So You Want to Start a Seniors Program?

Recently, a Box owner considering a “Seniors” program sought advice on the CrossFit Affiliate owners Facebook page.

It’s a great idea, right? Many Boxes already have programs for seniors, identified with distinctive, descriptive titles like “Forever Fierce” at Fitness Lab CrossFit in New Braunfels, Texas, and “SilverFit” at the Violet Community CrossFit in Pickerington, Ohio. “Legends” is the choice of TJ’s Gym in San Rafael, California, 501 CrossFit in North Little Rock, Arkansas, and BlueZone CrossFit in Costa Rica. 

One Affiliate, Infinite Fitness and Health in Wharton, New Jersey, even offers two options: “Longevity” for those over 60 who are unable to perform in a typical class and “Vitality,” for seniors who are dropped off with their walkers from a nearby assisted living facility.

As an Affiliate owner, trainer and senior, I have the qualifications to be considered an expert on this topic, but I am not. There are many “right” approaches to reach this demographic we have chosen not to take.

If you want to start a program aimed at seniors, puzzle out your motivations to determine your own “right” answer. 

Do you hope to save everyone with CrossFit? Do you want to fill “down” hours with an available demographic? Does your bottom line need a boost? These are all reasonable goals, but effectively working with seniors requires special considerations.

Anyone who’s completed the CrossFit Level One is familiar with Greg Glassman’s claim the very same methods that elicit optimal response in the Olympic or professional athlete will optimize the same response in the elderly.

Good luck with that. 

What Does it Take to Run a Seniors Program?

It takes infinite patience plus a great deal of trial and error to adapt methods from the standard CrossFit movement tool box to the abilities of a de-conditioned senior. Scratch Olympic lifts and most gymnastic moves, at least for a very long time. 

Want to try a seniors group class? Be ready to invest in 6-inch boxes – barbell plates are too slippery and uneven – and five-pound dumbbells. Have plenty of mobility bands, in as many resistance levels as they make. Oil those rower chains and tune up your bikes. 

A recent Facebook post shared by CrossFit featured the Legends class at 501 CrossFit synchro-stepping, biking and rowing while the instructor encouraged and told them they looked good. The class was full, people were working, but to this 67-year old CrossFit instructor it felt patronizing, and it was definitely not a workout I would care to lead or follow. That’s an ego thing for me; it doesn’t mean such an approach wouldn’t work in your community.

Working with the fragile elderly? Be prepared to do individualized, one-on-one coaching if you hope to see real progress. Most importantly, think about what you’ll do when and if you don’t see progress.

We welcome seniors who want to try CrossFit, but we decided early on not everyone who walks in our door can be saved, at least not in our lifetime. We are a small gym in a small town with a small staff. We are as profitable as we need to be, and we don’t care to do personal training. 

CrossCut CrossFit’s Approach to Seniors

Our approach is any new member, no matter their age, must be capable of being integrated into our regular classes within a relatively short time. We can and will scale as much and as long as necessary, but we cannot devote our coaching time to one person during a class.

During our seven years as an Affiliate, we’ve had many seniors come to us whom we weren’t able to help. The reasons they didn’t stay were similar to those of anyone of any age who decides CrossFit is not for them. Some found they were far more out of shape than they thought, and were discouraged when they realized CrossFit isn’t a quick-fix. Some disliked intensity was required to progress. Some couldn’t afford it. Some couldn’t summon the consistent effort required to overcome past injuries or impaired movement patterns.

Yet despite our lack of specific programming for seniors, we have two dozen athletes aged 55 to 75 at our gym. They participate in our regular programming, with appropriate scaling. They are CrossFitters in every sense of the word, perfecting skills, working with intensity, competing alongside and against much younger athletes. It works for us. 

Darlene Prois
Darlene Prois, 67, has co-owned CrossCut CrossFit with her husband Dave, 63, since 2012. She moved to the resort community of Hayward, Wisconsin, after a 30-year career as a Minneapolis Star Tribune photographer, reporter and editor. Her inner-athlete was dormant before meeting Dave, a former detective sergeant and training supervisor, in 2002. Their short courtship included 400-mile bike trips, inline skate racing and wilderness camping. The couple started a kettlebell club for fun in 2008, which eventually morphed into their current business. Contact Darlene on Facebook @CrossCutCrossFit or by email at deprois@aol.com.