For many RPG gamers, exercise is an Iron Maiden. Both are tools designed for maximum suffering and should be avoided. Though exercise is often shunned by their players, role-playing game player characters often sport peak-human physiques honed through years of punishing exercise. So, I set out to upgrade my physical fitness to PC levels as part of my “versus” post series. I first considered this series of posts last year and this one took the longest by far to complete. Full disclosure as a baseline for my physical fitness level, I regularly attended a gym, usually 3-4 hours per week, usually doing some cardio work (treadmill, elliptical). Weightlifting was not my thing, so I only made a token effort to “pump iron.” That said, I considered myself to be marginally “fit.” Certainly in better shape than most of my fellow IT working peers of the same age (early 40s) and watching the cohort of gamers at Gen con wheezing their way up the stairs in the Indy Convention Center made me feel like an Olympic athlete.
I grossly overestimated my fitness level, but more on that later.
My gym was just a standard large gym and I do not have the expertise in sports training to reach PC grade fitness on my own, so I sought other options. Personal training would do the job, but cost more than a kidney transplant. I considered various “studio” type gyms like pilates or yoga, but neither of those really met my requirements. I even tried a workout at “Orange Theory” that uses heart rate monitors to monitor your workout in real time. The technology appealed to me, but the workout did not impress me and actually felt too easy. It was all cardio work and I did that all the time, so I breezed through the workout. I considered a martial arts/UFC type workout, but those are a separate category for this series. So, after my research a clear winner emerged.
Crossfit popped to the top of the list because the research was all over the board. One side claims it is the greatest workout ever and offers amazing results. Detractors say it is unsafe, poorly coached, potentially lethal and a cult.
I have got to try this.
Fortunately a local CF gym opened near my home and I showed up for the free evaluation and introductory class. CF gyms (aka “boxes.” CF has its own lingo which I will try to avoid, but will explain when I have to use it) are intentionally primitive. They usually open in an old warehouse or other large space. The equipment is spartan: pull-up bars, Olympic weight bars and plates, medicine balls, rowing machines, kettle bells, wooden boxes (to jump up on) and jump ropes. Those items and your own body weight make up the majority of the exercise equipment.
So, I entered the gym and the instructor put me through an evaluation class just to see where I was and if I could hack a class or needed to join the “on-ramp” beginner program. He said it would only take about 15 minutes. He told the absolute truth and then proceeded to demonstrate I was an out of shape physical disaster.
I rowed on a rowing machine, ran, did push-ups, sit-ups, squat with a 20-pound medicine ball for those 15 minutes…straight.
At the end I collapsed on the floor, covered in sweat and sucking air like I was jogging on top of Mount Everest. My legs and arms burned. Crossfit hurt.
He suggested I join the on-ramp classes…when they start in a few weeks. The gym had not got them up and running yet so I would have to join a regular class. Well, I made it so far, so I signed up and started attending regular classes. Here is a sample of what a class looks like.
Stretch at the beginning/short run as a warm-up
Do some weightlifting (deadlifts) or practice some skill like rope climbing or jump rope.
This takes about 10-20 minutes, then you move on to the Workout of the Day. (WOD)
1000 meter row,
3 rounds of…
30 Double unders. (terminology for non-jump ropers. This is getting the rope under your feet twice in one jump. My wife laughed I did not know what it meant. Apparently it is common knowledge to everyone but me, so I include this note)
Seems like a short workout on a web page, but the trick is Crossfit pushes you to go as fast as you can. You go at 100% as much as possible. Of course, those of us beginners had to take a quick breather and grab some water, but you are going for time. I promise you will be in pain by the end. Of course, every workout is different. Check out crossfit.com for a better explanation of their thousands of workouts.
So, I saunter in the next morning to the warehouse/gym at 0530 and get warmed up and part of the workout involves an a couple rounds of 800 meter runs. No problem. I may not be able to do a good pull-up, but I can run no probl…oh…you want me to carry a 45-pound weight too? Well that sucks, but I hiked with heavier packs than that and I am sure I could…What did you say? Carry it over my head?
Oh, come on!
It got better when I realized we would have to run around the gym’s parking lot, in the early morning dark and it was about 40 degrees outside on this cold December morning. Anticipating an indoor workout I wore a light shirt and shorts. None of the other masochists backed out, so I was damn well going to finish this workout. So we did.
I survived that workout and the next and the one after that and finally it became less painful. Let me be clear on this point, Crossfit never truly gets easier, it just sucks less because you are constantly pushing by adding weight or trying to do the workout faster.
As for benefits, a few weeks later my wife commented I was getting leaner. I noticed some actual muscle tone and boxes in my garage became lighter. At the three month point a terrible realization hit me; I worked out for years and saw more results in three months than in the past six years at my old gym.
Oh, I should mention the open secret about those pictures you see of Crossfit Spartan gods you see on the internet. You know, the ones that look like extras for “300.” It is paritally the workout, but it is mostly diet.
