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Explained: What on Earth Is CrossFit?

Part sport, part competition, part steely athletic challenge, CrossFit does it all. It’s the workout regime followed by the immense sporting talent Annie Thorisdottir, two-time fittest woman of the year and owner of Reykjavik's CrossFit gym, and has found thousands of fans the world over, US Navy Seals included. What makes it so popular?

Who, what or where is CrossFit?

CrossFit is a global workout phenomenon; its website claims to have affiliate gyms in places as far-flung as Argentina to Azerbaijan. The fame and growth of CrossFit’s intense workouts in the 2000s and 2010s was exponential, attracting thousands of devotees and even its own international fitness competition, the CrossFit Games.

Developed in the 1990s and early 2000s by a former gymnast from California, Greg Glassman, CrossFit is a combination of strength and weight training, gymnastics and aerobics. Each day, posts a new Workout of the Day (WOD) – a short but incredibly tough routine involving different combinations of reps and exercises, and CrossFitters can comment below each WOD with their times and results.

For example, one recent WOD featured three rounds of push presses, sumo deadlifts and rowing with a machine for one minute each, with a minute’s rest between each cycle. CrossFitters typically work out for three days in a row followed by a rest day, and repeat the cycle again.

What makes it different?

CrossFit differs from, say, a regular weightlifting workout because the reps in a CrossFit WOD don’t focus solely on developing specific muscle groups. Nor is it akin to a cardio workout, because the sprints and reps don’t push your heart rate in the same way a run or cycle traditionally would. However, the short timeframe of each workout, and the fact that these are formed from a mixture of alternating interval and weight training exercises makes them much tougher than their brevity would suggest, and YouTube is awash with videos of people’s struggles and triumphs as they take on each daily challenge.

CrossFit’s workouts are intended to make you push yourself to and beyond your absolute limits, which is why its elites develop a rippling physique that’s both bulky with muscle and incredibly lean, but never hulking like a bodybuilder. There's a distinctive community element to CrossFit, and a competitiveness fueled by people posting their WOD results online.

Alongside CrossFit’s WOD, followers adhere to a high-protein, no-sugar, minimal carb keto-style diet which aims to include all the vital nutrients you need to build muscle, but no fat. Added to a day-to-day intense workout schedule, this makes CrossFit more of an all-round lifestyle choice than it does a regular trip to the gym.

Is it for me?

CrossFit is not for the faint-hearted, but the fundamentals of its routines and workouts form a well-rounded fitness experience, constructed to improve your strength, flexibility, speed, coordination and balance. This means that Crossfit isn't just the preserve of muscle-bound beefcakes; anyone can dip their toe into its training regimes and and try it out.

With some perseverance, and by keeping an open mind to its overarching philosophy, even a couch potato could go from zero to swinging kettlebells.

Can I do CrossFit at home?

It’s possible to buy the equipment you need for your own home gym to do the reps and exercises from each Workout of the Day, such as kettlebells, dumbbells and weighted medicine balls, but for those beginning their fitness journey, it’s better to seek professional guidance, support and coaching from a certified gym.

Is there anything I should take into account?

As CrossFit grew in popularity, it attracted criticism for some of its followers pushing themselves too hard when their bodies weren’t ready, or for performing reps or lifts without using the correct technique, something which could lead to serious injury. In the press, there were stories of overworked CrossFit devotees developing a condition called rhabdomyolysis, or rhabdo for short, whereby muscle cells start to leak their contents into the bloodstream.

However, features comprehensive advice about its programs and different elements for anybody who’s interested, so you can be informed before you get started.

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