The Difference Between a CrossFit Class and a Regular Gym Class

Last summer before I went back to university I coached a CrossFit style class at a globo gym to earn some extra pocket money as CrossFit BDA only had a few hours a week for me to coach. The first class I did there I programmed “Nancy” which is 5 rounds for time of run 400m and 15 overhead squats at 42.5kg/30kg. I thought it would be good to program as I could get a look at everyone’s overhead squat and see how they move. We spent the first 15 minutes of class doing a general warm up which involved some running drills. I then spent 15 minutes coaching the overhead squat to the class of around 8 people, most of whom had never overhead squatted in their life. We then did the WOD and finished with some mobility for 10 minutes. A pretty standard hour for a CrossFit class.

However the following week three people didn’t come back. Apparently they were upset that they “didn’t get much of a workout.” Fearing everyone else in the class would leave as well unless I did something I spent the first few minutes of class telling the members an abbreviated version of what I’m going to talk about in this blog post.

I’m sure you’ve all seen classes at globo gyms. They warm up for two minutes before tearing into 45 minutes of non stop exercise with little to no coaching or cues. No one knows each other’s name and the instructor doesn’t know anyone’s name either. The participants kind of just wing it and flail around for the duration of the workout stepping onto boxes or chucking kettlebells around. Now don’t get me wrong, they’re all exhausted and sweaty after the workout and it sure as hell beats sitting at home on the couch but come back to that class a year later and you’ll probably see mostly new faces, and the people who are still there probably don’t look or move much differently to how they did a year ago.

Now I’ll leave aside for the moment the fact that these gyms build virtually no relationship with their members leaving them alone, bored and lacking motivation. Instead I’ll just focus on what they actually do in the class and why it doesn’t really make these people much fitter or happier.

  1. They don’t learn how to move correctly. In order to be fit for life it doesn’t only matter how out of breath you get or how hard your heart pumps when you train. You can have the highest vo2 max in the world (a measure of the maximum volume of oxygen your body can use) but if you don’t know how to deadlift properly you’re going to put your back out whilst gardening. What good is it losing weight in your 30s doing a HIIT class when by the time you’re 50 you have chronic back pain because you never learned how to squat? I would argue that a class would be better spent teaching for the full hour how to move better than working out the whole time. Of course the best thing is to have a balance of both teaching and training which is how we train in CrossFit.
  2. In order to be truly fit we need to train different time domains. In order to be prepared for life we need to be good at things that last 10 seconds and things that last half an hour or more and everything in between. If you do the same 45 minute workout each week you’re only going to get good at 45 minute workouts. You might then be surprised when you sprint for the bus and feel more exhausted than you do after your 45 minutes of aerobics. You might play five a side football and find you can’t handle the short intense bursts because your body is used to moderate intensity for a long period of time rather than short all out efforts with rest in between. In CrossFit we vary time domains all the time to ensure our members are ready for everything life can throw at them.
  3. What most people don’t realise is it is not volume that makes things hard but intensity. Ask any crossfitter what some of the hardest workouts are. Some of them might say “Fran” which elite athletes can do in around 2 minutes. Assault bikes are likely to get a mention in there, 5 rounds of 20 seconds all out with three minutes rest in between is one of the most brutal workouts you can do! Go and do 6 400m sprints and tell me that wasn’t harder than jogging 5k. That’s why in CrossFit we can spend 45 minutes warming up for a 2 minute workout and still feel like we got more of a workout in than we did at the 45 minute boot camp down the road.

Getting back to my class in Bermuda, I ended up with a core of 6 members who ended up coming to class religiously. Every week they moved a little better. Every week they were surprised when the short workouts were harder than the long ones. Every week they became better friends with each other and with me their coach. As I only saw them once a week a few of them started doing CrossFit at home during the week as well. They experienced less pain in their bodies as they moved better and better and found that even the workouts in the other class became easier and easier.

So next time you’re being taught a movement realise that it could end up being the most important part of the session, not because of the fitness you’ll gain this week but because of the fitness you’ll gain 40 years from now.

Coach Dave

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