From my perspective - upside down, knees resting on elbows while balancing on my hands - it's easy to see why CrossFit is becoming so popular.
Looking around the gym at Graham CrossFit, I see people ranging from middle-age housewives to a brawny Army mechanic attempting the same move. Some hold the position effortlessly, others are shaking on the cusp of collapse, but everybody is eager to try.
I was a little intimidated when I arrived at my first class a few minutes early and noticed a CrossFit veteran wearing a shirt that boasted, “Your sport is my warm-up.”
But in a room full of people sticking their butts in the air, it’s impossible to stay intimidated for long.
As intense and humbling as CrossFit can be, at its core it remains a fitness training regimen almost anybody can do, regardless of age, fitness level or nagging injuries. It combines strength, cardiovascular, plyometrics, balance and other elements of fitness into a rapid-fire workout that changes daily and is designed to keep participants from getting bored.
In fact, after a week of training at Graham CrossFit without doing the same exercise twice, it strikes me that this might just be the ideal activity for those of us who set a resolution to get fit every year only to abandon the goal before Valentine’s Day.
Darrin and Diana Shaw, who opened the gym two years ago, agree. The Shaws say almost nobody quits CrossFit.
“The only people who leave are moving or being deployed,” Darrin Shaw said. “People get hooked.”
The Shaws aren’t the only ones making this claim. Juanita Van Slyke said she can’t remember losing a member for a reason other than moving since she opened Olympia CrossFit in 2007. Jeff Servan of CrossFit South Tacoma says less than 10 percent of his members quit.
It’s the variety of the routines, comradeship, friendly competition, goal-driven philosophy and results that keep people coming back, instructors say.
SEEING THE PAYOFF
Sara Meade, an instructor at Graham CrossFit, can identify with people who arrive at the gym looking for a nonrepetitive fitness routine.
Two years ago, Meade, a 29-year-old mother of two, wore a size 18 and couldn’t find a workout routine she could stick with for more than a few months without losing interest. The idea of pull-ups, Olympic weight- lifting techniques and jumping on top of large boxes in a room of strangers was intimidating. But she was willing to try anything.
“I tried to be invisible when I first started,” Meade said. “But then I just went for it.
“I loved the variety and the goals and how encouraging everybody was. It was wonderful.”
And she loved the results. She lost 70 pounds, 40 inches, and now wears a size 6.
Chris Kroenert of Spanaway started CrossFit eight months ago because she was looking for a challenge.
She found it.
Her first class was similar to the workout I did with her earlier this month at Graham CrossFit. Run 400 meters, raise a 20-pound medicine ball above your head and slam it to the ground 20 times, 10 pull-ups and 10 squats, then repeat twice. A digital stopwatch on the wall with red numbers silently pushes each participant to go faster.
“After my first class, I thought I would never be able to do this,” Kroenert said.
But Kroenert kept attending and soon implemented the nutrition advice encouraged by the instructors.
Kroenert has lost 20 pounds since April and had to give away four bags of clothes that are now too big. Last month, she realized another goal by running her first half marathon.
“The workouts are grueling, but you see the results so you keep going,” Kroenert said.
As tough as the workouts can be, they are designed so everybody can do them. “Everything is scalable,” Darrin Shaw said.
Can’t do 10 squats? Do five. Can’t do any pull-ups? There are alternatives. Can’t do a push-up? Doing push-ups on your knees or against a large box isn’t just acceptable, it’s common in the beginner classes. Need instruction? No problem.
“It’s not like a normal gym where you are on your own,” said Rick Elder, a 26-year-old Army mechanic.
Elder was quick to show me the ropes during my first workout, pointing out the running route through the parking lot, giving me tips for cranking out a few extra pull-ups and encouraging me to go harder.
“That’s one of the things I like best: the people,” Elder said.
A FITNESS SCHOOL
The Shaws run Graham CrossFit like a school. Participants are expected to be on time and not talk when the instructor is speaking.
Break a rule and you do burpees (jump, drop to the ground for a pushup, spring back to your feet and repeat).
If students don’t show up to classes, an instructor calls to check on them.
And, perhaps most importantly, results are measured.
Every workout is timed and each athlete keeps a record so they can chart their progress.
Monthly fitness tests allow athletes to earn a wristband. Beginners earn a green band, then work to progress four more levels to the highest level – the black band.
“It’s similar to earning belts in martial arts,” Diana said.
It also is one more layer of motivation that keeps students coming back on a regular basis.
Like college, students must qualify to do CrossFit. Simply paying the $100 per month isn’t enough. You must interview.
The Shaws say they’re looking for people interested in increasing their total physical fitness. “If they are just looking to increase the number of biceps curls they do, we’ll probably tell them this isn’t the right place for them,” Diana said.
My interview ended with a simple test: row 500 meters and do 40 squats, 30 sit-ups, 20 push-ups and 10 pull-ups as fast as possible. I needed six minutes, 10 seconds – a good time, Diana said.
The time, she said, would be my baseline to measure improvement. While some might take more than 15 minutes to complete a scaled-down version of the same workout, Diana says if I reach the elite level, I should be able to do the same workout in less than four minutes.
REACHING ELITE STATUS
That sounded outrageously fast to me, but after my first class, I met Brigs Schulz, a Federal Way police officer who insisted it is indeed possible. Two years ago, he started CrossFit as a doughy 225-pounder because he saw the benefits his wife got from the program. Today, the 36-year-old is 190 pounds and looks as if he’s been chiseled out of granite.
“I’m doing things I never thought I’d be able to do,” said Schulz, who plans to test for his black band soon.
Schulz trains in the CrossFit advanced class, which you must be invited to join.
But as fit and experienced as Schulz is, he says he still gets a little nervous every time he comes to class because he never knows what to expect.
The Shaws’ program, like most CrossFit programs, don’t tell participants what the daily workout is until they arrive at the gym and see it written on the massive white board at the head of the gym.
“If people know it’s something they don’t like, they’re more likely not to show up,” Darrin said. “Then they’re embarrassed that they didn’t come and they miss another class and then they stop coming.”
A.J. Holm, a 22-year-old firefighter, says the variety and the anticipation are what keep him coming back.
When I worked out with Holm earlier this month, we played a game called CrossFit baseball. At first base, we did 10 sit-ups. At second, we did 10 push-ups. At third, we did 10 in-outs (sitting with your back and legs off the ground while extending your legs then bringing your knees to your chest). At home, we did 10 burpees. And we had to do it all while hauling a 25-pound weight plate and lunging, running backward or high-stepping between bases.
When Holm saw the workout, he decided to spice it up by wearing a 25-pound weight vest, too. Still, I struggled to keep up with him for all 20 minutes. I was so spent that by my fourth and fifth rounds, I was only doing five burpees.
“It is such a great thing to come in here and push yourself day to day,” Holm said. “So when I’m out in the real world and you are mentally stressed, it seems less difficult because you know you can push yourself through it.
“It gives you a better attitude and makes you a happier person.”
And as much as the ripped arms and cut abs, the mental workout is what CrossFit is all about, the Shaws say.
“I see these people start getting in shape and have success and then they start to get more confidence,” Diana said. “Then that carries over to the rest of their lives. I love to see that. That’s why we do this.”
Welcome to a new year, new fitness column
If your New Year’s resolution is to get in better shape, we are here to help.
Starting today, we will publish a Sunday column by staff writer Craig Hill exploring the world of fitness.
Craig aims to keep you up to date on fitness trends, encourage you to try new activities and answer your questions.
He invites readers to follow him in Sunday’s Soundlife section and every day online, and to participate in the conversation by sending him questions, suggestions and complaints.