The music is blasting across the open room, sound waves bouncing off the cinderblock walls. The smack of bars loaded with bumper plates on the concrete floor vibrates in my chest like a bass drum. I’m holding a bar at my shoulders, trying to steady my breathing before pushing it overhead. My coach is surveying the room. “Don’t stop now! Three minutes left. Keep pushing until the end,” he’s saying. All I can think of is getting through these push presses; then I can drop the bar and start on the pull-ups. Maybe I can get through one more round, I think. I feel like I might drop to the ground myself, like my chest can’t possibly take in any more air. And then, a flash of excitement runs through me. I love this! It’s a brief feeling—the workout is brutal—but it’s there. And I can’t get enough of this feeling.
CrossFit is a fitness regimen developed by Greg Glassman, a gymnast turned personal trainer (at one time, he trained the Santa Cruz Police Department). Although he spent years developing the idea of CrossFit, the official company was founded in 2000 and has quickly gained popularity. There are now over 7,000 affiliated gyms, or “boxes,” most of them in the U.S. In the briefest of terms, CrossFit can be defined as that which optimizes fitness (defined by Glassman as increased work capacity across broad time and modal domains). This means employing constantly varied functional movements performed at relatively high intensity.
There are many aspects of CrossFit, including diet, competition and developing physical skills. But the main goal of CrossFit is to improve functional fitness and health. “The concept of CrossFit,” explains Nate Harris, a coach at Undisputed Fitness on West Alameda Street in Santa Fe, “is, first and foremost, overall functional fitness for everybody.” This means making sure we’re ready for whatever life throws at us, whether it’s lifting a bag of dog food onto a shelf or living independently as long as possible as we get older.
CrossFit is different for everyone, and everyone comes to it for a different reason. I’ve known people who wanted to lose weight and folks recovering from addiction. There are firefighters and paramedics who need to stay in shape for their jobs, women recovering from having a baby and a wide array of athletes who participate in CrossFit to become better at their respective sports, including swimmers, runners, triathletes, cyclists, students of jiu-jitsu, MMA fighters and mountain bikers. For some, CrossFit is simply a way to stay in shape. For others, it becomes a lifestyle that reaches beyond the doors of the gym.
CrossFit borrows movements from many different disciplines, among them gymnastics, Olympic weightlifting, calisthenics and power lifting. Since I’ve been doing CrossFit, workouts have included running, rowing, squatting, burpees, clean and jerks, deadlifts, carrying sandbags (and partners!) over distances, pull-ups, jumping rope, handstands, flipping tires, climbing ropes and much more. A typical one-hour CrossFit class consists of a warm-up and group stretching, a few minutes of skill development and the high-intensity “workout of the day” (or WOD), which is timed to encourage some degree of competition, even if it’s just against yourself. A WOD can be as short as five minutes, but it will feel like the longest five minutes of your life. The workouts are almost never the same.
Because of its intensity and the wide range of skills involved, many people assume they’re not fit enough for CrossFit, but the program is designed to be adaptable for anybody. Every movement can be scaled for a particular person’s skill set, strength and abilities. Can’t do pull-ups? You can step into an elastic band that will help you pull your chin over the bar. Got a knee injury? The coach will instruct you to do a different movement instead of the squats that hurt your knees. BJ Monger, the owner of Zia CrossFit, points out the diverse demographic of people in the program. “We have a ton of people who are in their late 40s or 50s and some who are over 60,” he says. “They prove CrossFit isn’t just for a younger generation. They come in and work just as hard as everybody else and regularly beat younger athletes.”
The wide range of people involved and the group format of CrossFit classes mean that a sense of community is a huge aspect of the program—and partly why it has become so successful. At a regular gym, you’re usually by yourself, plugged into your headphones, running through a routine you’ve done before. At a CrossFit box, a coach is there to teach movements and explain the workout. Your “teammates” are pushing you a little harder than you might on your own. And when the WOD is really challenging—that is, all the time—everyone is there to cheer you on to the end, to encourage you not to give up, even if you are the last one to finish. A sense of community develops, and people come together outside class to have potlucks and parties. “I want people to come here and have a good time,” BJ says of Zia CrossFit. “We like to get together as a community for a barbecue once a month. Zia started with a couple of people, and from there it was all word of mouth. Good people bring more good people, and before you know it you’ve got a gym full of amazing people.”
