CrossFit may be the latest thing in fitness, but it's also a throwback to an era of medicine balls, calisthenics and free weights.
Maybe that's why CrossFit gyms throughout the country count among their aficionados a growing number of older athletes looking for a different — and perhaps better — way to stay in shape.
"We have more than a few older athletes," said Justin Marcis, 33, owner of a CrossFit gym in Chicago. "Our oldest is 74, and the great thing about what we do and how we approach fitness is that nobody is excluded. Everybody can do everything.
"A 74-year-old woman does everything that everybody else is doing. But instead of having 250 pounds on the bar, maybe it's 35 pounds on the bar. Instead of pull-ups, maybe it's jump-up pull-ups."
So what exactly is CrossFit?
The Crossfit.com Web site describes the fitness philosophy this way: "Our program delivers a fitness that is, by design, broad, general and inclusive. Our specialty is not specializing. Combat, survival, many sports, and life reward this kind of fitness and, on average, punish the specialist. … The needs of Olympic athletes and our grandparents differ by degree not kind."
Specifically, CrossFit combines a wide variety of daily workouts intended to build strength, agility and endurance. A daily workout might include traditional and Olympic weight lifting exercises, such as the deadlift, clean, squat, clean and jerk or snatch. CrossFit champions this kind of strength training, because it exercises a number of muscle groups as opposed to machines in health clubs that often work isolated muscles.
Additionally, CrossFit workouts include basic exercises that were part of gym class in a bygone era: pull-ups, dips, rope climb, push-ups, sit-ups, burpees. CrossFitters also run. Sometimes it's a simple 5k; other times it's a series of sprints, such as a handful of near all-out 400-meter runs over a 20-minute period.
"It's never boring," said Marcis. "Our gym members have no idea what's going to be up tomorrow."
"Routine is the enemy," said Tony Budding, a CrossFit spokesperson. "We keep our workouts short and intense."
CrossFitters can participate in these varied workouts by joining a CrossFit gym, which are opening across the world. In July 2005, there were 13 CrossFit affiliates, according to the company. Now there are more than 1,850.
The gyms tend to be spare affairs with free weights and pull-up bars and ropes hanging from the ceiling. Members say the gyms are full of camaraderie. Unlike health clubs where members are often pursuing individual workouts, CrossFitters do the same workout together – although at different intensities.
"A lot of these people are steely competitors," said Brian Curley, 50, who lives in Boston and works out at Windy City New England, won the Masters title at the CrossFit Games in July. [SEE SIDEBAR]. "But they're also the first people to help out. When they're finished with their workout, they're standing cheering on the other people who are working out. It's just such a cool atmosphere."
For those inclined for solitary workouts, daily workouts are posted at CrossFit.com. The company said that the number of daily visitors to the site has increased from about 5,000 in July 2005 to 100,000 now.
In a recent week, the daily workouts posted at CrossFit.com included:
•Deadlift (15 repetitions), 20 box jumps and 25 pull ups, a series repeated five times
•00 pull-ups, 100 push-ups, 100 sit-ups, 100 squats
• 5k run
•Snatch 135 pounds (30 repetitions)
•A rest day
Skip Chase is 58 and has been a fitness instructor for much of his adult life. Before he found CrossFit, he set a world record for the most sit-ups using an abdominal frame performed in a 24-hour period: 110,912.
But Chase, who owns two CrossFit gyms in Washington (State), doesn't think he was ever really in shape until he found CrossFit. "I could never get my client to where they wanted to get," he said. "I couldn't get where I wanted to be either."
But a few weeks after quietly starting CrossFit, Chase stepped out of the shower. His wife got an eyeful of his new physique. "She said, 'Oh my gosh, what have you been doing? You're so lean,'" he said.
Chase dismisses his sit-ups record as proof he was in shape before CrossFit. "The record required far more mental strength than physical strength," he said. "I was functionally unfit and unable to sprint around the yard. For years prior to CrossFit I attempted to trim off body fat and get my weight to less than 185 (pounds).
"I failed, and I was a fitness director. Today, thanks to CrossFit, I weigh 165 — my weight upon graduation from high school."
CrossFit focuses on "functional movement," movements that people do every day. A squat is the motion of getting in and out of a chair; jumping onto a box is like climbing stairs; and a deadlift is like picking up a sack of groceries.
"We don't do any sport-specific training," Marcis said. "We're not going to have you dribble a basketball. But we can get you more fit to jump higher, get lower on defense and play stronger in the post."
Curley, who treats CrossFit as his sport these days, does play an occasional round of golf for his job (he is the president of a small business). "It sounds weird, but after CrossFit I'm hitting my drives about 20 yards longer."
Fitness put to the test
CrossFit staged its fourth annual CrossFit Games in Carson, Calif., in July. The event is intended to crown the fittest man and woman in the world.
Like the rest of CrossFit, the event is growing. In 2007, the inaugural games had 70 participants and about 200 spectators. This year about 6,000 athletes competed in the sectionals, regionals and finals, and there were about 12,000 total spectators.
This year's games also featured for the first time a Masters division for men and women 50 and older, a tacit acknowledgement of CrossFit's appeal to older athletes. Laurie Carver, 50, from Redmond, Wash., won the women's division, and Brian Curley, 50, from Boston won the men's division.
The championship consisted of three workouts, two completed on the Friday of the event and a final one on Sunday. Saturday was a rest day.
"It is brutal," Curley said.
The first workout is nicknamed Nancy. Competitors completed a 400-meter run followed by 15 repetitions of an overhead squat with 95 pounds. Then they repeated the run and the weight lifting sequence four more times.
Carver placed second in the women's division in that workout, finishing in 14 minutes, 13 seconds. Curley also finished second in the men's division at 13:50.
The second workout was pure strength: the deadlift. Carver hoisted 260 pounds to place third. Curley lifted 405 pounds to finish sixth.
The third workout, on Sunday, was nicknamed Fran. It consisted of 95-pound thrusters in which competitors lift the barbell over their head and move from a squat position to a standing position for a number of reps and then pull-ups. The first round was 21 repetitions of each; the second 15 repetitions and the third 9.
Carver finished that workout in 5:36 seconds. Curley finished in 4:39.
After winning, Carver was already looking forward to next year, the next challenge. "I've done triathlons, marathons," she said. "I'm always looking for something that could really challenge me, that could really kick my butt."