by Monica Prinzing
Photos by Jeffrey Sherman
A dozen men and women arriving for their hour-long exercise class eagerly gather around a large whiteboard to check the workout of the day, popularly known as “The WOD.”
Some of the fitness goers jokingly groan as the group tackles the challenging list of timed power snatches, box jumps, back squats, handstand pushups and two 200-meter runs. Coaches and gym members frequently call out, “You can do it!” and “Good job!” to cheer on their comrades of varying ages.
It’s a typical scene in any CrossFit gym—except CrossFit isn’t your ordinary fitness program.
Founded by coach and former gymnast Greg Glassman in a single gym in Santa Cruz, CrossFit, Inc., has grown during the past decade into an international phenomenon attracting hundreds of thousands of members, more than 5,500 affiliated gyms and more than 35,000 accredited CrossFit Level 1 trainers. The company encourages participants to learn CrossFit maneuvers from a qualified instructor to build a strong foundation. The training plan is also available online for people who want to do it at home.
In 2007, the program’s robust workouts and no-frills, communal approach to enhance agility, strength, endurance and speed led to creating the CrossFit Games—an elite test to crown the fittest man and woman in the world. Reebok, which offers an exclusive line of CrossFit clothing and shoes, partnered with CrossFit in 2010 to sponsor the grueling, three-stage competition that concludes each summer in Carson. The top individual prize has skyrocketed from $500 at the inaugural games to $275,000 in 2014. Reebok plans to further expand the total prize payouts from $1.75 million in 2014 to $3 million in 2020.
“CrossFit has really exploded,” said Erik Traeger, who opened CrossFit Combat Fitness—Fresno’s first CrossFit affiliate—in 2009 when he realized the new craze wasn’t a passing fad. “ESPN even televises the Reebok CrossFit Games now.”
The successful exercise regimen, however, draws its share of criticism, from claims that the program is too extreme and increases risk of injury to that it pushes a strict, high-protein “paleo” diet that may not be ideal for everyone.
“There are a lot of misconceptions about CrossFit,” Traeger said. “It’s easier for people to bash what they don’t understand. CrossFit is for everybody, but not everybody is for CrossFit.”
Prepare the body “not only for the known, but also the unknown,” states the familiar CrossFit mantra, to ensure fitness and physical competence to handle all of life’s challenges.
Glassman developed the fitness and conditioning system over many years by combining what works best from the sports and movements that create the most versatile athletes: gymnastics and weightlifting. The nontraditional training program, which also appeals to many police, fire and military personnel, works the whole body and doesn’t require isolated weightlifting or aerobics. “Our specialty is not specializing,” Glassman has said.
CrossFit is based on the principle that everyone—from a stay-at-home mom to a cage fighter—achieves the greatest results with high-intensity, constantly varied training that replicates real-life movement.
“We scale load and intensity—we don’t change programs,” said Rosanna Pagsanjan, who co-owns CrossFit Fresno with Jon Akers. “We can modify any of the movements to fit a person’s current fitness level.”
Unlike commercial health clubs, CrossFit centers are housed in warehouse-style facilities, known as “boxes,” without lines of cardio and weight machines, mirrored walls, flat-screen TVs or carpeted floors. The program’s primary equipment includes bumper-plated Olympic weights, medicine balls, dumbbells, kettlebells, plyometric boxes and rowing machines. Climbing ropes, pull-up bars and gymnastics rings hang from the ceiling. Running is completed on roads surrounding the gym.
Called the “sport of fitness,” CrossFit inspires members to approach each workout with the goal of being stronger, faster, more efficient, and with better form, and to diligently track their progress.
David Lima, 19, who plays college baseball, added CrossFit to his regular training regimen. “My endurance has really improved,” he said.
CrossFit members work out as a group and don’t perform personal routines. The WOD changes every day and comprises numerous combinations, some named after famous women and military heroes. “Routine is the enemy,” Akers said.
Dedicated CrossFitters agree the demanding sessions and group encouragement pay off. Matt Saul, 26, began exercising with a friend when he tried CrossFit. Five months later, the 6-foot-5-inch healthcare administrator had shed 70 pounds. “I couldn’t do anything before,” Saul said.
“Once you get past the first two, three weeks, you start to adjust,” Mark Molina, 31, who dropped 40 pounds after beginning CrossFit, said. “It’s best to work your way up and not overdo it.”
For optimum health, CrossFit recommends eating lean meat, vegetables, nuts and seeds, some fruit, little starch and no sugar. Intake levels should be high enough to support exercise without contributing to body fat. While many CrossFitters follow this diet, others, such as Saul and Molina, vary it or just “eat clean.”
“CrossFit really works,” Laryssa Day, a four-year CrossFitter and home health nurse, said. “If I could run five miles before, now I can run eight. At 36, I’m in the best shape of my life.”
Maria Fermoile, a local physical therapist and avid participant, agreed. “Movement is medicine,” she said. “At 50, I’m the strongest I’ve ever been.”
Fermoile advised people interested in joining CrossFit to select an affiliate with experienced coaches with appropriate credentials such as degrees in kinesiology and exercise science. “Know your limitations and have a coach who can teach you proper technique and give you the right feedback to prevent injury,” she said.
“Research the background of those leading you,” Pagsanjan emphasized. “Most of all, have fun with a community of like-minded individuals committed to the same goal: bettering their lives.”
For more information and affiliate gyms throughout Central California, visit the CrossFit home page at crossfit.com.
Monica Prinzing is a full-time writer in the medical field. A former newspaper reporter and editor, she enjoys freelancing on various topics.