CrossFit For Beginners: From Day 1 To Competitive Athlete
Considering CrossFit? Doing a little research as to what its all about? There's a lot of CrossFit for beginners to absorb, this post will help.
This post isn't an overview of CrossFit, its a breakdown of everything from your first session through to competition day.
Why have I written this?
I'm fitter, faster, stronger & I have made many friends as a result of joining a CrossFit gym. If you're reading this it means there is the opportunity for you to achieve this to.
Table Of Contents
- 1 Introduction
- 2 Phase 1 - CrossFit Beginner
- 3 Phase 2 - CrossFit Sessions
- 4 Phase 3 - CrossFit Competitions
- 5 CrossFit At Home
- 6 To Conclude CrossFit For Beginners
My progression: From beginner to CrossFit athlete there were three broad phases.
- Phase 1 - CrossFit Beginner
- Phase 2 - A regular at CrossFit sessions
- Phase 3 - Competing in CrossFit
These phases are something I have created to explain the process and are in no way affiliated with the CrossFit program.
Phase 1 - CrossFit Beginner
There's a lot to take in. But, its worth it! Work your way through this. Knowledge is power; you'll feel more comfortable if you're "in the know".
Finding a CrossFit Gym (box)
I have written a fairly detailed post on finding a CrossFit gym near you however as you’re here I will run over the main points.
Jump on over to the CrossFit box locator. Here you can find a map with all official affiliated CF gyms in and around your local area. Choose a box that will become an easy addition to your daily routine. Consider looking near your place of work should no suitable box fall near your place of rest.
Once you have chosen a box, have a good look online and see what the box is all about. Social media is a great way to reach out to coaches and owners to discuss your goals and the next stage in starting CF.
Please don’t assume that all boxes are the same. Coaching styles, session frequency, length and difficulty & pricing can vary from box to box. If there are things that you are not comfortable with, try another box for size.
For me, I was lucky enough to stumble across the first CrossFit box in my area. As I walked in to see what it was about I was greeted by two enthusiastic coaches. My first session was booked for that afternoon and I haven't looked back since.
CrossFit Introduction Sessions (On ramp)
It is common practice for boxes to utilise introduction sessions also known as ON RAMP sessions. These are a great way to introduce you to CF, the coaches and also the facilities that you will be using. Covering proper use of the equipment, how to safely perform movements and also to learn a bit about you.
From my experience, introduction classes are held with a small group of new members put together. Small groups allow for much more attention to detail from the coaches which will benefit you greatly. It is also a very efficient way for coaches to measure your personal abilities and to offer personal advice on your weaknesses and to make you aware of your strengths!
I have broken down some key parts to the ON RAMP and introductory sessions that you can expect to be coached on.
Don't be fooled by the "introductory" title given to these sessions. I was very familiar with most of the movements but still learned a lot about my technique.
CrossFit Fundamental Movements
In the introduction you can expect to learn about all aspects of CrossFit including the nine fundamental movements:
Sumo-Deadlift High Pull
Medicine Ball Clean
These particular movements build on one another and their complexity will increase as you progress. Practice these movements often as they are the base on which CF movements are built.
Check out the CF HQ movement demonstration page for some great videos that describe each movement.
Preparing Your Body
A good place to start is covering how you can prepare your body for the session ahead. Stretching and mobilisation of joints and muscles should be drilled at the beginning of each session focusing on muscle groups that are going to be used in the next 40-60 minutes. As an example, focusing on warming up your shoulder muscles when squats are programmed can prove inefficient, so pay close attention when the coach is discussing the session with you.
As well as stretching & mobilisation some moderate heart rate work is also a great way to start. Short workouts using body weight movements such as the push-up, sit up and squat over a period of 3-5 minutes are just enough to prepare you for the next segment.
This was when my education really began. My coaches showed me how my lack of flexibility was affecting my movements. I couldn't overhead squat at all and this was due to the fact I had never stretched!
