In a garage-sized gym on Northwest Overton Street, I'm reliving my sixth-grade gym class.
The workout group at Recreate Fitness has just warmed up by skipping hopscotch, doing pull-ups on gymnastic rings and passing a ball back and forth as we ran around the block. Now, under the watchful eye of gym co-owner Tina Jeffers, I'm hoisting a sand-filled, 16-pound medicine ball over my sweaty head, slamming it to the floor and squatting to pick it up again. Next to me, a young blond woman heaves another medicine ball up at a big black X on the wall, while a well-muscled guy swings a kettlebell—a sort of cannonball with a handle, long used in Russian bodybuilding—between his legs. Part of me loved the aggression release, but part of me was thinking: This is the hot new workout routine everybody's talking about?
The workout at Recreate Fitness was a softcore version of a punishing regimen known as CrossFit, which uses short, intense workouts with simple equipment—or no equipment—to pound out superfit athletes who are, in CrossFit creator Greg Glassman's words, "equal parts gymnast, Olympic weightlifter and sprinter."
Glassman, a personal trainer and former gymnast based in Santa Cruz, Calif., began developing the CrossFit program three decades ago, but it was the launch of Crossfit.com in 2001 that started pumping it up to a fitness phenomenon with more than 450 gyms around the country (and a few abroad) certified for training, three of them in Portland. Packed with video, message boards and links to affiliate gyms (along with the occasional right-wingnut link from Glassman), the site is a celebration of extending the limits of human capacity: As one T-shirt puts it, "Your Workout Is Our Warm-up."
As The New York Times reported in 2005, however, other CrossFit T-shirts have illustrated the danger in ignoring human limits. "Pukey the Clown" shows some participants' bomb-it-'til-you-vomit workout approach. Pukey is downright cute compared with "Uncle Rhabdo," a cartoon clown with his guts hanging out—a reference to the handful of people who have worked out so hard in CrossFit that they suffered rhabdomyolysis, a life-threatening condition in which the byproducts of muscle breakdown poison the kidneys.
Still, every day thousands of Spartans across the country check the homepage for the workout of the day, completing it as quickly as possible and often posting their times. A recent WOD (as the CrossFitters call it) was 21 deadlifts of a 225-pound barbell, followed by 21 handstand push-ups, followed by 15 of each, followed by nine of each; the fastest time posted was 3 minutes 37 seconds.
If that sounds like a workout conceived by a sadistic drill sergeant, there's a reason. A big factor in CrossFit's growth is its popularity with members of the military, police officers and firefighters, who say the workouts give them the extra speed, strength and agility they need for their dangerous jobs.
Janet Woodside, the Portland Fire Bureau's wellness coordinator, says there's strong interest in CrossFit training among Portland's firefighters. "They keep asking me for kettlebells," she says. While city rules prevent the bureau from associating with any particular CrossFit gym—"we'd have to let in every club in the city"—Woodside says the bureau is rustling up the $1,000 fee to get CrossFit certification for a firefighter who could then conduct trainings for the fire stations.
The chosen trainer is Kris Rotan, a firefighter and ultramarathoner who has been a CrossFit enthusiast for eight months. Rotan sees a direct relationship between CrossFit's broad "functional training" and the duties of a firefighter. "The full body core workout is exactly what we're doing when we're on a roof swinging an ax, or when we're dragging the hose through a building," she says.
Along with about a dozen other firefighters, Rotan trains at a 5,000-square-foot cavern on Northeast Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard called CrossFit Human Evolution Labs, which unapologetically embodies the macho-mystical philosophy that drives athletes to push themselves beyond their limits. Above CrossFit HEL's doorway is a Dante-esque warning, from the French poet Alfred de Musset: "Man is the student, pain is the teacher."
