If you ask me for a list of nouns that I’d use to describe myself, the first few that come to mind are writer and editor, dog mom, island gyal, and runner. Well, that last one was true for the better part of the 2010s, but with races canceled for more than a year—and, frankly, my pace slowing after turning 40—my motivation to pound pavement waned.
As a former full-time personal trainer and self-described active person (more nouns!), I know my way around a gym. But workout self-motivation doesn’t come easy when you work full-time from home during a global pandemic. (Sound familiar?) What’s more, while I've continued to run (and bike) a couple of times a week, I noticed some body composition changes over the past few years that I don’t love—namely, a loss of muscle mass, which happens to most people as they get older if they don’t add resistance training to their routines.
For a while, I made do with my TRX suspension trainer, a couple kettlebells I was lucky enough to buy off Facebook, and two pairs of borrowed dumbbells. But there are only so many #gains you can achieve with just body weight and 10 or 20 pounds of resistance. I needed heavier weights and someone to make me use them. So when COVID gym restrictions eased, I turned to my local CrossFit. While the facility offers the fitness equipment for a great WOD (that’s “Workout of the Day,” for the uninitiated), there are a few other things you might find helpful.
1. A hands-free insulated cup
Even pre-pandemic, I was a germaphobe. My Box (CrossFit-ese for “gym”) has plenty of sanitizing cleaner and fresh cloths for wiping equipment before and after use, but I still don’t want to touch anything during a workout that goes near my mouth. To wit, I bring along a Tahoe Trails 30-ounce stainless steel tumbler, which I own in a couple of colors (and only holds 24 ounces—go figure). The container has a flip-top sealing lid, so I can shake up my fave hydration drink powder with cold water spill-free, and its thick walls keep my drink chilled in the un-air-conditioned gym. I pop in an extra-long reusable straw before my workout begins, and I can sip to my heart’s content without my fingers touching the cup’s mouthpiece.
- Get the Tahoe Trails 30-ounce Stainless Steel Tumbler on Amazon for $13.99
- Get the Reusable Silicone Straws for 30-ounce Tumblers on Amazon for $6.95
2. Cross-training shoes for surer footing
Having the right footwear for any workout is essential: Your feet are your base of movement and balance, and if your shoes aren’t designed to offer support and traction for your activity of choice, you risk injury. (That’s why you must have the right running shoes if you take up that hobby.)
When it comes to CrossFit, you need cross trainers—shoes designed for a variety of athletic movements, like running, jumping, and cutting direction, that also offer a solid base for planting your feet when lifting heavy weights. The most popular include the Nike Metcons and NoBull trainers, both of which are light for when you need to be spry, yet flat-soled for stability when you’re pressing a barbell overhead.
3. Towels for soaking up sweat
If you’re lucky, your gym has air conditioning, but even if it does, you will sweat. Having something to mop your brow is not a bad idea. Any ole hand towel will do—I have several in rotation—but if you want to take it up a notch, opt for a dedicated gym towel in a convenient neck-draping length. I prefer the softer feel of a brushed cotton, like the Facesoft Sweat Towel, but others opt for extra-thirsty microfiber, like the nappy workout towels from The Rag Company or the waffle-woven option from Desired Body. (Just skip those cooling towels made of PVA material, as we found them ineffective in our lab tests.)
During the workouts, you may also have to lie down on the floor or a communal mat. This icks me out no matter how much those surfaces are mopped, so I bring an old bath towel to serve as a barrier for my skin. Bonus: It keeps my perspiration puddles to a minimum.
- Get the Facesoft Eco-Friendly Yoga Sweat Towel on Amazon starting at $10.79
- Get The Rag Company microfiber workout towels (3 Pack) on Amazon for $9.95
- Get the Fitness Gym Towels (2 Pack) by Desired Body on Amazon for $18.99
4. Hair ties that stay in place
A corollary to the “I don’t want to touch my drink” mid-workout rule, is the “I don’t want to fix my hair” rule. A high ponytail is my style of choice for keeping those face-framing wisps in check, but if it’s pulled back with a crappy hair tie, that effort is for naught. For my fine, curly hair, I’ve had good luck with those phone-cord-like plastic coils, but if you wanna go fancy and no-slip, the Lululemon Skinny Scrunchies topped our test of the best hair ties for their gentle-yet-secure hold.
- Get the Kitsch Spiral Hair Ties (8 pcs) on Amazon for $7.95
- Get the Skinny Scrunchies 6-pack at Lululemon for $28
5. Workout gloves for palm protection
Some weightlifters and CrossFitters may scoff that you aren’t a true athlete without rough, calloused palms. I have no problem being so categorized: Gripping metal bars and wooden gymnastics rings is not comfortable, and climbing thick ropes bare-handed hurts. For me, less pain equals more gain when my palms aren’t burning and I don’t have that excuse to keep me from attempting another pull-up or ring row.
I had a pair of low-cost fingerless weightlifting gloves, but they tore within the first couple of wears. Based on our writer’s review, I plan to ante up for the Lululemon License to Train gloves, which she used for all sorts of workout activities for six months and they still looked new.
