Adventures In CrossFit

 

The light was fading from the high warehouse windows on the south end of Chico and I was fighting to breathe. Circa 1990s metal blared from speakers as I dropped down to the floor again and again, both trying to keep count of how many burpees I’d done, and not think about the 50 or so more I’d have to do before it’d be over.

Bending over, giving my burning legs a break, I watched a man heft an Olympic bar loaded with thick plates up over his head and land in a squat. He pressed back out of the squat, barbell still overhead, and dropped it with a muted clank on the rubberized floor and let out a gasp of relief. A perfect snatch. Whitney Wolff, owner and trainer at Chico Crossfit, clapped supportively; saying to everyone and no one, “Keep it up!” I set up at my own bar, trying not to look at the flitting red numbers of the digital clock on the wall, and wondering why the hell I was doing this to myself.

Prior to this past summer I’d never had much of an opinion about Crossfit, but I wasn’t totally ignorant of it. I knew that like most diets (and pop-stars) it had its set of devotees as well as its detractors; I just couldn’t really count myself in either camp. When it comes down to it, there are really only so many things you can worry about in life. As far as I was concerned, the manner in which other people lift heavy things in a room wasn’t one of them. That all changed with a T-shirt.

More specifically, my friend and co-worker’s T-shirt, that had the phrase, “Get Shaped or Get Broken” spelled out across the back just above the name of some Southern Californian Crossfit gym. Suddenly, I had a not so flattering opinion. Were those really the only two options? People who say that kind of thing with a straight face generally place way too much of their self worth on how fit they are, and as a result are unpleasant to be around. By extension, my assumption was that Crossfit was just as obnoxious.

Greg Glassman, who founded the regimen around 2000, certainly seems to be. In 2005 he told a Times reporter, “If you find the notion of falling off the rings and breaking your neck so foreign to you, then we don’t want you in our ranks.”

That being said, I couldn’t deny that the workout seemed effective. Crossfit is designed to build a general fitness so that its practitioners are good in all categories but great in none. What that looks like when put into practice is a workout of varied exercises — running, lifting, etc. — performed against the clock. Search Crossfit online and you’ll see a bunch of attractive people with barely any body fat straining to get through daunting workouts. The benefits are clear, though they don’t come without risk.

Run-of-the-mill sports injuries and the rare but notable case of rhabdomyolysis, a potentially fatal failing of the kidneys brought on by extreme muscle damage, are potential side-effects. As far as I was concerned, the stories of Glassman’s philosophy and the possible injuries drowned out any perceived benefit. Still, Crossfit is one of the most popular workouts in the nation with something around four thousand locations, and I wanted to find out why.

Luckily for me, Chico has three “boxes”: North Rim, In Motion Crossfit, and Chico Crossfit. Like every box bearing the name ‘Crossfit’, each had to apply for the ability to use the name and pay the headquarters $3,000 annually as an affiliation fee, which along with the use of the name allows members access to a discussion board where Crossfitters can post times and compare with others all across the globe.

$1,000 is the price-tag for the weekend long course required to get a ‘level-1’ certification – something that’s mandatory for anyone who wants to work as a Crossfit instructor. The moves performed in a Crossfit class can be complex, and when performed incorrectly they can be very dangerous. A lot of critique of the program stems from concern that one weekend isn’t long enough to train someone to teach these moves.

I was concerned that would be the case up until Ryan Hignell, founder and owner of North Rim Crossfit, told me he had been involved in the sport for roughly 5 years. It shows, too. Ryan, like every Crossfit instructor I worked with, is as fit as he is competent. As first suggested to me by his tiny pug puppy, Rogue, who was playing around near the front desk, he’s far from being a trainer that reflects Glassman’s militaristic vibe. That isn’t to suggest the class was easy though.

Our workout of the day at North Rim — termed WODs by Crossfitters — was a 400 meter run, 50 double unders (jumprope), and 25 thrusters (a kind of weighted squat), all to be completed three times each as quickly as you could. The way North Rim sets things up, the class starts with a warm-up, then a ‘strength’ which is just another term for a more static weighted exercise, and then the WOD — which tops off the class and lasts anywhere between 3 and 15 minutes, and always ends up with people panting on the floor.

