How do you transform into an athlete?
February 3, 2012 7:11 PM   Subscribe

How do people take fitness to the next level? How do you become an athlete? I need tips on reducing body fat % and becoming really, really strong, and I need perspective on the kind of effort I should be putting in.

22, female, 5'3", around 147lbs. I recently started Crossfit. Crossfit is great, I love it - I love working out with other people, I love the community, I love that others are pushing me, I love that I get to socialize. What I love the most is how alive it makes me feel. I also cycle (although it's the winter now, so rarely when it's cold), and I want to run a 5k every once in a while. I would like to get back into rock climbing as well.

Anyways, some of the people in my Crossfit box are extremely athletic - a few of the female trainers are just incredible. I'm talking minimal body fat %, toned, beautiful, pullups are no problems, walking handstands, crazy lifts, muscle ups, etc. It seems like most of them have athletic backgrounds - one was a dancer, the other played sports growing up, etc.

So what about me? I want to get there too. But how? Can I? Can any person get there? I was not athletic growing up. I lost a good amount of weight during college, and started working out on and off. Now at 22, I'm the most active I've ever been in my life (which is not that active in comparison to these athletes) - but I feel like I have these 20lbs on my body that no matter what will never ever go away. I want to be a better Crossfitter, a stronger person, I want to start racing my bike (and that also requires a lower body fat %), and I want to be able to do kipping pullups like I was born doing them, do muscle ups, walk around on my hands and lower my goddamn body fat %.

What makes these incredible athletes different from me? What do I need to do, so that I can eventually get there? I get easily frustrated and want to give up when I see how all these people are so much better than me and I'm struggling so much. How many hours a week should I be working out? How strict does my diet have to be?

Food wise: currently not eating strictly paleo but mostly eating eggs, greek yoghurt, chicken and red meat, a tiny bit of cheese, lots of veggies and fruit. Will sneak a cliff bar here and there. I rarely drink anything but water. I track my food intake.
posted by carmel to Health & Fitness (26 answers total) 47 users marked this as a favorite
For those crazy fit instructor types? The people that are just fit and ripped? Genetics is 80% of it. At least.
posted by sanka at 7:13 PM on February 3, 2012

...and they've been physically active their entire lives. And they do it for a living, full time. And probably in most of their spare time, too.
posted by puritycontrol at 7:26 PM on February 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

Bike racing doesn't require a certain body fat percentage. The pros are all very thin, yes, but that doesn't mean you can't enjoy the sport or be good at it with a more normal body weight.

Secondly, I wouldn't blame your plateau on genetics. Training is a large factor; people on their own tend to do a moderate volume of moderate intensity workouts. To get better at your sport, you need to do small amounts of harder exercise and larger amounts of low intensity exercise. For example, instead of riding your bike for an hour four days a week at moderate intensity, spend 4 hours at low intensity one day, 5 minute intervals at your highest intensity (and a short, slow recovery ride the day after), and then one of your moderate intensity rides. This turns out to make a big difference; long, slow cardio trains your body to burn fat, and short intense bursts of effort help raise your lactate threshold.

There is a whole art and science to training, and so you might want to hire a trainer to advise you.
posted by jrockway at 7:28 PM on February 3, 2012 [4 favorites]

You're comparing yourself to people that have been doing this for years and years. You just started. That's part of it -- just time. Unless you're a solid block of muscle, you're still technically overweight. Yes, yes, I know BMI is a questionable tool.

Genetics is another part, but I'd argue with the 80 percent figure.

The last part? Mental. You want to do things athletes do? Start thinking of yourself as an athlete. You wanna do crazy lifts? I bet you could do 10-20 percent more than you're doing now, just from psyching yourself up, more than you do now. But great athletes can do that all the time. They just know how to throw that switch upstairs.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 7:32 PM on February 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

This is what personal trainers are for. It would be worth buying a few sessions in order to develop a program you can follow that will help you meet your goals. But basically, it takes a lot of intense work and discipline over a long period of time. A good friend of mine is like you described, and he says it was a lot harder getting there than it is to stay there.
posted by Nightman at 7:36 PM on February 3, 2012

What makes these incredible athletes different from me? What do I need to do, so that I can eventually get there? I get easily frustrated and want to give up when I see how all these people are so much better than me and I'm struggling so much. How many hours a week should I be working out? How strict does my diet have to be?

