Good, Better, Best: What to Know When Selecting a CrossFit Box

CrossFit affiliates follow the same basic principles, just like dentists follow the same principles, but we all know that some dentists are better than others. CrossFit isn't a franchise. We are not handed down guidelines that we are made to follow, so each box will operate according to the wishes and whims of the owner. Some will prioritize strength, some will prioritize conditioning, and some will simply prioritize community and good times. All of those are great and none of them are wrong, but let's look deeper to see what could help you find the best affiliate in your area.  

Let's look at some common issues raised with CrossFit's model and consider how you can avoid those pitfalls in selecting an affiliate to join.

Problem: Inexperienced instructor/low bar of entry for affiliate owners.

What to Know: Most people don't realize how low the bar is for being a personal trainer at a commercial gym (When I first started at 24 Hour Fitness almost 20 years ago, the requirement was merely that I personally had been working out for 2 years. That's it!)  On top of that, you'll pay that trainer a whole month's worth of a CrossFit membership in just a week. So how do you avoid falling into the same trap with your CrossFit gym?

Some one-on-one attention is always a good thing

Some one-on-one attention is always a good thing

  • Good: Find a box run by someone with a minimum of 5 years as a personal trainer. This will help weed out the trainers who are doing it while trying to do something else like acting or going to school.  Also someone like this likely has worked with many de-conditioned clients and should know how to make these workouts more appropriate for beginners.  
  • Better: Find a box run by a career trainer. The longer the someone has been in the industry the more likely they are to have some perspective on "fads".  I've seen tons of things come and go through the years. You know what has never left?  Squats, deadlifts, push-ups, pull-ups and many of the things you'll do in CrossFit. The longer a coach has been at this, the more he/she has studied, too.  Either that coach has been certified through multiple agencies, amassed staggering amounts of continued education credits or both.  They've probably seen the industry from several angles and will know how to take care of you.
  • Best: A box run by someone with professional credentials.  The reality is you won't find many affiliates run by PTs like Kelly Starrett or Chiropractors, because people who go to school for that long usually feel obligated to wear a tie to work and seem "professional".  The next best thing is a professional coach.  If someone puts the effort into learning constantly, by the time they've reached 10 years or more they've learned as much or more as someone with a degree.  Find someone who looks at what they do as a serious thing.  I may not be performing surgery in my gym, but if I do it right, you will never need surgery.  The community will make it fun, but the coach should be a professional (with a smile).

Problem: Doing complex movements at a fast pace in a fatigued state isn't safe.

What to Know: Don't LEARN the movements at a fast pace or a fatigued state.  Learn them well, and then develop the intensity as your ability grows.

  • Good: Find a box that has a fairly extensive "on-ramp" program.  This shouldn't be hard because most places have realized that this makes it easier for new members as well as coaches. Make sure it is extensive.  Learning a few basic movements, while better than nothing, won't really prepare you for CrossFit.  I would say a minimum of 12 sessions is the way to go. This creates a logistical nightmare for the box and coaches but it helps the members.
  • Better: A box that provides an "on-ramp" program, as well as a tiered programming structure. The party line is that CrossFit workouts are "universally scale-able" and that's true but it is made easier by breaking it down to begin with into different workouts either for different goals or different abilities.  James "OPT" Fitzgerald popularized this on his "big dawgs" blog years ago and has been adopted by CrossFit Invictus and many other top-tier affiliates.  We implemented this at Karma several years ago with great results.  It lowers the pressure for new members to do workouts that are beyond them, and helps coaches keep people safe.
  • Best: If you find a box that offers private training - for the love of all that is holy take advantage of that! CrossFit is complex and having dedicated eyes on you is so so helpful.  If there are 20+ people in a room, I don't care how good the coach is, even if there are 2 coaches, you just can't keep track of everyone.  Obviously a big part of CrossFit is the community so I am not saying do this instead of groups (unless that works best for you of course).  A gym that offers all of the above is truly the best you will find, that is a gym that wants the best for their members.  They are interested in teaching and really improving your life, not just beating the tar out of you.

Problem: Too many people get hurt doing CrossFit.

What to Know: That's true. But if you could hear the way I say that sentence you would see the emphasis on TOO MANY. It doesn't need to be that way at all.

Wrapping up a class with some RomWod

Wrapping up a class with some RomWod

  • Good: A box that emphasizes strength and barbell work. I think a lot of people reading this might guess the opposite, that body-weight conditioning circuits would be safer than lifting heavy but what makes it safer is what makes it effective. To build strength effectively requires focused efforts at slower speeds (increasing time under tension) and rest periods between sets. This gives a coach more time to access an athlete's movements and make the needed corrections as well as giving the athlete more time to learn what the movement should feel like. It's the equivalent of learning to walk before you run.  Just as important is the fact that strength will act as a buffer.  Doing CrossFit you should always strive for perfect form, not just for safety but for efficiency.  World records however are seldom (never) set with perfect technique. The ability to deadlift 400 pounds with perfect technique gives a "functional tolerance" to lift 100 pounds with terrible technique. Do you always pick up your gym bag with perfect lifting technique? No, cause it's not that heavy.
  • Better: Yoga! Do yoga! This is getting easier and easier with many affiliates running a yoga program or doing RomWod. Of course you still need the barbell and strength work, most yogis probably wouldn't fare well jumping in to CrossFit. So many injuries in CrossFit can be related to poor flexibility and people not doing what is needed to improve those things. It's very simple: if you don't have the flexibility to go through full range of motion - trying to do it fast and under load is not a good idea.  This requires some priority on the athlete's part.  I get that you only have so many hours per week to commit to exercise, but if you're limited with your flexibility you need to make that a priority. I have a saying at our box "You can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make him stretch". If the brakes in my car are shot and I rear-end someone on the freeway, I can't blame them for stopping, and the same holds with CrossFit and your flexibility related injuries.
  • Best: It would be great if we could all train with Kelly Starett or another physical therapist as your coach. That will never be the case. So find a box where the coach has a solid understanding of anatomy, and how to adapt movements until strength and flexibility can be developed. What is important to add here is that if CrossFit is done well, it can actually assess and rehab previous injuries. We have several athletes with previous injuries including disc herniation that being brought along at a proper pace with instruction and homework manage to do CrossFit without incident.