That’s where I ended up at the end of my first WOD at North Rim. Covered in sweat, I halfheartedly joined Travis (a local firefighter) in cheering on a college-aged woman finishing out her last set of thrusters. I came to realize that that support is one of the really unique parts about Crossfit. Even though you want to give in and just lie down on the floor and not move for a while, it’s hard to allow yourself to do it. It’s not just the fact that the coaches and your peers are cheering you on, and it’s not simply because you’re afraid of humiliation; the aspect that drives you to do a stupid amount of pull-ups is the fact that everyone else is in on it too.

There is an odd unity that comes with the discomfort, and it’s infectious. At the end of my second workout at North Rim I got fist-bumps, high-fives, and thumbs up from just about everyone. It sounds a little cheesy, but getting that kind of support feels really good, and helped me understand why so many people like Crossfit.

Besides feeling welcome, when you end up going to one these gyms regularly enough to form friendships with people there — or sign up with a friend at the get-go — it gets a lot harder to blow off your workout. While we were setting up our barbells with weights at Crossfit Chico, one of the guys off to the side got pulled into it despite not planning to, after hearing a chorus along the lines of, “C’mon! Don’t put too much weight on, just work on your form.” One regular at North Rim told me that the texts he gets from his friends the morning of a workout are what motivates him to go, even when he doesn’t initially feel like it.

The supportive community around Crossfit didn’t totally drown out the risks though. After a class at North Rim, one that involved me getting a lot of pointers on my dead-lift, an instructor spelled it out. He said that everyone tries their best to make sure that injuries don’t come from poor form, but when it came down to it, “If you get hurt Crossfitting it’s because you were Crossfitting.” Crossfit, by it’s own definition, is the sport of fitness — and if you take that use of the term ‘sport’ seriously, the instructor’s comment makes a bit more sense. Injuries are a part of all sports; people try to avoid them, but if they happen they happen. That logic doesn’t make watching someone fall over trying to do a heavily weighted snatch any less scary, however.

An ex Judo competitor who got hooked on Crossfit after going to a class at Level 10 in Oroville, Grant Connor eventually got a job at In Motion as a trainer and switched up the way they ran their Crossfit program. Now, in order to take a regular Crossfit class, you need to go through the month-long ‘on-ramp’ course. The focus of the course is to develop form, stamina, and strength to a point where anyone who joined can jump in on a regular class knowing the correct form for the workouts as well as having the strength and stamina to finish them. It’s a smart move on the part of In Motion and Crossfit Chico, which has a similar program. Give people the option to ease into the sport, instead of jumping straight into the full thing.

That’s not to say that the WODs at the ramp up program aren’t intense. They’re as hard as you let them be. Crossfit — as Ryan Hignell will point out — is scalable. What that means is that you can have an Olympic athlete doing the same workout as your dad or sister. You just throw on a different amount of weight or go through it faster. North Rim’s approach to introducing someone to Crossfit is more akin to this. The instructors modify a workout with weight or reps, give pointers on form, and in general make sure you don’t kill yourself.

Variations in approach don’t stop there, though. Both Ryan and Grant mentioned to me that their programs were more in line with what they saw as Traditional Crossfit, which is to say the regular weightlifting movements. Whitney Wolff, however, dismisses the idea of sticking to a set group of movements; saying that Crossfit is about the unexpected, so there is no reason not to get weird with the workouts. That accounts for the tractor tires, sandbags, and the rock-climbing wall that Chico Crossfit added as a surprise component for their latest competition. Along with that, Wolff encourages everyone who comes to the gym to participate in competitions — moms and college students alike.

After finishing my last set of burpees in Wolff’s building, I walked through the large facility and out the open garage door on wobbly legs to get some fresh air. Two dogs on leashes didn’t even raise their heads as I walked in circles, hands folded on top of my head under the fading light. None of what I had read before going to all of these boxes was false, but it certainly did look different put into the broader context of what Crossfit has to offer. Standing there, still sweating, I wished I could say for certain that Crossfit was either perfect or awful and just leave it at that. But the fact of the matter is that for some people it’s all they ever wanted, for others it’s far from it, and for the rest of us it’s a take it or leave it affair.

One thing that I feel I can say with some definitiveness is that Chico’s three boxes are staffed and run by people who are passionate about what they do, and very good at what they’re passionate about. If you’re looking to work off the Thanksgiving Turkey and get a head-start on your New-Year’s resolution, you’re in the right town to find out if Crossfit is the way you want to do it.

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A fourth year at Hampshire College, J.D. DiGiovanni is in the North State researching the history of secession movements in California as a part of his senior thesis.