Originally written 8/17/14.
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My husband Ray has been taking CrossFit classes for several months now. If you haven’t heard of CrossFit before, it’s the latest trend in exercise regimens, the heir to Tae Bo and Jazzercise, Jack Lalanne and Charles Atlas. CrossFit was founded in 2000 by a man named Greg Glassman in Santa Cruz, California, whose aim was “to build a program that [would] best prepare trainees for any physical contingency—not only for the unknown, but for the unknowable” (http://www.crossfit.com/cf-info/what-is-crossfit.html).
Today, there are more than 5000 CrossFit gyms worldwide, and Reebok sponsors the annual CrossFit Games, with the national finals televised on ESPN so that millions can watch one man and woman be crowned the “Fittest Athletes on Earth.”
What exactly is CrossFit? CrossFit.com explains it this way:
CrossFit is many things. Primarily, it’s a fitness regimen developed by Coach Greg Glassman over several decades. He was the first person in history to define fitness in a meaningful, measurable way (increased work capacity across broad time and modal domains). CrossFit itself is defined as that which optimizes fitness (constantly varied functional movements performed at relatively high intensity). CrossFit is also the community that spontaneously arises when people do these workouts together. In fact, the communal aspect of CrossFit is a key component of why it’s so effective.
If you find that this explanation doesn’t really tell you what you actually do when you go to a CrossFit class, while making you feel like it might be some kind of cult, you are not alone. On the internet, CrossFit has something of the reputation of being a crazy fad with fanatic followers. Comedian Mike Mulloy famously said, “I found out that CrossFit is a lot like reverse Fight Club. Because the first rule of CrossFit is to never shut the f*** up about CrossFit” (http://likealaugh.org/laugh/23972).
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However, CrossFit is hardly the first fitness regimen to inspire a zealous following while seeming bizarre to the uninitiated. Zumba, Pilates, yoga—there’s a long list of exercise systems that are popular now that were considered really, really strange when they were first introduced to the American public. Heck, some people still consider them weird. There will always be both zealots and scoffers when you discuss any activity. The truth usually lies somewhere in the middle.
Basically, the goal of CrossFit is to gradually improve students’ strength and stamina using a variety of different exercises, some using body weight and others using equipment like barbells and kettlebells. There is a different workout each day, and while some of the workouts might be done only once, others are done so often that they have names: Jason and Grace and Daniel, for instance. These are called benchmark workouts, since you can use them to chart your improvement over time. Benchmark workouts with male names, like J.T. and Michael, are named after American soldiers killed in the line of duty, which I think is a wonderful tribute.
There are also benchmark workouts with female names, like Elizabeth, Fran, and Cindy, known as “The Girls”. Founder Greg Glassman had this to say about why he chose these names:
According to the National Weather Service theuse of “short, distinctive given names in writtenas well as spoken communications is quicker andless subject to error” than “more cumbersome”identification methods, so since 1953 storms havebeen assigned female given names.This convenience and logic inspired our grantinga special group of workouts women’s names, butanything that leaves you flat on your back andincapacitated only to lure you back for more at alater date certainly deserves naming.
I am not as enamored over the naming of “The Girls.”
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Ray and I first heard about CrossFit in 2007 when he saw a video that had been posted to a martial arts message board he read every day. It showed a CrossFit seminar where the instructors pulled a volunteer out of the audience to demonstrate how the CrossFit system improves strength and fitness. The volunteer was Glover Texeira, a professional mixed-martial arts fighter, and they had him compete head-to-head in squats and pull-ups with a CrossFit instructor named Nicole Carroll who was about half his size. She demolished him. You can watch it for yourself: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hFdREos5v5E
Ray watched that video many times. He was intrigued. Practicing CrossFit had made it possible for an ordinary person to do things that even a professional athlete couldn’t do without training. At the time, he was practicing the Israeli martial art Krav Maga, but when his teacher moved, he eventually decided to try CrossFit out instead. Earlier this year, he started taking classes with a gym called CrossFit Banshee.
For the last four months, I’ve come from work every night and asked Ray, “How was CrossFit?” and he has answered every time, “CrossFit sucks.”
“Well, why do you keep going, then?” I’ll say. “You could find something else.”
“No, I like it,” he’ll reply. “But it sucks.”
It’s like our nightly comedy routine.
I was curious to find out why Ray both hated and liked CrossFit, so I asked him if I could come watch his class when I had a week off from work in July. He had a better idea.
“Guess what?” he said one night when I got home. “Steve, my CrossFit instructor, said that you could try out class for free during your week off if you promise to kick my butt.” (Except he didn’t use “butt,” Ray having a terrible potty mouth and Steve probably having one, too).
