Inside Potomac CrossFit in Arlington, VA, an elite marathoner, a 20-something woman in a Yankees cap, a former Marine, and a 200-plus-pound bald guy are sweating through the same workout in the spartan room equipped with pullup bars, rings, and 45-pound plates. The men and women grunt through eight rounds of barbell front squats, handstand pushups, and "bastards"—an over-the-barbell variation of the squat thrust. They'll do just three exercises, but when they're done, they're all exhausted. (Never heard of these exercises? Get the complete index of every exercise you'll ever need to know here.)
The workout took just 10 minutes. It's the essence of a CrossFit workout: intense, fast-paced, and usually brief.
"Other places and products are selling the idea of fitness," says Brian Wilson, one of the owners of the gym. "We're selling actual fitness."
CrossFit is selling a unique idea of fitness: The company doesn't claim to build athletes with the longest endurance, the biggest bench press, the hugest arms, or the fastest sprint. Instead of specializing, CrossFit is intended to create broad-based fitness across 10 general skills: cardiovascular and respiratory endurance, stamina, strength, flexibility, power, coordination, agility, balance, and accuracy.
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"The essence of this model is the view that ﬁtness is about performing well at any and every task imaginable," says Greg Glassman, the founder of CrossFit, in an article titled "What Is Fitness?" from the company's CrossFit Journal. By this definition, the ultimate CrossFit athlete—the "fittest person," according to the company's definition—would have a high general competency in all of these areas, instead of extraordinary skills in just a few.
The philosophy is put into action with workouts at high intensity that change often, are timed, and are made up of "functional" movements, a buzzword across fitness that simply means an exercise mimics a real-life action—squats are like sitting in a chair, deadlifts akin to picking up a heavy box, and cleans like putting on a backpack. (Search: Find more functional exercises.)
But under load, these movements are complex, and the lack of attention to form—in the pursuit of speed or intensity—is a common critique of CrossFit. But many gyms—including those visited for this story—offer introductory classes that drill and teach these movements without weight before CrossFitters can graduate to the full workouts of the day.
The most ubiquitous introductory program for CrossFit is called “On Ramp,” which is not a standardized training system, but more like a shorthand term for beginner CrossFit. The number of sessions involved and the program curriculum vary at different gyms. For example, at NorCal CrossFit in Chico, CA, On Ramp is a monthlong 12-session program designed to help exercisers master fundamental skills and movements and try modified versions of CrossFit workouts. CrossFit Providence in Rhode Island offers a 2-week, 4-session weekend On Ramp option as well as a condensed series of private lessons as alternatives to the 12-week group program.
Potomac CrossFit’s version of On Ramp is eight required "Foundations" courses in which new members are taught complex exercises without weights in small groups (or you can opt for six sessions of private Foundations courses). "We focus on teaching the movements, and we find mobility issues that people may need to check on," says Brian Wilson, a coach and one of the gym's owners. "Basic, fundamental movements can be an indicator of previous injury—and nobody catches it until you look at this basic stuff." (For tips on choosing a CrossFit gym, see the end of this story.)