It inspires people to eat like cavemen and submit to hundreds of squats and pull-ups; it accommodates everyone, from moms just out of the carpool line to military special operations units preparing for combat. CrossFit is the Bay Area's newest addiction. As a long-time runner getting a little bored with my routine, I checked out Marin's wild and sweaty CrossFit scene.
Stephanie Sharp, a rock solid former competitive gymnast and new mother, oversees clients at , one in a series of CrossFit gyms popping up all over Marin. In front of us is a group of women performing back squats, a move involving barbells and more weight than you would guess a 30-something woman of average stature could lift. Later, a client who had recently lost 70 pounds launches into a series of jump rope double-unders, in which the rope passes twice for each jump.
Against the sound of the jump rope whipping the air, Sharp tells me that Ross Valley CrossFit had zero members in October and now is up to 100, “from college athletes to 70-year-old women and everyone in between, all working harder than ever before.”
She adds that they don’t call it a gym, but a training center, as “the fitness is personalized every time someone walks through the door. They can call 24-7 and I will respond," she says.
At just down the street, owner TJ Belcher feels so strongly about his clients' success that he won't take their money if they don't see it. “We prefer that people don’t pay unless they come and see and feel results and can point to measurable progress.”
What exactly is CrossFit?
“It’s a quantifiable approach to a finally well-defined notion of what fitness is,” writes CrossFit founder and CEO Greg Glassman, a former high school gymnast who opened the first CrossFit gym in Santa Cruz in 1995. As explained by Glassman in his CrossFit Journal, “CrossFit is the application of the fundamentals of Newtonian mechanics to human movement."
According to Daniel Solomon, a Novato-based orthopedist and sports medicine specialist who has worked with Navy Seals as well as CrossFit devotees, military special forces were at the forefront of the phenomenon. “They needed to do their workouts without gym equipment, because they were going overseas,” he explains.
Key to CrossFit is the concept of ‘functional movement,’ enabling people to move with strength and vitality through their daily lives, whether this involves firefighting, sitting at a computer, or carrying a baby. “Strength and balance is really important as we get older,” says Solomon. “It is life-sustaining if you do it right.”
CrossFit, as we know it in Marin, is a workout combining strength training (weight lifting), intense anaerobic exercise like sprinting, jump roping and rowing, with flexibility. The workout draws from such disciplines as gymnastics, martial arts and military training, and includes ten ‘fitness domains’: cardiovascular and respiratory, endurance, stamina, strength, flexibility, power, speed, agility, balance, coordination and accuracy.
Classes typically include a warm-up, a skill development segment, and a high-intensity workout that lasts around ten to twenty minutes. Gyms (called ‘affiliates’) create a Workout of the Day or WOD, and these are posted at the gym and online, where the workouts become competitive and viral (but more about this in a minute).
CrossFit’s ‘foundational movement’ is the squat, says Sharp. The move, dreaded by many, is considered the quintessential hip extension exercise and foundation of all human movement.
“Most good fitness programs surround core strength and the squat is optimal – it strengthens your quads, lower back and core,” says Solomon, adding that everything we do – from answering the phone to throwing a baseball -- stems from our core.
On Stephanie Sharp’s whiteboard, squats are listed as part of the day’s workout, in sets (plural) ranging from 50 to 75.
A multidisciplinary approach
“You have to constantly change it up for people,” says Belcher. “Bikram, spinning, running – it’s the same stuff over and over.” He explains that CrossFit focuses on basic functional human movements, but in varied formats each day.
“Physiology research shows that you need strength and cardio training for optimal weight loss,” says Solomon. “Mixing it up together provides added benefit.”
CrossFit also comes with its own recommended diet, a daunting combination of The Zone and The Paleo or ‘Caveman’ Diet, a detox regimen which focuses on fruits, nuts and meat. The combination, says Sharp, “is the Holy Grail – you see a huge change.” Not everyone subscribes to this eating plan, but clients are offered six-week eating challenges with different choices including: Cut the Crap, The Zone or PaleoZone.
Workouts often involve a little friendly competition too: “If the workout is ‘pick this weight off the floor and put it over your head'; now do it with this other person doing it at the same time, or four- to five-person teams doing a routine," says Belcher. "Human beings like to compete. We don’t do this every day, but once in a while to keep it interesting."