As sanka said, there is some genetic component. There will always be some lucky person who can be far fitter than you, with less effort. It's unfair but maybe you can take some comfort in knowing that there's someone out there who would love to be at your level.

Also, these folks have a head start on you. Until you get to a very high level fitness builds upon itself. If they've been active since they were young they probably have a 10+ year head start on you, it's only natural that you'll be struggling compared to them.

Don't worry about comparing yourself to other people, work on improving relative to your own past performance. Pick something you want to get better at, find out how to train for it, and work at it. The awesome thing is that the strength you gain in one activity will carry over. If you ride your bike a lot those occasional 5ks will be easier. Get good at pullups and your rock climbing will improve.

I think most people with a normal level of health can become proficient athletes, but genetics will determine how much work it takes, and how much dietary discipline. So the good news is that yes, if you want it enough you probably can be that person, but the bad news is that it might be really really hard. Most amateur athletes find a happy medium where they can be fit enough and good enough at their chosen hobbies to enjoy them without compromising the rest of their lifestyle.

As for specifics on diet and how much to work: pick a goal and you can consult a trainer or look for online forums frequented by people who are serious about that activity (there is a lot of good cycling and running advice to be had for free online).
posted by ghharr at 7:43 PM on February 3, 2012

Here are two online forums filled with people who are trying to do exactly what you're doing: Nerd Fitness and John Stone Fitness. Check out some of the transformations on those sites. Seriously inspirational.

The short answer to your question is to work out frequently (with appropriate rest), intensely, and consistently. Your diet must support your athletic goals and you must also eat healthy foods consistently if you hope to reduce body fat. The long answer can't be given in the space of an AskMe answer.

But, having said that, figure out what athletic or fitness goal you want to attain. The more specific the better. Do you want to run a sub 3:30 marathon? Deadlift 250 lbs? Do 15 pullups? Reduce your bf% below 18%? While different goals will have different training protocols and will yield different results, it's likely that accomplishing any specific goal will move you further along the road of looking and feeling fit rather than having no goal other than "to be more fit." Break your goals down into things you can accomplish in the next year, the next four months, the next month, the next week, and in tomorrow's workout. Make a plan, execute the plan, be honest about assessing whether it's working or not, and make adjustments when it clearly isn't.

You say you track your food. Are you tracking your macros? Make sure you're eating enough protein and fat (your diet sounds good from what you've described, but you'd be surprised how much room there is for improvement when you get down to the nitty gritty).

In my opinion, you'll be in a much better position to know the answer to your question about how much time/effort is involved after you've been consistently and intensely working on a plan for three or four months. Also, if you want to know what these people do to get and stay so fit, ask them out for coffee and interview them. People love to talk about themselves and share what they know if they think you're sincerely interested. You have great resources right in your own community--ask them.
posted by MoonOrb at 8:01 PM on February 3, 2012 [7 favorites]

The background and training makes all the difference. No personal trainer, gym or class can ever produce the sheer level of strength and muscle results that you get from a life of nature-oriented training. By this I mean, outdoor climbing, trekking, mountain/rugged landscape activities. A professional athete will have a hard time competing pound-for-pound strength and endurance with a lifelong mountain rancher.

The other route is if you spend your life in work that produces tremendous strength and muscle development over time, including ranching, forest, deep ocean and fishery work, military training, etc.

The people with such experiences can overcome genetic limitations, and have a great deal more true core strength along with a much better physique conditioning than any modern workout program can produce. If you want to get to this level, you have to elevate yourself to this level of effort.
posted by Kruger5 at 8:04 PM on February 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

It's really hard (maybe impossible) to build muscle and reduce body fat simultaneously. Body builders do it in cycles: they eat so they have a calorie surplus and train hard to build the extra muscle for a few months, and then they eat so they have a calorie deficit and do less strength training so they lose body fat and minimise muscle loss.

I say this because it sounds like you are wondering about how to do both. You certainly are unlikely to be able to get from not (easily) doing pull ups to doing muscle ups etc without putting on a fair amount of muscle mass. (You can get some of the way by teaching your muscles to be more efficient and by losing a bit of weight so that you have less to lift, but it won't make a HUGE difference). So don't try to restrict your diet in terms of calories when you are working on building that strength.