The gym's owner and head coach, Kevin Aillaud, is a former Navy midshipman and water-polo player who began his personal training career helping his shipmates pass the fitness exam. Like CrossFit nationally, he began by targeting that clientele; he estimates that 20 to 30 of CrossFit HEL's 65 members are in the military, police or firefighting field. In order to earn their camo tee reading "Recruit"—the first level of achievement, in a progression that proceeds from "Basic" up to "Mutant"—athletes have to first go through a monthlong "boot camp" to learn the techniques and ready the body (the meal plan based on the Zone diet, for instance, nixes alcohol and caffeine).
On the night I visited the gym, Aillaud swapped in a particularly challenging workout (see sidebar and video at wweek.com). Three men and two women, who looked like they had about a pound of fat to share among them, tore through the tasks, from "burpees" (a combination push-up and squat-thrust) to sprints to barbell lunges, box jumps and pull-ups, along with the now-familiar kettlebell swings, "wall ball" and "slam ball." They were obviously pushing themselves hard, but no one appeared to sacrifice safe technique for the sake of time; if they faltered, they took a moment, adjusted and tried it again.
Of course, a certain amount of instructive pain is a given. "You don't want to shake anyone's hand around here, because we're always bleeding," said snowboarder and dental hygienist Sally Altree, displaying callused hands ravaged by the lifting and pull-ups.
Mike Mangan, a 31-year-old snowboarder and law student who has been doing CrossFit for a year, says it isn't for everyone. "If you don't understand your body enough to compete within your own limits," he says, "there's a danger you're going to hurt yourself."
Dr. Kerry Kuehl, an associate professor of medicine and co-director of the Human Performance Laboratory at Oregon Health & Science University, agrees.
"High-intensity athletes use CrossFit training, and that's good for them," he says, "but for the general population, no, it's not good. Only 20 percent of the population exercise enough to get cardiovascular benefit…and CrossFit training is not appropriate for a sedentary or low-fit individual." Try a daily 20-minute walk instead, Kuehl suggests, emphasizing the importance of keeping your heart rate within a safe range, whatever your fitness level.
So is CrossFit out for everyone but the superhuman fit-freaks? Not necessarily. Our city has a way of putting its own stamp on national trends—even militaristic, overly gung-ho, vaguely cultish ones.
Scott Hagnas co-owns CrossFit Portland, the city's first affiliate club, which caters to athletes from adventure sports such as climbers and kayakers. "We put a Portland spin on our CrossFit," says Hagnas, who last year quit the post office after 19 years to coach full-time. "Not a lot of machismo around here. And Mr. Rhabdo stays outside."
Xi Xia, another co-owner, chimes in: "This is open-source fitness. People can build on it and make it what they want."
Like, say, skipping hopscotch and playing catch with a big medicine ball?
"We really want people for the long haul," says Recreate Fitness' Jeffers, who started the gym with her husband, Nathan, last November. "We're not looking to burn people out right away.
"At the end of the day, it's just a workout."
Ian Gillingham's workout, May 8:
21, 15 and 9 reps each of a 10-lb. wall ball, 16-lb. ball slams, 25-lb kettlebell swings
Mike Mangan's workout, May 8:
20 hang, squat, clean, lunge (x2) split jerk (95 lb.)
30 box jumps (24 in.)
30 wall ball shots (10% body weight)
20 hang, squat, snatch, overhead lunge (x2) (45 lb.)
20 slam ball (20 lb.)
30 kettlebell swings (61.6 lb)
Check out the Workout of the Day at crossfit.com. Recreate Fitness, 1925 NW Overton St., Suite 101, 243-5644, recreatefitness.blogspot.com. $15 drop-in, $120 pack of 10 classes, $115/month unlimited. CrossFit Portland, 3228 SE 21st Ave., 360-600-2333, www.crossfitportland.com. $15 drop-in, $100 unlimited, $60 one-on-one. CrossFit Human Evolution Labs, 4830 NE Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., 503-522-0233, crossfithel.com. Prices undisclosed.