Streetside: CrossFit, annotated by an outsider


Let me start by saying I’m not super-fit. I never have been. I never will be. I like cheeseburgers and chocolate, and my fries had better come with mayo. If my doctor saw me at a bar, she’d send me to detox. My version of a marathon involves Netflix and takeout.

So when I loudly told friends — and co-workers, and random people I met at shows and bars — that I was starting CrossFit, the response was a mix of amusement and concern. CrossFit, I was told, was for monstrously buff, protein shake–pounding freaks of nature. I didn’t even have enough muscles to open a jar, my roommate reminded me, laughing cruelly. How was I going to lift weights?

With a little research, I found the Fundamentals program at CrossFit Memorial Hill. There’s no shortage of CrossFit gyms around these parts, but for someone completely new to the workout, CFMH’s Fundamentals sounded like a good offer: For $100, I’d get 12 introductory classes that would go over the basics.

So, a few months ago, I went through the monthlong course. We reviewed the most basic movements — squats, situps, pushups — and more complicated lifting techniques. I learned about burpees (hellish combinations of squats, planks and jumping jacks in one move), double-unders (when the jump rope is supposed to miraculously pass under your feet twice in one jump) and wall balls (throwing a medicine ball against a wall and hoping it doesn’t give you a nosebleed on its way down).

All these things, I was told, were going to prepare me for the real CrossFit classes — these exercises but much faster and without the patient voice of Fundamentals coach Josh Snyder. (A monthly membership at CFMH costs $30-$150, depending on the package.) And after I got through Fundamentals, I did start taking those classes — twice a week, and then once a week. And then I’d take a week or two off. Once I skipped a month. Maybe a month and a half. I don’t know. Why are we counting?

When the summer heat took a break, I started to feel like I should be a functioning adult again. I returned to CMFH. It had been so long, I thought I needed a refresher course. I went to a 6:45 p.m. Tuesday Fundamentals class.

CFMH requires the Fundamentals program for everyone who wants to join the gym, regardless of skill level, so I was joined by five people, in varying shapes and sizes: two college-aged women who seemed to know each other; a tall, muscled guy who obviously had experience in weight training; a larger guy who wasn’t quite sure what to do with his limbs; and a svelte older woman.

“Today we’re doing squat therapy,” Snyder told us. He gestured to the whiteboard and walked us through the skills we would be learning: air squats, back squats, wall balls, slam balls. My brain translated this to sitting and throwing. No big deal.

“When I’m telling you, ‘Hey, drive your feet away from each other, keep your chest up, keep your butt reaching back,’ those are all conscious thoughts you need to have,” Snyder continued, his voice booming. “Movement is purposeful. I want you to feel the weight on the outside of your foot when you squat. If you don’t feel that, you need to make a mind-body connection and think about it. When you push your feet away, you should feel your glutes turn on. You should be conscious of every single little part of moving. That is building block number one.”

Snyder continued this speech as he corrected our postures and we worked through the exercises. I did goblet squats — squats with kettlebells — and felt kind of proud. Real quote from Snyder: “Shit, girl, have you been going to another gym?” Yes! Fitness goals were mine! I could feel my glutes activating, and they were on fire!

But the class wasn’t over.

“The next workout is an eight-minute AMRAP — as many rounds as possible — of this,” Snyder said, gesturing to the whiteboard. “Eight goblet squats, then eight situps, then eight wall balls. So squat, abs, squat. This is the part where I stop talking and you start sweating.” Snyder paused. “Questions on the next eight minutes of your life?”

Do I have to?

I did.

My eight-minute AMRAP wrapped at 7:46 p.m. My glasses were foggy. I may have popped an eardrum. Maybe I blacked out for a few seconds.

Snyder slapped the back of my sweat-soaked shirt. “Good job, girl! See you tomorrow, right?”

Sure, coach. Sure.

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I didn’t go the next day. I waited for my thighs to convert from gelatin back into human flesh. It took a couple of weeks. But this time, when I returned, I went for a Wednesday-afternoon CrossFit class with coach Matt Scanlon, co-owner of CFMH.

I stumbled into a workout built around squats and weightlifting. Scanlon called this “dynamic effort squat day.” Now, Fundamentals might have taught me how to work through an hour of weighted box squats, low-to-high box jumps, single-arm dumbbell full-cleans (squats with dumbbells) and burpees, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t want to die when it was over. The sticky, exhausted high-fives from my fellow CrossFitters assured me that I wasn’t alone.

Afterward, I lamented to Scanlon that, despite the soreness I would feel in the morning, I would probably never look like one of the toned, lean bodies that dominated his gym. (Admittedly, it would help if I kept a regular workout schedule.)

“The fitness industry is fucking terrible,” Scanlon told me. “There are so many assholes that are a part of it. The reality is that there is always going to be somebody that’s 5 or 10 percent fitter than you. The important part of this ecosystem is that everyone has somebody behind them that they’re pulling up, and that person has someone they’re looking up to, a goal they’re working toward. We’ve got a lady in here who’s going to give birth in a week. She’s doing a scaled CrossFit, but she’s here. She gives inspiration to our best athletes. Having all these different levels of people in here is crucial.”

He continued: “It’s functional movement. At the end of the day, it’s like, ‘Hey, did you go to the bathroom today? Cool, you could probably do everything that we do here.’ And that’s our goal when we talk about functional movement. We don’t differentiate between abilities.”

Two days after Scanlon’s class, I still needed to pound my thighs before I got in and out of my car. I told myself that this pain was muscle growth. I had a doughnut to congratulate myself.

Yes, guys. I’ll see you next week.

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