CrossFit: Short, Intense, Effective and Cool

My daughter, who has run triathlons and marathons, let me come observe her CrossFit class in Bend, Oregon. With two kids and demanding work hours, she found herself not always having the time to go on one or more hour runs so was looking for an alternative that maintains fitness in less time. The Bend CrossFit is located in a warehouse outfitted with lots of chin up bars, free weights, kettlebells, still rings for arm dips, crunch back supporters and other basic, first rate training gear. I liked it immediately because it had the feel of a place where people go to exercise hard, not smell the ferns, share stock tips and drink carrot juice.

As anyone who reads this blog knows, there's a paradigm shift underway as to what is the best combination of exercise to maintain and improve fitness. Since the running boom started in the 60's, exercise, especially for cardio benefits and endurance, was synonymous with aerobics. However, in the mid-90's, the near cult of aerobics started to come under scientific scrutiny.

One of the first to produce evidence to challenge aerobics was Izumi Tabata, a physiologist at at Japanese institute, who proved that a person sprinting for 20 seconds at high intensity, then resting for 10 seconds, then sprinting again for 20 seconds, resting again for 10 seconds, and repeating this pattern for a total of only 4 minutes improved in both VO2 max., a key measure of cardio capacity, and in anaerobic capacity far beyond persons who run 1o times as much at a slower (aerobic) speed. (Go here to find out more about Tabata and his training routines because they are worthwhile.)

However, since the 90's, the empirical studies about exercise have gone way beyond Tabata's narrowly focused study. In many ways, CrossFit, a trademarked name for a system, is a culmination of those studies. When you visit their web site, you'll see that they intend to provide a comprehensive system that includes not only cardio benefits, but strength, stamina, balance, power, and flexibility. The system really places an emphasis on functional strength and endurance, what you need in everyday life and as the foundation for any athletic discipline. This TOJ was especially attracted to the truth in this line in the website: "The needs of Olympic athletes and our grandparents differ by degree not kind." That is at the heart of a TOJ's philosophy.

One of the first things you notice at a CrossFit class is that people are warming up seriously. I saw people stretching, running brisk laps around the building, doing sit ups and pull ups, dropping into squats, starting to bead up with sweat. People said hello to one another, but they quickly got absorbed with preparation. The CrossFit gym seems pretty B.S. free. Another thing you notice is that most of the people look already lean and muscular (people not as fit could find intimidating, but wouldn't for long because fitness comes fast at that intensity level).

The class was conducted by two trainers who looked like they walked the talk and were nice enough to say hello and introduce themselves when I came in. They called everybody together and outlined the day's workout, which is always deceptively simple, very strenuous and done in the shortest time in which the athlete/person can complete the entire routine. The routine that day was 10 sets of 10 sit ups, 10 squats, 10 pull ups, and 10 dips. Routines change each session to work different muscles and provide variety. Usually people attend a class 3-5 times a week.

When the trainers looked at the stop watch and said start, the dozen participants went to various apparatus and worked out continuously. No talk, no breaks, lots of grunts and hard breathing, a little water for a couple of them. The trainers would go around and help correct posture, get someone settled into an assistance band (dips and pull up equipment had elastic foot loops to help those still who needed assistance to lift their full body weight that number of reps), and encourage the good effort being made, especially in those last few reps that looked like killers.

One by one each of them completed the routine, usually between 20 and 25 minutes. When one of the guys came to get his water bottle near where I was standing, I said, "Looks like fun."

He smiled and said, "It really is, when it's over."

This TOJ believes him. There are lots of fads in the exercise business, but this isn't one of them. They are on to something.

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