After Gabrielle Kassel, a former college athlete, lost her job in a new city, she found work at a CrossFit box. A year later, the sport has transformed her.

By Gabrielle Kassel
May 09, 2018

Most people start CrossFit because they’re looking to lose weight, or get stronger, or get into the best shape of their life. Having played rugby in college, taught Zumba, finished a marathon, and taken up bodybuilding, for me, CrossFit wasn’t about the physical promises. I joined a CrossFit box (as the gyms are called) because I needed a job.

I moved to New York for what was, at the time, my dream job. But six months in, I called my mother sobbing. I’d just been given notice that the company would be letting me go in two weeks’ time. The eager post-grad haze had worn off, I was no longer certain I had chosen the right career field, and I was hit with a wave of loneliness.

After living in the city for half a year, I’d failed to make any friends. Late nights at the office had taken precedence over happy hours and girl-gang hangs. And because I’d often gotten off work late, instead of sampling New York's fitness class scene, I’d opted for a 24-hour big box gym. There, I’d do some bicep curls, walk on the stairmaster, and after about an hour, flex, take some mirror selfies, and leave.

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Now, here I was, bummed out, wishing for pals to vent to about my impending unemployment, and in serious need of pulling together work. So when I saw on Instagram that a Manhattan box, ICE NYC, was hiring a front desk social media manager, I applied.

I’d talked (or at least, thought) trash about CrossFit in the past, even though if I’m being totally honest with myself, I had no reason to. But I guess there was a part of me that was a little intrigued with the whole CrossFit phenomenon and the community it promised.

My first interview took place directly following a class. Having arrived super-early, I caught the tail end of the workout and watched as the athletes congratulated each other and brought it in for a cheer. The ethos of the group reminded me of my time playing rugby in college: The coach was treated with respect, the team was determined and focused, and the athletes followed an implicit "No One Left Behind" policy.

While the promise of barbells alone couldn’t convince me to try CrossFit, watching a class and talking with the gym’s owner about community, fitness, and joining the two could.

After my interview, the owner called to let me know that if I tried CrossFit and liked it, he’d hire me. So I signed up for a class the very next morning. I thought taking a CrossFit class would be like updating my LinkedIn, flossing my teeth, or eating greens: a necessary evil.

Turns out, CrossFit is not a thing you just walk in and out of every once in a while. If it sticks, it sticks real good.

I’ve changed plenty since I was originally hired at the box. For one, I switched to a part-time role so that I could pursue a fitness writing career, but I still work out there and consider the box my home. Twelve months since joining the ICE NYC CrossFit community I can safely say the sport has changed my life. Here’s how.

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It’s cliché, but patience is a serious virtue

Thanks @_______aaron for reminding me to flex while I pull 💪🏼🤓

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Most boxes have an on-ramp process that involves learning the ropes (and basic barbell lifts and bodyweight movements), but because I had weightlifting experience from my collegiate days I was allowed to pass over those sessions. (If you’re thinking about joining a box, take advantage of these offerings; I regret missing the learning opportunity). Even though I had fitness experience, it still took a long time to figure out what the heck I was doing.

CrossFit defines itself as constantly varied functional movements performed at high intensities, and that constantly varied part... it’s a lot. There’s the snatch, and then there’s the power snatch. There’s also a hang power snatch, and a hang squat snatch.

This variety is part of what makes it fun; you get to try so. many. different. things! But that also means there’s an unending stream of things to learn. The go-go-go New Yorker in me loved the exhaustive list of exercises, but the athlete in me felt overwhelmed by the variety.

I had to learn to be patient with myself and my body. If I forgot the difference between a hang, a squat, and a power clean, I had to learn to ask. If I couldn’t string together more than a few pull-ups, I had to ask for drills that would help me be able to… eventually. I gave myself permission to not know what the heck I was doing, and then developed the patience necessary to be okay with the learning curve.

Winning isn’t everything

My lights 💡✨

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My position in rugby was wing, which is the position that scores. Racking up points for my team was my job, and when I failed to do my job well, a loss for the team was usually the outcome. I love winning, and I brought that love of winning to CrossFit. “Finish first” was my motto.

And sometimes I did. Sometimes I’d take the top of the leaderboard on a bodyweight WOD (which stands for workout of the day), and I’d smile smugly, feeling proud. But then the next day, I’d have a workout with heavy barbells, and no amount of willpower would allow me to lift the barbell and lift it quickly while keeping good form.