I say this as a woman who has trained to lift heavy weights seriously for 10 years and who has discovered that I stop improving my lifts when I am not eating enough. When I first started out, my strength increased no matter what, but that tailed off after a year or so, and certainly far before the point where I was doing pull ups. Multiple times over the years I've hit what feels like some sort of genetically imposed limit (by which I mean imposed by my femaleness as well as my specific inheritance). No matter what, I can't get my bench press above 45kg or my squats about 100kg without putting serious effort into my eating program as well as my workouts, and at this point, I can't be arsed :)
posted by lollusc at 8:14 PM on February 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

Consider it your job.

Lay out your objectives and allow for recognizable goals. Do your work outs as you would do your job. Each day must have an objective laid out before you start and then record your efforts to be sure you have met your goals for that day. You must become "mechanical" and work through each day from an athlete's stand point. Mix things up at least every six weeks. Do the work for that day and enjoy your reward. All of your little gains will add up to the big prize.

When you go to the store to buy food, approach it as if you were walking into the ultimate vitamin store- eat those things that your body needs.

You have already done the hardest part- starting. Now build your plan.
posted by bkeene12 at 8:15 PM on February 3, 2012 [3 favorites]

Hello me-of-a-few-years-ago!

First--IT IS NOT "GENETICS". Olympic athletes are "genetics", your random Crossfit trainer is from a lifetime of activity and hard work. The benefit of having spent a lifetime in movement-based hobbies--whether sports, martial arts, dance, whatever--cannot be understated. You learn to use your body and naturally activate your muscles that people who have not been seriously active do. If you spend a lifetime sedentary muscles atrophy, some stop firing properly, parts of you tighten up and make it even harder for your muscles to fire, etc etc etc. So not only do these people have years of training on you but you also have to deal with your body being messed up from not being active.

I know how you feel. I got into Olympic weightlifting a few years ago and found that sitting all my life had left me with a lot of issues. I was a big mess. Not to mention I am unnaturally uncoordinated. But I have improved so much in the intervening years. I am nowhere near an elite athletes, but I'm deadlifting 350, squatting near 300, I can do pull-ups, and I compete in strongman now. Am I going to go to the Olympics? Of course not. Can I keep improving as an athlete? Hell yeah--it's just going to take me more time to pick up stuff because all of my body's neuromuscular pathways have needed to be retrained and rebuilt.

If you want to get there you will need to focus on two things:
(1) Mobility
Find out where you're immobile, and check out the blog Mobility WOD for ways to work on it. If you are immobile, it will restrict the ability for you to move through the entire range of motion during exercises and restrict your muscles' ability to fire.

(2) Muscle activation
People who sit a lot often have glutes that don't fire, lats that don't fire, upper back muscles that are weak and slouched forward, inactive cores, etc etc. Make sure you're thinking about what muscles need to be used for each movement, and concentrate on contracting them to wake them up.

(3) Strength
You need to start on a focused strength program. Hopefully your Crossfit box emphasizes strength--they start the day with a strength movement, have a long-term strength training program planned out for you, and metcons are secondary. Metcons are not adequate for strength building, unfortunately, and strength building is crucial to both being a better athlete AND not injuring yourself. Not to mention the basic strength training movements--squats, deadlifts, overhead press, bench--teach you to activate your muscles and improve your proprioception in very basic ways that are absolutely essential for you to be able to execute more complex movements properly.

For example, of the importance of strength and muscle mass, consider some of the favorite movements of Crossfit: kipping pull-ups, SDHPs, swinging a kettlebell directly over your head. These are all actually quite terrible for your shoulders and it is not uncommon for people to get SLAP tears or shoulder impingements as soon as six months to a year from starting CF. Aside from the preferable step of not doing these movements at all, the sole protection you have is building some decent shoulder mobility without joint laxity--which means building some muscle mass and strength around your shoulder capsule.


Anyway, if I were to start all over again, I would be pursuing basic strength work, I'd be doing glute activation work every day, and I'd be more aggressive about improving my mobility where I needed it. I'd also make sure I did more agility work, like agility ladders and carioca steps.
posted by schroedinger at 8:34 PM on February 3, 2012 [20 favorites]

Oh, and with regards to body fat loss--your focus right now should be on strength-building and improving your athletic capabilities. Eat tons of protein and improve the quality of food you eat, but right now don't try starving yourself. It's not going to help your training.
posted by schroedinger at 8:35 PM on February 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

Genetics is 80% of it. At least.

