One of the trickiest things about selecting a CrossFit gym is summed up in that old adage: you don't know what you don't know.
In order to properly evaluate a gym, you'd have to train there for months, learn about the coaching, learn about the programming, learn about the community – and then switch over to another facility and do it all over again. This is probably not going to happen, since, once you get involved at a gym, you'll make friends, develop a routine, and probably see significant results. People rarely switch CrossFit gyms once they get started – it usually requires a favorite coach getting fired, an improperly resolved financial dispute, or someone sleeping with someone who they shouldn't have.
Besides, even if the quality of training is better at another gym, there is definitely something to be said for picking something and sticking to it. "Program hoppers" who are always searching for the next tactic, the next squat cycle, or the next new thing often tend to see worse results than people who consistently follow a program day in and day out.
On the opposite side of the coin, a bad experience with CrossFit can confirm all the sensationalist scare pieces you've probably read online. Yes, you could get hurt, you could get rhabdo, and you could also have some socially miscalibrated drill sergeant screaming in your face. This kind of experience can sour you on CrossFit for life. But, a good gym is going to take massive steps to prevent those things from happening to you.
Let's break it down like this:
-Once you join a gym, you're probably going to stay there.
-You're probably going to join based upon your first impressions and whether or not you felt welcomed
-Your impression of what CrossFit is, how best to eat, how best to move, and whether you should wear weightlifting shoes when deadlifting will be shaped by your choice.
Fortunately or unfortunately, your first impressions are probably not going to have much to do with the quality of training at a given facility. They probably have a lot more to do with soft aspects of customer experience, and whether you felt comfortable and welcomed. It also helps a lot if the facility you're walking into seems to have people who look like you, walk like you and talk like you having fun and getting results.
The other option is to just go to the same place that your friends go – or the place that's a three block walk from work.
Still, you can arm yourself with a few key concepts to look for when evaluating a gym. In part one, we will address what I would consider to be a "philosophical" framework for operating a gym, and, in part two, we will discuss some of the more nitty-gritty aspects of implementation and what these concepts look like in practice.
Before we get started, I should do my best to reveal my own bias. I obviously think that what we offer at South Loop Strength & Conditioning is the best CrossFit program in Chicago, or else I would go work for the folks who are offering the best. I will sometimes mention how we do things, but that isn't meant to be a sales pitch for what we do. It's meant to put theory into practice and offer concrete examples of one way of doing things. What we do is not necessarily the best, and, each individual is going to resonate with different styles of programs and different communities of people. So, take what I say with a grain of salt (a lot of you paleo folks are probably under-eating on your sodium anyway). I won't try to hide my bias, though. I'll try to put it out front and let you evaluate what I'm saying for yourself, recognizing that I do have my own strong opinions.
Most of your time at a CrossFit gym will be spent under the eye of a coach. The quality of a coach is difficult for people to evaluate – much like the quality of something like a physical therapist or a doctor. A lot of people generally assume that someone in a position of authority deserves to be there – having gone through rigorous vetting and accumulating hours of on-the-job of experience.
The reality is that there is massive variation in the knowledge, social skills, relationship management, and adaptability among people in any profession. This applies equally to doctors, lawyers, therapists, and coaches. But, as a newbie, you're likely to come into a new environment and immediately trust the authority figure present (in this case, a coach). You simply don't have the necessary knowledge to evaluate them critically.
Let's use an example of a chiropractor. The first chiropractor I went to operated much like a physical therapist – assessing movement patterns, trying to find weak links, and offering a mix of manual therapy and home exercise to correct issues in mobility, stability and motor patterning. I thought it was great. When I told my mom that I was going to see a chiropractor, she said something to the effect of, "They're all quacks."
This didn't resonate with me and I didn't understand why she would have that attitude until years later – I didn't even know that some chiropractors operate on a model solely based upon pseudoscientific theories on spinal manipulation and do nothing other than adjust your spine and line you up for recurring payments for weekly adjustments.
These two things both exist under the name of chiropractic – and plenty of people happily pay for both. But, how many of those clients are aware of the whole bell curve of possibilities for the quality of treatment you could receive under the umbrella of chiropractic? How many people try other chiropractors and compare and contrast the quality of service that they receive from different practitioners?
The same phenomenon exists within coaching and personal training.
A coach can have all the certifications in the world and lack basic human communication skills. A coach can know exactly how to read people, and have a knack for saying the right thing at the right time to motivate clients, but have no clue how to actually correct someone's valgus knees in their squat.
