I can’t tell you how many people have urged me to try CrossFit, an increasingly popular workout variously portrayed as “a fitness company, a grassroots health movement, a nascent sport…and sometimes, disparagingly, a cult” if you go by Wikipedia. Or the “caveman workout” if you read the Times. But I always said to myself, “I’m not into gym workouts. I’m a real athlete. I do real sports.”
Then one of my fittest friends (who runs a fitness and nutrition training studio) told me over dinner one night: “Seriously, you should try it because I was begging for mercy after 17 minutes. If you think you’re fit, you should just go.” By the end of night I was convinced that I’d leave my first CrossFit class with my body and soul broken in ways that would never be fixed. And because we athletes are all masochists to some degree, I couldn’t wait to give it a try.
So what takes place during these 17 minutes of torture? CrossFit workouts can be any number of assorted Mount Olympus-like challenges like throwing a 25-pound ball at a high mark on the wall while doing sit-ups or doing overhead squat lifts with a giant barbell—all to the point of failure. Then you might run a couple of sprints, come back to the gym, and do it again.
New York City has about a half dozen CrossFit gyms. There are almost 2,000 nationwide, the first of which was founded in 1995 by a former high-school gymnast in Santa Cruz. Unlike your neighborhood Equinox, at these centers, gymnastics meets Olympic lifting meets urban boot camp—except your drill sergeant wants to build you up rather than break you down.
Only because I convinced the guys at Crossfit South Brooklyn that I already had some level of Godlike fitness did they drop me right into a regular class. We circled up for stretches and everyone shared their names and what we’d be doing for the weekend (unless the lifting rendered us useless). Because I don’t actually have any lifting experience, Laurel, one of the instructors, gave me some one-on-one time. Within ten minutes, she had me dialed in for the overhead squats-and-running workout to come.
This is the part that drove my friend to the barf bag. We set up for a 15-minute timed effort: as many rounds as possible of overhead squats broken up by runs to the end of the block and back. You keep track of your numbers (both reps and rounds) and you write them on the board at the end. That’s how you know next month or next year how much you’ve improved.
The point is to do the prescribed workout until you can’t do it anymore—which makes the sport a decent leveler, since you compete against your own stamina, strength, and (maybe) stupidity.
Something I really liked about it: Many sports are one-dimensional. (Cycling is my primary sport and if you look at professional cyclists, it’s pretty clear from their praying mantis-like upper bodies that they’re not well-rounded. It’s all about long miles for most endurance athletes.) But CrossFit takes the “train less, go faster” approach and it works, even for endurance athletes.
So, did it break me? If you asked me on Saturday, after I’d finished the class and was already upstate rock climbing at dusk, I would’ve told you that it was great and I had an awesome time, but by no means did it break me. Then I woke up the next day and could barely walk from my bed to the bathroom. My thighs felt a little like they got caught in some kind of farm equipment. I’m a little broken, but in the best possible way, and I’m already thinking about when I can go again.
David Osorio, who owns CrossFit South Brooklyn, says: “You can start from whatever level of fitness you have and we’ll scale the workouts for you.” It doesn’t matter if you’re an elite athlete looking to better your times or if you’re thirty pounds overweight and haven’t been in gym shorts since P.E. in 1986, wherever you are is the perfect starting point.
Most CrossFit gyms in New York City offer a free first session. CrossFitVirtuosity.com says to just show up to any class any time to try it out. Both The Black Box (www.crossfitnyc.com) and Crossfitsouthbrooklyn.com have intro classes. CrossFit gyms recommend a month of 2–3 classes per week to learn the basics (cost ranges from $175–$225 per month) then you’re ready for the real deal.
Ashley McCullough is a former professional cyclist who has recently channeled her hyperactivity disorder into rock climbing, ice climbing, snowboarding, and cyclocross. A sometimes contributor to Velonews and cyclingnews.com, she makes her real living as a copywriter for the women’s sportswear brand Athleta.