7 Stages of the CrossFit Life Cycle: Which One Are You?
How long have you been alive?
That’s how long I’ve been doing CrossFit! Well, not really, but at this point I’ve been in the game longer than most of the people I know and interact with. I’ve been here to see it become a trend, then a rapidly expanding bubble expected to burst like all of the previous fads, and finally into a mainstay in the fitness industry.
As I watched CrossFit go through its growing pains, I went right along with it. I began as a participant, became an athlete, then rapidly picked up steam and became a competitor expected to burst on the scene, followed by being a coach, an owner, and finally a tried-and-true participant.
CrossFit’s history is right in line with the trajectory of its participants, they both follow an evolutionary cycle with distinct stages. After eating, sleeping and breathing it and then watching countless others do the same, here’s what I know…
The Stages of a CrossFitter
You know how you feel when you first introduce yourself to someone you’re interested in? Maybe you awkwardly stumble over your words, or you go in full steam but unprepared, possibly you trip over yourself like that one time in Mexico (never mind… that’s a different story), or you go off on a tangent, or you over prepare but forget all of your lines?
Well we all start off hot on CrossFit and feel the same way. We have heard it’s awesome, we’ve gotten a taste for what it has to offer, but we have absolutely no idea what we’re doing. Sure we’ve finished the On Ramp or Foundations intro class, but what the fuck do all of the letters on the board mean? Why are the lifts named after body parts and what we do with them in the dark? Is it supposed to feel like I’m dying and who exactly is this Fran? No matter how much research or confidence you come in with it is all brand new, but that’s not all bad!
The first 30 to 90 days are just as magical as they are confusing. Everyday is a new PR, you lose weight faster than you ever have, other than that one time you got mono (never mind… that’s my story). You don’t really know what the hell this CrossFit stuff is, but you’re hooked and you want more of it. This is where you start to explore what it’s made of it and get the first dose of perspective regarding what you’re made of in the process.
Woohoo! This is awesome!
Do you have one of those friends who shares every second of their day on Facebook and Instagram? And every time you see them you also get to hear about it? That’s the Stage 2 Crossfitter! They are excited about this shit because it works and they’re going to tell the world about it. Wondering if that might be you? Ask yourself the following questions:
- How many funny workout shirts have you pinned on Pinterest?
- Count your last 10 social media posts, were 6 of them taken in the gym? More?
- Has your grandma told you something along the lines of: You shouldn’t be talking about your Snatch on the internet!?
If you answered yes to more than two of those, chances are you’re that person. It’s nothing to be ashamed of though. There is some really cool stuff happening in this phase of the cycle. Your body is getting the hang of things like Olympic lifts (pun intended… and as a coach it’s important to give a proper PSA: always learn the OLY lifts from the hang and master the hip thrust before moving to the floor - as a person of an undisclosed age and even lower level of maturity I feel it’s worth noting that you should always master your hip thrust before taking anyone to the floor as well).
You’re moving more weight more quickly. Likewise, the weight is shedding off of you because your body hasn’t adapted to the stimuli just yet. You’re burning a ton of calories, learning how to move through space under tension, and having a damn good time doing it. You’ve got a fever and the only prescription is more CrossFit! It’s not enough to just talk about CrossFit, you turn yourself into a walking billboard with #BeastMode shirts, No Bulls or Nanos (depending on which generation of CrossFitter you are) and some sick Natural Grips to keep your baby soft hands from maybe, possibly tearing in the future because you saw someone else wearing them and bought them. And bought knee sleeves. And wrist wraps. And Rocktape. That’s pretty much the 3-6 month status quo.
This stuff is the best, I don’t know exactly what it is, but everyone should do it!
Just like a relationship, after the honeymoon phase where everything is new and wonderful it is time to make a commitment. After you get your head out of the Reebok colored clouds and come back to earth, you start to look beyond the gym. It’s about more than just lifting and trying to Rx workouts. You hear about Paleo Challenges, measuring Macros and something called LuRong Living, so in true CrossFit style, you check it out! Don’t worry, I did it too.