This is an entire article into itself, but here are some of the criteria that I use when evaluating coaches:
–Assessment: Can the coach see what the problem is? It's one thing to read books and memorize anatomy – it's another to be able to spot movement flaws at real-life speed with real-life human beings. Can the coach see how hard someone is working? Is the client leaving too much in the tank? Are they letting their ego get the best of them when they load the bar up? Being able to pick out what's going on is step one in being able to help someone progress faster and more safely.
–Triage: In most situations, there are multiple flaws occurring at the same time. However, attempting to correct all of them at once is a fool's errand. Instead, the biggest error must be corrected first – and, when you pick the right thing to work on, you'll often find that other errors "downstream" end up fixing themselves as well. A great coach picks one thing to work on. A lower order coach tries to fix three things at once.
–Correction or regression: It's not enough to simply throw a cue at someone. While "elbows up!" may be a great reminder for an athlete who lets their upper back get soft in the front squat, oftentimes an athlete needs much more detailed cuing. They may need tactile feedback. They may need to spend five minutes doing a mobility exercise in order to achieve the desire position. They may need to spend two months laying on the ground learning to breathe properly. A great coach can find something that makes the biggest problem better, and, simultaneously, modify the task-at-hand to keep the athlete safe (A deadlift from the floor becomes a deadlift from plates stacked to the knee, for example).
–Communication: All the technical knowledge in the world can't help if a coach can't read and relate to their athletes. How does a coach react if you don't understand what they're saying? Do they get frustrated? Do they get defensive? Do they speak only in technical terms that don't make sense to you? Do they seem overly concerned with demonstrating their athletic superiority to those around them? Do they make you feel judged? Or, do they progress you step-by-step at a rate that you feel comfortable with?
–Re-evaluate: The claims of fitness "gurus" who tell you that they can diagnose your biggest problems just by taking a quick glance at your posture are hopefully coming to a close. Any long-term progression generally comes from a process of iteration. You try one thing, you see some progress, progress stalls, you try something else, no change happens, you try something else, progress restarts, etc. A dedication to this process and an understanding of the inevitable peaks and plateaus is crucial for a coach to guide their athletes.
Every coach is going to have their own style and their own methodology, but there are principles that all the best share. The coaching process is about honestly evaluating where someone is, having the vision to see where they could be, and working to bring those pieces together – no matter how zig-zaggy the path may be.
When we ask our members at South Loop Strength & Conditioning what they like most about the gym, the word "community" almost always comes up.
While you'll almost certainly find a group of driven individuals who want to make themselves better at every CrossFit gym, there are absolutely going to be differences between gyms in terms of demographics and training priorities.
What do you think the difference is between a gym that caters to families vs a gym that caters to competitors? Is everyone encouraged to "push themselves" or to find the "right pace"? Is there a significant social component outside the gym?
Let's break this down a little bit.
How much of a priority does the community place on competition? And in what context? And on what level?
Obviously if your goal is push yourself to the highest level of fitness competition (CrossFit Games Regionals, National Pro Grid League, etc.), you will want to be surrounded by athletes and coaches who support that goal. Training for maximum potential is an entirely different animal than training for health and wellness, and the facility and coaching need to be in place to support that goal if that is your aim.
For other folks though, the concept of competition doesn't just mean "does the gym have high level athletes competing for a spot at Regionals or the CrossFit Games?" It also means "How much competition is inserted into the regular group classes and programming?" Do athletes from the gym regularly participate in local events, either as throwdowns to test their fitness or "just for fun" team outings? Or is the environment more focused on being welcoming and non-intimidating?
There is not necessarily a right or a wrong way to do this, and many gyms find a great balance between these seemingly competing concepts. Still, this is something important to understand when you're selecting an affiliate. It's also important to recognize that your individual competition goals can shift over your fitness career. Many folks who started off wanting to train for Regionals realize that training is no longer fun to them when done with that much seriousness and volume. Other folks realize that pushing their potential scratches some type of deep itch in their psyche.
It is also important to recognize that your lifestyle also impacts what path may be best relative to your long-term goals. In other words, what you think you want may not actually be what you need.
The hard-charging trader running on four hours of sleep per night with high blood pressure may love the daily competition at the whiteboard and may get a huge thrill out of tracking numbers and beating people – still, something a bit more relaxed (yoga, tai chi, etc.) may be best practice for this individual if their goals are long-term progression and health.