A few conversations with my head coach helped me realize that my competitive spirit will help bring results for any goal, but that when it comes to heavy lifting, there’s a cardinal rule: Technique first, consistency second, and intensity last. “I love how competitive you are and how eager you are to learn and get better,” she told me. “My advice to you: There’s no rush. CrossFit isn’t going anywhere. Take it slow, learn, work hard, trust the process. You’ll end up where you’re supposed to be.”

Rest days aren’t a sign of weakness

Goon squad 💯 ••• 📸: @martsromero

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When it comes to getting stronger, you need two things: First, you need to work your muscles, which causes little tears in the muscle fibers. Then, your muscles need to repair themselves, which is a process that requires rest.

Before CrossFit, I would go to the gym six to seven times a week. I stuck to that same schedule when I started CrossFit. I often went seven days a week because it was all so new and fun. My workouts lasted an hour, but sometimes I’d join some of the CrossFit vets for an additional workout afterward. Surprise, surprise: I got an overtraining injury.

Six days of heavy weights and intense intervals every week is too much, and I probably would have gotten stronger faster if I had stuck to just four or five days a week and actually given my body the time it needed to recover between sessions.

The mind is a muscle that needs to be trained

Anyone can do CrossFit: The workouts are scalable, which means that people of all fitness levels can come to a box and do the workout of the day. But CrossFit is no joke. When it comes to barbells, box jumps, and burpees, you need more than physical strength. You need mental toughness.

If you want to achieve your best performance on a workout, you must be willing to suffer–we call it “finding the pain cave.” When you’re trying to snag a personal best, your body and mind work against you. But the pain cave is a place where I’m forced to ask myself just how much I’m willing to give to reach my goals.

Building the toughness necessary to endure the pain cave isn’t as easy as dropping to the floor and cranking out 20 push-ups. It takes work to get your brain to a point where it is willing to push longer and harder than it ever has before–and to know when to tone down the intensity. During my first year of CrossFit, I had to train my brain every single day through practices like journaling, meditation, and breathing exercises.

You don’t need to switch your eating habits to match your friends

Paleo. Whole30. IIFYM. Before these diets went mainstream, CrossFitters were jazzed on them. Until I started CrossFit, I didn’t realize the nuances of these diets.

I’ve dipped my toes in the waters of all of these diets for anywhere from a week to a month, and I always come out thinking the same thing: They’re just not worth it to me! Counting macros may work for certain goals, but it is hella time consuming, and it made me obsessed with food.

Similarly, while I liked the Paleo diet (and it’s even stricter cousin Whole30) in theory–lots of veggies, protein, healthy fats, some fruit, and no grains or dairy sounded okay–in practice, I became a hangry monster. Basically, cutting out all grains and added sugars meant that I ate fewer carbs, and carbs are really important when you’re exercising regularly.

While I thought trying out my friends’ eating habits would be a fun bonding activity, it always just ends up making me grumpy.

Abs really are made in the kitchen

A month into my stunt as a CrossFitter, I had the flattest stomach I’d had up until that point. Which meant I had a new-found confidence to strut around the gym in my sports bra after every sweat sesh.

But while I looked good, I was getting tired four hours into my workday and didn’t have the energy I used to. Could I have mono a second time? Why was this happening?

My coach guessed it: I was under-eating. My go-to meals and daily intake hadn’t changed after I’d joined CrossFit, and I wasn't giving myself the fuel I needed to power through–and then recover from–the high-intensity workouts.

With a little guidance from the coaches in my gym and phone calls with a nutritionist, I revved up my breakfasts to include more protein and complex carbohydrates (wahoo for sweet and nutty overnight oats!) and made a point to have a snack between lunch and dinner. Suddenly my energy levels shot back up–and my abs have only gotten more defined.

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CrossFitters make great friends

CrossFit isn't just special for its high intensity and unique lingo; there’s also a surprising level of camaraderie. I used to think that made CrossFit a cult, but it’s way more accurate to simply call it what it is: a community.

People usually work out at the same time every evening, so you end up spending five to seven hours a week with the same crew of 20 who are similarly interested in health and fitness.

While the concept of breaking a sweat with someone as relationship-building is not unique to CrossFit, in CrossFit “working out” really means something much more specific. It means changing your life and the lives of those you sweat alongside; it means being pushed physically harder than you’ve ever been pushed with a group; and it means calloused high fives, fist pumps, and even sweaty group hugs.