Fad Fitness: Inside CrossFit's Black Box

Week 2: A behind-the-scenes look at the mysterious, all-business black box gym

The CrossFit gym is an austere, open space that’s referred to by CrossFitters as a “box.” It looks more like a gym from the early 1900s than today’s posh fitness clubs, with rings, pull-up bars, plenty of open space for push-ups, lunges and other bodyweight exercises, ropes for climbing and racks with dumbbells and weights for all of the heavy lifting. The only machines? Rowing—the most bare-bones of gym equipment.

CrossFit South Brooklyn (CFSBK), when it was founded in late 2007, was located inside the Brooklyn Lyceum, a cavernous one-time public bathhouse that it shared with arts organizations, public batting cages, Zumba and hula-hoop classes and a small café. In 2010, it moved to its equally Spartan but more fitting current location in a former warehouse in Brooklyn’s industrial Gowanus neighborhood. It’s a temple to fitness and, like a fit body, has trimmed the unnecessary  “fat” that’s common among posh fitness clubs. There are no mirrors on the walls to gawk at your muscles getting bigger. Instead of rows of treadmills and ellipticals, a garage door emblazoned with the gym’s badass Jolly Roger logo (part of the reason I came here, I admit)—this is, after all, take-no-prisoners fitness—opens up to the sidewalk (and to the elements), where all runs are taken. There are no saunas or televisions or even private lockers, for that matter. Nothing detracts from the goal of fitness. Also, there’s an understanding that everything—changing rooms, storage, workout space—is shared with the community.

Although CrossFit itself is free (or, as founder Greg Glassman likes to call it, “open source”), with Workouts Of the Day (WODs) posted daily at crossfit.com and plenty of demonstration videos for self-instruction, its heart lies in the group class. Most of the time, boxes don’t allow members to work out alone, save for the occasional open gym hours for making up workouts or practicing a movement/skill. At CFSBK, there are 43 group classes a week. Each one has a high instructor-to-student ratio to ensure movements—particularly ones involving weights—are performed safely and efficiently. The typical, hour-long class starts with a warm-up, moves on to skills development—fine-tuning a type of clean or press, say—and then transitions to the posted WOD. The workout is typically short—20 minutes or less—and intense, demanding all-out physical exertion, but it’s scalable so people of all levels can participate.

My three Foundations classmates and I are three classes deep, and still very much novices. Our trainer, Josh Martinez, is patiently teaching us to bend our bodies into often unnatural-feeling positions—jabbing your elbows back during a squat to create a “shelf” on your upper back for the barbell; thrusting a kettlebell into the air with hips rather than relying on your arms, shoulders and upper back—that are the bread and butter of CrossFit. Our WODs can still be fairly intense, but I can’t help but think this is the tip of the iceberg. Once we graduate from Foundations (more on that in Week 1)—there’s a test on Thursday—and are unleashed on unwitting group classes, this is probably going to get real hard. With the time off for Thanksgiving, my muscles are forgetting what pain feels like. Three straight days—Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday—ought to fix that. Cross your fingers for me.

Class 3
Focus Lifts/Movements
• Rowing
Low Bar Back Squat
Box Jumps

Workout (WOD) (8x)*
• 20 seconds box jumps
• 10 seconds rest

*As with most WODs, everyone is encouraged to track their results. I did 69 jumps and step-downs on a 20-inch box in the allotted 160 seconds.

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.