Bullshit. Hard fucking work is 80% of it. Show up, push yourself, be smart about what you're doing, repeat. I've always liked this short piece by Scott Semple, The Talent Myth.
posted by alpinist at 9:01 PM on February 3, 2012 [7 favorites]

Speaking of Gym Jones, one of the ideas that started the gym was that Crossfit isn't so good for athletes, since it's not sports-specific - so a lot of the work can besimilar to crossfit, although it's targeted to the individual - I see a lot of youtube crossfit sessions of a few dozen people getting down with burpess, or whatever. There's going to be a limit where that helps your one sports, specifically. Maybe it's that you're asking two different things, perhaps - how to be an athlete, and how to look, perhaps, like one. "Crossfitting" is, imho not a *sport* and perhaps it's a little misguided to excel at it. Again, imho - you may be able to say the same thing about an ultra runner.

There's tons of different sports to excel at, If you want to get "good" at one, start practicing them - you may find that work in the gym, being it more traditional weight lifting or Crossfit will be supplementary, rather than primary. You may be surprised at the body types of a lot of athletes. For anything but the short distances, most runners don't look very much different than anyone else that's svelte.

In many sports, such physique of that much muscle is actually a detriment to their practice - it could potentially make you slower and require more energy to perform a task. Exceptions abound - for example Olympic lifting, which certainly is a sport. But still, compare that with body building, which is a weak sport, as it's not about physical merit - rather it's about, image, I guess.

So, things to mull over. When I went out for a crazy athletic event - the Tour Divide, I devoted about 40 hours/week to the race. So, there is that: it takes hard work, dedication and you need to carve out that time, as it's just not going to carve itself.
posted by alex_skazat at 9:14 PM on February 3, 2012

I want to be a better Crossfitter, a stronger person, I want to start racing my bike (and that also requires a lower body fat %), and I want to be able to do kipping pullups like I was born doing them, do muscle ups, walk around on my hands and lower my goddamn body fat %.

There's an expression that goes: "You can't sit in ten chairs when you've only got one ass." You're going to make slow progress and get frustrated trying to do a whole bunch of disparate things at the same time. Pick a few specific goals that complement each other, come up with a training and diet plan for reaching them, and pursue them consistently for several months before reevaluating.

You're bumping up against one of the fundamental problems with CrossFit -- training for a specific, defined goal is the opposite of CrossFit methodology. But as you observed, the impressive people at your gym have long training histories in other disciplines. Elite CrossFitters did not get that way simply by CrossFitting.
posted by ludwig_van at 9:24 PM on February 3, 2012 [6 favorites]

Yeah, I used to train Crossfit a lot for a few years starting in 2005, and have since switched to more sport specific training. I find the drink-the-koolaid attitude of both Crossfit and Gym Jones to be really annoying. But my friend John (the guy squatting in that link to the Gym Jones site) has two young kids, a demanding full time job and still manages to climb pretty hard and stay extremely fit. So I don't know, anything is possible if you want it badly enough. Will Gadd (probably the best ice climber ever and definitely a fitness nerd) wrote somewhere if he only had a limited time to train he felt that Crossfit would be the best use of that time. For someone that wants to stay/get into shape Crossfit is awesome. Just make sure you're careful and don't get injured. Also, make sure to have fun (even if it's type II fun).
posted by alpinist at 9:35 PM on February 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh, Crossfit and body image. For all that Crossfit promotes function over form, it certainly gives women constant pressure to look a certain way. Add in all the various skills and the direct competition with ex-Division I athletes and you can turn yourself into a nervous wreck in a hurry.

Here's something to think about - has anyone who started Crossfit when you did turned from an ordinary person off the street into one of those perfect beasts? I kind of doubt it. Ask around your gym. Talk to the people there and find out how long they've been at it. Ask about how fit they were when they started. If someone around you does transform, don't be jealous and intimidated - find out what they did. Also, look at the best athletes in your gym. Is every single one of them super shapely and perfect looking? I would also guess that's not the case. Some of the best athletes out there find they lift and perform better with more body fat than society considers ideal.

