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Originally published | Page modified June 11, 2009 at 11:42 AM

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CrossFit becomes an international fitness phenom with its brutal online workouts

CrossFit started out as an Internet Web site in 2001. Now it's an international fitness phenomenon with affiliate gyms and online afficionados (some say addicts) who say it's actually fun to practice the daily regimen and push themselves to the limit.

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LEN NUANEZ was driving home from his post at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island one day when he saw a curious sight: people in a parking lot flipping massive tractor tires. They'd squat down, wedge their hands under the edge, and explode upward, heaving the tire over. They did this again and again, up and down the blacktop.

If you haven't seen it, hard-core tire-flipping is not exactly pretty. It doesn't take long before you're breathless and quivering. Maybe even staggering. Yet these people seemed to be having fun.

What in the world? Nuanez thought. It looked awful, and yet . . . alluring. He had to pull over.

Turns out Nuanez had stumbled onto CrossFit, an exercise program that would soon become his obsession.

The program, he learned, was devised by a contrarian fitness coach named Greg Glassman, who posted his philosophy online in 2001. Eight years later, it's a phenomenon, with thousands practicing its regimen in parks and garages and even in specialized CrossFit gyms — some so small they're in storage units — including at least 50 in Washington.

Every day, afficionados visit crossfit.com, where they receive Glassman's wisdom through his posted "Workout of the Day," a prescription, of sorts, for super athleticism. To outsiders, the WOD looks crazily random. Often, it combines strength and speed work — something like doing pull-ups, fast, after a 400-meter run. Repeat.

The super-fit might finish some WODs in five minutes, yet they wind up on the floor in a heap, utterly spent.

Can that be good for you?, outsiders will often blurt out.

It's a reasonable question. Last year, a jury awarded $300,000 to a Naval seaman who sued a Virginia CrossFit gym for a workout that put him in the hospital. "It can kill you," Glassman told The New York Times. "I've always been completely honest about that."

And yet, the more you learn about CrossFit, the more you understand its appeal. Try it a few times and it could start to make sense — even for the overweight, the undertrained, the die-hard skeptic.

Even, it turns out, for a wimp like me.

Maur,

I have found the key to recognizing my fitness goals. www.crossfit.com. It is extremely difficult, but can be modified for the elite athlete or the couch potato by changing the weights and intensity.

It's time to get on board the train.

Steve

I first heard about CrossFit via an e-mail from my fanatical kid brother. Steve was captain of the high-school football team and a college wrestler. He is still a serious surfer. My physical condition, on the other hand, is what you might expect for someone who types for a living. Like many people, my sporadic interest in the treadmill or yoga or spinning has taught me only this: that I'm doing something wrong.

So when I got Steve's e-mail, I was curious enough to check out the WOD:

Clean 3-3-3 reps

Run 2000 meters

Clean 3-3-3 reps

Huh?

Steve persisted. Regularly. For years. Everything I needed to know was on crossfit.com, he said. For example, I could watch the site's videos to learn that to "clean" is to jump-shrug a weight to your shoulders.

But what about equipment? I'd protest. Annoyingly, Steve had answers. First, you don't need a lot of stuff. Think Rocky Balboa throwing uppercuts at a side of beef. And second, what you do need, crossfit.com will show you how to make. Don't have a barbell set? Use sandbags.

Steve had studied the Web site like a Creationist studies the Bible, making sandbags, building a pull-up bar and even fashioning CrossFit's favored piece of equipment, a kettlebell, by filling a soccer ball with cement.

To me, this was proof positive that Steve was a lunatic. He calls his dark, ramshackle garage gym "The Institute," for goodness sakes.

Then I met Jim and Fran, Dave and Andrew. And something began to click.

"I HAVE A climbing rope, a big tractor tire, a log, a beer keg, an engine block and a pull-up frame," Tukwila firefighter Jim Evans wrote in response to my query about do-it-yourself CrossFitters.

