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A growing fitness sensation, CrossFit—the system that takes functional training to the extreme—isn't for the weak. Follow along as an M&F staffer plunges into the fray
By Eric Velazquez | Photos by Michael Darter
Damn that whiteboard.
As I stagger ignominiously from station to station at Petranek Fitness in Santa Monica, California—my lungs screaming for recuperative oxygen, my palms blistering before my eyes—it's the whiteboard that pushes me harder, farther, heavier. Whatever pride I walked in with has long since been crushed by a pathetic, labored set of 50 pull-ups. Sweat is literally pouring from my brow, the sting rendering my eyes tear-gas red.
One foot in front of the other—it's work as I plod toward a 95-pound barbell. As I make an effort to find a steady pace on my thrusters (front squats with an overhead press at the top), I get light-headed and drop the bar. Legs heavy, vision blurred, I drag myself out for an 800-meter run. On the way out, the whiteboard gently reminds me that I'm still only halfway through the workout. Exhausted, aloof, barely vertical—I won't remember a single one of these 800 meters 10 minutes from now. On my way back in, the board beckons once more, this time pointing out that the workout will conclude in the same sadistic fashion in which it started—with 50 pull-ups.
Eventually, mercifully, I complete my last pull-up and collapse to the floor, a soaked, quivering, bloody mess. Folds of skin are ripped from my hands, my lungs are struggling to find their cadence. But this is what I signed up for. This isn't about working up a light sweat, or getting a few "pump sets" in. This is about fitness for performance. This is about getting better today, and the omnipresent whiteboard, which catalogs my workouts for better or for worse, is my new accountability czar. This is CrossFit.
CrossFit, unlike traditional gym practices, isn't just about looking good. It's about actually being good. While it's billed as a core strength and conditioning program, CrossFit is designed to bolster 10 different domains of fitness: cardiorespiratory endurance, stamina, strength, power, flexibility, speed, coordination, agility, balance and accuracy.
CrossFit does this in a punishing, if immethodical, manner six days a week with a brutal three-on/one-off schedule. The workouts are randomized—I never did the same routine twice in six weeks—and can include any and all combinations of plyometrics, sprints, Olympic lifts, gymnastic moves and kettlebell work. On occasion, CrossFitters even find themselves turning back the clock with archaic, brute-strength moves such as the Turkish get-up. The bottom line: With CrossFit, you're never comfortable. Yet this haphazard style of programming may have more of a payoff than you might think.
"The reason it works is known technically as undulating periodization," says m&f Senior Science Editor Jim Stoppani, PhD. "Bodybuilders have always known it as the Weider Principle of Muscle Confusion. By keeping your body guessing, you allow yourself to continue making gains."
With CrossFit, those gains come not only in the form of new lean muscle mass but in complete athleticism. Though its lack of structure may seem more geared toward the fitness generalist, there are myriad benefits to be had by more physique-minded individuals like you and me.
"CrossFit isn't really for the specialist," says Andy Petranek, a former U.S. Marine and owner of Petranek Fitness, where I put myself through the paces for six weeks last fall. "But a specialist—whether it's someone looking to bench more or run a faster 5K—will still gain something in those areas while simultaneously improving in other ways."
And how do CrossFitters measure improvement? Well, I'll tell you how they don't: with the looking glass. CrossFit gyms—Petranek's included—are conspicuously devoid of mirrors. They don't want you focused on how good you might look, they want your focus where it belongs: on the work. If your thoughts are on anything else, you won't make it—period. People quickly learn that ego has no place inside the walls of a CrossFit gym. Petranek's thoughts on vanity lifting follow thus: "I've been known to kick people out for doing curls, crunches or lateral raises," he admits. "There just isn't room for that type of training here or in the CrossFit philosophy."
Don't worry, though—while muscle groups aren't specifically targeted the way they are in traditional programs, they don't exactly get overlooked, either. Delts are blasted by overhead squats, thrusters and handstand push-ups, and biceps get more than their fair share of work through various versions of pull-ups. You work your abs to some extent every day, whether it's through dreaded "knees to elbows" (see photos on page 150) or full sit-ups, or just as stabilizers in any of the heavy full-body lifts that fall under the curriculum.
"When I first started training this way, I had a real problem with doing abs maybe only once a week," Petranek says. "But after a few months of CrossFit, my abs had never been stronger or looked better."
Aesthetics, then, are just a pleasant byproduct of your physical investment in the totality of CrossFit.
DOING THE IMPOSSIBLE
So no mirrors. No iPods. Just a stopwatch and that unholy whiteboard. However truculent your relationship with these two things may be at the outset, you'll come to love, appreciate and insist upon having them close for every single workout.
"There's a competitive element to CrossFit," Petranek says. "People are constantly motivated to outdo themselves or outdo the person next to them. There's always room to improve and get better. You see your old time or your buddy's time on the board and you want to beat it. You can't really get that on a daily basis with typical workouts."
As quantifiable improvement is the cornerstone of CrossFit, it's important to have a solid starting point. The baseline routine—which Petranek has all of his new students perform—includes a 500-meter row, 40 bodyweight squats, 30 unsupported sit-ups, 20 push-ups and 10 pull-ups all done in succession for time.
>> Ladies and Heroes.
The baseline is child's play when compared to "The Ladies." Like hurricanes, the most destructive training sessions are given names such as Annie, Diane, Helen and Grace. One lady, Fran, is particularly daunting.
"The only workout that strikes fear into my soul is Fran," Petranek says. "The first time I did it, I just wasn't right for about three hours. It's just a six-minute workout, but it knocks me on my can for hours."
