From Couch to… What You Need to Know Before Diving Into an Intense Workout

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From Couch to… What You Need to Know Before Diving Into an Intense Workout

Leading up to the new year, you might have been blowing off workouts for weeks — heck, maybe months. And now that you’re ready to get back on track, you might be wondering: What would happen if I went straight from my couch to CrossFit?

Would you pass out and die? Probably not, but it’s hard to say exactly what to expect. The reason: No two CrossFit locations are alike. CrossFit is a corporate entity that licenses its name out to various facilities around the globe — like Dunkin’ Donuts.

The certification process to become a CrossFit Level 1 coach is two days long, which means it’s relatively easy to become a trainer. That may, unfortunately, compromise quality control and, ultimately, lead to coaches prescribing irresponsible workouts that result in people getting hurt.

Now, a deconditioned athlete who’s sick of their “Netflix and chill” holiday and ready to hit the ground running (literally) may need to take responsibility for keeping their own enthusiasm in check. Sure, you’d hope a good coach would have your back and tell you not to keep up with the guy next to you deadlifting two times his body weight and running a 6-minute mile. But if you don’t, and you start going too hard, too soon, here’s what may happen to you…

YOU MAY GET OVERLY EAGER

If you’ve never trained in a group, get ready to take things to a whole new level. Training alongside others gives you a supply of energy that you might not have had when you walked in the door. “If you’re in a group, and the people around you are kicking butt, motivated and ready to go, it can give you a huge amount of motivation,” says Jim Smith, a strength coach based in Elmira New York. That’s a good thing when it causes you to perform your exercises with more focus and intensity, but it can be counterproductive if you start sacrificing good form in order to squeeze out more reps so you can score higher on the results board.

YOU MAY OVERSIMPLIFY COMPLEX MOVEMENTS

Sometimes, the exercises that look the easiest are, in fact, the hardest to master. The plank, for one, is more involved than you think, and most people do it wrong. Other exercises that show up in CrossFit WODs (that’s short for “workout of the day”), like snatches or power cleans, can take months or even years to perfect.

YOU MAY PICK UP BAD HABITS

When you think you have proper form and repeat the movement over and over again in this manner, you will develop compensatory patterns that allow you to execute the exercise. For example, your back might round when you deadlift or your knees could go valgus (cave in toward each other) when you squat. When they do, it’ll help you achieve the movement you desire. But it also puts your ACL at risk.

YOU MAY FEEL THE WRONG KIND OF PAIN

If something hurts, you’ll be best served ignoring the tough talk on the walls (e.g., “Pain is weakness leaving the body”) and stopping whatever you’re doing. “ ‘No pain, no gain’ is not true,” says Trevor Rappa, PhD, a physical therapist at Resilient Performance in NYC. “That doesn’t mean working hard shouldn’t get uncomfortable when training. It just means having actual pain when exercising shouldn’t happen.”

YOU’RE GOING TO GET SUPER SORE

And not just immediately after your workout — but for a while. Weightlifting and other exercises inflict the kind of damage on your muscle tissues that actually worsens over the next day or two. We’ve come to call this damage “micro tears” in the muscle, and it’s actually a positive and necessary evil in developing strength and building muscle. But the soreness it causes, called DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) can make you feel like you’re getting weaker. For example, you might have a hard time going up and down stairs. Generally speaking, when this happens, you should take a day off.

“Training as hard as you can everyday is unnecessary and will leave you insanely sore with the feeling that you can barely move, let alone can go to the gym and train,” Rappa warns. This day-after feeling offers you another opportunity to gauge whether your training is hitting the muscles you want to work or the joints, ligaments and bones that you definitely don’t. “Being sore after a good workout is awesome, but you shouldn’t feel like you can’t walk because your knees, hips and back are too beat up.”

YOU COULD ADAPT AND MAKE GAINS

Strength coach Mark Rippetoe, who worked with CrossFit from 2006–2009, calls it the “novice effect.” “When an untrained person starts an exercise program, he gets stronger, no matter what the program is,” he says. “Anything he does that’s physically harder than what he’s been doing previously constitutes a stress to which he isn’t adapted, and adaptation will, thus, occur if he provides for recovery.” Note his last five words. If you were to train so often that you didn’t give your body time to recover you could become overtrained. And then a whole host of insidious things can happen.

  • The excessive training would cause a high demand on glutamine in your body, forcing you into glutamine debt. Glutamine debt can suppress the effectiveness of your immune system.
  • Your levels of interleukin-6 (IL-6), a cytokine (protein used in cell signaling), will also decline, which also has a negative effect on your immune system. It can also slow your metabolism.
  • Perhaps even more troubling, your levels of testosterone will drop. Since testosterone is essentially the muscle-building hormone, this is the exact opposite of what you want to achieve with your workouts.
  • Your heart rate variability would decrease, indicating that your sympathetic “fight or flight” nervous system is somewhat turned on even when you’re resting.
  • In extreme cases, the damage you inflict on your muscles leads to a catastrophic breakdown called rhabdomyolysis, which can cause kidney failure and is potentially fatal. The condition is rare but has happened often enough within CrossFit circles that it’s become “an unofficial and disturbing mascot,” one that has its own cartoon and nickname: Uncle Rhabdo.

Those are just the physical responses. Mentally, you might feel stressed or even depressed. Your sleep would suffer. Which means you’d be more likely to feel fatigued. Eventually, your performance would decline. And hopefully that would make you take a day off.

It’s important to note that none of these symptoms of overtraining syndrome are unique to CrossFit. They’d occur if you’d seriously overcooked yourself with any form of exercise. Runners can suffer from overtraining syndrome. Rhabdomyolysis can happen to triathletes.

TO AVOID OVERDOING IT, TRY THIS INSTEAD

“Ultimately, the best piece of advice I can give to you is to be patient with yourself,” Rappa says. “Trying to radically change your exercise behavior is stressful and hard to maintain. Try making small changes over the course of a few months that will add up.” True lasting change can only occur if you are consistent. That means the workout plan you want to follow has to fit within the confines of your real life.

“I often tell clients is to be realistic in terms of how much time you can give to work out,” Rappa says. “If you can only do 45 minutes two to three times week, great! It’s more than you were doing before.”

Could those two to three workouts per week be CrossFit? Of course! Just do your due diligence when you’re considering joining a local box. Ask if they have an introductory program and what it consists of. Find out about the trainers’ qualifications and backgrounds. Speak with them in person, and ask what they do to scale workouts for beginners. If you come away from those meetings feeling comfortable and that the staff is knowledgeable, give it a try. Then be patient, work within your own abilities and give yourself time to improve.

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