Understanding CrossFit with Alan Foulis
CrossFit has been bashed left, right and center since its formal establishment in 2000. Negative opinions surround the sport. The shared view? “CrossFit is dangerous and promotes bad form.” I, however, see bad form and bizarre stuff in the traditional gym almost every day, so I have been curious to know exactly why the sport continues to create such a buzz in the fitness industry. In a quest to understanding CrossFit better, I had a Fitness Chat with professional CrossFit athlete Alan Foulis, who in 2015, became the first ever South African to qualify for the CrossFit Granite Games in Minnesota, USA. Alan has been a CrossFit coach since 2013 and has participated in quite a few international Games. Alan shares his professional and personal perspective on the sport.
What is CrossFit if you had to explain it to a novice and how is it different from traditional training?
CrossFit is a strength and conditioning program designed to improve your fitness by using weights, cardio, and gymnastics within the group training environment. This may not sound very different from a group class at a conventional gym yet, but as you unpack all the elements within the box, it becomes apparent why this regime has grown so fast and will be here for a long time to come.
From a training perspective, it differs from traditional exercise in that the class will be an hour long and within that class, you will spend time working on weight training, gymnastic skills, and then complete what is called the Workout of the Day(WOD). The WOD is where the mundane and repetition of regular training is avoided completely. The goal is to use as many different movements in as many different combinations as you can come up with, to make a workout that continues to keep the body guessing and therefore force it to continually adapt and improve. In my opinion, this is the way the human body is supposed to be trained.
The CrossFit gym is known to CrossFitters as a ‘box’ because it generally takes place in large box-type spaces. At your box, you will not only be coached to move safely with purpose and drive, but you will experience camaraderie and networking opportunities like nowhere else. Walking into a box and having the coach greet you by name, then sweating and working hard with people you have come to know, high-fiving after the workout, and leaving looking forward to the next session, is all part of the experience that you cannot find in any conventional gym.
How long you have been in the fitness industry; did you transition from another sport and if so why did you decide to get into CrossFit?
I have been fit and active my entire life, with sports always playing a major role. In 2012 I moved down to Cape Town to play rugby at False Bay Rugby Club (FBRC) whilst working as a personal trainer. One of the coaches at FBRC suggested that I try CrossFit to add to my training and that is how I began the journey. Two months after the first CrossFit session, I decided to cancel my contract with FBRC and pursue CrossFit as a sport.
Why? That was simple. I had finally found a sport where pre-season training was all year round, where I was accountable only to myself and my hard work was reflected in my performance. There was no discrimination, no reliance on coaches or selectors or referees, it was a sport where if I didn’t win, it’s because I hadn’t worked hard enough, and for the very first time it was a solo sport. I had played team sports my whole life and I now had the opportunity to see what I was capable of on my own.
The CrossFit injury debate; is it a misconception? What injuries have you suffered as a result of the sport?
Injuries are a part of physical activity, and I can say honestly CrossFit experiences no more than any other sport I have played. What has perpetuated the injury debate is the combination of social media and people trying to perform CrossFit outside of a CrossFit box without correct coaching or supervision. However, in the same breath all coaches aren’t as focused on safety as others, so in my opinion, there are no unsafe movements in CrossFit, just poor coaching. It is important to stay within your limits when you start CrossFit and know that even though someone else in the class is lifting more than you, they may have been training longer than you have. It is your journey, not your crash course, so enjoy it 🙂
I have suffered two injuries in the last three years, a dislocated elbow and a damaged rotator cuff. But when you are pushing yourself constantly, as is required by competitive sport, these things will happen and is important to manage your body correctly.
A lot of controversy surrounds the Kipping pull-up. It has been said kippings are a cause of many shoulder injuries in CrossFit. What is your stance?
The kipping pull up is just taken out of context. The strict pull up is used to build strength and is always the first port of call within the box. The kipping pull up is merely designed to allow you to move more efficiently and therefore get through more work in a shorter period of time. An analogy I use is that of walking and running, they will both get you from A to B, but running will get you there faster. The problem arises when people have not developed sufficient shoulder stability and just jump up on the pull-up bar. This throws their bodies into compromising positions and I feel it is the coaches’ responsibility to monitor this.
What does your average training day or week consist of?
An average week consists of 5 full training days, 1 active recovery day, and 1 complete rest day. On a training day, I will train between 3 and 4 times with a slightly different focus on each session. One will have a strength bias where I may perform 4-5 sets of heavy squats in combination with some core work. Session two will have a cardio focus and might be a long run, row or assault bike session working on either steady state cardio or interval training. The third session will be a typical WOD and can be a combination of any movements with the goal being to either complete a set amount of work as quickly as possible or be given a set amount of time to do as much work as possible. An example of the WOD could be 15 burpees, 10 deadlifts at 100kg, and 5 power cleans, and complete as many reps as possible (AMRAP) in 7 minutes. The idea being that working at high intensity using both my bodyweight and external weights will elicit an adaptation from my body to make me both stronger and fitter. On active recovery day, I will get outside for a hike, swim, walk, or SUP where I can just enjoy my fitness.
What supplements do you take and what does your diet look like?
Nutrition should be the cornerstone of any training regime but for myself, my nutrition is performance based. Consistency is my secret weapon together with food prep for the week ahead. 4:45 am – 80g oats with tablespoon peanut butter and 2 scoops of Nutritech Pure whey protein. 8:15 – couple of boiled eggs or some fruit depending on my session, 10:30 – pure whey protein shake 12:15 – Sweet potato snack 13:45 – banana and peanut butter, 15:15 pm chicken breast with salad and sweet potato, 20:00 – Chicken, mixed veg and spinach. Sleep, repeat 🙂
I am sponsored by Nutritech so my products are from them. What I currently use includes Creatine HCL, Pre-workout with caffeine and nitric oxide boosters, Pure whey protein, Recovery milkshakes, AminoBoost which is a BCAA supplement, Omega 3, Multivitamin, ZMA before bed and joint support with my meals.
What advice would you give to someone wanting to get into CrossFit?
Understanding CrossFit should not just end here after reading this. My advice would be to look up a box or three in your area, go and check them out. Go watch a class and ask about what their onramp process is, and then try it. It will be the best decision you ever make, irrelevant of your age or current level of activity. The human body was designed to move, go move it.
About Alan Foulis
MSc UKZN Crossfit level 1 coach
Crossfit Endurance training certified
American Council of Exercise PT cert.
Competed in USA and Europe
Qualified for 3 CrossFit regional events
4th Best in SA
Co-owner of CrossFit False Bay
Sponsored by Nutritech, 2XU, and WodWelder.
B.Sc.; B.Sc. (Hons); M.Sc. (Cum Laude)