Personally, I started around 2 months after my 2nd baby was born. I had learned to love working out in the process of losing about 25 lbs before having kids, but of course I had some baby weight and was all out of sorts from the body changes of pregnancy. I was the schlubby mom off in the corner huffing and puffing. 1.25 years later, I think I look like a Crossfitter. Not one of those perfect lean ones, but muscly and decent-shaped. I am still just on the edge of my abs peeking out. More importantly, I can do the things I set out to do. My initial goals included a strict pullup - I am at 5-6 and working for ten now. Out of nowhere I got doubleunders a month or so ago, and can get 25 in a row pretty regularly. Stuff like toes to bar also just showed up one day. I also keep a healthy distance from some of the Crossfit kool-aid. I have done exactly one rope climb - yay, I can climb a rope. I hate it and I'm not going to bother doing another for a while unless a bear is chasing me. Kipping pull ups are nice but are they too risky for my shoulders? I decided strict pull ups are more important to me. I work hard on the things I want to improve, but even when a workout isn't my strength I give it a good go. In the long run, all that matters is that I'm always getting better at something.

It's becoming more obvious to me as I go that the key is time. Lots of these people have a 20 year head start. You may not look like them in 6 months, but if you keep at it, you'll look and perform better than you do now, and that's what matters. The more you keep at it, the more skills you will pick up and the more achievable the big skills like muscle ups and pistols will become.

I think that all your goals can be done within (or including) the framework of Crossfit, if that's how you want to do it. I'm with you in wanting the social interaction and class format. However, they're going to have to happen one at a time. Decide what's most important to you and knock it off your list. I recently dropped about 10 lbs of body fat - but it had to wait until I adjusted to doing a lot of work in the gym. I needed the calories for the first year just for recovery. I also had to mentally put top gym performance, speed, and strength gains on the back burner. I am looking forward to going back to maintenance calories in a month or two so I can really start putting on muscle again and running at a decent speed. I just don't have the energy under caloric restriction.

Number one, remember that you're in a long term endeavor. Learn form right. Slow down to do things the right way even if everyone else is going faster. If a movement seems risky, just don't do it. If you're injured, you're not moving towards your goals. Think for yourself and figure out what's most important to you, and go out and do it.
posted by pekala at 10:38 PM on February 3, 2012 [8 favorites]

N'thing all of the advice about being more patient. I've been doing Crossfit for four years now, averaging five days a week. I started after many years of bike racing, running, and triathlons, so walking in the door I was already lean and athletic. And it was a very humbling for many, many months. The thing about Crossfit is that a lot of the movements have a high degree of skill that simply takes time and practice to learn and get efficient at. And the stuff you mentioned -- handstand walks, muscle ups, or a really efficient kipping pull-up certainly require some skill. So when you say "recently started Crossfit", if you mean anything less than a year, then I would say you are still on the steep part of the learning curve. Comparing yourself with people who have walked in the door of the gym many hundreds or thousands of times and spent each of those times developing a skill just isn't going to be fair. If you want to accelerate that process, you'll need to incorporate the movements into your warm-ups instead of waiting for them to show up in a WOD but it will still take time.

Likewise on the body fat. One of the problems with paleo is that it is pretty easy to screw up the macro nutrients if you aren't paying attention. Sure, those almond meal pancakes with Agave syrup may be technically paleo, but that doesn't mean they don't have a high glycemic load. If your dietary changes are also recent, I would give it more time. If they aren't and you are really on a plateau, I would suggest really digging into your food log to figure out how the fat/protein/carbs are breaking out and maybe using Zone as a tool to track it better. I've watched a lot of people in my gym switch to paleo. While there are many success stories, there is certainly a subset of people that don't lean out on paleo

Finally, a word on bike racing and 5Ks and climbing. I've continued to do running races and tris during the time I've been crossfitting; last year I raced in maybe 20 or 25 events. In the last four years I've spent a lot of time experimenting with the right balance of sport specific training and crossfit, including two stints using Crossfit Endurance. I've learned a couple of things. First is, crossfit makes everything better compared to just coming off the couch. Crossfit is perfect for that occasional climbing trip or that once in a while 5K race. Second is, some amount of Crossfit has made me a faster runner/biker than I was before Crossfit. Third is, there is no substitute for sport specific training. When I dialed the Crossfit up too much (and the sport specific stuff down), my times suffered. Fourth, you can't do both seriously at the same time. It is just too much of a beatdown. If you want to race bikes, recognize that there is a lot of skill and experience in that, too. So don't wait until you are in better shape, go ahead and just start so you can build that experience now. But recognize that at some point, you'll have to dial one back if you want to get better at the other.