Fran is one of the benchmark routines that involve completing sets in a 21-15-9-rep sequence. In this case, you go back and forth between 95-pound thrusters and pull-ups in superset fashion, completing 21 reps of each, then 15, then nine. Quads, glutes, delts, traps, triceps, hamstrings, biceps, lats, forearms—obliterated. Six minutes and out. Fran just upped your workout efficiency IQ.
Other workouts are named after soldiers who have fallen in defense of our country. The Murph, for example, is named after Lt. Michael Murphy, a decorated Navy SEAL who was killed during counterterrorist operations in Afghanistan in 2005. His session, which he nicknamed "Body Armor," is included in your one-week initiation course here (see "Hell Week" on page 152). JT, Josh and Badger are just a few of the other routines that fall under CrossFit's "Heroes" category. It's only natural that bravery is something of a prerequisite for these sessions.
The workout that the Santa Monica gang is lumbering through in these photos is called the Filthy 50. Ten up-tempo exercises, each more demanding than the one before it, each requiring 50 near-perfect repetitions. Today, Petranek leads the way and finishes in 20:43—besting his previous record on this by nearly eight minutes—then crumples to the floor, struggling to catch his breath.
>> To the edge of the cliff.
Seeing Petranek working to right himself after the Filthy 50, I'm reminded of one of the slogans you'll find on CrossFit T-shirts: I do the impossible. Every time I set foot into Petranek Fitness and took inventory of the whiteboard's workout of the day (WOD), I contemplated turning around, going home and firing up my DVR. Maybe it was the specter of the board that made them more off-putting, but every routine looked impossible. Before doing the Daniel WOD, I hadn't done more than 20 pull-ups in a single day. The board on Oct. 8, 2007, read:
›› 50 pull-ups
›› 400m run
›› 21 thrusters (95 pounds)
›› 800m run
›› 21 thrusters (95 pounds)
›› 400m run
›› 50 pull-ups
Imagine my dismay when I saw that the workout began and ended with 50 pull-ups. But I'm just as competitive as the next guy, and I gutted it out. I posted a class-worst time of 37:31 and couldn't straighten my arms for a week (seriously). But I finished it, and to this day it's one of my proudest physical achievements.
"CrossFit helps people blow past mental and physical boundaries," Petranek says. "And in a class setting, something may look impossible, but you see everyone else going through the same thing and you think, Hey, maybe I could do that. We want people to go right up to the edge of the cliff."
To quote the good people of Adidas: "Impossible is nothing." At least not in CrossFit.
At times, CrossFit can seem an impenetrable fraternity of strong-minded, fiercely competitive fitness zealots. But ultimately, that's a pretty shallow perception. During the six weeks I spent at Petranek Fitness, I shared the gym with hardcore devotees ("firebreathers"), prodigal CrossFitters, beginners and even expectant mothers—everyone is on equal footing once the clock starts. Classmates root for one another and shout encouragement through the bleakest moments of physical exhaustion. Misery truly does love company here.
Though once considered an underground fitness cult—think Fight Club meets Pumping Iron—CrossFit now has a deep-rooted and ever-growing following. With more than 200 sanctioned affiliates worldwide, CrossFit is sprinting out of the shadows of the fitness periphery and into the mainstream. CrossFit Qatar, anyone?
Brian Decker, who CrossFits at Sierra Fitness Gym just east of Los Angeles, completely reinvented his physique at age 38, going from a doughy 205 pounds to a rock-hard 193 at 8% bodyfat. "And my diet was pretty far from strict," he admits. "I was always unhappy with my bodyfat numbers, but CrossFit has enabled me to keep it under 10% consistently."
Decker represents the much broader swath of CrossFitters who apply their newfound athleticism into other careers or hobbies. "I'm an alpine climber, and I can do routes of 20 hours or more without getting wrecked because of CrossFit," he notes.
Several groups of our homeland defenders, including some of the baddest men on the planet—the Navy SEALs—have made CrossFit their exclusive form of physical training. You can visit navyseals.com and see what these elite operators are putting themselves through today.
But CrossFit isn't the exclusive property of dues-paying members. CrossFit affiliates—like Fight Club's Tyler Durden—have a simple credo: "This doesn't belong to us." Anyone can direct his or her web browser to crossfit.com or an affiliate site for the WOD, video demonstrations of unfamiliar exercises and intensity tips, all for free.
"CrossFit is an open-source model—anyone can do it, at home or at a gym, with minimal equipment," says Decker, who also devises workouts on his own that he can do at a local park. "You don't need a trainer or coach because every bit of help you could possibly need is available online."
If you're one who strives to best the man next to you, just find a gym to call home. In the end, CrossFit isn't really exclusive at all. It may, in fact, be more inclusive than most other forms of exercise around.
This is fitness earned: No one finishes a CrossFit workout wondering if they made any progress. The ache from yesterday's session and the burn from today's are evidence enough of that. CrossFit workouts are comprehensive—calves to clavicles, so to speak. Experienced CrossFitters are extreme athletes. They aren't in it for the pump or the physique perks—they're after strength, skill, precision—but they end up leaner and more muscular for the effort, anyway.
I got through workouts that I was certain would leave me searching for the door (or the trash can). After being exposed to CrossFit, I really wonder if there's any form of exercise I couldn't handle. In only six weeks, I dropped from 176 pounds at 10% bodyfat to 173 pounds at 7% bodyfat and improved my baseline workout time from 4:37 to 4:08, nearly half a minute better than I did as a CrossFit rookie.
Take that, whiteboard. M&F
For the author's full workout journal, click here.
To download "Hell Week"—a seven-day barrage of CrossFit workouts designed by Andy Petranek—click here.
>> To continue your CrossFit crusade on a daily basis, visit www.crossfit.com or www.petranekfitness.com. And for exclusive action footage from our photo shoot, featuring the CrossFit Filthy 50, head over to Videos.