6. Pads to prevent bruises from heavy equipment
Another thing I’m totally OK with, in terms of compromising my hardcore cred: Protecting my upper back and collarbones from the discomfort of resting a heavy barbell across them when doing back squats or setting up for an overhead press. You might find a nylon fabric-covered foam pad lying around the gym that you could wipe down before you use it (at least, that’s what I would do). Or consider buying your own contoured foam version, like the one from Elevator Fitness, which has an ergonomic shape to curve around your neck.
Another, sneakier option: a sports bra with collarbone padding designed for making any exercise where a bar, dumbbells, or kettlebells rests in a front rack position—like power cleans and front squats—more comfortable (read: less bruising). The Chestee—I didn’t name it—looks like a fashionable high-neck crop top but has a thin layer of high-density foam sewn into the upper front. One of my coaches swears by them.
- Get the Elevator Fitness Barbell Pad on Amazon for $12.79
- Shop sports bras at The Chestee starting at $56
7. Workout clothes that don’t get in your way
In my experience, CrossFit gyms don’t have the same dress-to-impress mentality I’ve seen at, say, a high-end health club. (Or maybe I just don’t care who’s wearing Athleta versus Old Navy.) But no matter where you buy your stuff, function trumps style IMHO.
For me, that means a good sports bra (pro tip: running only a 100-meter sprint is still running, especially when you do it 10 times); a close-fitting top, so loose fabric doesn’t get tangled on equipment or drag on the floor during push-ups; and compression bottoms, though that’s more a personal preference than a CrossFit-specific thing. I only wear tank tops and muscle shirts rather than tees—I don’t like the feel of constricting, soggy material under my arms—and opt for long bike shorts that come close to my knees (to eliminate thigh chafing while not overheating), unless there’s rope climbing on the workout plan when I opt for ankle-length leggings. (I’ve also seen folks don tall socks or even shin pads for that.) I don’t like to spend a lot on these items because they will get dirty and sweaty and even snagged or abraded.
My pick for sports bras is Brooks because they are super-supportive and size-inclusive from 30A to 44F—and while not cheap, you can often find them on sale in last-season’s colors. I tend to shop for workout tops and leggings from TJ Maxx and Marshalls, but my go-to bottoms are Amazon’s compressive Oalka bike shorts. They feel substantial with a 9-inch inseam, are squat-proof, and come in sizes XS to XXL and more than a dozen colors and prints, all for under $20 a pair. (The large side pockets make them a great pick for running, too.)
- Shop running bras at Brooks
- Shop workout apparel at TJ Maxx
- Get the Oalka Women's Short on Amazon starting at $6.99
8. A breathable face mask
I get it: No one loves wearing masks and no one even likes wearing them while working out. But heavy breathing is one of the surest ways to transmit COVID-19, and some gyms continue to require masking even for vaccinated people. Luckily, there are some face masks you can breathe in that still help keep germs from spreading.
Our pick of the best face masks from Athleta is designed with exercise in mind, made from three layers of thin polyester and cotton fabrics. Champion’s polyester-spandex masks are a favorite of Reviewed’s style editor, Amanda Tarlton, who says they don’t feel stifling during her weightlifting sessions.
- Get the Everyday Non Medical Face Masks 5-pack at Athleta for $3.99
- Get the Lay Flat Wicking Face Mask at Champion for $6.99
9. Athletic laundry detergent to control odor
Even though I may not spend as much on my workout clothes, I still want them to last as long as possible. The biggest mistake people make with activewear: Not rinsing out sweaty clothes ASAP after wearing them.
I do my own clothes one better by giving them a quick hand-wash as soon as I get home, using a special laundry detergent formulated to rid performance fabric of that stank it accumulates over time. (You know, the one where the clothing smells OK when you first put them on, but goes foul as soon as your body heat warms the fabric up.)
I put some Hex detergent in a hand-soap pump bottle to make it easier to add to the sink. Then I give my outfit a soapy sloshing and good rinsing and hang it to dry before putting it into the regular laundry for a round-two wash with my regular clothes.
10. Patience and modifications
This last one you can’t find in stores, but my inner personal trainer would be remiss for not mentioning it. CrossFit has a reputation for being too much, too hard, and too high a potential for injury. Plenty of trainers shun it entirely for not following the rules of safe workout programming: Those WODs often prescribe more reps and high weights that aren’t appropriate for every body, and most workouts are “scored” based on how quickly you complete them (which, of course, encourages rushing such that form could suffer). Scaling what you do from the “Rx” (by decreasing the weight used, typically) is always an option, of course, and my coaches are very good about suggesting modifications based on what they see someone’s capabilities are. However, during a workout, it can be easy to get carried away by the time pressure in general, or by seeing someone else get ahead of you by a whole set, or by the anxiety you may be last to finish.
I implore you: Just don’t. Push yourself to do your best, but watch your form and respect your limits—for me, that’s two WODs a week. Also, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Take a beginner course if your Box offers it. Try new-to-you moves with no added weight at all until you feel comfortable and the coach says your form looks good. (Months in, I still do overhead squats with only a 1-inch PVC pipe in my hands because my hip and shoulder mobility isn’t there yet.)
Bottom line: If you don’t feel supported by the coaches at your Box, find another coach or another gym. Or find another exercise routine that suits you better. But if you fall in love with the challenge and variety of the workouts and the camaraderie of CrossFit, welcome to the cul… er, club.
Prices were accurate at the time this article was published but may change over time.