Choosing the right CrossFit gym can be a major decision in your life. A bad experience can taint your perceptions about CrossFit as a whole and discourage you from finding a box that suits your needs and interests. In CFSBK’s weekly Teaser classes, I always tell people that they should be informed consumers and shop around at different gyms before signing up. I do this for two reasons: first, as a sign of good will toward the other local affiliates, and second, because I'm confident enough in our program that I don't feel the need to horde potential members. If our Teaser participants like our vibe, they'll sign up; if not, maybe a different affiliate is better suited for what they want.
But as a consumer, what should you be looking for in a gym? I’ve been involved in the fitness industry for over a decade and I'm consistently shocked by the lack of research or expectations consumers have before signing up for fitness programs. Below, I've outlined a few things that I recommend people keep in mind when shopping around for a CrossFit affiliate. If you're already happily training at an affiliate, we hope you'll send this to friends and family considering starting CrossFit in a different region.
1. Check out their blog/social media and reviews.
Similar to how you can tell a lot about people from their online personas, you can glean valuable information about a gym from their blog, social media sites, and online reviews. Technically, every CrossFit affiliate is supposed to maintain an active blog, and if done correctly, that blog should provide you with a taste of the gym's culture and ethos. Here are some basic things to look for:
- Do they highlight members of their community on the blog? This shows that the affiliate is actively invested in their community and care about making the people who go there feel special. An invested blog should feel part scrapbook and part training guide.
- Can you learn more about the backgrounds of their coaches? For people outside the fitness industry, most certifications are no more than some meaningless initials after a name. So instead, look for how long the coaches have been training and if they've got some sort of mission statement or history about why they started CrossFit. Also ask yourself whether the staff seems professional and supportive.
- Do they post their daily programming? If you're new to CrossFit, you won't necessarily have the ability to identify what constitutes great programming. What you want to see is some balance of strength, skill, and conditioning work on a regular basis. A good rule-of-thumb is to avoid gyms where everything is a 20-30 minute max-effort WOD. This is a hallmark of programming that is hard simply for its own sake, and isn't necessarily something that will set you up for long-term development
If you're new to CrossFit, I recommend getting a friend who's been CrossFitting to give you their opinions on the programming of whatever gym/s you’re considering. Whenever we have members travel and ask for my opinion about which box to visit, I simply ask that they send me links to their blogs or websites so I can make a recommendation. You can usually tell pretty quickly which gyms are programming with a balanced plan and which ones are just throwing a bunch of shit together on a daily basis. The fact that CrossFit gyms share their daily programming offers a level of transparency previously unheard of in the fitness industry. Take advantage of it!
Finally, business review sites (such as Yelp, Google Reviews, etc.) are valuable for hearing firsthand experiences from people who've taken the plunge before you. No gym can be everything to everyone, so don't focus on one excellent or damming review, but look for the common thread of what reviews are telling you. At CFSBK, every week there are at least two to three people who come to our intro class simply because of our enthusiastic reviews on Yelp. Word-of-mouth is often the best advertising.
2. Take the free intro class or visit ahead of time.
You wouldn't buy a car without taking it for a test drive, right? Picking a gym is a serious financial and time investment, so take the time to check out their intro class or observe a class before signing up.
If an affiliate doesn't offer an intro class, see if you can come in and observe a portion of a class and hopefully talk to a coach. I strongly recommend calling ahead since many affiliates are more informally run than typical commercial gyms, and there may not be a front desk staff member or coach available to chat with you if you walk in without prior notice. Once you get there, pay attention to how organized it seems and how attentive the coaches are to helping people correct their form. Try to pick up on the vibe to see if people are having fun and seem to be taken care of by the staff. (Remember though: even a well-executed class might look terrifying to someone who's never touched a barbell before, so don't psyche yourself out before you try it by imagining you won’t be able to keep up.)
If the affiliate offers a free intro class, this is probably the best thing you can do in regards to knowing if the affiliate is right for you. A well-run intro class should recognize that you're a beginner and impress you by how well they teach movement, scale the workout for your abilities, and clearly explain the training plan for the day. I always say that the intensity of CrossFit speaks for itself, so note that a good first CrossFit workout should challenge you but not completely obliterate you for its own sake. Anyone can program something hard, but not everyone can take a group of beginners and prescribe appropriately challenging first workouts. If the gym pulls this off well, it should earn some important points in the yes column.
Furthermore, this class will probably be a microcosm of what a typical class feels like, so assess how comfortable you feel with the instructor. Personally, someone barking orders at me like a drill sergeant is something I'd pay money NOT to experience. Trust your gut when it comes to how you “feel” about the coach and the way they deliver instruction.
I always leave time after CFSBK’s teaser exit lecture for questions, and below are four very basic but potentially enlightening questions I would recommend asking when visiting a gym:
- What are the qualifications and experience level of your staff?
- How would you describe the culture of your gym?
- As a rank beginner, what should my expectations be from you guys over the first few months?
- How is a typical group class structured?
Evaluating Your Decision
If you've made the plunge and signed up at an affiliate, there are still things you want to continue assessing to make sure you've found a professional and inclusive program. Here are some take-away question to be asking yourself during the first few weeks and months of your time at a new gym.
1. Did the Foundations or On-Ramp course prepare me for group class?
That doesn’t mean that you're going to be moving like Rich Froning after a handful of classes, but you should have a basic understanding of how to accomplish the bulk of the movements you'll see in classes. Our Foundations program is six classes, which are each an hour-and-fifteen-minutes long. My perspective is that anything less than four classes in a Foundations program is probably inadequate to prepare someone for group classes—but that doesn’t mean it can't be done. (We wrote an article about introductory programs at affiliates. If you’re curious, read more about it here.)
2. Is the class structure clearly organized and timely?
If classes consistently start late, if scaling options are vague, and if the class seems to operate similarly to herding cats instead of running like a well-oiled machine, you might want to start shopping around again. A well-run class should be seamlessly executed such that the focus is on coaching and correcting movement.
3. Does the programming make sense?
Your coaches should be clear about why they're programming the way they do, and if you're not sure, ask questions. Are they making up the workouts as they go along or is there clearly a rhyme and reason to what they're asking you to do? Are you being expected to do the same weights and advanced movements as their veteran members, or are you given practical substitutions that are within your ability to execute well? There is an elegance and art to programming, and while there certainly is more than one way to correctly write workouts, the point is that there should be answers to your questions, not blank stares. It's a red flag if the coaches don't know what's on tap for the following day, or week.
4. Are the coaches approachable and engaged?
Especially in the beginning, it's okay to be a little confused about things and forget some of the stuff you learned in your introductory course/s. To this end, the staff should make sure you know what’s going on and actively facilitate your success in group classes. If the coach works out during your class or is playing on their phone the whole time, RUN for the hills!
I hope this gives the CrossFit curious some fodder for figuring out what they should be looking for when signing up at an affiliate. Many of the points here can be applied to the entire fitness industry, even beyond CrossFit gyms. We recently hit 10,000 registered affiliates, making it clear that CrossFit is here to stay. Each box is a unique little snowflake that you, as a now-informed consumer, should scrutinize and research before signing up—just as you would with any other significant investment. Finding the right affiliate is a potentially life-changing decision and something that can bring you years of fun, fitness, and new friends. Choose wisely!