Will Lifting Make Me Bulky? Answers to Common CrossFit Questions

I've owned a CrossFit gym for almost eight years, which means I've fielded my fair share of questions, not just from my members but also from those who are curious about CrossFit. As I wrote in "Free Intro Classes at CrossFit Affiliates," we shouldn't be cynical or defensive when a woman yet again asks if she’ll get too bulky by lifting weights, or if a guy worries CrossFit is dangerous. Remember: they’re new to this stuff, and it’s on us to answer honestly and with empathy. If we want people to join our gyms, we should act like it. 

But now, maybe you can just direct the CrossFit Curious to this interview I did for The Homeopathoholic, a blog created by Liza Behles that is dedicated to exploring different types of exercise, diets, and health-related issues. Liza asked a bunch of common questions about CrossFit, and I hope my answers will be useful to you, whether you've never set foot in a gym, are just discovering CrossFit, or have been doing this for years and need help answering a friend's questions. We reposted the interview below, but you can also read the original on Liza's excellent blog.

Liza: Okay, since I don’t know anything (but am clearly doing a lot of judging) I’m gonna start with the basics. What is CrossFit and who is it for? How much does it cost to join?

David: CrossFit is a strength and conditioning program developed by Greg Glassman in Santa Cruz, CA. In 2001, they started posting free daily workouts and original online content like exercise demos and a monthly journal—this has grown into a global community with thousands of international affiliates. The point of the program is to optimize (or at least significantly increase) your overall fitness. We want you to be able to lift something heavy, master basic calisthenics, and sustain short, medium, and sometimes long efforts.

Because programming is so scalable, CrossFit is appropriate for almost anybody. In almost every new group, someone thinks they’re not fit enough be there, but most people usually surprise themselves.

In terms of cost, you can do CrossFit for free by following the videos and demos from their online movement archive and all the information in the journal. Joining an actual CrossFit affiliate will cost between $100 – $250/month. If this sounds like a lot, check out my post detailing why CrossFit gyms cost what they do.

Liza: I know from the Internet that CrossFit is a franchise with over 10,000 “boxes” across America—does that mean that every single gym is different? Is there some sort of quality control? Also, why are they called boxes? 

David: CrossFit isn’t technically a “franchise” like Wendy’s or McDonalds, where every facility is working off the same manual and protocol. Each affiliate is independently owned and operated by individuals certified in CrossFit’s methodology, which means that each affiliate is a unique gym with its own culture, programing biases, and class structure. CrossFit HQ is very hands-off about telling anyone how to run their business, so you’ll see a range of approaches implemented, sometimes for better, other times for worse. As with any fitness program, it’s on the consumer to make informed decisions about how professional and experienced the staff seems. The affiliate 2 minutes from your house might be lame, while the one 20 minutes away could be potentially life-changing and worth the drive. So shop around. 

They’re called boxes because so many are in large industrial warehouses. Affiliates now come in all shapes and sizes, but people often still refer to them as boxes. I personally call mine a gym, but it’s all the same.

Liza: I am 100% intimidated by the CrossFit in my neighborhood. I’ve thought about joining, but it seems like everyone in there is already ripped. Do you have to have a certain base level of fitness to join? 

David: Absolutely not. This is a really common misconception about CrossFit and I think you’ll find that if you join, you’ll definitely see some very fit people, but the average person is just that: an average person—who wants to get in shape. We start everyone with the basics and you gradually move up from there. 

Liza: So let’s say I sign up. What can I expect? How often should I go? 

David: Expect to start with an introductory program called FoundationsElements or On Ramp. These are small group or private classes that teach you the basics in a low-intensity environment. I would be wary of any place that throws you right into a group class with existing members. After Foundations, you’ll rotate into regular group classes where the coaches will scale for your ability. Ideally this is a friendly and supportive environment where you’ll enjoy doing the work and seeing improvement. My recommendation for the average person is to start off going 2-3 times/ week.