Conversely, there are other folks who may have a more relaxed disposition who love easy jogging who would benefit dramatically from "pushing themselves" pretty hard a few times per week.
That doesn't mean that those people are going to suddenly have a flash of insight from this article and do an about-face on their fitness routine, but it is something to consider when you're evaluating the type of fitness community you'd like to join.
Even as someone who is obsessively nerdy about the best way to periodize a squat program, how to find balance between upper body pushing and upper body pulling, or how to assess the difference between a mobility or stability issue in the hip, the reality is that all of these things are fine print and details.
What actually matters is showing up consistently.
If you're not going to show up to do your workouts, it doesn't matter how sophisticated or perfectly individualized the program is.
I think this is why we see results from so many different styles of fitness programs – different programs resonate with different people and get them coming back consistently enough to see results.
Within a CrossFit gym, many people find the accountability and the camaraderie to be the piece that makes the program work for them. If you work out at 4:30 every day, you know you're going to get a text message from your 4:30 crew if you've been slacking off for the last three days. You know that they're going to tease you if you skip a day just because you "hate rowing." You know that they're going to be getting stronger and faster, and you want to be able to keep up.
This dynamic makes CrossFit "sticky." Once someone buys in and has a good experience, they keep coming back because of the community. It's difficult to objectively evaluate this aspect of the gym from a dropping into a class or doing a consultation, but this will be one of the most important aspects of your long-term success at a gym.
Here's a bit of a warning about a common complaint that I've heard: I hear gyms occasionally being criticized as "clique-y," but I see this as the fault of both the accused and the accuser.
Clique-iness usually comes from insecurity from both parties. If you're insecure in a new environment, it can be difficult to go out of your way to approach new groups of people and introduce yourself. On the other end, if you're not the most confident or socially aware person, it can be difficult to recognize that a new person is feeling awkward and that stopping them and introducing yourself will make them feel better. You're too wrapped up in your own concerns and anxieties about what happened at work, that e-mail you forgot to send, and whether or not you're going to try 185 or 190 on your back squat.
Ideally, a coach or front desk manager should make introductions in this type of situation, but it doesn't always work that way. There can be something going on behind-the-scenes that is distracting the staff – maybe the gym is struggling with noise complaints or the coaching schedule is in the process of being shuffled and everyone is adjusting to new routines.
I don't mean to make excuses since there are certainly unwelcoming and clique-y gyms out there – just don't rush to judgments and take responsibility for your role in the interaction as well.
3. Different tracks for different goals
As mentioned above, one of the biggest issues I see in CrossFit currently is the conflation of best practices for competitors and non-competitors. There is a lot of confusion regarding what works best for both groups. You see non-competitors trying to train with the volume of Rich Froning so they can look good for the summer, and you see competitors trying to follow a low calorie fat loss diet while hitting two-a-day training sessions 5 days per week. Both of these are a recipe for disaster.
In both cases, there can be confusion on the part of the individual in terms of what they actually want out of the program – it's OK to want to win and beat people, it's OK to want to look good in a swimsuit, it's OK to want to find out what your potential is in a sport.
Still, without an understanding of the differences between these different goals and the paths to get there, some gyms can send people down the wrong path relative to what they want to achieve.
There are a lot of ways to chop this up, but I will explain how we do it at South Loop Strength & Conditioning. This isn't meant to say that our way is the best, since there are plenty of other ways to do this (small group training, personal training, etc.). This is just meant to illustrate one way of creating differentiation in programming for people with different goals and different training histories.
For our group CrossFit classes, we run two programming tracks in parallel. We call these two tracks "Fitness" and "Performance." Both of these tracks are meant for people who enjoy the group class environment for the fun and accountability it brings to training.
The Fitness track is intended for folks who have a relatively low training age and whose primary goals are health, wellness, and longevity. This track features relatively simple strength training progressions, a focus on skill in developing the movements of the Olympic lifts, and conditioning circuits that don't require advanced gymnastics skills or technical proficiency in the Olympic lifts.
The Performance track is intended for folks with a higher training age who care about their performance in fitness with more of a "sporting" mindset – but aren't necessarily shooting for seriously competitive goals. The strength progressions for the Performance track are more complex than Fitness (in order to stimulate adaptation in more highly-trained athletes). Conditioning also utilizes more challenging gymnastics movements and barbell movements. People on the Performance track often enjoy casually competing in local throwdowns, keeping track of their personal records, and beating their friends.
