10 questions to ask when starting CrossFit

Listen, folks, I see no shame in admitting the truth—I love the KoolAid. I took my first sip four years ago during a late night workout in NYC with a motley crew that have become the CrossFit kings of Queens (and the entire Northeast, actually), and I've been mainlining it ever since. My functional fitness journey led me to membership at CrossFit gyms in Boston and Washington DC, and finally to a career in fitness, competition, and coaching here in Philadelphia.

I was fortunate when I started; the sport (or brand, it is after all, both) was thrown at me by a dear friend and long-time CrossFit coach, who promised me that I would love it. I did. I immediately found the closest CrossFit box to my house (at that time, there were only two CrossFit gyms in Boston), which happened to be an extremely well-respected gym with an educated, talented, and nurturing coaching staff. I didn't seek that out, though—I had no idea what to look for, all I knew was that I wanted more.  

This is the position in which many new-to-the-game, would-be-CrossFitters find themselves. They see it on ESPN, maybe they try out a WOD or two from the "Main Site," or their friends from work do it and they want to try it. So what's an athlete, desperate for that KoolAid, to do? As a point of reference, at the end of July 2009, there were approximately 1,350 CrossFit Affiliates worldwide, according to a CrossFit Journal article bearing the same date. At present, there are around 6,100 (according to the CrossFit Affiliate Map). Which one should you pick?

Do some homework. Don't just sign up for any ol' Groupon offering a discounted week/month/year. Diligence! There are minimal qualifications that one must possess in order to coach at a CrossFit gym (read: $1k to spare). There are no additional personal or educational qualifications that one most possess in order to open a CrossFit gym. The sport is, at its base, functional movement that is infinitely scalable (appropriate for all ages, bodies, and abilities) and when coached appropriately, an extraordinarily safe fitness program. The unfortunate part is that it's not always coached appropriately, and preventable injuries happen on more occasions than us KoolAid-chuggers would like to admit.  

So you've caught the bug, but you have fond feelings towards your labrum and want to leave it intact—here are some factors to consider when evaluating your membership options:

  1. What education—outside of CrossFit endorsed certifications—do the owner(s) and coaches hold?  
  2. Does the gym require continuing education of its staff?  
  3. What is the athlete to coach ratio during any given class?
  4. How long did the coaches participate in CrossFit before becoming instructors? Note: At each CrossFit Level 1 Certification Course, the instructors ask the group, usually between 40-70 people, how many have never done CrossFit before and it is astounding to see how many hands go up.
  5. Get a feel for the community through the gym's blog and Facebook page.  Ask current members who may already be in your social circle what they think about the gym's culture.  Do the coaches shuffle folks in and out without taking time to learn names?  Community, one of the key KoolAid ingredients, is what hooks most of us from the start.  It's important that you find a gym community with which you click.  
  6. How do they introduce you to CrossFit?  Is it through a series of beginner classes (often called ‘On Ramp,’ ‘Elements,’ or ‘Foundations’)? A one-on-one session with a coach? Be cautious of facilities that throw you into regular classes right away, even when there is separate "beginner programming" within the class. 
  7. Do coaches watch all athletes lift? Under what circumstances, if any, are athletes allowed to lift without the eyes of a coach?  
  8. Is nutrition discussed? It is the basis of just about everything. Red flag any gym that refrains from having any opinion at all.  
  9. Is the programming dynamic? Does it change? Can the coaches talk with specificity about rhymes and reasons behind certain movements/skills and their inclusion in the cycle of programming?
  10. Is there a focus on mobility and movement preparation? Do coaches lead movement preparation as part of class, or are athletes expected to foam roll/LAX ball/stretch/warm-up on their own?

Don't feel bad about asking a lot of questions before making a decision. CrossFit is wicked expensive (ask any KoolAid guzzler, it's entirely worth it) and you owe it to yourself to find the place that's going to be the best fit for you.

Read more Sports Doc for Sports Medicine and Fitness.