The ripped devotees of fitness craze CrossFit swear by its extreme regime. But does it go too far?
By Adam K. Raymond
I’M CROUCHED IN A SQUAT, just as I have been instructed. My feet are pointing slightly outward, hips below my knees, arms in front of my chest, elbows forming a 90-degree angle. My back is straight—I think—and my head is level. I’m holding a 20-pound medicine ball, and I can’t be sure, but my entire body might be on fire. My CrossFit coach, Justin, a kindly fellow who looks as though he could tear off my arms, blows the whistle. My first wall ball drill has begun.
Wall ball is just one in the vast repertoire of exercises composing CrossFit, a workout program and lifestyle with a fast-growing following of ripped, not to say fanatical, devotees. The theory behind wall ball applies to most of CrossFit’s exercises: explosive, varied movements executed quickly and forcefully. The high-intensity workouts mix elements of gymnastics, power lifting and cardio, while aiming for what CrossFit calls “functional movements” or exercises that mimic activities you do in real life.
My body hurts too much for me to wonder which real-life movement wall ball approximates (tossing a frozen turkey over the garage?). I spring upward, jumping about a foot off the ground and hurl the ball into the air. There’s a red line about 10 feet up the wall, and I’m supposed to get the ball above it. I fail. The ball falls. That’s one rep.
“Get that ball up!” Justin yells, but I don’t. My second and third attempts also fall short, so I pause, compose myself and hurl the ball like a 4-year-old shooting hoops. I keep throwing, and by the time I reach 30 reps, my arms and legs feel like they’re made of Go-Gurt tubes.
It’s hard to imagine that CrossFit founder Greg Glassman ever thought a keyboard jockey like me would be doing this when he developed the program in the mid-’80s. CrossFit’s emphasis on total body workouts and full range of motion exercises first a racted S.W.A.T. teams, police forces and firefighters to its easily digestible daily workouts, which can be done with a few pieces of rudimentary gym equipment and a little reckless abandon. In 1995, Glassman opened his first CrossFit gym in Santa Cruz, Calif., but the program didn’t take off until it went online in 2001.
CrossFit.com began with a message board and posts of the workout of the day—called a WOD. Most WODs fall into two categories: “girls” and “heroes,” the latter of which are named after fallen soldiers, police and firemen. There’s the Helen (three rounds of 21 kettle bell swings, 12 pull-ups and a quarter-mile run), the Angie (100 pull-ups, 100 sit-ups, 100 push-ups, 100 squats) and the JT (rounds of 21, 15 and 9 reps of handstand push-ups, ring dips and push-ups). If those workouts sound nearly impossible, that’s because they are. One of the main tenets of CrossFit—and a big reason why it’s a racted so many followers—is that everyone from a professional athlete to a professional cross-stitcher can participate in the same workout, though only a pro can complete it.
“There’s no person that CrossFit isn’t for,” says Anthony Preischel, a CrossFit coach in New York City who I watched do seven pull-ups while carrying on a conversation. “I have guys that are fresh out of playing sports in college and people who are much older. All it really takes is someone who’s willing to get their butt kicked and come back for more.”
That commitment to extreme effort may have won CrossFit fans in the mixed martial arts and military worlds, but some doctors don’t like it. There is a fear that the workouts, which people o en compete to finish fastest, encourage speed over technique and can lead to injury. Then there is the rare occurrence of rhabdomyolysis, a potentially deadly disorder caused when muscle fibers break down and enter the blood- stream, poisoning the kidney. Dr. Marc Rogers, a professor of kinesiology at the University of Maryland, says that rhabdomyolysis usually occurs in sedentary people who are starting an intensive workout regime. “We see it in military recruits who aren’t very fit when they get to basic training and suddenly they’re doing three or four hours of intensive workouts a day,” he says. Rogers adds that the chances of CrossFit causing rhabdomyolysis are slim. “We don’t see it very o en in exercise programs,” he says.
Preischel owns CrossFit Hell’s Kitchen, just off Times Square, part of an ever- growing network of CrossFit affiliates all around the world. His students, he says, are mostly people bored with their gym routines, though there are some like me—I reached my physical peak at 16 and have been on a doughnut-fueled descent into chubbiness ever since. Jared Knowles started CrossFit on the same day I did and has a similarly unimpressive résumé. “I was a member of three gyms at the same time and I hardly ever went,” Knowles told me. He was hooked a er three weeks, and now he’s going five or six times a week (CrossFit recommends a three-day-on, one-day- off schedule).
“When I finish the workouts and realize that I’ve just done 60 squats in six minutes, I think, ‘Wow. I just did a lot of exercising!’” Knowles says. After the same workout, I think, “Wow. I can’t walk!” Knowles likes that feeling, too. “I don’t mind the soreness because it’s a reminder that I’m doing something good,” he says.
That’s what brings CrossFit students together: Like soldiers in a foxhole, they’re united by the pain. “There’s a level of bonding achieved through suffering,” Preischel says. “It builds a sense of community around that shared experience and that shared common goal.”
That community, along with the unwavering devotion to the workouts handed down from the CrossFit gods, has led to one of the more bizarre criticisms of the program: It’s a cult. A er four weeks of classes and no sign of white robes or Kool-Aid, I ask Preischel about it. “Depends on how you define cult,” he says. Merriam-Webster provides this, “Great devotion to a person, idea, object, movement or work.” In that sense, it qualifies, since devotion to Glassman’s idea is the key to success. Though cultish by definition, CrossFit isn’t so different from endurance running or many other sports that require almost servile dedication and an ability to push past physical discomfort.
Four weeks after my first class, I have to decide if I’ll buy another month. I start to think about the positive changes CrossFit has made in me—I eat better, I’m down a notch on my belt, and if I lean to the le at just the right angle, in just the right light, the top of my ab muscles peek out from under the gobs of melted cheese layered on my midsection. These are good things. But then I think about the constant soreness, the time I almost tossed my cookies on 42nd Street during a WOD, and the time I almost fainted on the subway after class. With three pros and three cons I needed a tie breaker. That’s when I remembered how much I love a doughnut in the morning. I quit.
Contributor ADAM K. RAYMOND is hoping to have better luck with the Jane Fonda Collection: Complete Personal Trainer Series.