What CrossFit Is Really Like

Last night at Amity CrossFit. In the parking lot, owner/coach Aaron Ryan is working one-on-one with a young woman going through her first CrossFit class. I watched for about 10 minutes as he carefully taught her how to safely do a kettlebell swing, encouraging her gently the entire way.
Last night at Amity CrossFit. In the parking lot, owner/coach Aaron Ryan is working one-on-one with a young woman going through her first CrossFit class. I watched for about 10 minutes as he carefully taught her how to safely do a kettlebell swing, encouraging her gently the entire way.

There’s been a flurry of reporting on CrossFit in the last few weeks appearing on the likes of Salon.com, NPR’s website and Medium.com asserting a number of rather sensationally negative conclusions about the increasingly popular strength and conditioning program.

Assertions including: CrossFit reflects America’s militarism (??), CrossFit is racist and CrossFit has a “Dirty Little Secret” in regards to rhabdomylosis, a condition of muscle breakdown that has long been associated with CrossFit.

Eric Robertson, a physical therapist who wrote the rhabdo story for Medium, writes:

My prediction: in a few years, the peer-reviewed scientific literature will be ripe with articles about CrossFit and Rhabdomyolysis.

The number of CrossFit gyms has exploded to well over 4000 around the world, up from   the one that existed ten years ago. If there’s an epidemic of rhabdomylosis, where are the numbers? Robertson has no actual numbers in terms of cases. He has the story from a colleague who contracted it from a workout. Have CrossFitters had rhabdo? I’m sure. So have Ironman triathletes I imagine, but I don’t have actual numbers for either. I’ve been doing CrossFit for more than two years and I’ve done some pretty tough workouts. Yet I have never had rhabdo and have yet to hear about any of my cohorts getting rhabdo.

Furthermore, I am unaware of anyone dying from CrossFit-inflicted rhabdo. What do I know? Let’s take a relatively less intense exercise choice like cycling. In 2011, 677 Americans got killed in bike accidents and 38,000 got hurt. Oddly enough, I was one that was not accounted for as that was the year I took a bad spill on my mountain bike and have a scar on my forehead to remind me. The total cost of injury and death in cycling cost $4 billion per year, according to bicyclinginfo.org.

I love riding a bike, but there’s a risk. There’s also a risk in running: 82% of runners come down with at least one injury per year.

Then there’s the cost of not exercising. A number for Robertson to consider within his argument: 25.8 million. That’s the number of American children and adults who we know have Type-2 diabetes. That’s 8.3 percent of the population that could profoundly benefit from an exercise and diet regimen. Without diet and exercise they face a growing risk of other chronic diseases. Does it have to be CrossFit? Of course not. But what CrossFit does offer is a supportive atmosphere, education and coaching to help a person get there. It’s hard, but it’s remarkably fast and effective. It is for everyone? Nothing is for everyone. But a lot of people like it.  And as far as the risk of rhabdo,  I have yet to meet someone who has suffered from rhabdo. I have met a growing number of people who have beat back obesity by joining and participating in a CrossFit program.

Irene Mejia started CrossFit when she was 405 pounds. Not only has she remade herself in terms of health and fitness, she's closing in on working out at her 100th different CF box.
Irene Mejia started CrossFit when she was 405 pounds. Not only has she remade herself in terms of health and fitness, she’s closing in on working out at her 100th different CF box. To my knowledge, she hasn’t had rhabdo. But there’s no doubt she’s drawn some value from CrossFit. Mejia has more widespread knowledge than I do about what’s really going on in CrossFit. Robertson should talk to her before he writes another warning about the program.

Another thing that irks me is when someone like Robertson writes a story without actually stepping into a CrossFit gym. He does some Googling and talks to his friend. Why didn’t he stop in one and talk to the coaches and athletes to get some on-the-ground reporting? If he did he didn’t mention it.

For those that wonder what a CrossFit gym is really like, let me say this: There are all sorts, there are good gyms and there are bad gyms, but it’s worth finding a good one and trying it out if you’re interested in optimum health and fitness.

This is what one sort of gym is really like. Right now I’m a member of Amity CrossFit, a gym that is owned and operated by Aaron Ryan. Ryan employs two coaches, Zack Height and Liz Spragens. The gym, on El Camino Real, is one of Palo Alto’s remnants from the WWII era, a corrugated metal structure called a Quonset hut. As fellow member Chris Polonchek and agreed on a couple weeks back, it’s (for us anyway) it’s an oasis in the austere world of Palo Alto/Silicon Valley.

It’s quintessential CrossFit: an old school gym with basic equipment and good coaches. Everyone is friendly. The coaches are knowledgeable and–unlike the popular image of CrossFit–they don’t act like drill sergeants. In fact, they coach newcomers to ease slowly into the program. “It’s funny,” Ryan said to me the other day. “You often get people starting the program that want workouts that will make them really sore. We tell them it’s much better to adapt progressively into the training. We try to slow them down. Getting really sore in your first week of training isn’t going to help you toward your goal.”

Ryan, Height and Spragens are all quite calm with their coaching. They don’t yell. They watch their clients perform the movements and give them cues to improve. They encourage them in the conditioning workouts. They answer questions about technique and nutrition. They have the extreme challenge of helping me with my rather sad Olympic lifting efforts.

Right now, the gym is participating in the Whole Life Challenge, an 8-week program that challenges participants to improve their diets, build an exercise habit and attend to things like hydration and proper sleep. It started back in early September. It has worked almost too well for me. My fiancé said this to me a few days ago: “You’re a totally different person. I like you better. You can’t go back to eating sugar.” In other words, I may have had my last Oreo cookie. I’ve lost seven pounds, am sleeping better, and at the end of the challenge I’ll see how much I’ve improved as far as performance fitness.

Liz Spragins coaching the 6:30 class. We had about 10 show for the 5:30. No one got rhabdo.
Liz Spragens coaching the 6:30 class. We had about 10 show for the 5:30. No one got rhabdo.

I’m also going to be taking a blood test at the end of the challenge to see how much I’ve improved my cholesterol profile, which–no doubt because I let my diet slip in the last year–was alarming enough that the doctor said I should get proactive about things.

So that’s my personal anecdotal story about why alarmists like Robertson should look a little deeper before making predictions. And Robertson should drop into a gym like Amity  CrossFit or CrossFit Elysium and talk to a few people. He might expand his perceptions.

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In Inside the Box, veteran journalist and marathoner T.J. Murphy goes all in to expose the gritty, high-intensity sport of CrossFit®. From staggering newcomer to evangelist, Murphy finds out how it feels, why it’s so popular, and whether CrossFit can fix his broken body.

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