Fad Fitness: Crushed By CrossFit
When I last wrote, I'd graduated from the hand-holding phase of CrossFit that was my Foundations class, and was deemed officially "ready" (as ready as I can be, anyway) to join standard group classes, all of which are scalable, depending on your fitness level.
The week that I was launching into was known around CrossFit South Brooklyn as a "Crush Week." The fifth week in the gym's six-week cycle, it's considered the hardest. The first four are standard—by no means easy—classes where you work on improving form and slowly building your max weight and reps in all of the lifts and moves. During Crush Week, the workouts are downright painful—it's the time when everyone pushes themselves extra hard so that they can see, in fairly black and white results, how much they've progressed since the last Crush Week.
My first class was Wednesday morning at 6am and, admittedly, I was nervous about it—nervous that I wouldn't keep up or, worse, that I'd end up dropping a weight on my head or falling flat on my back in the midst of a mid-hang power snatch. By some happy coincidence, the lead trainer for the class was Josh Martinez, my Foundations coach, so that helped relax me a bit.
The class starts easy, too—everyone splayed across the floor, mashing sore muscles into foam rollers while Josh tries making conversation: "Starting from my left, say your name and your favorite actor/actress." But it's too damn early to think straight. While the circle works around to my turn, I'm trying to think of someone, anyone who doesn't sound like a cop-out (a couple of guys in a row, for example, say Scarlett Johansson, who hasn't done much worth watching since Lost in Translation). When it's finally my turn, all I can come up with is Steve Buscemi, except I can't remember his name, so I just say "The guy from Boardwalk Empire—Nucky Thompson." This mental fog is not a good sign for the workout to come.
Our warm-up is 15(?) reverse lunges, 20(?) sit-ups and 10 push-ups for three straight sets. For some reason, my brain can't keep up with the workout, so I'm not really sure how many I'm supposed to do, but everyone's launching into it with gusto. So I just go with 15x/20x/10x for three sets. I'm quickly realizing how important it is in CrossFit to listen carefully and, above all, to be a proficient, focused counter.
"Today's workout is going to be a little aggressive," Josh says, detailing the plan. It'll be 5 front squats with weight, 10 chest-to-bar pull-ups and 20 double-unders with a jump rope, all for five sets (total of 25 squats, 50 pull-ups and 100 double-unders) and timed. There are modifications for people whose fitness/skills aren't fully developed yet. On the pull-ups, you can sling a rubber strap over the bar and step into it before beginning each set, effectively reducing your bodyweight. With the jump rope, you can either attempt 12 double-unders (still exhausting if you don't have the necessary rhythm down) or go for 40 single-unders.
Before we get started, though, Josh runs us through some jump rope work and practice cleans—boosting the bar from the floor to across your shoulders, in position for a front squat—and a couple of front squats with just the barbell for weight. We practice squat form while he and another coach slowly walk around the room, watching each of us and gently correcting form mistakes—bend more at your knees, hips farther back, don't bend your back so much. As I've said before, it's easy to hurt yourself when lifting weights, particularly when standing with a barbell. It's a more complete workout, since you engage more muscles across both your upper and lower body, but that means there are also more potential failure points.
Form nailed, they allowed plenty of time for everyone to find an appropriate weight for the workout. Since I've never front squatted with more than the bar in my Foundations class, I have no idea what kind of weight I can handle. I ask the second coach for help. "The biggest limiting factor will be cleaning the weight (again, that means getting the weight in position to squat), not the squat itself." He suggests I try feeling out the weight with 10s on either side of the bar, which adds up to 65 pounds, then figuring what I want to work with based on that. At 65, the bar comes easily enough up onto my chest and shoulders (so the bar is mildly choking my windpipe). Based on that, I settle on 85 pounds for the workout. By now, my anxiety about group classes is melting away. The coaches seem more than willing to explain the lifts beforehand and help out newbs like me.
During the workout, the squats are actually the easiest part. The pull-ups are murder. I start doing them straight-up, but have a skinny orange band that only mildly reduces my weight attached to my bar for when I inevitably can't continue without help. By midway through the second set of 10, it becomes clear I'm going to need a thicker band. I upgrade to a fat green band, which makes my body weight significantly lighter. Even then, by the fifth set I can barely complete 10. I take a few big breaks between reps, my chest heaving as I will my shoulders and biceps to recover faster. Jump-roping is fine. For the first four sets, I do 40 easy single-unders. It's not until the final set that I push myself to try 12 double-unders. 10 reps end up being nothing more than attempts, but two actually stick. Meanwhile, there's a visiting Canadian guy across from me who, in a breathtaking display of footspeed and agility, is pounding out 20 straight double-unders every set. I'm guessing this isn't his first group class.
The next class is Friday at 6am, and the workout ends up being more up my alley than most. It's all pretty much gymnastics/bodyweight exercises, it involves a lot of endurance and we have to tag-team it with a partner. The total workload, split two ways, is 1200 meters of rowing, 120 wall ball shots (10 sets @ 12 reps), 120 burpees (10 sets @ 12 reps) and a one-mile run, which we do together. There's a lot of groaning, but It actually sounds pretty easy to me. Until I realize there's a catch: While your partner is performing exercises, your "rest" isn't really rest at all. While my partner—his name is Christian—rows, I hold a forearm plank; while he does wall ball shots with a 16-pound medicine ball, I dead-hang from a pull-up bar; while he does burpees, I hold a 45-pound weight straight up over my head. These static exercises that are substituting for rest turn out to be exhausting. We take short breaks, we lighten the overhead load to 25 pounds, we sometimes skip the push-up part of the burpee and, by the time we jog out into the 38-degree morning together, our bodies move like rag dolls and it takes a good two or three minutes to stop feeling wobbly. Welcome to Crush Week. Provided I survive this, next week will be Back Off Week—a time of (relative, mind you) rest and recovery before launching into the next cycle. I'm sure as hell looking forward to that.
About the Project: The Active Times' Fad Fitness Challenge is a six-week-long project in which five hapless writers will immerse themselves in five popular fitness programs—CrossFit (at CrossFit South Brooklyn), Insanity, Barre, Flywheel and Kettlebell classes—for the dual purposes of getting in shape and evaluating them for our readers. We guinea pigs will bust our butts, burn calories and discover muscles we'd long since mothballed and, if all goes well, emerge into the New Year with a well-rounded perspective of the top fitness fads. Check back every weekday from now until the New Year to come along for the ride without breaking a sweat. Click here to check out the rest of the programs.