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My 10 Top Tips for Beginner CrossFitters!

March 22, 2015

Stepping into a CrossFit gym for the first time can be a bit intimidating and overwhelming. I totally get this. I was a beginner myself and remember feeling extremely overwhelmed too. Since being a trainer I have also taken multiple “fundamental” classes and trained lots of beginners. I have seen the pitfalls, I’ve seen people come and go. I’ve seen some people start out guns-blazing and then die in the ass a few months (or even weeks) down the track. I’ve seen people burn out but I’ve also seen people flourish, grow and do well. Over the past few months I’ve been itching to write this post. Hopefully it will be a help to some of you who are just starting out your CrossFit journey.

 1. “Scaling” is there for a reason

Scaling or starting out lighter with weights is a very important aspect of CrossFit if you are just starting out. When you are a beginner, you need to focus on the technique of the lifts and how to move efficiently under fatigue before worrying about the weight. Apart from the safety aspect of it, one of the other big reasons it's important to scale when needed is because workouts are programmed to target specific energy systems in your body to deliver specific results. If a workout is supposed to be fast moving and you are stuck with a weight you can only lift one at a time, you won’t be getting the effect out of that workout that you should be, and this will hinder your overall results.

As you improve, you will be able to start going heavier/faster and your coaches will initially help you decide what weights and movements to scale. If you’ve been at CrossFit for several months however, you should start to get a feel for what you need to achieve in a particular workout, and hopefully you will know how proficient you are at different movements and when and how much to scale. Most people should be able to pick their own weights after a while. Use the time in the warm-up to think about what weights you will use for the workout.

 2. Chase your own capacity first before worrying about competing with others

The competition aspect is a huge part of CrossFit. It’s one thing that makes it fun and motivating for many people. That said, when you are a beginner, doing everything too fast, and rushing all your movements before developing a proper movement base can hinder your progress or worse yet cause injury. If your only goal is to do everything for time, you are missing out on some key training adaptations as a newbie. You need to build a good base, not only in strength, but also in body awareness, mind/muscle connection, core stability, power development, etc., and these things don’t happen when you rush everything.

It’s important to differentiate between training and competition. There’s definitely a time and place for competition, and it’s very useful, but treating every workout session like a competition is a good way to lead to injuries and poor technique. There are many times when I see people losing form drastically in metcons because they have not developed that well-rounded base yet and are going too fast. Mind you, it’s not only pure raw strength that is needed. There are some very strong people who can deadlift massive amounts, yet they still don’t move well and they have a weak core. This shows when they are under pressure as everything starts to break down when they go too fast.

If this is you, take things down a notch. Don’t put speed before form. And don’t feel like every training session has to be a competition. This is something I learned myself. I use to care so much about the times of the day and the score board, but I felt like I was ruining my training by doing this. It helped me to look at the bigger picture and my greater goals. Is your goal to get the fastest time of the day that day? Or do you have bigger goals in CrossFit? Will it benefit you more if you practice perfect form under pressure or if you go extremely fast and lose form? Everyone has different weaknesses. Of course some people could afford to move a bit faster and this would benefit them more, but I often find some beginners are just going way too fast too soon.

3. This one is mainly for the girls: Don't be afraid to add weight as you get stronger

Ladies, as you get better and stronger, you will want to continually add weight to your lifts. This is going to make you better in every way. Don’t compromise safety, but if you can perform a lift correctly and do it easily, you can make that lift heavier. I find often times females are more timid about lifting heavier. So if this is you, listen to your coaches. We will watch the form on your lifts and make corrections where necessary. I can tell when something is too light for someone. If you are doing a heavy set of 5 it shouldn’t look like a set of 20 would. Stay safe but lift heavier, if you want to continue making improvements--both in strength and body composition as well.

4. Learn how to fail your lifts safely and correctly

This one goes along with the point above. Once you learn how to properly fail a squat, snatch, clean and jerk etc. you will feel more confident about increasing the weight on your bar. During the last fundamentals class I try to include 10-15 minutes of going over this with those just starting up. If you are unsure, ask your coach, and even practice failing a squat or lift with them. This is very important, both for safety reasons, and for developing more confidence with the weights.