I was shown extensively how to identify my "tight" muscles and to work on them, test and retest the movements. The foam roller was my enemy, my legs were very painful as everything was so overused and mistreated.
Unfortunately, a deadlift isn’t just a case of lifting a heavy weight from the floor nor a squat just throwing some weight on your shoulders, pushing your bum back and hoping for the best.
Each of these movements requires coaching for beginners. Clear instruction should be given to keep safety and good form in mind. These movements cannot be rushed and even after two years, my form is adjusted and monitored by my keen-eyed coaches regularly.
For the squat, you should expect to have some guidance from the ground up. Mobility through your ankles can affect your position. Keeping your heels pressed into the ground is key to unlocking your power. Tight muscles can restrict your depth. Feel confident in the advice your coach will provide and listen out for prompts as you practice.
This movement really identified my lack of mobility. For years I had run miles for boxing training on concrete roads, moved on my toes and the result, rock solid calves and Achilles tendons. As I would air squat, my heels would leave the floor which prevented my squat from feeling comfortable.
Deadlifts are a great measure of strength but must be carried out with good form. Poor form can increase the possibility of injury. Look for prompts from your coach on maintaining a neutral spine, this prevents rounding of the back through the deadlift movement.
Overhead variations such as the strict press will build up strength through your upper body whilst your core works to hold everything together. This type of movement is one of the lesser used movements in day to day activities so be prepared for some muscle soreness.
CrossFit has brought great publicity to Olympic lifts. This is one of my favourite aspects of CF programming due to its technical difficulty.
The snatch and the clean and jerk require hours of practice to dial in each part of the movement.
Coaches will dissect the movements into different stages to help explain each part singularly. From here it is common to get used to the pull, hip thrust and shrug aspects using a PVC/plastic pipe. The pipe is lightweight which allows you to move freely and safely whilst trying out this new found skill. It is also a great tool for mobilising before you begin.
As a beginner, I was absolutely hopeless and it took lots of practice before I began to feel comfortable. It’s a great challenge and hugely enjoyable.
The body, when used correctly can provide enough stimulation for muscle growth and fat loss. CF uses plenty of bodyweight movements in its programming. I’ll break down a few of the movements that you can expect to find in your new fitness program:
Push Ups – The humble push up is great for building upper body strength. CF standards look for one smooth press, with your chest and hips moving in line with one another. Scaling this movement down, you can start with a press from the kneeling position whilst you build the required strength.
Sit Ups – CF has come up with a unique position (that I had not encountered before) to really isolate the abdominal muscles during the sit-up movement. Expect to start with your hands fully behind your head, an ab-mat beneath your lower back for support and your feet brought together comfortably out front. In an explosive movement, calling on all of your core muscles, you go from lying to a seated position with your hands in front of your toes. To count the rep your shoulders must pass in front of your hips.
Pull Ups – This is a measure of your strength to weight ratio. Pulling yourself from fully extended arms to chin above the bar doesn’t come easy. Expect your coach to utilise resistance bands or jumping movements to start building the strength in your back and arms to complete this move. Comfortable with strict pull ups? Expect to learn about kipping movements to efficiently use your strength over increased repetitions.
Air Squats – Squatting with just your bodyweight. This move will highlight any mobility issues you may have, expect your coaches to talk you through some stretches if this is the case.
Burpees – Normally used for punishment if you are late or forget to tidy up your kit! One of the most demanding bodyweight movements when using increased reps. I will leave the explanation to your coaches, they love to talk you through this particular movement.
The movements mentioned are just a few of the basics. As you perfect these moves expect to find yourself completing more demanding moves such as muscle ups, toes to bar, ascending ropes and fumbling with gymnastic rings.
Useful Hints & Tips
YouTube is a gold mine for tutorials and informational posts (if you know what to look for) covering all the movements we have spoken about above. Both the channels I have mentioned below cover many aspects that you, a CrossFit beginner can gain much guidance from.
- Check out this YouTube channel called Barbell Shrugged. These guys provide a huge amount of helpful content for all lifters, particularly CrossFitters. Their snatch series really helped improve my technique.
