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A workout that's fast, furious and not for the faint of heart

CrossFit promises -- and delivers -- an intense blend of aerobic and strength training.

April 10, 2006|Roy M. Wallack | Special to The Times

I'm hyperventilating. Twelve minutes into what I thought was a simple, 20-minute workout of pull-ups, kettle bell swings and short-distance runs, I'm bent over with my hands on my knees, mouth wide open, head spinning, shoulders numb and torso heaving with giant belly breaths. I'm spent, I feel nauseated.

"Hurry up!" urges my trainer. "You're on the verge of being beaten by a 38-year-old housewife who is four months pregnant!" As a lifelong gym rat, endurance cyclist and runner, I thought I was fit -- until my first day of CrossFit, a free, fast-growing, largely underground workout plan that some say is rewriting the rules of fitness.

The conventional wisdom is that you can't accomplish aerobic and strength training at the same time, and that you certainly can't develop world-class fitness on 20 or 30 minutes a day. CrossFit says you can -- if you push hard enough.

CrossFit is extreme, intense cross-training that can be done with basic gym equipment -- in a group or alone -- both for general fitness and as a base for specific sports. It's been used for several years in law enforcement, firefighting and military circles; adherents have included members of the Miami FBI SWAT team, the Colorado State Patrol, the Jacksonville, Fla., Sheriff's Department, the Des Moines, Iowa, Police Department, the Honolulu Fire Department, the Orange County Fire Authority Academy and the Canadian Army. Now the program is exploding into the mainstream.

Eighty-four official trainers (double that of a year ago) teach CrossFit in major cities around the country. People who need to learn proper form -- or who simply need to be pushed -- can find a list of trainers on the website, The guy who put me through my paces, Santa Monica CrossFit affiliate Andy Petranek charges $25 for the initial session and $15 for repeat visits.

People who already know how to do the moves with proper form -- and who have no trouble with self-motivation -- can go straight to the workouts, posted free online every day.

The regimens are short and brutal, replacing ordinary weight lifting and steady-state aerobic training with mixed-up, amped-up, double-espresso workouts that leave you reeling -- and quickly begin melting fat, building muscle, increasing flexibility and giving you measurable increases in both aerobic capacity and strength.

CrossFit takes basic, functional-fitness exercises -- squats, push-ups, pull-ups, dips, dead-lifts, medicine ball throws and more -- emphasizes full range of motion (i.e. on a squat, lowering your rear-end to within a foot of the ground, then fully straightening your legs as you explode to a standing position), and adds short bursts of cardio. Then it throws them into a blender and flips the switch to "puree."

The mix, different day to day, blasts every muscle in your body while providing adequate recovery time for growth. The fast pace provides metabolic benefits that have been supported by at least two small studies.

CrossFit success stories are legion. Petranek says that two months of doing only the three-days-on/one-day-off "Workouts of the Day" (WODs) regimen raised his maximum pull-up count from 15 to 42 and dropped his 5K run time from 23:50 to 21 flat.

"And the only running I did the whole time were the quarter-mile runs in the WODs," he says.

Ed Korb, 34, a loan broker from Tustin, says four months of CrossFit dropped his 5K time by 3 minutes, 29 seconds while it raised his body weight from 150 to 164 -- "all muscle," he says.

Monrovia trainer Eric LeClair, 28, who started CrossFit in 2004 and began teaching it last year, gained 14 pounds and got faster in all his running events, including four minutes in the Camp Pendleton 10K Mud Run last year.

In my class, every one of Petranek's clients -- triathletes, runners, tennis players and those just out for general fitness -- said CrossFit had helped them lose fat, add muscle and get significantly faster and fatigue-resistant on less time.

The regimen also apparently works for world-class athletes. Olympic skier Jonna Mendes credits her recovery from a poor 2004 season to CrossFit.

Ultimate Fighting world champion Chuck "The Iceman" Liddell has been undefeated since he added CrossFit to his training regimen two years ago. "Chuck dreads CrossFit because it's the hardest part of his workout," says his trainer John Hackelman, who forced it on him, "but it has raised his all-body fitness levels so high that no one can stay with him."

That was exactly what Greg Glassman, 49, had in mind when he developed CrossFit at several L.A.-area Gold's Gyms in the 1980s. A former high school gymnast with a manic, fact-spewing speaking style and a pronounced limp from an old rings injury, Glassman would experiment with new exercises in order to give his police and firefighter clientele an edge.

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