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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

When he spiced up their weight-lifting routines with gymnastics moves such as handstands and ring push-ups, he noticed pronounced gains in strength, flexibility and overall function and coordination. Then he added all-body fitness exercises like deep squat thrusts and medicine ball throws, and finally -- thinking that running was the most natural aerobic exercise -- added intervals. The fitness levels ramped up even more.

CrossFit and its three principles -- functionality, intensity and variety -- were born.

"It became clear that a single, blended workout of gymnastics, lifting and aerobics, done at an all-out pace, generated better all-round fitness than training each discipline separately on alternate days," says Glassman. " 'Segmented' trainers can't keep up with us on our workouts. CrossFitters may not be as strong as a pure lifter, or as fast as a pure runner, but we're better than them in everything else. And we can do more real-life stuff."

That message began to resonate with SWAT team members, Navy Seals and police. In 1995, hired to train the Santa Cruz Police Department, Glassman moved north, opened a gym, and developed more exercise routines.

In 2000, he started getting attention from the fitness world at large when he launched a website and began posting his various WODs. He gave them female names, such as "Helen," "Fran," and "Cindy," because they reminded him of hurricanes.

Glassman's theory of blended, all-out workouts gained some academic validity from a 1996 study published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise by Izumi Tabata of Japan's National Institute of Fitness and Sports. It showed that 20-second, all-out bursts of intermittent high-intensity training with little rest in between, similar in style to CrossFit, caused "significant" rises in both aerobic and anaerobic (strength) capacity.

"We already knew CrossFit was already doing that, but now thanks to Tabata we knew why metabolically," said Glassman. "The eggheads were pleased."

He's prouder of the pat on the back he got last summer from the Canadian Infantry School in Gagetown, New Brunswick, which conducted a seven-week trial of CrossFit versus its own rigorous Canadian Fitness Manual training plan. The results: CrossFit scored higher in every fitness category and was ranked more enjoyable by most of the 110 officer candidates tested.

"They found it challenging and pertinent to what we do in the military and enjoyed the competitive aspects," said test organizer Captain J.T. Williams.

He admitted, however, that a minority did not enjoy CrossFit's intensity or find its competitive aspects motivating. That was no surprise to Glassman, who says that 80% of the people who sign up for classes at his gym don't stick with it.

"It's too hard for them; many don't get turned on by competing -- with others or themselves," he says. "And some people just don't like working out so hard that they might puke" -- an involuntary reaction to the lactic acid that floods into the bloodstream with anaerobic workouts.

The irreverent Glassman celebrates the discomfort his workout can engender by selling a popular T-shirt featuring CrossFit's cartoon mascot, Pukie, a deranged clown spewing a stream of green bile.

On my first day, after I finished Helen (three rounds of 21 kettle bell swings, 12 pull-ups, and a quarter-mile run), I was so exhausted that I had to lie down in my car for half an hour. And that was with a time of 17 minutes, 35 seconds -- a minute behind the pregnant woman and more than double the Helen world record of 7:35, set by a Santa Cruz police officer.

Fortunately, your body gets somewhat used to and even energized by this stress, which Glassman says is "natural because it's the way we all played as kids."

Over the next two months of doing CrossFit three days a week, I cut three minutes off my Helen, saw gains in nearly all strength categories, and could ride a bike uphill noticeably faster than ever before.

And although I haven't soiled my tank top yet, I wear my Pukie shirt with pride. After you make it through a couple CrossFit workouts -- tossing your cookies or not -- you feel like you've earned it.

*

Andy Petranek can be reached at www.petranekfitness.com. For other trainers, go to www.crossfit.com.

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