These two tracks run in parallel – which means that, while the details of the program are different, the overall structure and movement patterns selected will be very similar. So, the two tracks of programming can occur during the same class: Fitness may be doing a linear progression of back squats super-setted with side planks, while performance may be doing 1 1/4 back squats focused on speed. Fitness may do kettlebell swings, renegade rows and airdyne for conditioning, while Performance may do power cleans, muscle-ups and airdyne.
We also offer a Competition program that is designed for an avatar of a person wishing to maximize their performance in the CrossFit Games Open. This program is much higher volume than the program for the group classes, and is intended to be completed individually. Rather than 60 minute training sessions, the sessions are 90-120 minutes. It is also assumed that anyone following this program has a baseline skill and strength in movements like the Olympic lifts and gymnastics skills like muscle-ups, handstand push-ups and pistols. This program is specifically designed for the CrossFit Games season, and is intended to peak for the Open and continue through the Regional competition.
Outside of our CrossFit programming, we also offer a Movement class that is intended to build mobility and stability and to utilize patterns that are often neglected in traditional strength training programs. It's also a great option for folks who want to participate in a serious strength and conditioning program but are intimidated by barbells.
In addition to our group class programming, we also have a group of folks following individualized programs. For the most part, these folks all into three large groups:
I believe that, in order to reach your maximum potential in the sport of fitness, that an individualized program is necessary. This may not always be the most fun to train alone, but, in terms of the demands of the sport, two of the most important things are eliminating weaknesses (e.g. high-rep chest-to-bar pull-ups, improper squat to deadlift ratio, difficulty with double-unders when tired) and developing the internal mental toughness and knowledge of self to both push through discomfort and pace properly.
While having a group to train with can push you, give you something to chase, and define what is possible in terms of performance, I still believe that most people will develop better over the long-term by following an individualized program.
If your goal is to maximize your potential in the sport of fitness – and also to compete at the Regional level, be drafted by the NPGL, or win and beat people at any local competition you sign up for, then an individualized program is the best way to get there.
–Sport specific competitors
While general CrossFit programming is fantastic at developing GPP (general physical preparedness), athletes with performance goals in specific sports should consider following an individualized program based upon the demands of their sport. Training for sport performance is often a matter of developing "buy-in" capacity in strength, conditioning, structural balance and movement capacity – and allowing the sport specific skills to shine. For example, a soccer player looking to play in college who can't run a 5k in 25 minutes may have a problem – but taking another player's 5k run time from 18 minutes to 16 minutes isn't necessarily going to improve her performance in sport.
Similarly, the requirements for different sports vary significantly. The buy-in level of back squat strength that an athlete looking to make his high school varsity football team on the offensive line is quite different than the buy-in requirement for someone looking to qualify for the Boston Marathon.
The goal is not always to max out each capacity, but, rather, to make sure that a certain capacity is not limiting performance on the field or on race-day. A great coach will be able to determine where the weak links are (Aerobic system development? Upper body pushing to pulling strength ratio? Motor control in the hips?) and develop a program to correct them.
Similarly, for each athlete, there is going to be variation in terms of how much training volume they can tolerate without interfering with their practice time in their sport, which is almost certainly more important to their performance than their time training.
–Folks with significant movement issues
Many people have long injury histories or significant trouble with certain movement patterns. In these cases, it may not be best for their long-term development to have them jump into group classes that are based upon a collective avatar of a person. Sure, maybe they can continuously modify everything involving putting a barbell overhead since they've had multiple shoulder surgeries over the years, but that's probably not the best path for them. Instead, a program written for them based upon their specific movement issues (lack of motor control in the scapula, limited ankle dorsiflexion, poor motor control in external rotation of the hip) is probably the best path in terms of avoiding training injuries as well as correcting potential issues and imbalances.
So, that was a lot of example of different types of clients with different issues, different priorities, and different goals. It's not enough to simply throw a workout on the whiteboard and scale the program for each person in the class. "Ok, who doesn't have handstand push-ups? You guys are doing hand-release push-ups. Billy, you have a shoulder issue, so you're doing single-arm kettlebell press. Sarah, I know your back bothers you when you deadlift, so you're going to do kettlebell swings instead. Aaron, we're going to have you pull those deadlifts sumo so that you can keep your spine neutral." What's missing here is an understanding of what the intended stimulus of the workout is, and an understanding of what stimulus is appropriate for each individual.
While I am a programming nerd and love to freak out about best practices and clever ways to concurrently train multiple capacities, the reality is that, for most people most of the time, the most important aspect is simply "are you going to show up consistently?" Consistency trumps all other considerations. If you don't do your training, it doesn't matter how clever it is.
