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Confessions of a Middle-Aged CrossFit Newbie

The more I work out, the more I realize it's not really about my own vanity or dropping a few pounds. The true thing it's training me for is a longer, healthier life with my family. I walk out of the gym feeling exhausted, but great. It makes me feel alive.
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I am definitely not your typical CrossFit disciple. I am a 49-year-old, soft-around-the-middle type of guy. The bulk of my athletic endeavors are a decade behind me, and my 40s have been plagued by an endless array of injuries -- including elbow tendonitis, a torn calf muscle and a hamstring I shredded into an unholy mess. Even worse, every passing year brings an uglier number when I step on the scale. I used to just jump back into a workout routine and curb the diet to get things back under control. Those days are now gone.

Being a stay-at-home dad of two young sons doesn't allow me much time for the long runs that used to help me fight off the weight. I'm mostly a writer, which leads to long motionless days sitting at a computer, but I also do a lot of performing, which involves the occasional on-camera gig. After every one I would be disgusted by my ever-widening pudginess I would see on the screen. I'd constantly swear to lose weight before my next gig, but it never happened. Enter CrossFit.

I've seen several friends get into awesome shape doing those workouts, but it sure did look hard. Especially considering the state of disrepair I'd fallen into. I did a lot of research to see if it was the right program for me. And by research, I mean even more time in front of the computer stuffing cheez curls down my gullet. There's a ton of info out there, both pro and con, about the whole CrossFit revolution. Everyone has an opinion. A strong opinion. I assume that even as I'm writing this, people are readying their anonymous internet comments to write down below.

My research led to the following concerns:

#1 Beware the cult of CrossFit.
#2 CrossFit leads to injury at best and life-threatening rhabdo at worst.
#3 Communal classes, something I've never been a fan of. (see Concern #4)
#4 The high school gym class embarrassment factor.
#5 The cost.
#6 The argument that it doesn't really train you for anything.

The most important thing all the research taught me was to find a gym with capable instructors that you trust. The majority of the workouts are extremely technical, so you want to know they have the knowledge and background to guide you through the process. I signed up for a four-session fundamentals program to see if I liked it and to make sure the trainers were a good fit.

Luckily, the CrossFit gym I chose was only a few minutes from my house AND they had top-notch, highly-qualified instructors. They weren't the fearsome drill instructors I was expecting. So much is made in the dire warnings against CrossFit about how form is sacrificed due to the timed factor of so many of the workouts, but these guys kept stopping me and other folks whenever our form wasn't 100 percent correct. Even though the exercises were way out of my comfort zone and the communal classes were new to me, I decided to jump in with a full membership.

I've been doing it for three months now and I still enjoy it. As much as you can enjoy a punishingly exhausting sweatfest. Each class is a new workout, a new challenge and a new way to push myself. Now that I have a little bit of experience with the program I went back over my original concerns.

#1 The Cult of CrossFit -- I was afraid it was going to be a nuthouse full of pumped up CrossFit zealots throwing weights all over the place and puking in corners. I haven't run into that yet. I've encountered a few folks who are a little over the top, but you can encounter those types of people everywhere. For the most part it's just an encouraging, supportive group who interact normally and genuinely like each other. We chat, we sweat, we curse... then we go home.

#2 CrossFit leads to injury -- I get what all the warnings are about. If you are a testosterone-fueled knuckle-dragger who only wants to "crush" previous times, of course there's a greater chance for injury. But that's the type of person who would put himself at risk in any gym setting. Personally, I know that I will push myself, but not to the brink of injury. Over the years I've run marathons, climbed mountains, rock climbed and have never been the one to train so hard as to end up hovering over a barrel puking. Those of you who have done that might say I've never really pushed myself. To that I say... "Who cares what you think?"

I work hard, but I don't attempt to beat anyone else in the gym. The only person I want to do better than is yesterday's me. Yes, that sounds like some new age-y bullshit, but it's true. I will push myself to the limit, but not at the risk of injury.

#3 Communal classes -- Probably because I spent the past three decades running, I've always preferred working out solo. I liked putting on the headphones and ignoring the rest of the world, so jumping into a class setting was not something I looked forward to. It really wasn't as bad as I thought. Classes are short anyway (only an hour long), but when you add in the small talk and camaraderie, they go even quicker. A one-hour class with like-minded, supportive peers goes a helluva lot quicker than a one-hour solo slog of circuit-training and treadmill thumping.

#4 The high school gym class embarrassment factor -- I was a tall, scrawny kid in high-school with zero muscle definition. Gym class was my hell. While everyone seemed to knock out push-ups and pull-ups with ease, I tried to hide in the back and not be seen. For the President's Physical Fitness test I recorded one pull-up. One measly pull-up. And that's only because I was tall enough to be able to jump up and get my chin above the bar before my spaghetti-thin arms failed to hold up my body weight and dropped me to the floor like a sack of dry cement outfitted in ill-fitting gym shorts.

My No. 1 reason against going to CrossFit was fear of that kind of embarrassment again. That fear quickly vanished. Yes, everyone in the class is in much better shape than me, but no one seems to care. I have never felt judged or ridiculed even though I am miles behind most of these folks. They've all gone out of their way to be supportive and talk about how tough it was for them at the beginning and how far they've come.

The few times I've felt embarrassed in CrossFit were all on me. No one else cared. Even my worst moment -- attempting to do a clean and jerk I hit myself in the chin with the bar and almost knocked myself out, with the entire room watching me! -- was a non-event.

That's the beauty of the box. Everyone in there is working outside of their comfort zone, so everyone screws up. The very next class, after almost knocking myself unconscious, was a day of box jumps. A simple jumping exercise onto increasingly taller wooden boxes. As much as I suck at most of the other stuff, for some reason this is one thing I excel at. So the shoe was on the other foot and I was able to support and encourage everyone else... and when they failed and fell, I didn't care. It's all about the effort.

#5 The cost -- Yes, it costs more than most gyms. And yes, it's easy to walk in and say, "Wait a minute. It's just a bunch of weights, ropes and pull-up bars. Why is it so much more expensive than my last gym that had tons of fancy equipment and steam rooms, etc?" It's true, but what you're really paying for is that one-on-one instruction. I've been the reigning King of Bad Form at all my other gyms and no one ever gave a shit. I was probably doing myself more harm than good. At my new place I can't take one step in the wrong direction without someone correcting me. I definitely need that type of handholding.

Plus, the best gym is the one you actually go to and I find myself going to this one way more than any fancy gym I've ever belonged to. Whether it's the strict schedule (I'm on a M-W-F track when the kidlets are in school), the sense of community or not wanting to waste the added bucks I'm spending, I don't care. I go regularly, and that's a good thing.

#6 Then there's the final argument. That CrossFit doesn't really train you for anything except how to do CrossFit better. I totally disagree. I originally started doing it to shed a few pounds for my performing career, but it has helped in numerous other ways. It has helped with my flexibility, which before I started was catastrophically poor. It has helped with my cardio. My posture. Even my confidence. Especially my confidence.

The more I work out, the more I realize it's not really about my own vanity or dropping a few pounds. The true thing it's training me for is a longer, healthier life with my family. I walk out of the gym feeling exhausted, but great. It makes me feel alive. And every punishing workout makes me think of the extra time I'll have with my wife and kids many years down the road.