Wow, I've written a wall of text here. TL;DR summary: be patient and stick with it.
posted by kovacs at 10:48 PM on February 3, 2012 [3 favorites]

To be really athletic you need good balance and reflexes. These cover a multitude of sins! And you'll have more confidence in your abilities and you will find it easier to pick up new sports. Anything that involves shifting weight from one foot to another is a good place to start: dancing, xc skiing, inline skating, ice skating etc. Then work up to something harder like skate skiing, street hockey or surfing.

To be truly "athletic" so that you can pick up new things easily and be an efficient runner and climber you're going to get more out of improving your balance than lifting weights.
posted by fshgrl at 10:49 PM on February 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

As someone who is getting strong for the first time in my life, I would answer: incrementalism. Pick a quantifiable measure, figure out how much of that you can do now, and then work to increase it every single workout. It's a hell of a lot easier to get yourself to the point, mentally and physically, where you can deadlift your bodyweight if you've already managed to deadlift 95% of it the week before. The pros do this too, tracking their performance meticulously and constantly pushing themselves.
posted by wnissen at 11:01 PM on February 3, 2012 [3 favorites]

In my work I have spoken to several award winning athletes, and all of them have said that the difference between being good and being great when it comes to training is diet. You can do the exact same thing the next person is doing, but if your diet is not perfectly in tune to what you need, you won't make the same gains they might make.

So, workout as much as you need to (talk to a trainer about your goals and what to do, they will be able to give you very specific advice), but make sure you are getting everything you need in your diet. Your resting period is just as important as the working out period, and if your body doesn't have what it needs, you won't make good gains.

There is a food/training book called "Thrive" (I think there might actually be two, one for training and one for nutrition). It focuses on a vegan diet for a professional triathelete. It has a lot of fluff, and I don't know if most people could ever actually follow it, but it has a lot of good info on how diet effects your body when you are training. It's worth picking up at the library and reading.
posted by markblasco at 12:53 AM on February 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

There's a good Rob Wolf podcast from a few weeks ago. Rob interviews Michael Rutherford who created the the Max Effort black box model for Crossfit. It's essentially what Schroedinger referred to up top.

Both Rob and Mike acknowledged that the number one problem with making progress in Crossfit is basic strength. We're talking Starting Strength, big lifts, power lifting strength. If you don't have a lifting background before Crossfit, it will be hard to make serious gains. Keep in mind that initial strength gains made by a new lifter are mostly neurological and not hypertrophy based.

Crossfit is great at working your fast glycolytic, slow glycolytic and oxidative energy systems. I suppose you're also working your phospho-creatine system, but that primarily involved in shorter max effort lifts.

The Max Effort black box model focuses on one major lift about 3 times a week, rotated by body RM % and body part worked. You need some sort of low rep high intensity (Intensity being a % of your one rep max.)

After your heavy lift for the day, you then do one 15 min WOD. (Lifting before metabolic work.) The heavy lifts usually fall on Mon, Wed, and Friday. 3x a week heavy lifting will allow you to build up the essential strength to do everything else.

Think of it this way, you can't really do a hand stand until you can at least push press your own body weight.

Make sure you focus on strength and not just conditioning.
posted by Telf at 5:24 AM on February 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

You're 22, and just started this stuff. You can be an incredibly buff 25-year-old if you basically just do half crossfit-esque short metcons and half heavy weight lifting, and eat a high protein, lower carb diet. And let yourself sleep enough.
I never worked out at a xfit box (don't like working out with people, don't like the koolaid), but I did xfit-type stuff for a while. I started adding it to a routine that already include plenty of power lifting, so I was strong to begin with. Before I got seriously injured, I looked pretty "crossfit" and was 30 years old. I was never athletic at all growing up, and I still don't consider myself athletic, but for a woman in her thirties I'm strong as hell for my size, and other people do consider me the "athletic" one. I will regularly be asked at gyms what sports I played when I was younger.

