community and coach are so freaking important.

First and foremost, you need a gym with competent, experienced coaches.

You should be able to see through that particular CrossFit gym’s website – not the main CF site – who the coaches are and how long they have been teaching, including their certifications.

Here’s a quick breakdown of what you might see from coaches:

  1. CrossFit Level 1 – an ANSI-accredited certification. This means the person went to a weekend-long course and passed the exam.
 You’re taught the basic movements, how to scale each movement, but not really much more. There are no specifics on how to deal with injuries, anatomy, etc.

  2. CrossFit Level 2 This is the next level up from Level 1, and involves far more in-depth training in coaching.

  3. Certified CrossFit Level 3 Trainer – This is for coaches who have passed both the Level 1 & Level 2 certification courses as well as a CrossFit-specific exam.

  4. Certified CrossFit Level 4 Coach – Given after an assessment/evaluation of a coach’s abilities, and the highest certification level available.

  5. Specialty Seminars – These are one- to two-day courses on specific topics like gymnastics, Olympic lifting, and running.

  6. Other non-CrossFit certifications from personal training organizations, powerlifting programs, kettlebell programs, etc.

There’s big money in CrossFit these days, which is why so many gyms are opening up all over the country. Make sure to do the research on who your coaches are, and if they have actual coaching experience.

The other important thing to check out is PROGRAMMING

CrossFit programs can be truly random, and an inexperienced coach can accidentally program back-to-back workouts that use the same muscle groups in the same way, not giving you enough time to recover.

On every CrossFit gym’s website, there’s usually a blog where they post the workout of the day.

Look over this for the gym you want to check out and see what they typically do. If they do high-rep cleans three days in a row, they obviously don’t program well.

Or if you see every day for a week with heavy shoulder movements, be wary!

Remember, most CrossFit gyms will let you attend one class for free. If you have a few in your area, try out each of them once before making your decision.

Go to each one and make note of the other members:

  • Are they supportive of each other?

  • Did they introduce themselves and welcome you?

  • Were the coaches nice and hands-on with their advice during the workout?

A good community can be absolutely critical for success, so picking the right gym that fits your personality and situation is super important.

If you’re not sure how to find the right gym, or you want nutritional help and form checks as you’re trying to figure this stuff out…

Can I Do CrossFit at Home?

Common equipment at a CrossFit gym.

Every day, CrossFit.com puts out the workout of the day (or WOD), which can be done at home, in a commercial gym, or in a CrossFit gym. 

Every CrossFit gym will put out their own WOD as well, which can be different from the CrossFit.com site – if you happen to find a local CrossFit site that you enjoy but don’t attend full-time, it’s more than okay to follow their workouts.

The best news about this is the workouts are posted free of charge to anybody that is interested in doing them.

Fighting crime is sort of like CrossFit.

CrossFit gyms can be prohibitively expensive, so if you love CrossFit but are looking to save money, you can follow along at home or in your office gym provided you have the right equipment.

Many times, you’ll run into situations where you can’t complete a particular workout because you don’t have the right equipment. Do the best you can with what’s available to you, and keep track of how you made your modification for tracking purposes.

Now, there are a few challenges with following CrossFit at home or by yourself in a gym:

  1. Nobody is checking your form – CrossFit requires many incredibly specific movements; if you start by yourself at home, you’ll never know if you’re doing them incorrectly and could severely hurt yourself as you increase the amount of weight with which you work.

  2. Lack of communal camaraderie A HUGE part of CrossFit is the supportive community aspect that comes with each gym. I guarantee you’d finish a workout a few seconds (or minutes) faster if you had 50 people screaming your name and cheering you toward the finish line.

  3. You probably don’t have all of the equipment – If you’re working out at home, you probably don’t have a full squat rack, bumper plates, kettlebells, medicine balls, and so on….so you’ll often be creating your own workouts that are modified versions of the online versions. You might also not be able to bounce and throw your weights around like CrossFitters tend to do