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How to get started with CrossFit: The beginner's guide

Contrary to popular belief, CrossFit is totally beginner-friendly.

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A CrossFit coach at the whiteboard, explaining the day's workout to members.

SolStock/Getty Images

CrossFit's cult-like following can feel a little, um, weird sometimes. It's strange for people to be so in love with something that most people avoid at all costs -- exercise. Especially intense, usually painful exercise. But once you're on the inside, like yours truly, you'll understand why people spend their afternoons running around with sandbags on their shoulders or do burpees for a mile for fun. 

Whether you have some fitness experience under your belt or you're a total beginner to working out, CrossFit can, no doubt, feel intimidating. That's why we've put together this guide to starting CrossFit, with everything you need to know about choosing the right gym, what to look for in a coach and how to make the programming work for you.

Read more: The activity tracker that CrossFitters love

1. Read up on the basics

Before starting CrossFit, it's helpful to study up on the lingo. When you're new to CrossFit, the terms and abbreviations may seem like an entirely different language -- when I first started CrossFit back in 2013, I was confused for weeks (and that's totally normal, as it takes time to memorize everything). 

Here are a few common terms you'll likely see and hear the first time you set foot in a CrossFit gym: 

  • WOD: Workout of the Day.
  • AMRAP: As Many Rounds (or Reps) As Possible. Used when the workout is a circuit, and you're supposed to do as many rounds as you can within the given time cap.
  • EMOM: Every Minute On the Minute. Used for interval-style training.
  • Box: Another term for gym. When people say, "I'll see you at the box," they mean the CrossFit gym.
  • GPP: General Physical Preparedness, or the term CrossFitters use for overall fitness.
  • Metcon: An abbreviation for "metabolic conditioning," a type of training that improves endurance.
  • The whiteboard: Where CrossFit gyms write the WOD and athletes' scores. 

You may also find it helpful to read about the methodology behind CrossFit and why CrossFitters do the types of workouts they do. You can find a massive library of information, as well as helpful video tutorials on common CrossFit movements, on the CrossFit website.

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These are a few of the foundational CrossFit movements you'll learn as you go through your new gym's programming.

Screenshot from CrossFit.com

2. Don't let the stereotypes keep you from trying

Many people feel intimidated by CrossFit because they've only seen CrossFit Games athletes on ESPN throwing 300 pounds overhead and flipping massive tires. They haven't seen the grandmas and grandpas, moms and moms-to-be, college students and young professionals who also do CrossFit.

"Most of our members are just your everyday people who value their fitness," Davin Arkangel, head CrossFit coach and owner at CrossFit Camarillo tells CNET. "We have members of all ages, all professions, all backgrounds, and they just have one thing in common: They know they need physical movement to stay healthy." 

The majority of people who do CrossFit do not look or perform like the Games athletes. Those athletes are the elite few, and it took years of training four to six hours a day to get to that level. The rest of the CrossFit world consists of your average fitness enthusiast who works out for an hour and then gets on with the rest of their day. 

If you've researched CrossFit before, you've probably seen something like the video above -- impressive, but not at all what you should expect from the average CrossFit gym.

3. Visit a couple of CrossFit gyms in your area

Don't just settle on the first CrossFit gym you visit, even if it's the closest to your home or work. Try out a few in your area, and while searching for the right CrossFit gym for you, look for a few key elements: 

  • Quality of coaching: Arkangel tells CNET this is the most important factor of any CrossFit gym. Your coach should be paying you attention, actively correcting your form, answering questions and offering modifications to movements when you need them. 
  • Safety: "Your coach's top priority should be safety, always," Arkangel says. Your coach might tell you to take weight off of your barbell if they notice that it's too heavy for you and is hurting your technique. Don't take this as an insult; view it as a positive that your coach is worried about your health and longevity. 
  • Culture: Everyone wants something different out of a CrossFit gym -- be on the lookout for a culture that sits well with you. If you're not competitive and just want a good workout, you might not enjoy a gym that has a high percentage of advanced, competitive athletes. Likewise, if you are competitive, you might not feel at home in a class full of seniors who are just there to stay functional.
  • Schedule: Obviously, you want to find a CrossFit gym that has a schedule with classes you can regularly attend. Most CrossFit gyms post their schedules online -- take a look before visiting.   
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Many CrossFit gyms have a very tight-knit community; culture is an important thing to look for in a CrossFit gym.

Thomas Barwick/Getty Images

Other factors, such as the cleanliness of the facility and condition of the equipment, also matter, but not as much -- most CrossFitters would tell you they'd rather work out in a dusty garage with great people than work out at the shiniest gym with an uninviting culture. 

As Arkangel puts it, "A CrossFit gym isn't the place to look for shiny objects." It's the place to find an inviting, supportive community and great coaching.

Use the CrossFit affiliate finder to find an official CrossFit box near you, or simply search "CrossFit [your city]".

4. Go through an initial fitness assessment

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A fitness assessment helps your coach understand which exercises you're ready for and which ones you need more help with.

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Before starting CrossFit classes, you should take a fitness assessment with a CrossFit coach. Many CrossFit workouts include movements that require large range of motion, ballistic or explosive movement patterns and body positions that may be new to you. Your coach will want to see how you squat, deadlift and press overhead, as well as get a sense of where your cardiovascular endurance level is at.