5. Learn to take personal responsibility for your own training

Although you have coaches overseeing and helping you during CrossFit, at the same time a big part of succeeding in CrossFit is learning to take personal responsibility for your own training. Everyone should learn how to train for themselves, taking initiative and making decisions set to set, weight to weight, exercise to exercise. Your coaches should not have to babysit you every class. The people who do the best in the CrossFit class environments are the ones who take a bit of initiative and accountability for themselves.

It doesn’t take a really smart person to learn how to keep track of their weights, their food intake, their recovery, their strengths and weaknesses, etc. It just takes someone who is switched on, listening to their body and willing to take a bit of initiative. Those who can do this tend to go further in CrossFit than those who don’t.

CrossFit does not reward mindless training. If you continue getting injured, maybe it’s time to sit down and properly think about where you are going wrong. If you never do mobility work, work at a desk job every day, are really tight everywhere and you come in to “smash yourself” every day without doing any form of recovery work, that could be a reason right there. Sorry to be blunt, but if that is the story of your life, then it is your own fault you keep getting injured. It’s not your coaches fault. It’s not CrossFit’s fault. It’s not the programming fault. It’s your fault.

Runners have a term called “junk miles”. In running “junk miles” refers to wasteful extra running at (generally)too low an intensity that a runner may do in excess of what is needed to develop peak fitness. Pretty much meaning, more is not always better. You can do “junk sessions” in CrossFit too or mindless training, which won’t benefit you in the least and may even hinder your results, or you can be smarter with your training.

Have a think about your long-term goals and base your training around that. If you aren’t able to lift a weight properly, don’t try and lift that weight in a metcon, under fatigue. Go lighter and do it properly. If you want to get stronger, stop doing the excessive cardio and focus on a proper strength training progression. If you keep getting a shoulder injury maybe you should stop kipping, do only strict gymnastic movements for a while and work on building the stabilizer muscles in your shoulders, and activating your lats and back muscles properly. By all means, talk to your coach about these things, but then actually take their advice, or you will just keep spinning your wheels and doing “junk sessions” that won’t benefit you in the least.

6. Show some accountability with your range of motion

This one goes along with the one above. Lack of accountability is the biggest issue I have seen with range of motion problems. Sure some people have genuine mobility problems that affect them from reaching full range of motion, but your coaches know everyone who has these mobility problems and those who don't. Like I always say with a squat, if you don't know whether or not you went low enough, you more than likely didn't go low enough. If you are putting big numbers up but you are not squatting to full depth, or you say you got 10 rounds in an AMRAP but your chin didn’t get over the bar properly on the pull ups, you are not satisfying the requirements of the workout, in which case your score is false. Everyone makes the occasional mistakes here and there, but you happen to keep hearing your coaches tell you to get lower on the wall balls, or get your chin over the bar etc., it might be time to show more personal accountability and working on improving your range of motion. For starters, stop reinforcing the wrong range of motion by skimping on it all the time. Every time you train you are building habits. Make them good habits. And again don’t be a prisoner to the whiteboard. People are always going to be more impressed by a good looking full depth movement than a half-assed super heavy, ugly lift.

7. The first few months of CrossFit will be rough on your hands

I wrote about hand care here so have a read of that if you are a CrossFit beginner. But I’ll just put this out here to prepare you, and say that CrossFit is going to be pretty rough on your hands for the first few months. It was like that for everyone. If you can get through a few months, build up some callouses and keep them under control it will get better. But ditch the gloves. You need to build up grip strength and a bit of callouses and that’s harder to do when wearing gloves. You’ll thank me in the long run.

8. Learn the name of movements

Yes I know there are a lot of names to remember, but after you’ve been doing CrossFit for awhile, you should be able to name the different movements (unless it’s something a bit more random programmed). I’ve had people come to me after months of Crossfitting and ask me what a push press or overhead squat is. If you are paying attention when you train and don’t just mindlessly train you should learn the names and movements within a couple months of CrossFitting. There’s really no excuse not to, and it will make your CrossFit experience so much easier for you.

