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Not ALL CrossFit Gyms! (How to find a good one!)

May 30, 2014
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Photo by Tim Aguero: http://www.aguerophoto.com

UGH. I really tried to ignore this current round of “Bash CrossFit For Sport.” But EVERYONE tagged me in that inane article written by “she who won’t be named” about the evils of CrossFit, complete with declarative statements that her opinion, supposedly formed after two visits to a clearly awful gym, was true of the whole sport. All of it. All gyms. All coaches. And that as a professional power-lifter, she had never deadlifted in her life. (Cue, of course, the video that circulated shortly after of her, yes, deadlifting as part of a WOD, in a CrossFit gym. Whatevs.)

When I finally lashed out, it was with a very predictable, “we’re not ALL like that.” Which was met, just as predictably, with “why are you so defensive?” Here’s why, WE ARE NOT ALL LIKE THAT.

And I am not defensive about criticizing CrossFit. I’m not even restrained in criticizing CrossFit. I do it ALL THE TIME, loudly. I would not be at all surprised if an unannounced visit to HQ allowed me to see a voodoo doll of myself on several desks there. I’d bet everything that I’ve got that at least one of the dudes at HQ has called me a “fucking bitch,” more than one and more than once, actually, because I never seem to stop complaining about them. They are neither gods nor sacred cows in my book. To their credit, I don’t think they want to be, and they’ve never been anything but kind to me. Still, I complain. Because I worry.

I complain when the sport that I love is grossly irresponsible and hurts people. Because that’s not our job. Our job, as trainers – and in my case as a gym owner – is to help plain-old-folk get strong and empowered. Injured is the opposite of strong and empowered. If we injure you, we fail. If our sport is really causing more injuries than any other sport, (which I doubt,) then we’re failing, and something needs to be done.

HQ needs to take the lead on that. Period.

However, they’re not going to. They stand proud on their libertarian roots, saying they will not interfere with how individual affiliates run their gyms. In many ways, especially as an affiliate owner, I like that. I do not want them telling me how run my gym. But yes, that means that not all CrossFit gyms are the same.

AND SOME OF THEM REALLY FUCKING SUCK.

Believe me, I want the sucky-ass gyms closed more than you do. So, to all of you yelling about how dangerous CrossFit is, let’s channel that a little bit and point your wrath where it really belongs, towards the bad gyms that hire the bad coaches out there. But let’s be clear, those exist in every sport.

Then, let’s do something productive, and learn how to find a GOOD CrossFit gym, and avoid the bad ones. Here are some tips for you. They are not etched in stone, but I think they’re a damned good start to finding a gym that won’t hurt you. (Though even the best gym can’t prevent you from hurting yourself.)

1. Do they have a “Blast Off” program? If a gym doesn’t have a designated, separate and planned way to teach fundamentals to newbies, that lasts at least 2 weeks, (ours is a month, 3x a week) that’s a red flag. No matter how “fit” someone thinks they are, it is highly-unlikely that they know how to lift big weight safely. Or even squat right. Seriously. One sure sign that a gym is interested in your safety is that they spend time keeping you safe. If you can just start, with no training, I’d worry. (We also use it as a vetting tool. If someone tells us they’re too cool to do our Blast Off program, we know we have an athlete who won’t listen, and we don’t want them anyway. So there.) We put a former NFL player through Blast Off.

2. Will they let you “just do a workout” with no prior CrossFit experience? Say you’re on vacation, for a week, and the closest gym to you is a CrossFit gym, and you explain that you just want to drop in a few times, no biggie. Will they let you? If so, no go. That is a gym that is more interested in your money than your safety. We let people with CrosFit experience drop in all the time, we love meeting people with other CrossFit experience. I know, I know, people like to say this makes us a cult. We only play with others like ourselves. Let me assure you, it’s about safety. Nothing more, nothing less.

3. If they don’t ask about your injuries and the quirks of your body when you come in, even with prior experience, bad sign. When we start someone with Blast Off, or get a new member from another gym, or have visitors, the FIRST thing we do is give them a questionnaire with a whole lot of questions about their physical state. And THEN we ask them. Do you have any injuries? Have you ever injured yourself? How is your body working these days? How else will we know how to protect them?

4. If at least one trainer isn’t on the floor nit-picking at people, bad sign. Even during the warm up, they should be engaged, especially if someone new is on the floor. Admittedly, sometimes I zone a bit during warm up when I know everyone and know they know what they’re doing. But although the warm-up is primarily about getting athletes ready to work, it’s also the BEST time for the coach to look at how everyone is moving, and ASK about it. If I see someone squatting crooked, I’m gonna ask how their hips or ankles are feeling. If someone subs out one warm-up move for another, this is my chance to get in and ask why. If a trainer isn’t paying attention, that’s a bad sign. And yes, I’ve been to plenty of gyms while traveling in which the trainer would just tell people to do things, and then walk away. If I were “god,” those gyms would be closed already.