The competitive spirit extends to the web, where aficionados can check out the daily WOD and compare times and tips with others from San Rafael to Alabama to Sweden.
For those who want to take the friendly competition a few grueling steps forward, there is a happening called the CrossFit Games -- a six-week, world-wide, multi-event competition that, says Sharp, “paves the ground for the fittest people on earth.” Athletes can compete at the games site, their affiliate gym or anywhere, as long as they have equipment, a video camera, the internet and a buddy with a stopwatch.
“We don’t farm or hunt anymore," said Belcher. "We don’t have to do things that we’ve done for two million years, but this is in our DNA. If you have all of your extremities, you should be able to use them. I have a one-armed client who can do a pull up. What’s your excuse?”
If you haven’t gotten the message yet, CrossFit is intense.
When I asked a friend who recently started CrossFit if it was really that tough, she replied, “They have a barf bucket.”
“The intensity level gets the most attention, good or bad," says Sharp. "It’s not for those who want to read a magazine or talk on the cell phone on the elliptical.”
“We all have that edge that we are wary of – we might faint or become nauseous. We might throw up. But it’s okay.” Sharp explains that the extreme symptoms are signs of a metabolic shift. “Your body is used to one metabolic pathway – and it is shifting to another. The more you can approach the edge without falling off, the better you are.”
“They ‘can’t’ do it because they don’t,” she says. “And they don’t because they can’t. Here, they have to do it.”
Belcher explains that the workout uses anaerobic activity to prompt ‘hormonal change.’ The term ‘anaerobic' literally means ‘without oxygen.' Translated into exercise, anaerobic exertion, such as sprinting, jumping rope or weight lifting, uses muscles at a high intensity for a short period of time (while aerobic activity, such as long distance running or cycling, focuses on endurance). The focus on anaerobic activity spurs muscle cells to burn mainly carbohydrates, which burn more quickly and do not require oxygen. Anaerobic exercise will not burn off fat (the body needs oxygen to be able to do this). However, it will build stronger muscles, and it speeds up your metabolic rate so that you continue to burn fat after exercise.
CrossFit trainers emphasize that they are sticklers for form and safety.
If you are feeling nauseous, warns Solomon, “it’s your body telling you you’re going too far. Your goal shouldn’t be – I want to throw up at the end of my workout.” As a physician, Solomon worries about whether they body is dehydrated and whether a person is risking muscle injury or other problems that they wouldn’t have if they weren’t pushing to that intensity.
“The biggest thing,” says Solomon, “is that doing this type of exercise demands good form.” Weight-lifting requires you to push to fatigue, he explains, and good form will prevent injury. CrossFit-related problems he has encountered include rotator cuff (shoulder) instability and dislocation, as well as bicep injury from repetitive stress.
"We love to safely get people to go further than they would on their own," says Sharp, emphasizing that she gives clients the strength and tools they need. While “it would be easy for me to push you to a point where you barf,” she says, “that is not coaching – that just makes you feel like crap. That’s not my goal.”
The most pivotal aspect of CrossFit may be its focus on community.
One CrossFit devotee tells me that it really is a little addictive. “You’re in the middle of a class and you are thinking, ‘holy s*$#'," she says. “But as soon as it’s over you want to go again. It's a little cult-like,” she admits in a whisper.
CrossFit has become a social phenomenon, says Belcher, who emphasizes that community is what drives his gym. “Today we had one guy whose birthday it was and 35 people came to watch him workout. He put it on the website. Thirty-five people came to cheer him on. And they brought friends who don’t even know him.”
There is incredible camaraderie and support at the gym, says Sharp. Everyone does the same workout. "We have triathletes and we have 65-year-olds with rotator cuff injuries," she says. People encourage each other and “this more than anything keeps people coming back,” she says. “Behavior change requires this team workout.”
Having set foot into the CrossFit arena, I still feel that 75 squats and 50 pull-ups sounds just a little outrageous. But Sharp’s clients are glowing and high-fiving each other as they pack up and return to the carpool line.
“It is daunting,” agrees Belcher. But CrossFit is not that different from fears we have in other areas of our lives. “We often don’t know anything about the things we think scare us. But if people try, they will see. People in this place will say that it changed their lives. ‘I’m not afraid anymore.’ ”
Ross Valley Crossfit, San Anselmo
TJ’s Gym, San Rafael, Corte Madera, Novato
Daniel Solomon, MD, Novato