9. Get stronger first before you add momentum to all your movements

Being strong is AWESOME. Not only are “strong people harder to kill, and more useful in general” but the stronger you are, the easier everything will be. Doing CrossFit will feel better when you are stronger. In saying that CrossFit rewards efficiency, which is why kipping and momentum is used in workouts. But often beginners who don’t yet have the strength to accomplish strict movements will often bypass the process of growing strength in the strict fashion and will learn to kip their movements first, but with that comes a higher potential for injury. Common injuries are injuries to the shoulder joint, like rotator-cuff and labrum tears. It’s a good idea to build up your strict strength on these movements before kipping too much. Learning the proper gymnastic kip as well is an important thing for a beginner.

Butterfly pullups are particularly taxing on the shoulder joints. You don’t need to learn to butterfly kip unless you plan to compete or really want to for some reason. I personally don’t believe everyone should butterfly kip. For example, even though I am quite strong in strict pull ups, I have  long limbs and I feel it puts a lot of pressure on my shoulders when I butterfly kip so I don’t do it all the time. It’s up to you of course, but you are more likely to hurt your shoulders doing the butterfly kip. If you do decide to butterfly kip, make sure you get good at strict pull-ups and perfect the proper gymnastic kip first.

10. Respect your recovery as much as you respect training

Your training is only as good as your recovery. CrossFitters often joke around about training “hardcore”, talking about how much they train, how sore they are, etc. But the truth is, lack of recovery is not really a joking matter. It brings me back to what I said above about “junk sessions”. More is not always better, and too much could be holding you back from getting better results.

Lack of sleep, too many junk (empty) calories, not enough food, no mobility work, not enough water (dehydration), too much stress in your life, all of these things are stressors that can affect your recovery and lower your immune system.. If you add to that, daily full-on training sessions in which you are taxing all the energy systems, you are pretty much a ticking injury/burn out time bomb waiting to blow. I wrote more about recovery here. I learned this myself from trial and error and many others I know learned this the hard way. Here is a portion from Kevin Neeld (hockey coach) on recovery:

“Overtraining can be defined as stress > recovery (regeneration) imbalance, that is too much stress combined with too little time for regeneration.” This concept is fairly intuitive, but it highlights the importance of finding balance between stressors and recovery/regeneration resources. Recovery is often thought of as a passive process, but the reality is that it’s much more complex than just needing “rest”, as its also dependent upon having sufficient available resources to elicit the adaptations to muscles/soft tissue, hormones, enzymes, etc.  In other words, it’s important to think of recovery holistically and within the context of the quality AND quantity of the imposed stress, as the body undergoes both a general and specific stress response depending upon the stressor. For example, the nutrition/supplementation strategies for weight lifting are different than endurance running because of differences in the target energy systems and the required output of the neuromuscular system. Likewise, lifting a heavy weight for a single is much different than lifting it for 20 singles; running one mile is different than running 50. Simply, the nature of the stressor AND the environment that the stressor is placed in will dictate the required recovery strategy."

Poor recovery can be a big reason why you aren’t improving as well as you should be for the amount of training you are doing. Especially once you’ve been CrossFitting for awhile, you might find you need to take a back off week about every fourth week (not because of injury). I often do this. I still come in and workout, but I take more rest days and lower the intensity in my sessions that week. Remember, you are only as good as how well you can recover.

And those are my ten top tips for beginner CrossFitters. Remember that things will get easier. Beginners always ask me when it gets easier. Well Crossfit is always going to be challenging as long as you keep progressing, but it does get better because you get stronger and more confident. You won't always be so sore after every session. You will start to build a greater aerobic capacity, and become mentally tough; this will make the conditioning easier. All of these aspects, combined with experience, will enable you to know how to pace your training better, how to listen to your body, when to push yourself and when to back off, so that you can attack each workout to the best of your ability. You will get better no matter what level you start at! That is the beauty of CrossFit.



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