I worked out with men and women (my gym only offered one type of class, so I worked out with some highly dedicated people as well as flabby beginners like me) that would do well as fitness models and excluding a couple of atheletic teenages, every one of them ate a special diet. Low-carb, high-protein or some variation thereof usually. Everyone else got into good to amazing shape, but looked…average. I saw a couple of guys who did not bother with the diet pick up some amazingly heavy weight. The muscle was there, you just could not see it under all the beer and hot dogs. I lost some weight, but had no interest in getting “cut.” Still the results were impressive and I kept going.
It is here I stop to cover some of the stereotypes about Crossfit, good and bad.
People often compare Crossfit to a cult. I never saw anything like that since the only ideology is how hard you can push yourself. What I did see was a sort of esprit de corps develop among people that suffered as a group. I specifically remember cheering as a small woman struggled to complete a hard workout and she was last to finish and the 10 other people in the class hung around to cheer her on. It was strangely…stirring emotionally because she was hurting and would not quit. She got it done though and everyone applauded.
My opinion on the “cult” stereotype is less about joining a religion than a sense of supremacy among the survivors. Regular attendees do become “tight.” I am sure that more hardcore gyms might go overboard, but that was not my experience.
Now, for the big question: is Crossfit dangerous?
Here is a quote from Greg Glassman, the founder.
“It can kill you,” he said. “I’ve always been completely honest about that.”
While everyone makes much hay about rhabdomyolysis (you damage your muscles so much it floods your kidneys with damaged cells and shuts them down. You spend days in the hospital getting your system flushed, potentially even dialysis. Oh, it can also kill or permanently damage you) sports injuries like blown joints and simply dropping a weight on your foot are far more likely. You have a heavy weight over your head and your arms simply give out. Gravity is a law you cannot break without consequence. I dropped weights on my feet. tripped while exhausted and running, jumped on a box and did complete flip before landing on the floor and various scrapes, rope burns and scratches. There is also a strong Olympic lifting component that involves some technically complex moves that are quite dangerous without quality coaching. Doing the snatch (below) requires decent coaching or really bad things can happen, as an example.
Now, at most gyms one might expect a skilled coach to train you and hopefully avoid such injuries. Let me tell you a story…
Crossfit “trainers” pass a weekend course that covers the Crossfit basic curriculum. That is the sole requirement to be a CF trainer. I had a great trainer for the first three months at the Crossfit gym, master’s degree in phys ed and he picked up a CF certificate just to teach Crossfit. The man had skills and was an amazing teacher.
So, of course, he left.
Leaving me with Bob (pseudonym of course). Bob worked at some warehouse store as a day job and was not as skilled as I might hope. One day we are doing stretches (not even a real workout, ironically) and I feel some discomfort in my knee. I shake it off and come back the next day. Knee hurts and I mention it to Bob. Bob says if it hurts you just need to stretch it more. I took him at his word. Well Bob, my orthopedic surgeon disagreed with your diagnosis.
Off to physical therapy I go…
Crippling knee pain for a couple of months…
One knee surgery and a week of vicodin finally got the issue resolved.
I knew better and I should have told Bob to go jump in a lake, but my urge to finish the workout overcame common sense. Lesson learned.
So, what is my final thought on using Crossfit to become the player character superman you know is lurking under that middle-age gamer spare tire? Clearly it works, with some major caveats about safety. It was a very informative experience to actually achieve a level a fitness beyond anything I have done before. My 40+ year-old self can outrun and out lift my 20 year-old self with no issue whatsoever. Amazing what a few months and some suffering can do. Oh, I did quit my gym after my injury, but I did not quit Crossfit. This is a picture of my garage.
Yes, I drank the kool-aid and still workout using the Crossfit system. I do not push quite as hard and I avoid some of the workouts that are really insane, but it is still my first choice for fitness. At least now I do not have to belong to a gym or pay for sub-standard training.
Bottom line for the “Versus” series. How does Crossfit measure up?
Cost: 10 $100-200 per month! This is an expensive way to workout, which is one reason I spent a few months of gym dues to buy what I needed at home.
Personal Risk: 10 Potentially lethal, especially to sedentary gamers. Consider the beginner Crossfit classes before doing the real thing. Check references on your trainers and get somebody that will teach you rather than drive you into the ground.
Cool: 6 Rumors of lethal workouts and cult-like activities give Crossfit a bump in the cool score. It loses a few points because every office or workplace has at least one zealot that will not shut up about how cool Crossfit is! Shut up already!
Gamer Cred: 7 “There is no way a guy with a 10 strength could climb that rope in one round. It took me twice as long yesterday during the workout!” Awe your fellow gamers with some real-world anecdotes of your physical prowess.
More “Versus” posts coming soon!
Trask, The Last Tyromancer