Oh, and I did all of this working out at most 5 times a week, on my lunch hour, workouts that generally took at most 1:15 from leaving the office, to changing, to warming up, working out, showering, changing, walking back to the office (my longest workout of the week is deadlift Friday, because I like to take my time with a nice deadlift). I would say that working out less but more intensely is definitely one of the best things I took away from xfit. And avoid all stupid chipper workouts. Long hard workouts will just wear your nervous system out, make you eat poorly, and generally be counter-productive to getting that truly "fit" look.

Anyway, if I were to start all over again, I would be pursuing basic strength work, I'd be doing glute activation work every day, and I'd be more aggressive about improving my mobility where I needed it.

Schroedinger is so right on with this. I'm glad I started with basic strength work, but I didn't do mobility work at all and ended up with a serious injury that sidelined me for over a year.

And I wouldn't worry about the weight yet. It will come off if you keep doing this stuff and eating well. I hope your box isn't encouraging you to do kipping pull-ups yet though, the extra weight will really fuck up your rotator cuffs if you haven't built up adequate strength to do several strict pull-ups.
posted by ch1x0r at 9:02 AM on February 4, 2012 [3 favorites]

I need tips on reducing body fat % and becoming really, really strong, and I need perspective on the kind of effort I should be putting in.

I love the quotation from ludwig_van about sitting one ass in multiple chairs. This is so, so true and the main impediment I think to many Crossfitters achieving their goals. Your "more inside" is a bit all over the place so I pulled out just the top of your question to emphasize what I think are your main goals right now:
  • Reduced body fat percentage
  • Really, really, strong
Answer: Starting Strength.

Crossfit, Fran, Cindy, Murph... they will all be waiting for you after you spend the next six months to a year focused on getting strong. The advantage you will have in these workouts if you dedicate a solid chunk of time to strength training will be unbelievable. Keep in mind that a lot of those "life long athletes" you see at your gym who excel in Crossfit workouts built up a huge strength base as student athletes. Even student athletes who never really worked in the weight room can have a huge strength advantage, although we often overlook that and assume the advantage is in coordination or endurance only.

Starting Strength (or any basic linear progression program based on the main barbell lifts -- I just see no reason to deviate from SS because it works) will build up your base strength very quickly. The strength gains you can see in six months of dedicated Starting Strength are likely to take two or three times as long if you try to train strength while continuing to do Crossfit workouts.

The thing about Starting Strength is that it is a very intense program: you lift weights that are close to the heaviest weights you can lift three times per week. You back squat, heavy, three times per week. In order to get all that you can out of the program, you must allow your body to recover when you are not lifting. What that means is: eating a diet with lots of protein and sufficient calories; sleeping at least eight hours every night; not doing other strenuous workouts.

If you do Starting Strength and fuel your body sufficiently with high quality foods (NO CALORIC RESTRICTION), body fat percentage will take care of itself. My body fat percentage dropped like a rock while I was doing Starting Strength (started with similar stats to yours), and by the time I exhausted the linear progression, I had visible abs. No joke.

PS - You will be really happy that you strengthened your shoulder capsule with dedicated weight training when you go back to Crossfit and are less likely to get a SLAP tear or rotator cuff impingement.
posted by telegraph at 11:33 AM on February 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

For those crazy fit instructor types? The people that are just fit and ripped? Genetics is 80% of it. At least.
posted by sanka at 7:13 PM on February 3

Other people have covered it already, but I'd like to reiterate that this is literally 100% false. It's about as valid an answer as "fitness is achieved through magic spells and sacrifices to Odin." Fitness is a marathon - if someone has a five-year head start, they can do the dumbest programs and eat only marginally well and still be way ahead of someone who has been doing perfect diet and exercise for six months.

Please, please listen to alpinist, schroedinger, and ludwig_van, and not the people who say "you can't," because I promise you they are dead fucking wrong. Smart plans, consistently executed, over years, yield remarkable results.
posted by a_girl_irl at 3:00 PM on February 4, 2012 [3 favorites]


Charles Poliquin, who knows a lot about strength, just posted this short piece on his blog:

Getting the most out of Crossfit.

Essentially: focus on technique, periodization, don't rush your progress, always strive to learn more.
posted by Telf at 6:52 AM on February 5, 2012

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