This information helps your coach help you. It allows them to modify workouts for you when needed and keep a close eye out when you're practicing movements you struggle with. The initial fitness assessment also helps you decide if CrossFit is the right fitness program for you, and it gives you a chance to talk to the coach about the community and culture at the gym.

5. Sign up for a trial

Most CrossFit gyms offer a few free classes, an entire free week or a month-long membership for a reduced price. 

"Absolutely take advantage of your free classes," Arkangel says. "That's how you get to know a gym, the members and the coaches." Your free or discounted trial is your chance to test out a gym and determine whether or not it's the right gym for you. 

To that end, "Don't let one bad experience at one gym ruin it for you completely," Arkangel says. "Not every gym has the same culture. They're not all going to be a good fit, but don't let that deter you from trying other boxes." 

During your trial, keep an eye out for things that'll make or break the experience for you. Like mentioned above, pay close attention to quality of coaching, culture and safety. 

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A good CrossFit gym is one you feel comfortable and safe in. 

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6. Take it slow 

When you're new to CrossFit, it's best to fight the temptation to dial up the intensity. People who do CrossFit are, for the most part, competitive in nature. It's part of why they're there: The competitive edge of an intense group class helps them dig deep and push their bodies to the limit. 

If you're even the slightest bit competitive, you may feel the urge to keep up with longtime box-goers. Fight the urge, because as a beginner at any fitness regimen, doing too much too soon can result in injuries -- or, at the very least, intense soreness that puts you out of the gym for days. 

"The important thing is to make sure you understand the stimulus of the workout," Arkangel says. "Your gym isn't going to program five sprint workouts in a row, and that's for a reason, so you shouldn't be sprinting through your workout every day." If you are, you're likely missing the point of the workout and putting unnecessary stress on your body. 

Read more: How to tell you need a rest day (and when to keep going)

Part of taking it slow is using modifications for tough movements, like the above pull-up progressions.

7. Customize your experience

You don't have to do every CrossFit workout as it's written on the whiteboard. The entire experience is completely customizable because you can scale any CrossFit workout to meet your current fitness abilities and support your goals, as well as account for injuries or soreness. 

If you're injured, make sure to tell your coach and ask for a modification. You may need to lower the weight or completely change the movement. Likewise, ask for modifications if you're pregnant or have any condition that precludes you from particular movements. 

You don't have to reserve modifications for injury, though: You can modify even if you're just tired or really sore. Pushing through pain and fatigue doesn't always pay off, so listen to your body when it's telling you to chill out. 

And if you have specific goals, you can modify the daily exercises for those, too. I often modify CrossFit workouts when I'm in a training cycle for a half-marathon because I want my workouts to support my goal of improving endurance and getting faster. If the day's workout calls for a one-rep max squat, I might do three sets of 10 squats instead, because that better supports my current goal.

Read more: Workout recovery: Why it's so important

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All CrossFit gyms provide "scaled" (CrossFit word for easier) workouts so members of all fitness levels can get in a good workout and stay safe.

Jakob Helbig/Getty Images

8. Get the right gear and shoes

You'll quickly learn that you need a specific type of shoes for CrossFit workouts. Cross-trainers should be versatile and durable -- they need to support multiple movement patterns and endure box jumps, burpees, running, weightlifting and, when you get to that point, rope climbs. So a good pair of cross-training shoes should be your first CrossFit gear investment.

Next up, you should have sweat-wicking workout clothes that stay put. The last thing you want is to be shimmying into your shorts every time you come up from a squat. And you'll work up a sweat like no other in an un-air-conditioned CrossFit gym on a warm day, so make sure you know how to properly wash activewear and extend the life of your precious gym clothes. 

Finally, it may be worth investing in some compression gear for any problem areas you have. If you have bad knees, wearing knee sleeves during squats and lunges may help with stabilization. You can find compression sleeves for pretty much any body part, including calves, arms, elbows and even your core. Wrist wraps, like these from Rogue Fitness, work well for overhead movements. 

Read more: The 7 best fitness subscription boxes in 2020 for every workout style

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NoBull trainers are a CrossFit favorite.

NoBull

9. Log your progress

Much of the excitement in CrossFit comes from making fitness progress. You can log whatever is important to you, but you should definitely keep track of a few key metrics, including:

  • Your one-rep max for the big lifts: Squat, deadlift, overhead press, bench press, clean and jerk, snatch and overhead squat
  • Your mile run time and 400-meter run time
  • How many pull-ups you can do
  • How many push-ups you can do

It's also fun to keep track of when you get your "firsts." In CrossFit, a handful of movements are more coveted than the rest and warrant celebration when achieved. Those are pull-ups, toes-to-bar, muscle-ups, handstand push-ups and rope climbs -- keep track so you can see how far you've come later on. 

You can use pen and paper to log your achievements, but you can also use apps like Beyond the Whiteboard, WodLog, WODbook or myWOD. Your new gym may use Wodify and offer it for free to members, so check with your coach about that.

Read more: How to create an exercise routine you'll actually stick to

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.