Next thing you know you’ve lost a little more weight, replaced bread with sweet potatoes and essentially outcasted yourself from Sunday dinners at Mom’s. But who cares right? You’re slimming down, you’re focused on yourself, oh and also the other people - they’re all doing Paleo and eating clean. Plus, none of the other diets worked: Atkins was an asshole, South Beach was no fun in the sun, and Mediterranean was too much cooking. Paleo though, Paleo is the answer. That is, until the cool, tattooed chick on Instagram crushes a deadlift bigger than yours wearing donut shorts. She knows what’s up: Crushing doughnuts and counting macros, gotta feed the machine! Holy shit, you’re eating carbs and still losing weight?! Stage 3 lasts about 6 months to 1 year and it’s still all fun and games.
Constantly varied functional movements performed at high intensity paired with donuts is the key to life!
I will be the first to admit it: I Tommy Tartaglia traveled to the Games in 2011 where I proceeded to use all of the fitness I had to run from Rich, to Camille, to every other CrossFitter I followed for pictures. After months of listening to podcasts, reposting videos, and dedicating a substantial, slightly embarrassing amount of time to studying the pros, I was awe struck to meet them in person. I literally lived for people who were really good at exercise racing.
You know you’re in full Fanboy mode when you volunteer at Regionals just to get close to one of them… I mean “help out the community.” At this point you’re fully committed to CrossFit and it’s becoming part of the definition of who you are at your very core. You’ve learned about facing your weaknesses, pushing your limits, and can recite the 100 words describing World Class Fitness. During the first 8 to 18 months you have probably taken your Level 1, and if you haven’t, you’ve definitely at least looked up the prices or where it is being offered.
Discipline, dedication and Two-A-Days (Maybe).
There are no more maybes, in the competitor stage you are all in. Every minute. Every day. You have upped your accessory repertoire to include metcon shoes, running shoes, weightlifting shoes, torture a.k.a. mobility devices, a fancy jump rope, a weight belt, high socks for rope climbs, low socks for running, pre-workout powder, post-workout mix, mid-workout carbs… the more you have the better you’ll be. I know because I was the worst at this, you could literally outfit a gym with what I carried around in my Sector Duffel.
And while you’re here in this phase of the CrossFitter lifecycle why not start doing competitions? You need to challenge yourself more and fitness harder. So you do. You sign up for all of them, sacrifice form for speed, give your last ounce of oxygen and sweat for reps. You know you’re not the best, but you know you could be. Like Muhammad Ali you thought, “I am the greatest, I said that even before I knew I was.” For each place you drop down the leaderboard you spend another hour of your life checking out the programs of the greats: Outlaw, Invictus, CompTrain, a little Monster Mash on Saturdays… Next thing you know your shoulders are tight, your hands are tingling, your low back feels like you’ve been eating Romanian Deadlifts and Good Mornings for breakfast, and you actually need those Natural Grips for your meat tenderized hands.
This can be a bad place or a great one and it will last for 1 year to forever depending. If you don’t have a great coach to guide you, or even worse you are guided by your ego, the Competitor Stage can be dangerous. It can become an unhealthy focus where you define your own self worth based on a score, and spend your days dedicated to improving your exercising at the cost of relationships, time, and even your overall health. On the other hand, if you set your ego aside competitions offer the opportunity to tease out your weaknesses and show off all of the hard work you’ve put in. If you take losses as a learning opportunity and listen to your body, it can be a life-changing experience. If the competitor stage is done right, it offers an outlet for attention to detail that leads to high quality movement and peak performance by stepping back, slowing down and being open to learning and putting in work. This type of work changes a person. If you follow through so fully on something, you learn about virtuosity and integrity in a way that permeates every aspect of your life. On the other hand, if you follow through on it partially, or with misguided motivations, you drive yourself into the ground and make a habit of taking shortcuts.
