The ringing in of the New Year brings the making of resolutions, with most revolving around losing weight and getting fit. New gym memberships skyrocket during the first month of each year, and regular clients suddenly find themselves in long lines to use equipment or attend group fitness classes. Then, almost as soon as the rush begins, it ends, as newcomers lose interest in the tedium of spin classes and aerobics, find it difficult to fit daily workouts into their busy lives or just simply give up because they don’t see results as fast as they would like.
Perhaps they should have tried CrossFit instead.
Sweeping the fitness world by storm, CrossFit is a regimen of functional movements that are performed at high intensity and that are constantly varied. Functional movements, like squatting, running, jumping, throwing, pulling and lifting, are movements done in everyday life – a parent squats and lifts to pick up a child, a pet lover throws and runs while playing with a dog, a homeowner pulls and lifts while working in the yard. High intensity workouts are brief, infrequent and intense, resulting in greater gains in strength and conditioning in less time. Constant variety improves general fitness by frequently changing the stress load, never giving the body the chance to get used to doing the same workout.
Using these guidelines, CrossFit mixes weight training (deadlifts and squats), gymnastics (pull-ups, handstand push-ups and ring dips) and endurance conditioning (biking, rowing and running) in a nearly limitless combination, with the idea that this results in a general level of fitness that prepares one for anything to be encountered in the real world. Results come quickly, workouts are hard and usually last just 25 to 45 minutes, and boredom is kept to a minimum as a CrossFitter rarely performs the same workout twice.
“Every day at CrossFit is different,” says Chad Weeden, owner of Warrior Fitness, a CrossFit affiliate that opened in Blythewood in March 2012. “There are certain benchmark workouts to gauge fitness improvements over time, but basically, every time you workout, you enter the unknown.”
CrossFit began as a free blog, www.CrossFit.com, on which was posted a workout of the day (WOD), scalable to anyone’s level of fitness. It’s interesting to note that many of the CrossFit benchmark workouts have women’s names, like Angie, Barbara, Fran, Helen and Linda, and are known as The Girls. While the names of those workouts are random, a set of WODs, called the Hero Workouts, are named after soldiers, police officers and firefighters killed in the line of duty. Followers originally performed these workouts at home and shared their results with each other in the blog’s forums. But CrossFit caught on quickly among soldiers, firefighters, police officers and athletes, and soon affiliate gyms began popping up across the globe where followers could perform WODs under the watchful eyes of certified trainers and coaches.
Paul Beckwith, a former University of South Carolina football player and strength and conditioning coach, is known for bringing CrossFit to Columbia. After graduating from U.S.C., he began a career in sales. “I lived out of my car in those days,” he says, “and I had no time to go to the gym.” Soon, he saw his weight balloon to 360 pounds. “One day, a friend introduced me to the CrossFit website. I did a WOD in my yard, and it nearly killed me.” Fortunately, he survived and was hooked.
Paul opened Carolina CrossFit in downtown Columbia in 2007 with just seven clients. Today, 400 clients work out in the cinderblock building with a roll-up door and no heating or air conditioning save a few fans that run in the summer. Carolina CrossFit is a barebones place, lending credence to the moniker “box” that some CrossFitters use to refer to their gyms. “Some folks like the rough, tough, non-posh look we’ve got,” Paul says. “It’s not about the amenities, it’s about the program and the results.” And results do come, from the gymnastics rings and climbing ropes that hang from the ceiling, the squat cages that line the walls, the barbells with seemingly impossible to lift numbers of plates that litter the floor, the kettlebells of all sizes that fill a corner, and the rowing machines and spin bikes that occupy a back room. But don’t be fooled into thinking that CrossFit is just for meatheads and firebreathers.
“We’ve got clients from kids to senior citizens, even moms and pregnant women,” Paul says. “CrossFit programs can reach you where you are and get you where you want to be. Workouts can be adapted to anyone’s limitations and fitness abilities.”