“Uh…” I said.
“You can use it as one of your adventures!”
Well, who was I to pass up an opportunity like that?
Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/crossfitfever/
But I was nervous. Six years ago, I had some serious health problems that involved debilitating back pain, and none of the many doctors I visited could ever pinpoint the cause. I finally got better with a combination of weekly chiropractic visits and vitamin D supplements, but I have been terrified ever since that the pain will come back. Because of that, I’ve babied my body over the last six years, giving up weight training and other activities that I thought might strain my back, and I’ve worn a brace called an SI belt every day.
However, six months or so ago, I started seeing a new doctor who said that I had a weak ligament in my lower back that could be at the root of my problems. We tried out a treatment called prolotherapy which is designed to help strengthen lax ligaments. The prolotherapy has made my back feel stronger, and I’m doing so well now that the doctor has decreased my follow-up visits to once every two months. I haven’t had to get a chiropractic adjustment since October.
But I’m still scared to death of hurting myself again. I just don’t trust my body the way I used to.
It didn’t help that Ray and I watched the CrossFit Games two days before my first class. We were out at lunch with Ray’s mom, and one of the TVs at the sports bar-type restaurant was showing the second-to-last event of the Games. The women in the event were climbing 20 feet up extra-thick ropes to touch the rigging the ropes were hung from before climbing (not sliding) back down–and then they had to do it three more times! And then, as if that wasn’t hard enough, they grabbed barbells loaded with 165 pounds, hefted them overhead, and did three squats.
Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/crossfitfever/
The event was called “Thick N Quick,” which prompted some inappropriate comments from the drunk twentysomething men at the next table over, as did the fact that the women were muscular (and looked like they wouldn’t take crap from drunk twentysomething men). I thought they were beautiful, myself; I love athletic bodies. But also, as they climbed and squatted in unbelievably fast times, I thought that there was no way I could ever do what they were doing. Not at 39 with a questionably stable back.
So I was pretty nervous going into my first class at CrossFit Banshee.
CrossFit Banshee’s gym (or “box,” as CrossFit gyms are called, since “gyms” are too fancy and frou-frou for CrossFit practitioners) is in a suburban strip mall, next door to a consignment shop and a revival-style Mexican church. There’s a strip of tile floor just inside the door, with some couches and a TV thrown haphazardly in one corner, and then the rest of the rectangular space is covered in industrial black rubber matting. Against the far wall stands a framework of wood and metal like a jungle gym for adults, with gymnastic-style rings hanging from straps here and there. Another wall holds shelves full of medicine balls, yoga mats, foam rollers, and other equipment, and near the bathroom are stacks and stacks of round weights for barbells, like giant black hockey pucks with holes in the middle.
When we walked in at 6:15 or so, the 5:30 class was still finishing up. I was heartened to see that the students in the 5:30 class were not the chiselled athletic powerhouses of the CrossFit Games, but were ordinary-looking men and women like me in their late twenties to mid-forties. One of them was squatting a barbell with a modest amount of weight on it as we came in, and I watched as an instructor corrected her form and encouraged her to finish her last few reps. OK, I thought. That looks hard but doable. I can do this.
I repeated my mantra to myself over and over while Ray laughed at me. “It isn’t going to be like what you saw on TV,” he said. “You’ll be fine.”
The owner and head instructor, Steve, came over and introduced himself. Steve is tall, maybe 6’3” or so, sporting a shaved head with a mustache and goatee. He’s fit but not in an intimidating, Arnold Schwarzenegger kind of way, which I find comforting–he’s more like a walking advertisement for the way CrossFit can help normal people. He has a loud, booming voice and a super positive manner which I warmed to instantly. I could see right away that that he wasn’t a hardcore fanatic who was going to drive me to injure myself; he was a teacher like me who cared about his students.
That made me feel a lot better.
There were five students in class: Anna, an assistant instructor; Jo and Scott, both of whom are in my age range and have been taking class for several months; and me and Ray.
We started off by grabbing jump ropes from the supply area and doing 2 minutes of jump rope. I haven’t jumped rope at all for more than five years and not seriously for probably twenty-five, but it came back to me quickly and I only tripped myself once. Awesome! I had successfully made it through the warm-up, I thought. But no, Steve told us to all grab a piece of PVC for the warm-up. So I guessed that the jump rope had been the pre-warm-up.