5. If they don’t talk about how to scale before EVERY workout. Making it clear that RX moves and weights are for elite athletes, and that we scale everything, both moves and weights, for people. A good coach, in a good gym, will coach EVERY move, no matter who is in the class. When we coach lifts, we always, at the very least, warm up the safety fundamentals of every lift before we lift. When we do a WOD, we talk about how to modify the WOD, as a class. We set the standard that modification is how we get strong and protect against injury. For EVERYONE.

6. Ask them how they choose coaches. Yes really. Having your coaching credentials does NOT mean you are ready to coach. That’s an insurance hurdle, more than anything else. It takes MONTHS of interning to learn how to coach. And some people will never be good at it. At Rocket, we’ve made our mistakes. But we always try to fix them quickly. And we’ve gotten even pickier. How do I know that there are sub-par coaches out there? Because I’ve interviewed them. I’ve had them come shadow-coach a class or three, and decided that there was no way they were good enough to work for us. But all of them were already coaches in other gyms. So ask a gym that you’re considering how they find coaches. Our answer, and it’s a good one, is “carefully.” Must have been doing the sport at least 2 years, be certified, have interned in our gym or another gym at least 6 months. But then, we watch you coach, for a month sometimes, before we hire you. The sad truth is, we are overworked, because we hire very few people. (I need a fucking vacation.)

7. Did they have a Groupon? No, this is by no means a deal breaker, but it’s an orange flag for me. That says, “I need money” which MIGHT be an indicator that they’re willing to put cash ahead of safety. Or that they have enough turnover (which can often be because of injury and / or unhappiness) that they need to keep their rosters full.

8. Can you sense the Douche Vibes from the door? Honestly, I’ve walked in gyms and then back out of them very quickly because I could tell that it was all about competition and impressing each other and…..  Don’t pretend you don’t know it when you see it. But the most surefire way to hurt yourself is to do dumb things in order to impress other people. Even I am susceptible to it. And I know better.

9. Is it a good personality match for you? This has little to do with safety, directly anyway. But you need to be working out in a gym in which you feel happy and safe and protected. There are perfectly good gyms, great ones even, in which I would not be a good fit. We are a great gym, and I have told people that we’re not the right fit for them, and helped them find a gym that is. I am NOT a competitive person, and although Rocket has some competition level athletes, that’s not our focus. Our focus is fitness for EVERY BODY. If your only goal is competing in The CrossFit Games, we’re not your gym. But I know great gyms for you. A good gym will tell you if they’re not the right fit, because they’re more interested in your training than your money.

10.  Check out their programming. Most gyms will post their WODS on their sites. Check out how they program. Is it varied, in a logical fashion? Good. Are there high-rep heavy deadlifts in a WOD? Bad. Are there days with big chippers, followed by relatively restful days? Good. Is it all “dude, woah, check out this crazy shit that I did!”? Bad. Programming is hard. Look for a solid balance of lifting, gymnastics work, long and short metcons. Look to see that if quads are smoked for two days, they are allowed to chill for a few. Believe it or not, we put A TON of thought into programming. It’s probably the hardest part of what we do. Sometimes good programming can be hard to spot, but shit programming is pretty easy.

Those are some decent working guidelines to help you find a good CrossFit gym. Obviously, I firmly believe that CrossFit is the best all-round fitness program for anyone who wants to do it. (If it’s not your thing, that’s totally fine. But find something, anything, that allows you to challenge and use your body in a way that empowers you and makes you happy. I won’t make fun of it. I promise.)

But guess what, no matter how good we are, we can’t protect you from yourself. There is a lot that you need to do to protect yourself from injury.

LISTEN TO YOUR COACH. If your coach tells you that you are not ready to add weight, do NOT add weight. I do this all the time, and even worse, tell people to drop it and take weight off. You are not being punished, you are being protected. (Yup, people do it anyway. Those are usually the people who hurt themselves.)

LISTEN TO YOUR BODY. No matter how great a coach is, and how skilled their gaze is, they cannot tell how something feels inside your body. That’s up to you. And if something feels wrong, it is YOUR responsibility to stop and say so.

DO NOT PUSH THROUGH PAIN. Ever. Never. Under no circumstance. Now, that’s not to say you should take it easy. Nope. But you have to learn to tell the difference between pain and soreness. Pain and fear. And you have to have the fortitude to say “I can’t do this right now.” I know that is about the hardest thing to say, but practice it. Because pain is your body’s way of telling you that it is harmed, or about to be harmed. And your #1 job is to protect your body. Injury is not strength, it is the opposite.

STRENGTHEN YOUR WEAKNESSES. Do you know that you have a chronic low-back issue? Then get your ass in the gym 15 minutes early every time, and do some low-back strengthening exercises. Since you have picked a good gym with quality coaching, you can ask your coach what you should be doing to strengthen it, and do it. Shoulder? Same thing. That’s YOUR job.

Your coach is your partner, not your boss. Communicate, work together, kick ass. Simple.

Yes, CrossFit can be dangerous. EVERY sport is dangerous. Runners blow out their hips and knees. Skiers (raises hand) can blow out everything. Tennis players blow out their elbows. Sport is dangerous. (And can we talk about those people in globo gyms lifting heavy weight, badly, with NO ONE looking out for them? I mean, what?)