- Kelly Starrett is another man who will have helped thousands of athletes worldwide with his informational content. He is the author of a great book called The Supple Leopard which some of the best CrossFitters in the world claim to have read and made use of. His video which he titles "Bone Saw Calf Smash" is the reason I now have improved ankle mobility. Check out his YouTube channel here.
CrossFit Beginner Workouts
To finish off Phase 1 I have dropped in some of my favourite CrossFit workouts for beginners that I used whilst learning the ropes over two years ago. Have a go yourself, push hard and set some times for you to test against in a few months! If there are any terms that you don't understand then check out my list of CrossFit terms to help.
These workouts require minimal equipment (if any) and are great all round workouts that will help you understand your body and what’s comfortable at this time.
Some of these workouts are “Benchmark Workouts” and will have names associated with them. These were created by CrossFit HQ and allow you to track your own progress as well as comparing your times/weights with the rest of the CF community. You’ll notice that there is little weight resistance used at this stage.
Griff (Benchmark Workout)
Run 400m backwards
Run 400m backwards
Whilst running backwards may seem a little silly it was a great way to do some light conditioning whilst mixing things up. It was also great for co-ordination and balance. I used to use this workout running along a sandy beach on recovery days. To keep it easy I would mark out 80 metres and then keep a count as I worked through.
Cindy (Benchmark Workout)
5 Pull Ups
10 Push Ups
15 Air Squats
As many rounds
in 20 minutes
Cindy is one of the first benchmark workouts that you'll complete as Rx! Pace yourself, work smoothly through the 20-minute window. Each round begins with 5 pull-ups and finishes with 15 squats. Once you have finished your squats, take a mental note of that round and then begin with pull ups again. All you need is somewhere to pull your chin above your hands. Be adventurous if you can't find anything obvious. I have used children's climbing frames & scaffolding before!
Karen (Benchmark Workout)
150 Wall Balls
One of my favourite workouts as it's a full body test. Although it's just one movement there is so much being tested here. From the bottom, you'll be working your stability through your ankles, unloading your power in the bottom of the squat position as you move upwards finishing with a push and extension of the arms. This is a great workout to measure your shoulder muscles ability to maintain strength and consistency under fatigue whilst gripping the ball works your hands and forearms. A cardiovascular test for any standard of Athlete. A wall ball weighs 20lbs/9Kgs & you've got to hit a 10-foot target.
CrossFit Beginner Workout 1
400m Walking Lunge
This is a really simple workout and a great addition to Griff. I would use this as a warm up/warm down or just to give my legs a really good stretch. This can also be done on a treadmill. Turn up the incline if you are feeling brave!
CrossFit Beginner Workout 2
No equipment required just some determination and gritted teeth. Make sure you stand straight in the upwards movements and your chest and hips hit the ground at the bottom. Be strict with your reps and keep a close eye on the time. If you can get this done in under 10 minutes you have done very well!
CrossFit Beginner Workout 3
50 Push Ups
50 Sit Ups
50 Air Squats
3 Rounds For Time
No equipment required. I have done this whilst in hotels, on holiday and away with work. It's simple and effective and the faster you go, the more challenging the workout becomes.
Phase 2 - CrossFit Sessions
Having been given the go-ahead from your coaches you have now started taking part in CF classes with other box members. As I mentioned before, depending on experience and ability, this could take any amount of time, it's specific to you.
This phase is about getting used to the movements and improving your all round performance. You’ll learn about efficiency and how you can minimise the unnecessary use of energy during your workouts.
As you experience the wide variation of programming, you’ll also learn about your strengths and weaknesses. It’s a good idea to listen to your coaches and work on movements that you struggle with.
A typical CF session will consist of the following:
1. A Warm-Up
The aim of the warm-up is to prepare your body for the session ahead. Getting the blood flowing is done using a dynamic warm-up focusing on the main muscle groups. Exercises using bodyweight resistance such as pushups/press ups, lunges and squats are a good way to start. On some occasions, a good 15-20 minute stretch can be programmed dependent on the rest of the session.
