Fit for Change
Much of CrossFit’s exploding global movement was first flexed locally.
Thursday, January 21, 2010
At 6 in the morning on this dead-end Sand City street, it’s dark. The air carries the sea and its salt, but the seagulls are still asleep. A handful of locals – a builder, a trainer and a radio host among them – appear at a lit doorway, shake nocturnal dust from their domes, run a quarter mile through the urban dawn, then return to the converted half of Worley Iron Works.
CrossFit Monterey’s new high-ceilinged home is a blue-collar spot wedged between blacksmiths and mechanics. Later, a thick pit bull named Blue will arrive for work with his master and wind his way past disabled trucks and souped-up motorcycles over to the gym. The setting feels appropriate. “Our neighbors build and fix machines,” staffers are fond of saying. “We build and fix machines.”
The assembled machines grip iron bars for perfect-form pull-ups, drop to the rubberized surface for push-ups, squeeze out squats that touch butts to Achilles’ tendons. Following these fluid warm-ups, they plunge into the ever-changing, infinitely variable workout of the day, or WOD (pronounced “wad”), which are often named after male military and public safety heroes who died in the field – or women, because, as regulars like to quote CrossFit’s founder as saying, “they’ll leave you flat on your back and breathless.” Today’s WOD: a half-mile run, 50 sit-ups, 100 jump-rope “double unders,” and 50 iterations of a core-crunching exercise in which athletes hanging from a chin-up bar lift their knees to touch both of their elbows. The tasks are completed in order and as quickly as possible, with any reps that don’t reach the full range of motion going uncounted. The total time will be recorded, often memorized. The sequence will be accompanied by some cursing.
: : : :Everywhere from Mumbai, India, to Montgomery, Ala.; Anchorage, Alaska, to Wollongong, Australia, CrossFit gyms have athletes sucking wind after WODs. The original CrossFit outpost got its start closer to home, though – just across the marine canyon from Sand City.
Greg Glassman is a former collegiate gymnast who enjoyed lifting weights and competitive cycling, who knew from experience the multiplier benefits of robust cross-training and felt increasingly frustrated with what he saw as suspect in his field as a personal trainer: defining fitness as the appearance of a muscle. It seemed inherently unrealistic – life was more functional. As one CF rep says, “biceps don’t pick up a box,” a complex of muscles and tendons do. Machines that do the movement for you exclude the dexterity that comes from completing it.
He began tinkering with his regimens, adding exercises incorporating gymnastic balance and coordination in new ways and with increasing intensities. After getting bounced from several traditional gyms because he had his clients jumping up on benches, dropping weights on the ground and collapsing loudly in corners, he eventually secured his own Santa Cruz garage where he laid the foundation for a phenomenon.
His philosophy: The fittest folks aren’t the ones who can bench the most or run the longest, but those who can perform beautifully no matter what life throws at them. (“The unknown and the unknowable,” in CrossFit speak.)
He schooled his students in the 10 general skills exercise physiologists agree upon – endurance, stamina, strength, flexibility, power, coordination, agility, balance and accuracy – and the wildly diverse lineup of activities that would access them: deadlifts and dips, squats and snatches, handstands and holds, rope climbs and rowing, biking and swimming. Max weights. Low weights. High reps. A couple reps. Six-time IronMan Mark Allen’s a good athlete, Glassman argued, but his expertise is too narrow. Get him to do a handstand on the rings. Have him deadlift 500 pounds.
“Fitness,” says CrossFit Monterey coach Russ Greene, “is being as good as possible at as many different things as possible.”
“Our specialty,” CFM’s website reads, “is not specializing.”
Every skill is quantified as each task is timed, weighed and recorded: Empirical obsession, they reason, distills what works best. Results speak for themselves.
CF’s reputation rose as elite police academies, special ops teams and martial-arts academies started adopting many of its aspects as core training. An ambitious but abstract philosophy grew more explicit as WODs and followers accumulated.
“The science is in the explanation,” says CrossFit Director of Fitness Dave Castro, a Watsonville High alum. “The magic is in the movements, and the art is in the [workout] programming.”
