This wasn’t a late-night infomercial. It was the ardent opinion of my former girlfriend. I had mentioned that I was thinking of trying CrossFit, and Becky, to my surprise, told me she was already a year into it, and that it had given her a “new lease on life” and a “whole new family.” On every other subject she sounded like the same levelheaded girl I used to live with. But when she talked about CrossFit, she sounded like a lunatic.
Then she directed me to YouTube videos that showed her busting out pullups by the dozen and sporting the strong, sinewy physique of a martial artist. If that was madness, I wanted some. I scheduled a free demo session as soon as I hung up the phone.
THE APPEAL OF CROSSFIT—A CONDITIONING program that mixes Olympic weightlifting, powerlifting, calisthenics, gymnastics, sprints, plyometrics, and a few hard-to-categorize exercises like rope climbing—is that the workouts are short, intense, and constantly changing. So they were nothing like the long, monotonous, and unsatisfying workouts I’d been doing for most of my adult life.
And CrossFit is everywhere now. I counted 10 affiliates near my apartment in downtown Vancouver. I decided to try CrossFit Westside, which is within walking distance.
Like the CrossFit facilities I’d seen in videos, this one didn’t look anything like a traditional gym. No mirrors, no machines to isolate muscles, no stationary bikes, no display cases full of expensive powders and bars. The box, as they call each of their gyms, was mostly open space, with a rubber floor, high ceiling, and equipment—barbells and plates, kettlebells, medicine balls, jump ropes, rowing machines—stacked neatly around the perimeter. The walls were bare, save for stenciled quotations attributed to Greg Glassman, CrossFit’s founder and frontman. “No, it doesn’t get any easier,” read one. “You wouldn’t want it to either.”
My initial assessment included a timed run through a typical CrossFit sequence during which I rowed, jumped, and did pushups and body-weight squats. The streams of sweat pouring off me left no doubt that I hadn’t been bringing my A game to my self-designed workouts. The assessment was followed by a series of “elements” classes, during which my fellow rookies and I learned the basic exercises. Then it was time to try the real thing.
The highlight of each class was the workout of the day, or WOD. (A lot of these have been given women’s names—anybody up for a Cindy? How about a Fran?) My first WOD consisted of 12 “chest to deck” pushups, 9 deadlifts with 225 pounds, and 15 jumps onto a 24-inch box. That was one round; the challenge was to complete as many rounds as possible in 15 minutes. The clock started, house music blared, barbells clanked, and my fellow CrossFitters grunted, groaned, and screamed encouragement at one another. Sweat flecked the gym floor.
“Back to pushups! Chest to deck, let’s go!” screamed our trainer, Jenika Gordon, who also owned the gym. “Five minutes gone, so you’re a third of the way through!”
I was oxygen-starved and confused after three rounds, and I still had 10 minutes to go. And I wasn’t the only one suffering. Pushups around the room became increasingly bendy, jumps turned wobbly, deadlifts turned ugly. And even though some CrossFit crazies think vomiting during a workout is a badge of honor, I hoped I wouldn’t erupt my first time out.
In my quarter-hour initiation, I’d made it through the three-exercise circuit—a “triplet” in CF-speak—just shy of six times. We called out our scores and Gordon posted them on a chalkboard. I was near the bottom of the class of a dozen men and women, some of whom outweighed me by at least 50 pounds. One of the biggest surprises in this and subsequent classes was the range of body shapes, which didn’t seem in any way predictive of who would end up with the highest score. On any given day the doughy endomorph might outpace the cantaloupe-butt Amazon or the wiry guy with the anatomy-chart muscles.
We limped off as another group stepped up.
“How was the WOD?” someone asked.
“Fifteen minutes of sheer hell,” I wheezed.
“Awesome!” he said, without sarcasm.