Pete Wright started out doing CrossFit on his own, and while he never hurt himself, he knew his form suffered when he had no one paying attention to him. He joined Carolina CrossFit because he felt safer knowing a coach was watching him during his workouts and offering suggestions to improve performance. In September 2012, Pete branched out and, with Paul’s support, opened his own gym in Irmo, CrossFit Rivalry, with partners Warren and Anna Cavanaugh.
“Each gym has its own vibe, its own thing,” Pete says. “But almost all have a fundamentals class that beginners attend before they’re even allowed to work out in a class.” The usually weeklong introductory session, called On-Ramp at Carolina CrossFit and CrossFit Rivalry, teaches terminology, how to perform workout movements correctly, and gives the basics of nutrition, because, as Pete says, “You can’t out-work a bad diet.”
After On-Ramp, CrossFit Rivalry has levels called Fit 1 and Fit 2, usually held as group classes under the direction of a trainer or coach, although some members come to work out on their own during open gym hours. “Fit 1 focuses on core and slow movements. Clients can stay at that level forever, or they can move up to Fit 2, which introduces them to competition level workouts,” Pete says. Carolina CrossFit also has different levels, with the Sport level for those interested in competition. It incorporates workouts designed to prepare clients for regional CrossFit Games, like The Reindeer Games, which were held this past December in Augusta. The top three men, women and teams in regional competitions are invited to compete in the national 2013 Reebok CrossFit Games, which are typically televised on ESPN.
But most CrossFitters never even entertain the idea of entering competitions. They are happy to focus on fitness and simply compete against themselves or their friends. Usually, each CrossFit gym features a whiteboard in a prominent place, on which are written results from the WOD (such as how many repetitions of an overhead squat press were completed in a certain amount of time). Clients coming in throughout the day check the board, then attempt to beat their friends’ results.
It’s that level of competitiveness and the ensuing tendency to emphasize volume over technique that concerns some detractors. A search of the term “CrossFit Fail” on YouTube brings up a stunning array of videos featuring people attempting WODs with abhorrent form, and message boards on other fitness websites decry CrossFit as a surefire way to slip a disk in the back or tear a rotator cuff. But Pete, Chad and Paul all say that good coaches are there to help manage the competitive nature of their clients, teaching them to stay within reasonable weight ranges and to not add load until they’re doing the movements correctly.
“While you can do CrossFit on your own, it’s tough to teach yourself proper form,” Chad says. “That’s where coaches come in – making sure the movement is not dangerous and is effective for meeting the goal. We’re also there to keep clients motivated.”
Pete concurs. “CrossFit workouts can be very technical,” he says. “Good coaching can help keep you safe.”
Paul recommends looking for a coach with experience. “It’s easy to get certified at a two-day seminar,” he says. “A good coach has a training background, understands the body and how it works, and is able to adjust workouts for people of all abilities and levels.”
The program’s scalability makes competition between clients fairer, since the workouts are adjusted for strength and limitations. Chad says that he sees a lot of husbands start CrossFit and love it so much they get their wives on board; then they get very competitive with each other. Megan and Brandon Keatley, who work as trainers at Carolina CrossFit, first started working out there as clients. The husband/wife duo still finds themselves pushing each other during workouts. “I know exactly which WODs I’ve beaten him on,” she says. “It may only have been three, but I remember them!”
Despite myths to the contrary, CrossFit won’t bulk women up; they just don’t have the testosterone levels that encourage extreme muscle growth. And all of the gym owners say that CrossFit is appropriate for people of all ages, with each saying they have clients in their 70s. Chad even notes that many couples get their kids involved in CrossFit as well. “Working out together can help strengthen a family’s connection,” he says. CrossFit Kids at Warrior Fitness is geared to kids from three to 17 and usually integrates games with the workouts, emphasizing life skills like cooperation, teamwork and integrity. There’s also a community aspect to the gym that clients enjoy. “You really get to know the people taking classes with you and forge relationships and friendships with them,” Chad says.
“CrossFit can seem intimidating at first,” says Pete. “It’s loud and sweaty, but once you get past that, it’s a lot of fun. It’s not just for burly guys … moms and grandparents like it too.”