Liza: I’m a small female, will CrossFit workouts make me bulk up?

DO: No. This common misconception is usually rooted in a lack of knowledge regarding how weight training actually affects the body. I often tell women who have this concern two things: #1: even if you want to get really big, without the optimal genes, targetted nutrition and training tailored for that specfic goal, it would be very difficult. #2: give us a shot and if you get too big we’ll change the program for you. In seven years, no one has ever come back and asked that we change things. What we can promise you is a fitter version of yourself.

For many women, CrossFit is the first arena where their physical strength is admired and encouraged. As anyone who’s taken the time to get strong can attest, this process can be a profoundly transformative experience. I can’t tell you how many people, women especially, have joined the gym and fallen in love with growing stronger and more physically capable then they ever thought they could be. Strength is powerful stuff.

Liza: There are tons of national gyms and fitness franchises, but CF is the only one I consistently hear described as a cult. Why do you think this is?

David: CrossFit gyms are more of a communal fitness experience, closer in vibe to a martial arts academy than to a 24-Hour Fitness. Regularly interacting with other gym members and coaches is implicit in the format, which naturally lends itself to forging meaningful relationships with those who share an interest in training. Because of the global online community, endless potential for progression, popularity of high-level CrossFit competitive athletes, and (I say this with a hint of irony) group suffering associated with those damn WODs, people can get really into CrossFit. I would say some CrossFitters are cultish in the same way a Trekkie (or is it Trekker?) might be considered part of a cult. 

Liza: What is a WOD? What is AMRAP? Who is Pukie the Clown?

David: WOD and an AMRAP are acronyms for “Workout of the Day” and “As Many Rounds as Possible.” The former designates what the regimen for the day will be. For us, the WOD includes a warm-up, some barbell strength work, followed by a conditioning workout or assistance work. Many simply refer to the conditioning portion as the “WOD,” so the term is a little loose. It was originally popularized by the Daily WOD, which was (and still is) posted on (but most gyms program differently than what’s posted on CrossFit HQ’s site). An AMRAP is a workout format where a circuit of exercises are prescribed and the intention is to perform as much physical work as possible within a given time frame. For example:

AMRAP 12 Minutes
400m Run
21 Kettlebell Swings
12 Burpees

In this workout the athlete would complete as many rounds and fractions of rounds within the time cap (12 minutes) for a score. So you might end up with something like 3 rounds + 400m + 10 kettlebell swings. Like all CrossFit workouts, this provides an objective data point about your work capacity. If you repeated this workout months or years later, and finished with 4 rounds total while using the same weight for the kettlebell swings and range-of-motion standards across the board, you could say objectively that your fitness improved. 

Quantifying what actually happens in the gym and how much you’re improving is a very important component of what we do. It shows the efficacy of the programming and gives people tangible performance objectives as opposed to just doing something that feels difficult for its own sake. Many people assume that difficult means effective, but that’s not necessarily the case. Unless you’re actually tracking performance markers, you’re sort of in the dark about whether changes are actually occurring. An example on the other end of this spectrum would be a spin class that doesn’t have output monitors on the bikes. You could faithfully go three times/ week for a year and at the end of that not have any objective measure of how much you actually improved. 

Pukie the Clown is a CrossFit mascot who pokes fun at the idea of working out so hard that you throw up. In practice, no one actually promotes this as healthy or wants people throwing up in their gyms, but when it happens (usually after the person in question had a bit too much beer and/or pizza the night before), it can be kind of funny (as long as they do it in the toilet!). I’ve run my CrossFit gym for over seven years now and it’s not something that happens very often at all. 

Liza: One of the major criticisms I hear is that CrossFit is too aggressive. People say it’s too easy to do the moves incorrectly, get hurt, or worse, get this scary disease called Rhabdomyolysis. Thoughts?