Photo credit: Mike Licht, https://www.flickr.com/photos/notionscapital/
I went to the corner, where a couple dozen pieces of white PVC were stuck in a bucket, like the CrossFit version of an umbrella stand. The PVC was 1.25” in diameter, I would guess, and maybe five feet long. I took a piece out of the bucket and walked back to the main floor with Ray, who was twirling his piece of PVC around his head and back like a martial arts staff—a flashback to his days as a ninjitsu student.
Steve walked us through each movement of the CrossFit warm-up. First, we practiced squats, which I’d done before, and then we got to do the squat with the piece of PVC held over our heads. That was called an overhead squat, which I found out is a staple of CrossFit. My squats weren’t quite deep enough, so Steve put a medicine ball right behind me, and every time I squatted I had to touch my butt to the medicine ball without sitting on it. We did 5 or 6 of those, with Steve checking our form to make sure we were doing them correctly. So far, so good.
Then we did pushups. I’d done pushups before, but not the CrossFit way, where you have to keep your elbows tucked in by your sides the whole time. Steve showed me how he wanted me to do them, talking me through each part of the movement, and then he had me try. I splatted down on the floor like a bug on the windshield. Keeping your arms tucked in like that is hard. So Steve brought me a foam roller to prop my feet up on, making the movement easier, and then I managed to do 4 or 5 to his satisfaction. He told me that I could move the roller up my legs, closer to my body, to make the pushups easier, but I was anxious to show him that I wasn’t weak, so I kept the roller near my feet. That was a decision I would come to regret. More on that later.
Next we did situps. Again, I had done situps before, but not the CrossFit way. In my dance classes we mostly do crunches, only lifting the head and shoulders up off the mat, but CrossFit does full situps, where you lift your whole upper body off the mat and touch your feet. I got to put a pad under my lower back to make sure that the lumbar area was supported.
Now it was time for some ring pull-ups. I got to hold the gymnastics rings that were hanging from the wood-and-metal framework, and then I walked my feet forward until I was tilted at an angle underneath them. Then, squeezing my shoulder blades together, I pulled myself up until my chest was even with the rings before lowering myself back down to the starting position. Challenging but doable.
Finally, we did what Steve called “Good Mornings,” where you prop the piece of PVC across your shoulders and bend forward with straight legs until your back is flat and parallel to the ground like a table. Then you squeeze your butt to stand up. We did several of those.
All right, I thought. I made it through the warm-up! Way to go, me!
But no. I hadn’t made it through the warm-up yet. That was just me learning all the movements. Now everybody had to go through the whole routine two more times.
Well, this is what I’d signed up for. I squared my shoulders and did the routine twice more, and I made it through OK, although my arms were definitely burning by the end. I was also the last person to finish by almost five minutes. Steve kept telling me that it was OK—speed didn’t matter as long as I was doing the movements right. I really appreciated the fact that his emphasis was on correct form (but I still wished that I wasn’t quite so slow).
“How do you feel?” Steve asked when I finally finished. “Are your muscles warm?”
I stared at him. Were my muscles warm? They were burning!
He laughed. It might have been my imagination, but it sounded like an evil cackle. “Yeah, in CrossFit, our warm-up is other people’s whole workout!”
Now it was time for the “skill” portion of class, where we would slowly go over the technique for a unique CrossFit move. Today’s skill was ring pushups. That’s where you lower the gymnastics rings nearly to the ground, and you grab on to them and do CrossFit pushups.
Photo credit: http://crossfitmidland.com/
In case you’re wondering, yes, it’s as hard as it sounds.
We all got to take a turn trying it out. Scott was the best, followed by Anna and then Ray. I was really proud of myself when I was able to hold onto the rings and keep myself upright instead of splatting on the ground again. That’s as far as I got; lowering myself down didn’t happen, let alone pushing myself back up again.
“How does that feel?” Steve boomed at me, grinning.
“I don’t think I have the same muscles you do,” I said.
So now it was time for the actual workout. Steve told us to grab our PVC poles again so we could all go through how to do a Thruster correctly. This was the first time I’d ever heard of a Thruster. We started out by doing a squat, like we’d done in the warmup, but this time, instead of holding the bar over our heads, we held it tucked up under our chins with our elbows stuck out in front. I was so busy trying to do this correctly that I never did ask Steve why we had to stick our elbows out.
Photo credit: Adrian Valenzuela, https://www.flickr.com/photos/adrianv/
After Steve checked our form on the squat, he showed us how to do an overhead press. From the starting position with the bar tucked under our chins, we straightened our arms, raising the bar over our heads. The trick was to move your chin out of the way when you started to raise the bar, or else the bar would take your head off.
