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No Pain, No Gain?

Published 04/07/2010 12:00 AM

CrossFit Training Blends the Traditional and Innovative in Challenging Workouts

I've always considered myself a fairly athletic, if not completely fit, person. I run. I water and snow skiied for years. I cycle, play softball and volleyball.

But never in my life have I said, so many times, "I can't do that," as when I joined a new gym, a new kind of gym, about a year ago.

And never in my life have I proven myself so wrong so many times.

That's part of the theory behind the training regimen known as CrossFit, which pushes its adherents to challenge themselves through a mix of weight lifting, old-fashioned exercises and endurance training blended together in innovative workouts.

The CrossFit program was developed about 20 years ago by a former gymnast named Greg Glassman. The core of Glassman's training philosphy is that the workouts should be ever changing and varied, and always timed, with a mix of movements that reflect a bit of gymnastics, track and field skills, strength training and resistance training.

The idea is to keep your muscles guessing, and your heart pounding, from one workout to the next, in order to challenge your body to improve and to improve your performance across a broad range of movements. The workout of the day, or WOD, changes daily and strict followers of the program workout three days in a row with one day of rest in between. Typically, each workout contains several movements completed in cycles. Rarely will you do the same workout within several months. Some workouts can grind on for nearly an hour. Some fly by in less than 10 minutes. Most average about 20 minutes.

For instance there is "Eva," which consists of five rounds each of an 800-meter run, 30 kettlebell swings and 30 pull-ups, or "Jackie," which consists of a 1,000-meter row, 50 thrusters (a weight lifting movement) and 30 pull-ups, all for time.

While CrossFit has been around for a couple of decades, it really began gaining momentum a few years ago. For a long time it was sort of the unofficial training program for police, firefighters and military personnel. Last year I learned of a local affiliate gym, CrossFit Playground in Colchester, operated by Cindy and Will Malz in their large, three-car garage, after I developed a back problem and a friend suggested I embark on weight training. Cindy Malz and her husband are both trainers certified in the CrossFit program. The couple offer personal training in small group settings in their home gym.

At first, I had a hard time wrapping my mind around the CrossFit philosophies. CrossFit Playground was newly opened when I joined - in fact, I was its first client - and as I looked around the place I kept thinking "Where are the treadmills? Where are the stationary bikes, the weight machines, the stair climbers?"

You won't find that kind of equipment at the Malz's CrossFit gym. CrossFitters eschew machines in favor of things like free weights, sit-up mats and pull-up bars. The workouts draw heavily on exercise basics, such as weight lifting, pull-ups, sit-ups, push-ups and squats, with some unique movements thrown in.

Take, for instance, the "burpee."

The first time someone demonstrated this movement I laughed. "Are you serious? I can't do that!"

Think of something that looks like a cross between a push up and a jumping jack. That's roughly a burpee. You hit the floor and do a push-up (a "man push-up" as I like to call them), leap back to your feet in one smooth movement and give a little jump, clapping your hands over your head. It probably didn't help my perception of this being an impossible feat given that the person demonstrating the burpee was an 18-year-old high school boy who did one in nearly the blink of an eye.

From that point on I lived in fear of burpees and of course, since the burpee is a CrossFit staple, it wasn't long before I was facing it in a WOD.

To make a long story short, not only did I master the burpee in a relatively short time, I've come to like them. It's a movement that doesn't overly stress any particular body part, yet gives the entire body a full and demanding workout. On days I can't make it to the gym and I can't run, I do burpees.

I've done a lot of other things I never dreamed I'd be asked to do, let alone master, like deadlifting nearly 200 pounds or doing "assisted" pull-ups (the assistance being in the form of a large rubber band). My back problem disappeared within a few months after starting at the gym. It's come back a couple of times since, but in both instances it's been significantly less severe and gone away quickly after I've worked out for a couple of days.

And while I signed up at CrossFit Playground in part to lose weight and get in better shape, I'm still amazed at how efficiently those two things have happened. I didn't realize that after all those years of running my weight loss and endurance level had stagnated. My muscles had gotten used to the same routine and weren't being challenged or pushed anymore.

After a few months of lifting weights, doing calisthetics and endurance exercises, usually all within the same WOD, I leaned out like I never did running. I dropped about 30 pounds and three sizes.

The workouts are also designed to be scaled for each participant's capabilities. For instance, I can't do a regulation pull-up so I use a resistance band that helps me get my chin over the bar. My goal, however, is to be rid of the band

by summer.