If the cycle ended here for those letting their egos drive their ships, we’d be a much better society, but it doesn’t. Fortunately it doesn’t end here for those with the correct motivations either. At this point, no matter what side of the fence you’re on the Crossfit itch is a full on rash!
I don’t do the group classes unless I need another warm up, but you can join me on my third session of lifting if you want.
You’ve paid your dues with blood, sweat, tears, and pounds of fat. If you move forward out of your competitor phase, those very tokens buy you admission into the Adult Phase of the CrossFitter lifecycle. Here is where you actually enjoy learning about your body. Instead of going as hard as you can at everything, you’re going as hard as your current state will allow you to and looking for intelligent programming to bring you to the next level. You’re cool with waiting weeks, months or even years to make progress. At this phase you’re slowing your movements down to get them right and you’re actually doing the warm ups! You’re definitely in this phase if you have a go-to Chiro you know by first name and you actually listen to his or her advice.
At this point you can actually define what CrossFit is in terms other than Glassman’s rhetoric, and since you’re no longer excitedly spewing CrossFit crazed babel, people listen. Without using words like WOD, Paleo, or RX, people listen as you explain that it is about a variety of movements that translate to real life activities and are practiced differently by each individual in the gym since it’s a style of group workouts mixed with personal training. You know this because you’ve lived every flavor of it and you may even have looked outside of the box into other realms of functional fitness such as OPEX (or OPT depending on your age), active recovery, ROMWOD, and Kelly Starrett. You can live here forever. You can also be a competitor here if you’re in it for the long haul.
I learned a lot in my firebreather days and I’m here to stay.
Mastery is not defined as perfection, but rather as perfecting balance. After a couple of years doing CrossFit we have put in the work and can perform most movements with 80-90% proficiency. This is a phase that not all people, for various reasons, achieve. It is a balanced blend of competitive focus and quality of life. You can’t get here on the fast track though. It is only achieved when there is a focus on foundational strength, massive amounts of repetition to build technique, quality nutrition, adequate sleep, and remaining injury free. If you’re wondering whether or not you’re in the Adult or Mastery stage, compare yourself to the following CrossFitter.
A guy in his mid 40’s that’s been doing it for a couple of years. He arrives for classes on time and goes through the entire warm up every. single. time. He moves well but doesn’t place top 5 everyday. He’s got a full time job and he takes his energy from the gym and brings it to work every day. He knows this life is a marathon, not a sprint. He understands how his body works, certain quirks his elbow may have, which pull up bar is the best height for him, and will stop himself in the middle of a workout to adjust his form and continue on. He is probably not entering into many competitions, but at those he does he never looks like an asshole when he catches a snatch in the receiving position. He’s rolling 80/20 on diet, eating like an adult with lots of greens, healthy fats, a bunch of protein and even includes a couple of drinks on the weekend. He still shows up at the 5:15 am class every Monday. He’s also invested in a cooler brand, Tango Charlie Apparel, he’s cool with being the “Worlds Okayest Exerciser” because he knows that humility looks far better on him than that #BeastMode shirt he wore a few stages ago.
More is not More.
I will let you decide what stage I’m in: I’ve learned my lessons the hard way. Throughout my time in the Marine Corps I was always under the impression if you wanted to run a faster 3 miles you should run 3 miles more often, as well as 4 miles and 5 miles more often. God if I knew then what I know now?! If for some crazy reason I wanted to run faster, I would put in time building up my aerobic capacity and mastering the footwork needed to be efficient. It isn’t always about how much you’re doing, but rather what you’re doing.
People in CrossFit, as well as other sports, are now starting to realize that more is not more. Optimization is key, and the best strength and conditioning coaches aren’t out there destroying their athletes bodies for the sake of volume; they're limiting their training time while increasing the efficiency of it. Mastery is the ideal phase for all participants: crazy competitors, weekend warriors, five-am-ers, middle-aged madmen, and mature adults.
What stage of the CrossFit lifecycle are you in?