BrainWod: The Ancillary Benefit to CrossFit

By Derek McDermott

BrainWod: The Ancillary Benefit to CrossFit


Outside of the obvious physical attributes that lifting a barbell creates, days/weeks/months’ worth of burpees and air squats also comes with some mental “gains.” I recently read an article that talked about how middle-aged marathoners/triathletes are more mentally prepared for difficult life situations than their counterparts who don’t. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not recommending you go out and run marathons tomorrow in order increase your mental toughness, but I think there is a lot to it. The research cited in the article mentioned the sheer duration of a marathon and the numerous (infinite, really) opportunities there are for the athlete to quit during the race. Now think of CrossFit…

Recently, hundreds of thousands of folks worldwide participated in a grueling and long workout on Memorial Day. “Murph,” known by its shorthand, takes anywhere from 30-60 minutes to complete. The variation or scaling is largely unimportant and frankly, I don’t care if you wear a vest or partition it. I care more about that moment, typically after the first 20-25 minutes, when it truly starts to hurt. That moment is where we are all forced to make a choice. We can 1) slow down, 2) stay steady or 3) bear down and push a little harder. That choice, in my opinion, is no different than what that study is talking about. Sure, we don’t have those “Murph” moments every WOD; frankly it’d be difficult to recreate that feeling on a daily basis. However, we do see flavors of that moment more often than not.

After years of participating and coaching CrossFit, I don’t think I’m going out on a limb when I say that these workouts are for the mind equally as much as the body.

Taking this one step further, I’m sure that most of us have heard the “Barbell Therapy” cliché. Cliché as it may be, it’s also accurate. CrossFit will undoubtedly have a diverse population of people with various reasons for attending class, however, the dedication to their goal is what matters most. As a coach, I sometimes get the chance to see the true “why” as to a member’s attendance. Sometimes it’s as simple as a weight loss goal. Sometime its merely for the competitive environment. And sometimes it’s as complex as an internal struggle that someone is trying to overcome.

I’m aware of a member who uses CrossFit as a way to quiet their mind after a long day at their very stressful job (this is likely many of us). I’m also aware of a member who uses CrossFit as a healthier outlet to keep addiction at bay. This individual is keenly aware that they are trading one addiction (exercise) for the other, but this was not a decision made lightly. However, these stories are not mine to tell. I’m also aware of members who, at times of grief, find immense solace in working out. I know this, because I am one of those people.

When Vivian Dawson passed away, grabbing a barbell was one of the first things that felt natural after I had the chance to take in the news. I remember the next day’s class like it was yesterday. I vividly recall using that barbell and wallball as a means to release some anger and frustration. Call it an “outlet” or call it “losing my emotions” but I have no regrets about that day. During the workout, I pushed harder than I thought I had in me, and afterwards, I broke down. As my muscles screamed from the lactic acid, and as my lungs tried collecting as much oxygen as possible, I buried my face in my hat and cried like a little kid.

BrainWOD: The Ancillary Benefit of CrossFit

To some, CrossFit is often seen as just a workout fad. To those of us who have been around long enough, we know it’s far more than that. With these WOD’s, I truly believe there is an added bonus. I believe the brain is the best muscle we have, and it may actually be the biggest benefactor of our hard work.

Unfortunately, some scientific firm likely paid large amounts of money to collect and analyze this data to prove that exercise (CrossFit or otherwise) is creating mental toughness in people. All they had to do was step into our gym and they would have had more anecdotal evidence than they could use.

See you in the gym.
-Coach D-