David: How your CrossFit program is run will determine how safe it is for you. A good coach won’t let you move faster than you can organize or let you lift more than you can handle, so it’s important to shop around and find someone you trust. Because of the inclusion of higher-skill movements relative to traditional fitness programs, it’s important to start slow, build up your mechanics, and gradually begin to increase your intensity. CrossFit style training could be described as athletic and indeed can also be used as a competitive sport, so starting slow and listening to your body becomes doubly important. The reality however, is that all movement practices have injury profiles associated with them, regardless of how competent the staff is at teaching that movement or sport. No matter what physical activity you select, even something as seemingly benign as jogging or yoga, there’s always a risk.

Rhabdomyolysis is a serious condition associated with high levels of exertion or shock in particular populations. Within CrossFit, the people most at risk would be individuals who were previously very athletic, took a long time off, and then jumped back into a high-volume, poorly programmed workout at full intensity. Excessive eccentric loading, dehydration, heat, and alcohol in the system also contribute to rhabdo. It’s bad news and nobody wants it. A case of rhabdo can vary from acute swelling of tissue to hospitalization. Luckily, while it is very serious, it’s not very common and generally easy to avoid.

Liza: Is there a nutritional component to the CrossFit lifestyle? I know CrossFit is popular in paleo circles. Is there a connection?  

David: There’s a wide range of approaches CrossFitters take with their nutrition so it’s a little difficult make definitive statements. The paleo diet model is pretty common, as many CrossFitters can be quite health-conscious. The paleo philosophy focuses on high-quality whole foods and adequate hydration, and avoids processed products. It’s been my experience that this nutritional strategy works really, really well for avoiding metabolic diseases and generally increasing most biomarkers of health. We’ve had tons of really profound transformations and testimonials from people using this dietary strategy. 

I think there is some confusion that the paleo diet is intended to be some sort of exact historic recreation, which it’s not. The idea is that if you’re going to have a conversation about what kinds of foods an organism might thrive on, it’s best to start by analyzing trends in the ecosystems in which it’s most adapted to living. Humans have been here for about 200,000 years and have only very recently been exposed to processed foods and macronutrient ratios evolutionarily “foreign” to our species. It’s very obvious that modern environments have led to some very serious health epidemics so we should certainly scrutinize food products that even our great, great grandparents wouldn’t recognize. Each person is going to be a bit different and will need to do some self-experimentation to find out what’s both optimal and practical for them. In my experience, starting with a paleo approach consistently delivers positive changes to most people, often very quickly.

Liza: What’s your diet?

David: I eat a primarily paleo diet. I’m not noticeably intolerant of gluten so I include some grains and also take my coffee with heavy cream. Another way of putting it would be that my “all the time” foods are what would be considered paleo, my “sometimes” foods include grains and dairy, while “treats” are contain refined sugar or might be highly processed. I find high-sugar products to be particularly addictive for me so I’ve learned to mostly avoid them. I also drink a lot of seltzer because it’s the nectar of the gods.

Liza: Ok, so let’s say someone reading this (possibly me) wants to get started. What do I Google? What do I purchase (lifting gloves perhaps)? 

David: If you live in Brooklyn, go here. If not, go to the affiliate finder map to see what’s in your area. Most places have a free intro class which will give you a sense of the overall vibe. I wrote a detailed post about finding a gym, which you should check out.

Save the money on lifting gloves and put it into a jar labeled “lifting shoe fund.” You don’t need to know what those are now but you’ll thank me later. But you don’t need anything at first—just a positive attitude and open mind. 

Liza: That’s it. Thank you for participating, David!

David: Thank you! Let me know it goes when you check out some gyms!

What are some other common questions about CrossFit you've heard before?

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Reader Comments (2)

Thanks for this! Will be great information to share with anyone who emails and is interested in joining.

February 27, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Nicks

Thanks, Paul! Hope you can use it!

February 27, 2015 | Registered CommenterDavid Osorio

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