How CrossFit gets beginners in the best shape of their lives
CrossFit is tough.
There's no two ways about it - the training is physically and mentally challenging in the extreme.
It's no wonder the CrossFit Games can lay claim to producing the 'Fittest Man on the Planet' out of hundreds of thousands of competitors.
But one thing about CrossFit is it gets incredible results. Fast.
You only have to look at the mind-blowing transformation of these recovering drug addicts and alcoholics after six weeks of CrossFit training to see how powerful it can be.
But we wanted to find out what makes this type of training such a potent tool to get fitter, faster and stronger - particularly for beginners or people who have never trained before.
We chatted to Lee Steggles, who is head coach and owner of CrossFit Shapesmiths at Clapham Junction Station, London, about why training CrossFit brings such impressive 'beginners' gains'.
Lee has been training up new members on everything from running, rowing, callisthenics and kettlebells to powerlifting, gymnastics, strongman and Olympic weightlifting.
He explains how CrossFit's constantly varied, high-intensity workouts build strength, muscle and burn fat - as well as get people fitter than they've ever been.
This is how it works so effectively...
Why is CrossFit so different to other fitness protocols?
When you go to other gyms you’re mostly left to your own devices. The beauty of CrossFit is every session is led by a qualified coach.
So for someone new to CrossFit, they should just try it – because just trying to explain it is so hard.
The USP of CrossFit is its group training format that develops you athletically to become better at everything, with a coach’s eye on your as you train.
Your average JOE would do well to come in and just focus on getting into a good attendance routine.
What’s the real formula behind CrossFit that keeps getting people stronger, fitter and faster?
As a coach, when you do your level one course the mantra is – mechanics, consistency and then the magic ingredient which is intensity.
So mechanics is moving really well in the correct sequence. So when you’re squatting, making sure the hips go back a bit first before you sink into the squat.
If you’ve got the movement right and the mechanics are good – you’re maintaining lumbar curve, you’ve got a lovely back angle and you’re upright, then we move on.
If you can do that consistently – getting it looking the same every time – then you can add the special ingredient which is intensity, which is what actually gets a lot of the results CrossFit is famous for.
We scale things. There is a really good quote from the CrossFit Journal about scaling. It talks about preserving the stimulus – whether that’s the time frame or the actual movement that you’re doing.
It says: ‘The long term goal of scaling is creating the ability to perform workouts as prescribed – or as the top athletes in the world would do.
‘A properly scaled workout safely maximises relative intensity – so that’s load, speed and the range of motion – to continue to develop increased work capacity despite limitations.’
So it’s continuing to increase work capacity despite someone’s limitations.
Why does it make you stronger?
Complete beginners coming into CrossFit are going to get stronger – it’s something that some people call ‘beginners’ gains’. So the process is that people don’t have the correct movement patterns to do a strict press or a squat.
We teach them that and they will get stronger because they’ve got good technique.
The next reason is because their neural pathways have been improved so that their nerves are innovating their muscles and telling them to help lift a heavy object correctly.
Then you go onto building more muscle, as long as your diet is in check. Once you put those together you start to ‘lean out’. You start to lose body fat, you get some hypertrophy too in line with the demands places on your musculoskeletal system.
On the other side if you’re bodybuilding you’re going to have a very base level of endurance because you have to do lots of sets and reps.
Bodybuilding is not a bad thing when it comes to CrossFit. In the off season a lot of competitors will do the unilateral stuff. It does give them quite a good base.
For those guys they get the neural benefits of moving well, of challenging their body to coordinate. We talk about kinesthetic awareness or proprioception – what it basically means is that can you understand where your body is in space.
An example is if you show a video of someone snatching, then ask them to try it, they will be all over the place.
But if you break it down and you scale the movement down and break it down into positions, over time they just get it.
That’s what develops that neural awareness and kinesthetic awareness that means that people get stronger a lot quicker because they’ve got the right technique.
Then they continue to get stronger because they’re adding some more useful muscle mass.
It is true to some degree that the more muscle mass you have the more potential you have for shifting weight. However, the focus on creating new neural pathways and improving technique should be the focus.
Learning new techniques is fun and it’s mentally stimulating.
It doesn’t matter how advanced you get, you can always keep learning.
There are over 60 or 70 or even more variations to learn. We’re asking people to master the basics and once you’ve nailed them down then it opens up that whole world to the myriad of exercises that you can do. Then that opens up the variation in CrossFit.
CrossFit is constantly varied exercise – not random. That constant variation challenges you mentally and physically and to overcome it and get new skills.
That’s the beauty of it.
What’s the science behind constant variation?
We’re trying to develop a general physical preparedness (GPP) in people. We want people to be good at lifting, we want them to be good at powerlifting, good at monostructural stuff (rower, assault bike) we want people to be able to do gymnastics – we want a broad skill set.
Our workouts are all geared up to work toward our gym taking part in the CrossFit Open, a worldwide, online competition which brings together over 300, 000 CrossFitters worldwide.
