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Think you're in shape? CrossFit pushes workouts to another level

Jack Goodson • Jul 22, 2009 at 12:00 AM

JOHNSON CITY — Two months ago, I fancied myself a pretty fit individual.

Bench pressing 300 pounds? No sweat. Jogging a couple of miles? Not a problem.

A self-professed gym rat — at least five times per week — I, at 27 years old, was in the best shape of my life.

Or so I thought.

Sick of hearing about my so-called exploits, a close friend, the head trainer at Southern Maryland CrossFit in Waldorf, Md., suggested I, in his words, “man up” and give CrossFit a serious look.

Designed in the 1980s by former gymnast Greg Glassman, CrossFit is a strength and conditioning program of the most extreme variety. It remained largely underground until Glassman began posting his philosophy online in 2001.

Eight years later, CrossFit is a full-fledged phenomenon. Each day, thousands of followers across the nation flock to crossfit.com to gain their own form of physical enlightenment through Glassman’s workout of the day, WOD for short. They then disperse to basements, garages, parks and, now, affiliated gyms to satisfy their exercise fix.

The number of CrossFit-affiliated gyms has risen from 18 in 2005 to more than 1,000 as of March 2009.

What has drawn so many people to CrossFit? It’s hard to tell.

Perhaps it’s the cult-like following. Or, from an outsider’s viewpoint, the sheer oddballness of the program. You do, after all, flip giant tractor tires from time to time.

What we do know is there is no defining it.

“Describing CrossFit is really hard,” said Tracey Bethune, owner and head trainer at the recently-opened CrossFit in Johnson City, located at 2909 E. Oakland Ave.

“We do Olympic lifts mixed with conditioning,” Bethune said. “The workout is different every day. Basically, we try to get as much work done in a given amount of time over many different varieties of exercises.

“We don’t master one particular area, we try to excel in everything.

“(CrossFit) is just so neat,” she added. “There’s nothing like it in the world. It’s a total niche.”

Bethune, like Glassman a former gymnast, took to the program in 2007 after a Marine recruiter approached her at a combat class she was teaching in Paris, Tenn. Within three months, she opened her own gym — or box, as it is known in CrossFit circles.

CrossFit Paris Landing now is home to 50-plus members. CrossFit JC, open a month, has more than 20 addicts already.

A lesson in functionality, workouts rely on minimal equipment and are designed for application in the real world — don’t expect to see any Nautilus machines.

Most workouts combine gymnastics, weight lifting and sprinting. You do it hard. You do it fast.

You then, most likely, sprawl out on the floor searching for air.

“It will change your life,” David Chambers said. “There’s nothing that compares.”

Chambers, 40, a deputy sheriff with the Washington County Sheriff’s Office, would know.

A year ago, Chambers weighed nearly 300 pounds. He now clocks in at a tidy 198.

Chambers did CrossFit on his own — another benefit of Glassman’s Web site — until the opening of CrossFit Johnson City. He’s been there ever since.

“The people that CrossFit are a small group compared to other gyms, and we’re all suffering together so we become really tight group,” Chambers said. It’s almost like a family.

“I don’t know, it’s the whole subculture and extreme nature of it that I’m drawn to.”

Mike Scalf experienced the extreme nature first-hand Tuesday.

Scalf, 35, recently shed 40 pounds and felt he was in reasonable shape beforehand. Then came his inaugural CrossFit workout, the aptly-named “Filthy Fifty.”

“Unbelievable,” Scalf said afterward, sweat pouring from his brow. “That was intense. I used to work out hard when I was mountain biking, but nothing like this.”

Comprised of 50 repetitions of 10 exercises — including pull-ups, walking lunges and shoulder presses — Filthy Fifty is one of the most daunting WODs in CrossFit’s sadistic arsenal.

Still, Scalf wasn’t fazed. In fact, it appears he’s ready for Day 2.

“This smokes a regular gym workout,” Scalf said. “I’ll be back — if I don’t die first.”

My first day was equally memorable.

An 800-meter run followed by 30 kettlebell swings — swinging a weighted cannonball with a handle over your head — and 30 pull-ups. Five rounds of this?

I made it through three before my body simply stopped responding.

A brief sweat-induced coma ensued. But the next day, despite the pain, I was back in the fray.

I have been till this day.

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