I promise that I will continue to  yell about the things that are very wrong with our sport, and our leadership. We need to raise the bar higher if we are going to reach our potential. And I love our sport, I love what we do, I love how we change lives. So ya, I’m going to hold us to a higher standard. But I’m also going to protect us from the idiots who make ignorant blanket statements that aren’t based in reality.

And also, here’s a picture of my daughter. For no reason, except that she’s awesome. And I can assure you, I am more protective of her than I am of CrossFit. There’s no way I’d let her do this if I thought it wasn’t safe. And that both she and her coaches weren’t paying very close attention to the health and strength of her body.

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Photo by Tim Aguero: http://www.aguerophoto.com

Oh, ya, we own Rocket CrossFit in Seattle. You can check us out. We’ll be nice and everything.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. May 31, 2014 2:15 am

    The problem with CrossFit is that not many people are well informed about it. I think once people know exactly what they are getting in to, they understand the pros and cons, and know what to look for when joining an affiliate, there will be less negativity around it.

  2. Alyssa Royse permalink*
    May 31, 2014 5:42 am

    Totally true. I know a lot of people who bashed it, until they tried it and realized that it’s not what they thought. The problem is that only the “crazy” stuff gets any media attention. The hundreds of thousands of regular folk just getting a good workout are never seen.

  3. May 31, 2014 7:29 pm

    As someone who thinks a lot about corporate environments or academic environments or institutional environments – call it what you will – I am consistently impressed with the ethos of kindness, conscientiousness, and practice that infuses Rocket.

  4. August 8, 2014 9:51 am

    I bought a Groupon for a CrossFit gym, I’ll call it Box (totally not the name). Box’s Groupon was for a one week, four nights, on-boarding program plus an unlimited month. The co-owners seem like nice dudes. One taught the on-boarding, limited to eight people (we had six), and did a really good job of nit-picking just about everything. (I’m a yoga teacher who has fitness credentials and has extensively studied movement and anatomy, and I’m hard to impress.)

    After that, I only went to two WODs and I have not been back. Why? I could blame my schedule, but that’s not really it. These things bugged me, and I didn’t feel comfortable pointing them out to Box’s trainers or owners:

    1. The “warm up” always included running a few laps around the building.
    Aside from basic safety concerns (lack of lighting, uneven pavement) and annoyances (I had dust and leaf debris blown into my eyes both times and spent a lot of time in the bathroom rinsing off my lenses), running is not a warm-up. I’m a runner, I’m not going to run without doing the basic range of motion stuff before running (I like my knees and hips). Also, I don’t wear running shoes to work out in the gym, and I don’t want to run in improper footwear. Some might think this makes me a whiny baby. My knees thank me.

    2. The ‘warm up” always included long, static stretches.
    This is so far behind the times. Well-publicized research shows that static stretching before a workout decreases muscle strength and performance. Current recommendations are dynamic movement before a workout, static stretching afterwards, and not only is that all over the trade publications for licensed personal trainers, it is also all over consumer publications (like Runners’ World and Women’s Health and Fitness). I’m amazed Box’s trainers did not know this.

    3. Unsafe movement in the static stretches.
    I observed Dude and Mrs. Dude with grossly misaligned knees during a few stretches. (Think bent-knee stretch to the side, with the knee “caving in” diagonally from the direction the toes pointed.) Trainer said nothing, even though he was right in front of them. This made me cringe, since repeating this dysfunctional movement pattern can easily lead to injury (long-term wear/gradual stress variety, if not catastrophic variety). If Box’s trainers didn’t correct something that obvious to me, how could I trust them to correct things not that obvious to me (since I can’t see myself while working out), but just as unsafe?

    4. Belated corrections to my form during the WOD.
    My main concern is doing an exercise correctly. I’m not that concerned with doing it quickly. I know that form is king, so I want to get it right and repeat it right, especially while I am learning. During one WOD, we were throwing medicine balls at a wall. I forget how many reps, but I was about half way through my third set (this was an “A, B, C, repeat” WOD) before the trainer came over and showed me that I was doing it pretty much completely wrong. Since we were a small group (maybe five) and everyone else finished their third set long before I did, I was kind of surprised to learn I’d done the first two sets totally wrong, and wasn’t being corrected until the middle of the third set.

    I’d like to go back to CrossFit, especially since I like that the workout changes up, and that there is a trainer there (who is supposed) to correct my form. I wish I could support Box–it’s a local small business, and like I said the dudes own it seem really nice–but I don’t feel good about going back there. Of course I also don’t want to talk smack about them (or be seen as doing so) at any new place I go to…

    Should I pretend I have zero CrossFit experience and start the on-boarding at another box? Or should I truthfully say I did an on-boarding and a few WODs, but still consider myself a beginner (and P.S. please keep an extra eye on me for the first few)?

  5. Alyssa Royse permalink*
    August 8, 2014 4:45 pm

    I would find another box, tell them honestly what your experience has been and start again. If you came to me, I would put you in our Blast Off, which is 12 classes. But Ya, bad gym. Thank you for seeing that the gym is the problem, not the sport.

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