Our workouts typically vary from 3-10 seconds when it comes to lifting, from 7-20 minute mark for our metabolic conditioning and sometimes have rest intervals built in to preserve quality of movement and power output of an individual.
This helps us practice skills, get a lot fitter to take on the challenge of the CrossFit Open. That’s what we’re trying to prepare for.
Then we can do micro-cycles off the back of that to peak them for slightly different competitions that people want to do like Tribal Clash in Devon or Strength in Depth in Bath.
Tribal Clash is actually quite unique. It’s not a classic CrossFit compeition - it will test your all round fitness – you’ve got to swim, you’ve got to climb, pick up stones, crawl, run. So a good test of our GPP program is how well people can cope with a test like this.
How does it get you fitter then?
Put simply, CrossFit increases your ability to do work. This is how we define (roughly) 'fitness'. Your force production improves, your endurance improves, your strength improves because you’re being forced to move in a variety of different ways and get better and more skilful at each. moderately heavy weights under cardiovascular duress. You’re breathing and breathing but you can still work.
That’s where the mental toughness side of things comes through for us at Shapesmiths.
We have a cyclist here and within six week his average speed as improved by 1.5km per hour. Over an hour he can now cycle an extra 1,500m. When you have been cycling seriously for 10-plus years this type of improvement relative to the time frame is pretty darn good.
He is more coordinated, but the big thing is also the mental toughness side of it.
One thing we like to do is add context to people’s workout sessions – so why are we doing it? What’s the purpose of the session? What energy system are we trying to hit? What’s our focus?
So it’s all about what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. So all of a sudden they’re understanding that they’re developing explosive power, or they’re going long on a workout, that it matters they’re focusing on setting a new record or that they don’t have to complete the workout but that they just don’t stop.
When you do that you build fitness that lasts a lifetime. Whenever you move house, move gyms or move to a different country it doesn’t matter because you’ve got this philosophy in the back of your head which says no matter where I am all that matters is focusing on the purpose of the workout and doing the basics really well.
I understand why I’m doing the workout and then I do the workout. Gone are the days when you just go and pick a workout off the internet and just do it.
Now, thankfully, it’s popular to talk about energy systems.
How does CrossFit give you aesthetic benefits?
Like I said beginners’ gains – it doesn’t really matter. If you go from doing nothing and eating the same sh*t but going on to train four or five times a week, you’re going to lose some weight.
But then you can start looking at how you can fuel your training. And if you’re looking at body composition, it’s even more important to fuel your body so you don’t become catabolic and start breaking down muscle. Once you start to fuel your body you actually build muscle and lean out.
The hard work is in the kitchen. It’s easy to turn up to the gym, have a swell time and do the workouts – the hard bit is meal prep and cooking your food and doing the right things. This is where some people in busy lifestyles may need help from a meal prep company.
Shapesmiths training gets you in such good shape because when you’re ready the coach can add the magic ingredient which is intensity. That’s what gets you in such good shape.
That means you will push and get to the places you need to where you can get the results. It’s just flat out determination.
What is it about CrossFit that helps people lose so much body fat?
I think that it centres around the focus on nutrition from the word go in conjunction with everything else we have talked about.
The constantly varied exercises, structured in a way to help you become very good at everything. The community of like-minded individuals which keep people coming back, which houses people going through similar struggles.
The positive environment essentially forges new mind-sets and bodies.
More and more training protocols are including CrossFit type workouts in there. Why do you think that is?
Yes. But even CrossFit isn’t reinventing the fitness wheel. It’s just doing the basics really well. It’s putting together exercises that might complement each other. Or alternatively putting together a series of exercises designed to fatigue the legs like deadlifts followed by a 400m run.
One of the reasons it was taken up by the military is because those are some of the demands in the arena. You have to carry your buddy after running up a hill and lift a consignment and carry it so far and back again.
It gets you really robust and fit.
For beginners CrossFit is like nothing they’ve ever done before. Why is this such a powerful thing for getting in shape?
The biggest thing in CrossFit is community. Building the community is so important within the CrossFit world. For a newbie to come in and to think ‘wow I know people’s names in the gym’.
It’s can be a little cliché and it’s an overused word sometimes, but in this instance it’s so true. It’s what keeps people training hard and coming back.
CrossFit is a tough thing to do. There’s a lot to learn and a lot to remember – it can be overwhelming, and it hurts. To get results, it hurts – there’s no magic pill to swallow.
Despite the muscle soreness, the community means people want to come back. They want to see their new friends, they want to train more, they know who is going on a certain day, they push each other, they egg each other on to an extra kilo here or any extra rep there.
They’ve also got role models in the gym because everyone training together.
We have had an athlete train with us who competes at the Invictus Games– people were doing their last interval and Ibi was still going strong – and you could see people looking and thinking he’s an amputee, he’s still going, he’s not making any excuses so I shouldn’t make any excuses.
It keeps people into the groove of turning up regularly which is really important.