Levels of CrossFit & Fitness Awareness
By Jim Broun, CrossFit BNI Trainer
Over a few decades of doings various things – both professionally and recreationally – I have learned that there are several levels of awareness related to understanding and getting better at your craft. It seems as though every six years or so as a snobby know-it-all analyst, I would have an awakening and realize that many things I thought I knew about being an analyst were completely different than I perceived. It wasn’t as if what I was doing was wrong. I had always been very good as an analyst. I just became aware of the WHY and HOW at a level I hadn’t previously understood, and that changed how I approached being an analyst.
And THAT allowed me to get better as an analyst.
Having been in the CrossFit realm since its inception, I have also noticed the same advancement of my understanding over time; and this has allowed me to progress as an athlete – beyond what I previously thought was possible.
When most people walk into CrossFit for the first time, they see a challenging exercise routine, and imagine the workout is simply an alternative to the LA Fitness drudgery: Back and biceps… Chest and triceps… Leg day… You know the routine. Some people use the phrase “shock your body” to explain how they perceive that CrossFit will help them lose a few pounds. Some people just needed a financial or social commitment to something that would force them to get into shape.
This is where most people start their fitness journey – at level one.
At this level, we have heard a lot of the fitness do’s and don’ts: Diet and exercise are a team. High intensity exercise burns fat. Muscles grow when we force them to work harder than they are accustomed to working. In this phase, however, we don’t completely know if we want to commit fully to the hype. Body builders are meatheads, CrossFitters are cultists, and people who have six pack abs are genetic freaks on steroids. You just want to lose a few pounds, or to (giggle) TONE your muscles. This certainly can’t be too strenuous. So you start your CrossFit journey, and learn how to squat (hopefully).
After a month or so of drinking the CrossFit Kool Ade, you notice that your fitness level has improved by a thousand percent. You might not be able to do all the movements; but you WANT to someday. You also may not have lost a lot of weight; but you notice that your clothes fit a little looser. Deep inside you know it is working, so you make a commitment to stick around a while longer. One thing that gets to you is that you seem to always finish last, and are using the pink bar for everything. Man, if you could only get that pull-up thing figured out, you would be kicking some serious ass!
This is when you hit the second level of awareness.
You can squat and swing a kettlebell fairly well; but there seems to be a coach within arms length during every workout, and that coach is always correcting your form (nag, nag, nag…). Chances are, you think you have the super-easy deadlift down pat; but don’t feel comfortable lifting more than 90 pounds for more than a rep or two, and your back feels like you need to take a day off afterwards. You keep hearing coaches say things like “knees out” and “shoulders back”; but those queues don’t really resonate with you yet, and when you DO follow the queues it is uncomfortable. Chances are, you will ignore these queues until you get injured from not following them; or will only follow them because you see someone else doing it, and lifting a ton more than you can.
People get stuck at level two for a long time. Self-doubt reigns supreme. Then people who are newer at CrossFit than you are suddenly doing handstands and muscle-ups, and are leaving you in the fitness dust. You start reading Muscle & Fitness, and soliciting your friends for information on how to get better at everything. You still, however, half-heartedly approach inch bugs, and are still grabbing the pink bar for cleans and push presses.
Then, one day that light bulb turns on, and that babble that the coach has been spewing at you is suddenly in English! Hips back! Knees out!!! Suddenly your deadlift weight goes to 200 pounds, and your back doesn’t hurt at all after the workout. All of that silly “form” nonsense suddenly becomes clear – at least for a few movements.
You are officially at the third level of awareness.
At this level you make New Year’s resolutions by the hundreds. Every movement has a benchmark that you need to meet. Pull-ups, handstands, a 7-minute Fran time, pistols… You don’t know how, but by the end of the year you will be at the CrossFit Games.
Level three doesn’t last that long, because as soon as you miss 99% of your new resolutions, you become a bit more of a realist in what it takes to get to the next level of your personal fitness. This is also a phase when PRs mean everything, and the work to get those PRs seems to get ignored. You may hit a few personal bests in some lifts; but overall your strength and gains are about average for your body type and musculature.
At some point, the realization hits that in order to get better you have to put in hard work. Getting a pull-up is hard when you can’t even hang your body weight by your hands for more than a couple seconds. Handstand push-ups are hard when your push press PR is 45 pounds.
Level four hits when you finally concede and follow the programming and skill work recommendations. Form AND function start becoming one. As people go through this phase, however, they go though it with intent. They have accepted that they need to listen to their body, and discover where and how they can make gains by recording their efforts and the subsequent results. For people with less then three years in their personal fitness journey, this is a long phase. There is so much to learn about ourselves.
From this point forward, each individual will continue to go through periodic enlightenment. This enlightenment continues as long as that individual continues to push himself or herself physically. Suddenly, aspects of intensity, pace, nutrition, supplementation, and rest become important. Some people will culminate at this level of awareness, as it takes more time and energy to focus this much on fitness.
There is a Progression Chart on the wall that uses the terms “beginner”, “intermediate”, “advanced”, and :fire breather”… That chart approximates the phases or levels of progress – which usually includes both physical capability and level of fitness awareness. If you are a new CrossFitter, or have never thought about how you are going to progress as a CrossFitter, it’s important to realize that your transformation from desk jockey/soccer mom is much more than just thoughtlessly grinding through a randomized fitness program. Learn the form. Get good at the form and the required mobility. Learn how a 10-minute METCON WOD affects your body versus a 5×5 back squat at 80% of your one rep max.
Realize that even Veruca didn’t get the golden egg the minute she wanted it.