Fad Fitness: CrossFit Comrades

Week 6: Discovering the ultimate source of motivation is a kick-ass partner

This is becoming a bad habit, I thought.

Hands on my knees, chest heaving, nostrils filling with the sickly-sweet fragrance of lavender-scented air freshener and toilet water, I stared into the porcelain bowl willing myself to throw up. Two straight classes, two straight times I've wanted to puke.

Both classes were partner workouts, which tells me something about motivation. A lot of folks familiar with CrossFit will tell you that its motivated by competition—the desire to be the best in class. That's why everyone is encouraged to post his or her max reps and times from each workout to the community scoreboard…err, whiteboard. But that's never worked for me. Like with running, I don't feel the pull to beat the best out there. I just want a hard workout, but sometimes that's not enough to really push myself to the limit.

But give me a partner whose own performance depends on mine, and I'll work like a bastard. Especially when I'm paired with someone who's better than me, which seems to always be the case in CrossFit. My partner was a short, tight-muscled guy named Mike. He had a shaved head, and I recognized him from the last class (the last time I wanted to puke). He was in the pair who finished first, one of the guys who'd racked his weights and was stretching on the sidelines while my partner and I were still grunting out reps.

The workout was a modified "Nancy" (CrossFit staple workouts have female names: Fran, Cindy, Angie, Linda, Helen and so on): five rounds for time of 400m rowing (regular Nancy is 400m running) and 15 overhead squats with as much as 95 pounds, alternating with a partner until you each complete the rounds. I was paired with Mike because he was the last guy planning to do 75 pounds on the squat, and I was the only guy who said I planned to do 65.

I found out quickly during the warm-up how ludicrous that was. I may have had the strength to do that much weight, but I certainly didn't have the skill. An overhead squat is your weakest squat position. It involves holding the weight far over your head, elbows locked out, while performing squats (click here for an example). Watching me wobble under 65 pounds during warm-up, instructor Jessica Fox asked me first to take off my running shoes (most CrossFitters use zero drop shoes to keep their feet—and therefore their body weight—as close to level with the floor as possible), then told me she'd prefer if I subbed in easier front squats during the workout.

Even so, it was crazy hard. Mike went first, rowing 400m in about 2:00 before blasting through 15 overhead squats at 65 pounds. Given that I was doing front squats, I asked him to add 10 when he was done and I was launching into my first round of rowing, which I completed in about 1:45. The front squats went OK, but not as well as I'd hoped. Rowing really burns out your legs, and then to run to a barbell and perform 15 squats of any kind is a test. Around 10 reps, the exercise becomes decidedly anaerobic, as you struggle to catch your breath and your legs turn wooden. At 15, I nodded to Mike, who was waiting on the rowing machine (called an "erg" around here), and he tore into a second set.

And that's how it went for five straight sets. By the final two, I was down to 1:53 for 400m rowing, and I had to take long pauses between sets of 2 or 3 squats, the bar still perched on my clavicle and pressing uncomfortably on my windpipe. Mike, for his part, was focused during his turns and a great motivator during mine. He called out all sorts of unjustified encouragement to me, like a proud parent coddling an unremarkable child. "Doing great!" he'd say, while I stood there like a dumb mule, unwilling to lower into another squat, "Now keep going!" And, because he was watching me, and because every second that passed was one second slower Mike's time would be, I'd do it. There's no taking a break, no fudging your numbers when your partner is watching.

When we finished, after 25:53, I was completely and totally spent. I collapsed into a plastic chair, and sat staring at a wall (Mike was dutifully stretching). Ten minutes later, I was still breathing heavily, but more for the sake of quelling my rising nausea than to catch my breath. And a few minutes later, I was crouched over the toilet, willing myself to throw up to make it go away.

I didn't puke either time, for the record. I was humbled, but not humiliated. And as I hobbled home, my calf muscles threatening to cramp with every step, I wondered if it's possible to turn every CrossFit workout into a partner workout.

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.