CrossFit: Fit for Beginners?

Featured Article, Fitness
on July 18, 2012

DEAR FORMER FAT GIRL: I just spent the weekend watching the CrossFit Games, and I’m so inspired! I want to start doing the workouts NOW. I’m about 50 pounds overweight and have been walking 3 miles about 4 times a week for the last month and a half. I’ve never done anything like CrossFit, but I feel like I need a challenge. What do you think?–Lynne

DEAR LYNNE: I admit—I spent a bit of couch time tuned into the CrossFit Games too. It’s amazing how fascinating it is to see women and men pushing sleds stacked with weights, doing a million pullups and practically throwing huge barbells over their heads. I think I have delayed onset muscle soreness just from watching.

I have friends who are great fans of CrossFit, and I like it too for a number of reasons. For one thing, it’s hard to get bored with the built-in variety and challenge of CrossFit. For the uninitiated, CrossFit combines strength training, explosive jumping exercises called plyometrics, speed training, Olympic- and power-style weight lifting, kettle bells, body weight exercises, gymnastics, and endurance exercise. The workouts are supershort—5 to 15 minutes—but super-intense. For instance, in one CrossFit WOD (Workout of the Day) known as The Barbara, you are asked to do five circuits of 20 pull-ups, 30 push-ups, 40 sit-ups and 50 body weight-only squats, resting at the end of each circuit for a 3-minute period. Others require using a rowing machine and doing a timed 1-mile run.

That kind of variety is a big plus. A major flaw in DIY workouts, like walking, running, cycling, even weight lifting—anything you do on your own, without coaching or an instructor to help you—is that you tend to do the same thing, at the same pace, over and over and over. While your muscles and cardiovascular system will be challenged at first, after just six to eight weeks, your body will adapt and the health and fitness benefits will plateau. The best way to stay fit and healthy—and get to your fighting weight—is to continually change things up, and CrossFit is great for that. It’s also pretty time-efficient, in that you get both a cardio and strength workout in one session. And—another plus—many of the exercises require you to work your muscles in much the same way you would in real life. Indeed, CrossFit claims to be the principal strength and conditioning program for many police academies and military special operations units—places that train people who need to be prepared for anything. One of the major limitations of using weight machines in the gym and even basic free weight exercises like biceps curls is that we don’t tend to move in those ways very often. CrossFit requires you to use more than one muscle group at a time, often involving your core (your ab and back muscles), as you do when you’re mowing the lawn, say, or picking up and carrying bags of groceries, or even weeding in the garden or grabbing something off a high shelf.

The folks at CrossFit claim that the program is what they call scalable—meaning that it can be adapted to be used by people at any level. But I wouldn’t just jump into the program without some major conditioning. One of the things the CrossFit folks suggest is to literally go through the motions—“practice” doing the exercises in the WOD (found on until you get the form, and find substitutes for moves you simply can’t do (yet, anyway). For instance, I can’t for the life of me do pullups, which are one of the basic CrossFit moves. But in the website’s FAQ, there’s a whole section on pullup substitutions…so I guess there’s no excuse for skipping them!

At your fitness level and experience, I would consider finding a CrossFit affiliate, a gym where you can work out with CrossFit-affiliated coaches, who can adapt the workouts to your skill level and make sure you do them safely and effectively. If you don’t have an affiliate near you or want to try CrossFit on your own, focus on learning the moves yourself, taking it slow, AND step up your walking workout with interval training. That way, you’ll be preparing to take on CrossFit in a big way, while getting some of the challenge you’re craving, and that your body needs.

Lisa Delaney is editor of Spry magazine and author of Secrets of a Former Fat Girl. To submit a question, visit