Before Evans was a firefighter, he was a computer programmer, but he always loved lifting weights, running marathons, playing soccer, whatever.

"I thought I was in really good shape," he says. "But I was shocked at how inadequate my fitness was for real-world stuff."

He recalls, painfully, what it felt like to arrive at a fire, loaded with gear, and have to run up stairs or a hill to reach the scene.

"You feel like you're destroyed. Like somebody just ripped your lungs out."

It was a wake-up call. Evans started doing CrossFit and felt transformed. Not only that, it was fun — reminded him of being a kid.

Evans puts his own spin on the WOD. The log and the keg are shouldered, often for jogging. The tire is flipped, but he also whacks at it with a sledgehammer. He did overhead presses with an old piece of railroad track until it was stolen.

One January afternoon, I watch Evans work out in his backyard. He's already exercised once today, and he's meeting a buddy later on for a log-jog around Green Lake.

He grunts and flips and carries and gets his hands muddy. He climbs a 15-foot rope attached to a tree limb and does pull-ups on a branch.

Did I mention it's snowing?

He climbs down, leaves stuck on his hat, and smiles.

EVANS NEEDS to be in shape for work. He also may be a bit nuts. Log jog?

So how do you explain Conor Buechler? With a Ph.D. in physics, he doesn't even admit to being athletic. Yet he's hooked.

"My first workout was called Filthy 50. It took me 67 minutes. I did it a year later and it took me 37. Both times nearly killed me — at least that's what I felt like at the end."

He adds, somewhat incongruously, "But it was tremendous . . . the workouts are a helluva lot of fun."

And there's Andrew Bueno. He recently opened his own CrossFit affiliate gym on Capitol Hill, but he was a personal trainer at Gold's Gym when he fell in love with it. Setting out to lure new clients, he began using his lunch breaks as a sort of demonstration project.

"I would do my CrossFit workout to almost show off. It was almost like, drop your jaw in amazement as I do these kettlebell swings," he recalls. "I would start grunting. You're seeing this amazing sweat going on. Then I'm lying on the ground, steaming, gasping for air.

"Some people were like, 'That looks brutal. Can I try?' "

CROSSFIT, IT should be clear by now, can be habit-forming. Even though the WODs usually take less than 20 minutes, there is a tendency for mission-creep. Afficionados spend hours studying the Web site. They post their WOD stats and compete — virtually — with other users.

Nuanez, the sailor, is so wrapped up in it that his wife, Amber, says "it has completely enveloped him."

Jay Roughton, a Seattle firefighter, got the word CrossFit tattooed on his chest. Once, he did a workout wearing his full gear.

"I'll never do that again," he concedes.

Still, he can't stop. "It just grabbed ahold of me," he explains. "I was like wow, I've gotta do this for my health, for my family. I just wanted that passion back in my life." Glassman, CrossFit's inventor, is its No. 1 obsessive, except he has said he gets so caught up honing his ideas he doesn't have time to work out. With bad knees and a paunch, he is CrossFit's Wizard of Oz, the man behind the curtain.

On the pages of crossfit.com, he's posted step-by-step instructions for forcing your way out of a typical gym-membership contract to free yourself for CrossFit. Step 1: "Bring a... boom box — and turn it up to inspiration levels... AC/DC's Thunderstruck should do the trick."

Conventional wisdom, too, is tossed aside.

"The world's most successful athletes and coaches rely on exercise science the way deer hunters rely on the accordion," he wrote.

It is not surprising that the program has drawn criticism. I wasn't able to find a sports medicine doctor in Seattle who had tried CrossFit. Yet those I did interview told me the same thing: It's better to exercise than not. However, CrossFit isn't for everyone. They believe its combination of ballistic movements and weights mean it's easy to get hurt.

Also, the CrossFit culture is to push yourself. Hard. It's not unusual to see people bragging on crossfit.com that a workout made them vomit. "I met Pukey," they write.

