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Recently, I feel like I can't escape it. My television, Facebook, Twitter, and life have been consumed by CrossFit. Everywhere I turn there is a workout picture posted here, an updated weight-loss status there, or an Instagram photo of a Paleo meal, taunting me and my poor lifestyle choices. Before last week I had never even stepped foot into a CrossFit gym, never tirelessly checked my email for the next day's WOD (workout of the day), or performed even one burpee.
But for whatever reason, this relatively new fitness movement has garnered a "cult" following, taking the airways, the Internet, the nation, and the shoreline of Connecticut by storm. So I set out to uncover what all the commotion and status updates were about.
What is CrossFit?
CrossFit is a fitness company founded and created by Greg and Lauren Glassman, whose workout program is carried out in an estimated 3,400 affiliated gyms nationwide. According to CrossFit.com, the workout is a principal strength and conditioning program providing fitness that is, by design, broad, general, and inclusive. In other words, it's not your typical session on a treadmill followed by some bicep curls. The workouts are high intensity and high impact, combining endurance, jumps, weightlifting, core strengthening, and flexibility into roughly a one-hour class. The next day's workout is posted daily online and is ever-changing as a way to keep the mind and body engaged.
What's the Big Deal?
So I get it: CrossFit is the next fitness fad making its way to the front of the line, jumping ahead of Richard Simmons, kickboxing, and P90X, right? Well, apparently not.
"I fell for it immediately," said Branford's Shara Martel, who has been working out at Shoreline CrossFit in Branford four to five days a week for the last year-and-a-half. "I got stronger and faster every day. I fell for all of it, I got better at everything, and I'm still getting better at everything and that was the point."
Testimonials like Martel's run rampant in the CrossFit world, but maybe the biggest proof of the program's success is the growing demand. CrossFit-affiliated or grassroots gyms are sprouting up all over the shoreline, including in Old Saybrook, Clinton, Guilford, Madison, Branford, Essex, and North Haven, just to meet the demand of people ready for their first WOD.
Small, Medium, or Large
Generally regarded as the biggest CrossFit gym in the state, Shoreline CrossFit in Branford opened its doors three years ago and has been booming ever since. With nearly 12,000 square feet of gym/warehouse at their disposal, owners and head trainers Dave and Lauren Plumey and Kelly Walsh now train an estimated 200 members with the help of two full-time and 10 part-time trainers.
"The trainers and myself and my wife especially are ultra-competitive and people feed off that energy," said Plumey.
There are other local gyms, such as MidCoast CrossFit in Old Saybrook, that are a bit smaller, harboring a less competitive feeling than Shoreline. MidCoast is owned by head trainer Elayne Lynch, who at one point trained at Shoreline. With only 70 members, the establishment has a more intimate feel.
"I don't think [a smaller or larger gym] has an advantage over another. They have all got their advantages," Lynch said. "In a small gym, obviously, you are getting the one-on-one feel. That is great; people love that. [In a] huge gym you are getting probably more trainers at one time and you're getting that camaraderie. We are probably middle-of-the-road with an average of 10 members in each class."
The CrossFit movement has even sprouted grassroots gyms like M.O.B. Fit, which makes its home in Tom Richardell's two-car garage in Ivoryton. The former college football player, marathon runner, and power lifter is now a Level 1 CrossFit trainer who's opened his home in an effort to help anyone with their fitness level.
"I would help anyone from a 15-year-old kid to a grandmother. But for me the niche I'm going after is a little bit older," said Richardell. "I'll take the 20-year-old kid, but that is not really focused on who I am trying to find. Are we as competitive as Shoreline? No, we are not. My competitive days are behind me; I just want to help out people."
What all three gym owners agreed upon is that it's important for prospective CrossFit members to find the gym that best suits their needs.
"Figure out where you are a best fit and go try a class," said Plumey, who believes tangible changes to the body can be seen in one month of CrossFit. "It is for everyone, but it is not for everyone in the sense it is very hard and demanding and you are going to feel really sore. It is a big decision."
The growing exposure the sport has seen in recent years has helped grow CrossFit, yet the gym owners also feel like it hinders it, as well. Many clients see what the top-level athletes are doing at the CrossFit Games on ESPN and assume they'll never reach that level and that CrossFit is too hard. All the gym owners said CrossFit is customizable to people of all fitness levels and that what is seen on TV isn't what people on the fence about joining should expect. CrossFit membership begins with an "on ramp" program, preparing clients for what lies ahead.
"The whole design of CrossFit is as if you were getting personal training, but in a group setting," Lynch said. "You've got the camaraderie of the team, but you've got a coach on you the whole time."
Most CrossFit memberships start at around $100 for part time and go up to $160 or more for full time.
Risk vs. Reward
Mama Greene never let me play football as a kid, always saying the risk out-weighed the reward. But what about in CrossFit? The exercises are hard, the body is being pushed to its limit, and when this happens, naturally, injuries can occur. However, the general consensus seems to be that with proper education, training, and observation, major injuries can be avoidable. All three gym owners I spoke to felt that warming up, stretching properly, and form were key components in staying healthy.
However, that wasn't the case for East Haven's John D'Auria, who tore his right rotator cuff and pectoral muscle doing pull-ups during a CrossFit class. His injury required surgery and six months on the sidelines.
"I don't think there was anything that could have been done," said D'Auria who went back to CrossFit a little over a month ago. "It was probably a matter of over training on my part, not giving my body the time it needed to rest. The workouts are so intense. I was going three days on and off one day and at 38 years old, the body doesn't recover the way it used to."
Steve Platt, a physical therapist at Guilford's Physical Therapy and Sports Medicine Center, says injuries like the one D'Aruia suffered, along with the spine and knees, are the most commonly-affected areas by CrossFit, though they shouldn't be feared.
"Honestly, I think CrossFit is great-it is functional, very motivating, and a changeup your body needs," he said. "Injuries happen because people don't know their boundaries, what they can and can't do."
Despite the chance of injury, both D'Auria and Platt said they would recommend CrossFit to almost anyone, as long as it was approached with patience and care.
"You have to listen to your body. If you don't feel comfortable with what a trainer is asking you to do, tap out, just say no," Richardell said. "The advice is find a good trainer, ask as many questions as you can."