Fad Fitness: The Breaking In

Week 1: 4 good reasons (and one bad one) that I chose CrossFit

The feeling started in my abdominals one morning last week. I sat up fast, suddenly aware of loudly ringing bells—phone alarm—and put hand to stomach. But it wasn’t terror or intuition or regret I was feeling in my gut (well, maybe a little regret). Swinging my legs out over the floor, it hit the adductor muscles in my upper thighs. I hadn’t walked three steps toward the coffeemaker, when my hamstrings were stricken, and I wanted to limp. Lifting a pitcher of cold water, I became aware of my shoulder—now burning—and it spread to my trapezius. Questions flashed across my sleep-weary mind. Did I drink too much last night? Is the start of some horrible flu? And, worst of all, Is this what getting old feels like?

As the fog of sleep cleared, though, I realized that these full-body, deep-muscle aches must be coming from my first week in what was already shaping up to be a hellish six-week trial run at CrossFit. If you’ve never heard of it, CrossFit is a wildly popular non-specialized fitness program that uses universal movements to promote overall health. Sound confusing?

Essentially, the idea is to tap into a very primal kind of fitness, one that is full-body and includes movements—squatting, running, jumping, throwing, pulling and picking things up—that humans have been performing for thousands of years, since well before the invention of weight machines, gyms, protein shakes, vitamins, supplements and the like, and which they still perform frequently in everyday life. Each day, CrossFitters do a Workout of the Day—or WOD (pronounced “wad”)—that consists of some combination of “constantly varied functional movements at high intensity.” What that means is no two days are the same, each one combines weight training with gymnastic drills and endurance conditioning, and most every workout is timed for speed, encouraging you to run faster and perform more squats and pull-ups in less time. This is no-holds-barred, balls-to-the-wall fitness.

Here, a motivational—and, yes, intense—overview:

I am not a gym guy. Not anymore, that is. There were a few (admittedly dark) years where I would go to a gym four or five days a week and, in the sweaty-stale air of a fluorescent-lit space, isolate and wail on some small subset of muscles—pecs or biceps or shoulders—while vainly watching them flex in the mirror. Then, about six years ago, I swore off gyms forever. I wanted all of my exercise to be either outside, in nature—running, hiking, biking, paddling, skiing—or simple, bodyweight exercises like push-ups and pull-ups. I wasn’t going to gain muscle bulk, but I would have lean, functional muscle. So why would I take on CrossFit, a primarily indoor program that uses dumbbells and bars on an almost daily basis?

Here’s why: 1) I like its focus on functional movements that engage many muscles at once, rather than fooling around with silly, muscle-isolating exercises like bicep curls, 2) I want a full-body workout every time, 3) I thought because the workouts were so intense that they were very short (sort of like Five-Minute Abs, ya know?), 4) I figured the high-intensity nature would be a crazy challenge, since I’m a casual endurance athlete who tends to stick to low-intensity exercise for long periods, and 5) I honestly thought I wouldn’t like it. Look, CrossFitters are, well, intense. Have you seen them swinging from chin-up bars, doing hand-stand push-ups and rolling giant tractor tires like Rocky prepping for his fight with Ivan in Rocky IV? It’s just not my style. But, because I’m an endurance athlete, I’m also a masochist, which means that doing something painful (whether physically or mentally so) in the name of fitness is right up my alley. Weird, I know.

Now I’m two classes into a six-week program at CrossFit South Brooklyn, which I found in a Google search. Like all CrossFit gyms, it starts recruits like me out in a six-class introductory program (CrossFit South Brooklyn calls it Foundations; others use On-Ramp, Elements and similar terms), meant to teach you basic proficiency in all of the movements associated with CrossFit, from jumping rope (“channel your inner 14-year-old girl,” says our trainer, Josh) to kettlebell swings, burpees and variations of squats and jerks. Our tiny class—just four people—is considered a full group for such a class. That's because it takes that much focus and individual attention to nail proper form before you join a regular CrossFit group glass (hopefully at a more humane hour than the current 5:50am). That is, before you start lifting the heavy, back-breaking weights. And to think I'm this sore already.

Class 1
Focus Lifts/Movements
Air Squats
• Push-Ups
• Sit-Ups
• Reverse Lunges
Ring Rows

Workout (WOD)*
• 270m run
• 3 sets each at 21, 15 and 9 reps of:
–air squats
–ring rows
• 270m run

*This workout was timed, and establishes a sort of benchmark of fitness. My time was 8:42.

Class 2
Focus Lifts/Movements
• Jumping Rope (Single Unders and Double Unders)
Russian Kettlebell Swings
• Plank

Workout (WOD) (5x)
• 30 seconds of kettlebell swings
• 30 seconds tall plank

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, 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.