A website launch in 2001 allowed individuals to share CrossFit WODs and compare results, and helped colonize affiliates who were free to deploy whatever training translated to top performance. But only in the last few years has the expansion gotten explosive. In 2007, there were around 100 affiliates. Today, despite a less-than-ideal atmosphere for starting small businesses, there are more than 1,500.
The expansion of the movement’s Mecca event, meanwhile, is just as breathtaking, not unlike WODs like “Angie” (a benchmark bout of 100 pull-ups, push-ups, sit-ups and squats, in order, for time) and “X-mas” (where you might see Jesus). But neither is quite as surprising as where the CrossFit Games happen: namely, one of the most obscure and unpopulated corners of Monterey County.
: : : :The Highway 101-adjacent anthill of Aromas has 3,000 residents – not counting the llama often seen taking morning walks with its owner. When the fourth annual CrossFit Games come to town this summer, the population will likely triple overnight.
It was 2007, when Glassman was visiting Castro at his family’s rambling ranch, that they recognized the potential playground for what he called the Woodstock of CrossFit.
“He told me, ‘I’ve always had this dream,’” Castro says, “and we decided, ‘Let’s just do it.’”
Year one, 70 athletes responded to a simple open registration invite online. Day one, they plucked three activities at random from a hopper filled with a massive range of fitness yardsticks: Competitors had to row 1,000 meters, then lift 165 pounds from shoulders to overhead 10 times (a “push-press”; ladies lifted less), and follow with 25 pull-ups – then complete four more sets of push presses and pull-ups (125 pull-ups total) – as quickly as possible. A 3K through the hot and steep North County hills followed. Day two demanded a max shoulder press, dead lift and back squat. After hoisting around a half-ton across the three events, a Canadian claimed the men’s crown – and a CrossFit slogan, “The sport of fitness,” came to a little fuller fruition.
In ’08, outrage from the excluded encouraged CrossFit to reopen a competitor list they had capped at 100 – and 200 more signed up in 24 hours.
More than 1,200 spectators showed. “‘This might be bigger than we thought,’” Castro remembers thinking. “We knew at that point this was larger than one event.”
Last year they staged 16 regionals; for the final, 75 female and 75 male qualifiers ultimately descended from as far off as Australia and Iraq to compete individually and on affiliate teams.
CFM coach Greene weighs his words as carefully as the proteins and carbs he eats, but he doesn’t hesitate to predict a continued crescendo. “I think it will be bigger than the X Games,” he says.
Castro agrees. “In five to seven years I think we can have a series of events around the globe, like the PGA or NASCAR,” he says, “with professional competitors where that’s all they do.”
: : : :CrossFit is about all Jacob “Bullfrog” Tsypkin does. “I have no social life,” he says.
Greene counts the 21-year-old Tsypkin, a garrulous Pacific Grove product and longtime martial artist, among the two or three students who have abandoned most everything else out there once inhabited with the CrossFit itch. After a week with Greene (“He spent five days trying to kill me,” Tsypkin says) and several months of training, Tsypkin dropped out of junior college to take a job at coaching the approach at a Virginia affiliate, where he found his current business partner Ryan Charles.
The two came here and were soon dragging dumbbells to Larkin Park in Monterey. When a bluehair razed them for conducting unpermitted activities, infant CrossFit Monterey hit the streets – in front of Tsypkin’s parents’ home on Syida Drive in P.G. For seven weeks they grunted on the Pagrovian pavement and La Mesa Elementary School fields before spending about a year in their first Sand City home. After bars were welded to the walls and rings hung from above, their new space opened last month.
On New Year’s Eve Tsypkin helped host a gym gathering, to set personal records (PRs) in dozens of disciplines like clean and jerk, deadlift and mean-ass “muscle-ups.” He’s taken to applying the empirical approach to his showers and tooth-brushing times (best: 1:35, for brushing, soaping and rinsing, he swears). And, like virtually every CrossFitter I’ve encountered, he’s got two things going: A willingness to talk about the fitness pursuit endlessly (“How much time do you have?”), and a tick-like tendency to grunt depressing things like, “That WOD was miserable” or “Damn that sucked” – while grinning like a hyena in heat.
“The only time I don’t love CrossFit,” he says, “is the 20 minutes when I’m doing it.”