Once we had that to Steve’s satisfaction, we got to put the moves together to make the Thruster: we squatted, then stood up explosively and used the momentum to help raise the bar over our heads. Sounds easy, right? But I had a lot of trouble standing up explosively. Steve kept telling me to use my hips, which I didn’t really understand (maybe because in Irish dance we don’t really use our hips). Finally, after trying for a while and watching Steve do it, I tried jumping up from the squat (since jumping IS something we do in Irish dance). That seemed to be what Steve wanted.
Great! We did a bunch of Thrusters, making sure that we had the technique. Then Steve told us that the other part of the workout would be pushups, so we should do a couple pushups so he could check them. Ugh–we’d already DONE pushups. But I did a couple more. My arms were starting to shake like crazy, so Steve had me scoot the foam roller up past my knees. My pride hurt, but my arms felt better.
At this point, we’d been doing what I thought was a workout for about 40 minutes, and I was sore and sweating. But apparently we were only just now ready to finally start the workout. The “Workout of the Day,” as it’s called in CrossFit, was 10 Thrusters followed by 10 pushups–and then you did 10 total rounds of that. I stared at Steve in dismay. I’d already done about 10 Thrusters and probably twice as many pushups, and now he was asking me to do 100 more of each.
No! I wanted to whine. I’ve already done enough!
Anna, the assistant trainer, handed everybody 10 playing cards to help keep track of the rounds. Every time you did a round, you got to turn a card over. Steve told us that was because after a few rounds, you stopped being able to think clearly enough to count.
Well, if I was going to do this, I might as well get started. The other students were grabbing barbells and in some cases putting weights on them, but I stuck with my PVC. Just doing the movement by itself was enough of a challenge. I took a deep breath and thought about the proper form, and then I went slowly through 10 Thrusters. That wasn’t so bad. I got down on the mat and did 10 pushups. That was pretty bad; my arms didn’t really want to push my body back off the ground anymore, and it took an act of will to keep my elbows properly tucked to my sides. But I got through them. Standing up, I took a long drink of water and flipped over my first playing card. 1 round down.
“OK!” boomed Steve. “We’re doing 10 rounds for time! You need to do them as fast as you can!”
I frowned. “We’re getting timed? But I did my first round already.”
He grinned at me. “No, that was just for practice.”
ARG! I could have screamed as I reluctantly bent to flip my card back over.
Photo credit: Ian Burt, https://www.flickr.com/photos/oddsock/
“READY!” shouted Steve, like a quarterback in the huddle. “SET! GO!”
And then a big red timer over the bathroom started ticking, and we were off for real. Anna and Scott, the two most advanced students in the class, were belting out their Thrusters at a fast pace; Jo and Ray were slower but steady. I was like a turtle–a beginner, perfectionist turtle, who had to check her form before every single movement. By the time everybody else was on to their first set of pushups, I was still only halfway through my first set of Thrusters. By the time I got to my pushups, Anna and Scott were almost on their second round of pushups. I was going to be doing this until midnight.
As the workout progressed, my Thrusters got smoother and (very slightly) faster as I began to understand the movement and feel more confident. My pushups, on the other hand, got slower and slower and slower, and the foam roller got closer and closer to my body, until the roller was practically under my belly button and I was pausing at the bottom of each pushup to talk myself into getting back up. My arms trembled, and they didn’t seem to have any strength left in them. It was a good thing my life didn’t depend on my ability to do pushups, because I would have been a goner for sure.
I was the last person to finish the workout–by a lot. But I DID finish the workout, and moreover I finished under the final time limit that Steve had announced before we started. I can’t tell you how proud I felt as I got to write my name up on the class white board with my finishing time. It had been hard, but I had done it. And my back felt OK. I had done a strenuous workout without hurting myself. It was a wonderful feeling.
“Great job!” Steve shouted in his quarterback voice, giving me a high five (although it was more like a sideways five, since Steve had to stick his hand out at shoulder height in order for me to reach it). “What did you think?”
It was hard, I thought. I’m sore, I’m tired, and I wish I hadn’t been so gung-ho about doing the pushups at the beginning without using the foam roller as much. I’m not going to be able to lift my arms tomorrow, and my legs aren’t doing so hot, either. That was the hardest workout I’ve done in years.
But at the same time, I really enjoyed the way Steve broke down each movement and coached me through it, making sure that I had correct form before we started the Workout of the Day. Before I even warmed up, he had asked me about my physical health, and he checked in with me throughout the hour about how my back was feeling. He made sure that I was getting a good workout without hurting myself, and he encouraged me every step of the way. And when I finished the workout? The feeling of accomplishment was exhilarating.
“I loved it!” I said. “Can I come back tomorrow?”
Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/crossfitfever/