2. Skill / Strength Training
This part is dedicated to increasing your bodies ability to move weight in different ways. These movements are functional and whilst they improve your CF performance, they are also very helpful in day to day life. It is common to find that this section is applicable to the coming WOD.
3. WOD (Workout of the day)
The centre of your CF programming. WOD's vary in time, weight, intensity & difficulty. The aim is to continually make your body adapt and with this comes improved fitness.
4. Cool down / Stretch
The cool down part of the session is to allow your body to come to rest. Use this as an opportunity to have a light stretch whilst you allow your heart rate to return to it's resting BPM. I like to make use of the resistance bands and foam rollers at this point.
As you become a proficient CrossFitter it's time to lay down some max effort lifts and times. Of course, safety and technique should always be considered so seek advice from your coach if you are unsure. You will find that this may well be done as part of your programming so make notes on your performances.
Beyond The Whiteboard is a great app for tracking your progression.
Lifts such as the squat, deadlift, bench press and strict press are good movements to measure your increase in strength. Keeping note of your best lifts is very important as strength programming is carried out in %'s of your max effort lifts. This means that you will be challenged within your own ability and the programming will challenge everybody equally on an individual basis.
CF HQ has the benchmark workouts which you could utilise to measure your overall progress. My biggest improvement was Grace. After a few months of training, I gave 30 clean and jerks at 61kg / 135lbs for time my best effort. My time was 3:42 and I was absolutely broken. 18 months later it comes up in our programming and I was happy to hit a 1:58 and was able to continue with life that afternoon.
Comparing old times and weights with your new efforts is a great motivator and will highlight the hard work that you have laid down in between. Video footage is another way of comparing your progress.
Rx - Something To Aim For
When the programmed workout is carried out at the prescribed reps and weight, it is known as “Rx”. This is done in such a way that the workout must be a challenge but achievable for all the athletes taking part.
Coaches will identify those that would not be able to achieve the Rx requirements safely and will scale accordingly. Scaling a workout is done to make sure that you, the athlete, is performing at the peak of your ability, safely, without sacrificing good form. If scaling is done correctly all of those taking part should be challenged equally based on their own ability.
As you gain more experience and your ability improves, begin to push for those Rx times and weights, it feels good to hit your first workout as prescribed within the time limit.
Phase 3 - CrossFit Competitions
For me, phase 3 began with my first local competition. I decided that I was confident enough in my own ability and started to try out some qualifiers. I was consistent in my training and was able to hit the workouts at Rx weights and times and was ready for the next stage.
As the CF community continues to grow, so do the amount of competitions that we can enter. There is always plenty of variation in the competitions that are available from individual events, to pairs, teams and even whole boxes!
Recommended read about competitions: Click here
Competition, in my opinion is healthy and it brings out some of the best performances in everyone. With team events bringing in camaraderie and individual events making competitors push harder than before.
There were many lessons learned from my first competition, take a look so you don’t make the same mistakes:
Sleep & Rest
It is common for competitions to start very early. This allows for plenty of time throughout the day for a variety of WOD’s in a number of heats. I slept for 4 hours before my first day competing and paid for it. I felt like I had no energy and could hardly keep my eyes open!
The nerves are always what keep me up so I had to try to come up with a way of helping encourage natural sleep at a reasonable time on the evening before a comp.
What did I come up with? On the day before the competition, I get up very early, I aim for 5am. I get dressed and go for a walk, nothing strenuous but enough to wake my body sufficiently so that I won’t go back to bed.
For me, by 6pm that evening I am ready to sleep and will be fresh for the day of competing.
Fuel For The Day
During days of competitions, I find it quite hard to eat which of course is essential to fuelling your body for the events and putting in good performances.
I found that eating small portions of carbs such as pasta, potatoes and bananas in various sauces sufficed. I’ll snack on a handful of sugary sweets twenty minutes before my heat for that extra boost of energy.