“Everything that happens in the gym makes you better out there,” says Heather McKearnan, a coach at Undisputed Fitness. “It’s fitness for life as it occurs outside the gym.” This is particularly true of how CrossFit impacts a person mentally. A big part of this has to do with conquering fear. A common expression, BJ reminds me, is, “The biggest change in CrossFit is between the ears.” He says, “When people have been here a while, they have a mental change. People’s attitudes and mental states get better. They become more confident—the gym carries over into their real lives. It makes a difference in their interactions, knowing they can do things they didn’t think they could do.” Every day when I walk into CrossFit, I know I will come up against something that scares me, like trying to kick up into a handstand or jump onto a 30-inch box. There are times when I think, “I can’t finish this workout,” but when I do, it’s incredibly empowering. I can handle everything else that life throws at me, knowing I was able to do this physical thing that I literally did not believe I could do.
CrossFit is also there when school, kids, jobs and daily stresses steal the spotlight. For many CrossFit athletes, practicing good nutrition becomes an integral part of the fitness program. The paleo, or “caveman,” diet involves eating lean meats, high-quality vegetables, nuts and seeds, as well as some fruit, little starch and no sugar. It’s often practiced by those who participate in CrossFit. Just like CrossFit itself, the paleo diet may sound extreme, but BJ explains that it’s really about shifting the focus to the quality of the food you eat—grass-fed and local meats, organic produce and elimination of processed foods. “What our ancestors ate is irrelevant,” he says. “If you look at the foods in the paleo diet, it’s hard to argue that it’s a bad diet. Eliminating all the stuff that’s inflammatory is like a reset. Later, you can add back things slowly and discover what you’re really able to tolerate.”
Heather explains that although it’s not necessary to eat this way, improving your nutrition can have a serious impact on your overall health and fitness. “You have this entire community of people who are pushing themselves harder than the average human and who support you in that. So with that comes nutrition. It’s not necessary to eat better because you do CrossFit, but you’re going to feel the results of your nutrition on your performance, and when you start dialing all that in, it becomes a more holistic approach to fitness.”
One criticism of CrossFit is that it holds the potential for injury. Because it is more like a sport than going to a regular gym, CrossFit certainly can be dangerous. However, making sure you’ve got a great coach and knowing your limits can keep you out of harm’s way. Nate and Heather point out that as coaches, safety is always their first priority, and coaches are there to prevent injury. Athletes must also know their own limits. Nate says, “I always talk about the metaphorical cliff. You want to get close to it but not fall off.” In CrossFit, pushing yourself beyond the limits of what’s comfortable is important.
Hersche Wilson, a member of Zia CrossFit, tells me, “Personal limits are subjective. Most people quit a long way before reaching their limits in almost everything.”
Nate agrees. “Intensity is subjective. So it’s whatever pushing yourself looks like for you.” He quotes the founder of CrossFit. “Glassman says that the physical needs of an Olympic athlete and your grandmother differ by degree, not kind. So the level of difficulty is going to be what changes, not the actual movements themselves.”
CrossFit may not be for everyone. The timed workouts and competitive aspect may steer some people away, but nonetheless this program for improving functional fitness and health is becoming a way of life for more and more people. And that’s the name of the game—improving your quality of life. So if you never make it into a CrossFit box, the most important thing is to get moving, even if it’s just a walk. If you do feel up for the challenge, the best way to learn about CrossFit is to experience it for yourself. Santa Fe has two CrossFit boxes with great coaches and an amazing community of people. I’ll see you in the next WOD!
Story by Erin Brooks; photos by Gaelen Casey
For a directory of CrossFit centers in Santa Fe and Albuquerque, click here.