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Two floors above a bustling street in Midtown Manhattan, a group of incredibly fit men and women at CrossFit NYC are training—seemingly—for the military.
Roars of anguish and slamming of barbells echo across the mirror-barren room. A petite blonde turns a questionable shade of red as she squats her weight with a pipe while a determined-looking fellow attempts handstand pushups a few feet away. Everyone wears facial expressions of extreme exertion.
"When you see it for the first time, you think CrossFit is about doing physically impossible exercise," says trainer Peter Reilly, 24. "But what's amazing about this place is that it takes people to bounds and measures they've never be able to accomplish. And they actually get to see results, and a lot faster too."
The CrossFit routine—consisting of varied movements at high intensity intervals for a specific period of time—started 14 years ago in founder Greg Glassman's garage. So why has the fitness crusade become so popular recently, with a current total of some 8,300 gyms in 97 different countries?
Reilly attributes its recent popularity to peoples' desire to try something new. Inside CrossFit "Black Boxes," you won't see treadmills, elliptical, or bikes but rather wooden jump boxes, kettlebells, gymnastic rings, tires, climbing ropes, and other oversize fitness toys not found at your standard athletic club.
"We know how to get people to move, we know how to coach them, and we know how to get them to their goals," 33-year-old Jimi Letchford, who works for CrossFit's marketing brand, told Racked. "We do any move and using anything functional: short duration, long, light weight, no weight, then heavy weight. We run, we jump, we throw, we push, we do dead lifts straight into pull-ups—these movements elicit tons of power."
Letchford believes CrossFit's groupthink element is a key factor to its success. The Black Boxes aren't open-style gyms, where anyone can show up and work out on solo. Instead, most CrossFit gyms are class-exclusive, where coaches train and lead members through the specified CrossFit routines. Letchford said this method creates a strong fitness community with a healthy amount of competition.
"CrossFit has the type of passion you won't find in a gym. How often do you work out a gym but everyone is wearing headphones and there is no accountability or interactions with others?" he asked. "We build a strong camaraderie and the competition is motivating. You suffer through the workout, but you know that you are suffering together."
The rise of CrossFit mirrors a greater trend in the fitness community. The old model of hitting the gym to run on a treadmill and lift weights is losing traction to movements like spinning, yoga, Zumba, and training for athletic competition games. It's clear that people are looking for new and fun ways to work out. Plus, there's also the fact that CrossFit seems to attract those that want to be alpha athletes.
"We certainly have a large demographic of strong, fit males in the firefighter, military sector but the workout is great for anyone that's looking to get in shape and get rid of fat," Reilly said.
Perhaps this image is what makes CrossFit seem somewhat daunting. Josh Newman, who owns CrossFit NYC (the movement's largest gym with 2,000 members and 450 classes a week) said the fear of Crossfit coincides with its success. Newman believes CrossFit has a cult reputation because people become obsessed with the excitement of doing things they've never been able to do.
"CrossFit has this negative reputation for being the hardest thing in the world, but 50 percent of our classes are actually for beginners," Newman said. "A lot of women see it as intimidating because they've never done serious weight-lifting, but we have trainers making sure the routines are as challenging as a person can handle. With most workouts, beginners look like assholes and then they look like pros. In our case, everyone looks like an asshole. In the same class, someone might be using a PVC pipe while someone else might be using 500 pounds, because the workouts are so scalable. They lie down at the floor at the end but they feel great!"
"We have women coming in all the time who say they've never been able to do a pull up. Six months later, they are banging pull ups out," Newman boasted.
With its success come allegations that the practice is dangerous. A blog post circulating on Medium earlier this year warned enthusiasts of CrossFit's "dirty little secret," a serious condition called Rhabdomyolysis where muscle cells explode if strained under extreme condition. The article cited several physical therapists blasting CrossFit's extreme practices, such as telling participants that things like an uncontrollable bladder and pushing your physical limits are okay.
But Letchford said part of the CrossFit ideology is learning competence and thresholds. "Anything unsafe comes from an individual doing something they are incapable of, or not learning to respect scaling," he said. "When you learn to surf, you're not going to paddle into a 50-foot wave because you know you don't initially have that ability. You need to work yourself up, respect your capabilities and only move on when you've absolutely perfected the level you're at."
Reilly said that as a trainer, he prides himself on teaching members good form and technique mobility. Before moving someone on to a heavier weight, he explained, he makes sure they are properly lifting through their knees and not their back. He also recommends members limit their work out to three to four times a week to allow their bodies to adjust.
"There definitely is a stigma of it being dangerous. What we do is a lot more physically demanding than what most people are used to. But if you look at the coaches teaching class, you'll see how focused we are on safety," Reilly said. "A dead lift, if not taught properly, is huge risk to lower back and hamstrings. We spend a lot of time before each class going over technique and make sure everyone is doing everything properly."