Hydration is also important so I ensure that I take on plenty of water. I add electrolytes to water to keep my body in optimum condition.
Kit / Equipment / Apparel
Don’t save the brand new pair of metcons for their first outing on comp day. I did exactly this for one of the bigger competitions and the first event was a 5k run. My feet did not play ball for the rest of the day.
So, make sure you have had a good move around in all of your kit because the last thing you need is rubbing in the wrong places come game day!
We all have days where we walk into the box and take a quick glance at the board. Overhead squats, pistols, muscle ups. Everyone has their least favourite movements and they are generally the least favourite as they are a weakness!
As I learned more about my body and my performances I started to pick holes in my own ability. If you want to become more competitive at a better standard, you need to work on your bad points.
For me, it was my general strength. The gymnastic, athletic and "engine" based workouts I would do well in but as things got heavy, I would fall to pieces.
It was at this point my training changed, I adjusted my frequency at the box to allow for more strength based work. What’s your weakness?
CrossFit At Home
For many beginners starting CrossFit, the process starts in the comfort of their own home and progresses from there. Here you can build the foundations of some good bodyweight strength using simple exercises such as the push-up, sit up and squat. For others, it is about feeling confident in their own abilities before heading down to the introductory/ON RAMP classes.
There are many things that you can do at home prior to heading for your first session that can help prepare you for your first WOD.
CF HQ post a daily workout on their website that you can try for yourself for free! Some local gyms also post their workout of the day for their members so you could drop in and have a try at that too. This is a great way of finding out if the programming chosen by the local box is something you would enjoy. Of course, if you don’t have all the equipment necessary then adjust as necessary.
There are a few things that I would like you to consider as you continue working out at home. There are aspects of going to a gym that you would not get in the comfort of your own home. The points below are CF’s main selling points so have a think about how long you want to leave it before you head down for your introductory sessions.
I have listed the cons to beginning CrossFit training at home first as I believe there are more benefits to beginning your CF story under the careful eyes of professional coaches than at home. Don't hate me.
Con's Of CrossFit At Home
Coaches whilst providing direction to workouts are also keeping a close eye on your form and the way you move through the movements. At home, you are left to your own devices which is where bad habits can begin!
With the complexity of some movements, having a second (and more experienced) opinion is always very valuable. If you are training with weights, then some helpful tips can reduce the possibility of injury and good form will aid in quicker progression.
No Motivation & Community
The positive mindset that the majority of CrossFitter’s uphold is empowering when you train together. I speak with first-hand experience when I say that the motivating element when training at a gym/box makes such a difference. Some of my peak performances have come as a result of being surrounded by competitive individuals who come together to cheer each other through the last few reps.
Lack Of Equipment
As you progress utilising your body weight as resistance, the need for further equipment will become necessary. The large array of equipment required is expensive and requires a lot of space to be used safely.
Pro's Of CrossFit At Home
There are a couple of pro's to starting to train using the CF principles which I have listed below.
A Foundation Of Strength
For a beginner looking to start training, bodyweight movements are a great place to start. Using good form with the full range of motion will more than challenge your body and as you progress you can add more repetitions or add more complex moves.
Check out some CrossFit workouts for beginners that I have noted in the section above if you missed them. They require no equipment and even for the most experienced athlete can be challenging!
Stretching & Mobility
You could really help your progress as a CrossFitter by starting a mobility program in the comfort of your own home. There are plenty of guides on YouTube and around the internet that can help you start.
My personal favourite is ROMWOD. It is a daily program, usually around 20 minutes in length that goes through some stretching and breathing exercises.
Many of the top level athletes in CF have come from gymnastic backgrounds and their flexibility that has been drilled for years will certainly have a part to play in that.
To Conclude CrossFit For Beginners
I hope you have enjoyed reading about my journey from complete CrossFit beginner to relatively well rounded athlete.
I hope this encourages you to make the decision to give CrossFit a go and I wish you all the best in your journey.
If I have inspired you to give it a try, drop a comment below, I read them all.
To your continued progression,