Still, if you're coming consistently, the philosophy behind the programming at a gym can make a big difference in terms of long-term development. It's one thing to get results for a few months – it's another to stay healthy and get results for a few years.
The reality is that most programs are based upon what a coach thinks seems cool or seems hard. There is no progression. There is no differentiation (only "scaling"). There is no consideration of volume, time in the training year, or previous or upcoming cycles. Most gyms will have some understanding of the basic tenets of CrossFit programming in terms of creating variance between modalities (gymnastics, weightlifting, and cyclical) and time domains (short, medium, and long), but most of the workouts will simply be cherry-picked from other blogs and thrown up on the site because they seem fun or hard.
Again, many people will have great results from these programs and, in most cases, the design of the program probably doesn't have as much effect as I'd like to think it does – there is still an issue here.
When selecting a CrossFit gym, I'd recommend making sure that they have some form of structured strength development program. This doesn't have to mean percentage squat cycles 365 days per year, but progressively improving numbers on lifts like the squat, deadlift, press and weighted pull-up over time is crucial.
Similarly, there should be a proper balance between developing technique on the Olympic lifts (snatch and clean & jerk) and loading them heavy (for more advanced athletes).
For conditioning, it's common to see programs utilizing lots of volume without any structure (turning each workout into some form of a beatdown) or to regularly throw competition workouts (CrossFit Games or otherwise) into regular training. A good thing to look for here to differentiate is work:rest ratios.
While many CrossFit workouts will inherently develop some form of work:rest ratio based upon the structure of the program, constantly doing "for time" pieces or "AMRAPs" is a form of fatigue-based training. Basically, the amount of quality work done is reduced because overall fatigue sets in. Not that there isn't a place for this type of training, but interval work in conditioning allows people to work on pacing properly for the effort about to completed as well as get more quality work in under a non-fatigued state.
So, while it can be difficult to evaluate the quality of a program at a glance, there are a few key pieces that should be present:
-Progression over time in strength pieces
-Inclusion of skill work
-Structure to conditioning pieces in terms of total volume and work to rest ratio
5. Upfront assessment
Given all of these seemingly complicated differentiations and offerings, it's important to be clear with folks upfront regarding what they're getting into.
Again, I will explain the way that we do things – not as a manual for best practice, but as a thought process for things to consider.
Everyone who wants to become a member at South Loop Strength & Conditioning must go through a one-on-one consultation. In this consultation, we take folks through a Functional Movement Screen, which basically uncovers any major red flags and movement issues. While this can't necessarily prevent injury, it can give a solid risk profile, and we want to pull out any major movement pattern limitations and asymmetries right away. Again, there are plenty of options for screening, but the FMS works for what we do.
Based upon this, we can give folks some exercises and drills to work on as warm-up and cool down to work on developing good movement patterns long term. If we see major issues, we can also recommend working with a soft tissue worker or physical therapist to address that. We can also recommend exercises or movements to avoid: eg "I don't want you deadlifting heavy until you can touch your toes without warming up."
We also discuss someone's training history and goals, and this can help clarify which path they want to go down. Are their motivations primarily aesthetic? Do they want longevity and and the fitness to play with their kids? Do they want Improved performance at work through better focus and sleep? Do they want to get into CrossFit and pursue competing down the line? Or do they want to move from 70th place in the Open to 20th place?
It's not enough to simply have differentiated offerings for these different paths – there must also be a way to guide clients towards the program that is a best fit for them.
The reality is that most folks don't come in with clear goals and understanding of what they want out of their fitness program. Through asking some probing questions, we can start to find out what their motivations are and then make appropriate recommendations. Do they need the accountability and fun of the group classes? Do they need the individualization of following a program written for you? Do they need to improve their sleep and go to a Mindfulness class to get their blood pressure under control? Without this understanding of this kind of differentiation, there can often be a lack of fulfillment long term eg "Why do those folks get to go in the corner and follow a squat program instead of doing the group classes?" "Why am I always sore and I'm not losing any fat?" "I'm way stronger, but I can't keep up in the Open."
Again, this is simply the way that we do things. The most important things is having a form of upfront assessment that can pick out major movement issues, find out important pieces about an athlete's background, and guide them towards a program that is in alignment with their goals.
So, I know I can get quite wordy when discussing theoretical concepts. In part two, we will discuss some of the more practical aspects of how to find the best CrossFit gym in your city.