Glassman himself has confirmed at least six cases of exercise-induced Rhabdomyolysis — a potentially fatal condition in which broken-down muscle fibers get into the bloodstream and poison the kidneys. Yet his warnings read like a challenge: Try our workout, if you dare.

Dig down beneath the macho posturing, however, and you'll find something else.

You'll find a fitness philosophy founded on "functional movement." That means things that you actually do in real life, like squat and lift and bend.

You'll find a philosophy that can be adapted to almost everyone. (Can't lift a barbell? Lift a broomstick, Glassman says.)

You'll find a guy like Dave Werner, a Seattleite who opened the first CrossFit affiliate gym, but who got there only after years of pain.

DRESSED IN gray sweatpants and showing more scalp than hair, Werner has little of the stereotypical fitness-trainer flash. And his philosophy is decidedly saner than the typical crossfit.com commenter: "With a few tools and a little bit of knowledge, I can actually feel better. I can do stuff I could never do before."

Werner should know. As a Navy Seal, his life was about putting body and mind through grueling tests. Then in 1991, he ruptured three lumbar disks. Surgeries didn't fix him. Doctors said to avoid anything strenuous, and he became an electrical engineer. By 1999, the pain was constant; he walked with a cane.

It dawned on him that following the doctors' advice had an unintended result: He grew old before his time. "Eventually, the light bulb went on," he says. "I realized I needed to be stronger."

In 2002, when he was 41, a friend turned him onto crossfit.com.

Initially, he'd modify the WOD by using less weight. He paid strict attention to proper form and learned how to protect his back.

Watch his pull-ups today and you'll see how strong he is. Watch his core as he dead lifts and you'll see why he hasn't reinjured himself.

Growing old, he concluded, is too often a process of "giving up a little bit on the fringes." You stop carrying groceries, you choose elevators instead of stairs. And before long, you don't have the strength to get up from a chair.

"Strength is empowering," he believes. It can keep you from a nursing home.

He earned the certifications to become a fitness coach and started training people in his garage. In 2006, he quit his engineering job to run CrossFit Seattle full-time.

In a Fremont warehouse, the gym has no mirrors and no machines other than rowers. One-hour classes are offered morning and evening. Each day's workout is different, and modified to suit. Werner is quick to correct bad form. Members are encouraged to help each other, too.

Regulars push hard; newbies take it slow. The trick, Werner says, is to push just enough to foster improvement.

Werner has a handful of other trainers on staff, including Fran Mason, who worked at a computer help desk before earning the credentials to make a career change.

When Mason joined the gym, she "didn't know a dumbbell from a barbell." The workouts took so much out of her she could barely hold up her arms afterward. Yet it was exhilarating — and addictive. After a few months, she had an epiphany.

"Working out day after day is like putting money in your 401(k)," she concluded. "Literally we're investing in our old age by doing this.

"To some extent," she concedes, "I've lost my perspective on how it seems crazy."

IF FRAN CAN learn it, so can I.

Right?

First come private sessions to learn dead lifts, squats and the like. It is more instruction than exertion, but the next day I am sore from the bottom of my ears to the soles of my feet.

After three such sessions, I'm ready for a class — a real WOD that involves a 2,000-meter row, done as fast as possible. With only five machines, we go in shifts. I make the mistake of waiting till last.

For what seems like forever, I watch some very fit-looking people as they grunt and pant. One man strains so hard he looks as if he's giving birth.

People are yelling, "C'mon!" "You're almost there!"

When the fastest woman hits 2,000 meters (ahead of some men), she rolls off the machine to the floor, curled in the fetal position.

I am horrified.

"Don't worry," someone says. "I know CPR."

This is not exactly comforting. But it's too late to escape.

I try to think of nothing but pushing with the legs, pulling with the arms. Push and pull, push and pull. The distance is punishing. I start to think about Pukey.

I soon realize I'm going to come in dead last.

But finally, I hear cheers. "You're almost there!"

And suddenly, I am.

Maureen O'Hagan is a Seattle Times staff writer. Benjamin Benschneider is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff photographer.

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