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CrossFit: The hot new exercise addiction

Variety, intensity, simplicity draw troops to CrossFit training

Jun. 22, 2008 - 01:55PM   |   Last Updated: Jun. 22, 2008 - 01:55PM  |  
Marine Capt. A.J. Goldberg lifts weights at a CrossFit training program at the Marine Corps Base in Quantico, Va., on June 5.
Marine Capt. A.J. Goldberg lifts weights at a CrossFit training program at the Marine Corps Base in Quantico, Va., on June 5. (Chris Maddaloni / Staff)
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Instructor Maj. Andrew Thompson (yellow shirt), leads a CrossFit training program. (Chris Maddaloni / Staff)

QUANTICO, Va. — Special Warfare Operator 1st Class (SEAL) Andy Stumpf always needs to be in shape.

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QUANTICO, Va. — Special Warfare Operator 1st Class (SEAL) Andy Stumpf always needs to be in shape.

But before he took an AK47 round to the hip during a tour in Iraq, he thought his conventional regimen of weight training and running was the key to fitness.

The injury prompted the San Diego-based sailor to try a different kind of workout, one that was sweeping through the military community and would prove to be a blessing as he worked to rejoin his comrades.

Stumpf found CrossFit — and six months after he was shot, he was back on active duty.

Now, he's the owner of CrossFit Coronado in San Diego, where he trains a handful of his fellow SEALs, as well civilians looking for a different style of workout.

"Before, I thought the key to really getting fit was to add more training volume," Stumpf said. "Run, run, run, to get good at going long. But you layer that extra training volume on top and you're breaking your body down.

"What CrossFit has taught me is that randomized, functional movement is how you get fit."

The CrossFit concept

CrossFit boasts that its specialty is not specializing.

The fitness program attempts to be as inclusive as possible and gears its regimen to be open to participants ranging from elite athletes to homemakers. It's especially popular with police training academies and special operations units. But the straightforward concept has drawn interest from many looking for a fresh approach to fitness.

It's made up of several dozen individual exercises and movements that, when combined, form the CrossFit system. Some of these exercises will be familiar to many people with a few hours in the gym under their belts: clean, jerk, pull-up and squat.

However, other parts of the regimen stray from standard gym orthodoxy and have names to reflect as much: hollow rock, power snatch and the "hot chick muscle up," basically a combination pull-up and dip, using a pair of Olympic-style rings.

CrossFit has become a global phenomenon, reflected by clubs springing up worldwide. But it has fairly humble beginnings, said founder Greg Glassman, who's spent decades working as a personal trainer and now trains law enforcement personnel nationwide.

He said the program is about 20 years old and was slowly spreading through the California fitness community before a confluence of two events in 2003 launched CrossFit forward.

"When we launched the Web site and war broke out, people took fitness much more seriously, and the information was available all over the place," he said.

CrossFit's popularity is a mix of two major factors — variety and simplicity, Glassman said, adding, "We all come to the table with limited time, energy and capacity, and I want the most rate of return for that investment."

He designed the CrossFit system from three exercise disciplines: gymnastics, traditional cardio workouts and Olympic-style weightlifting.

"The blended capacity in all three domains was a better fitness than being a master at any of the three," he said. "The key is doing a multitude of different tasks. That's the Holy Grail of fitness."

He's created an Internet-based "Workout of the Day," which provides participants with an easy-to-follow model for CrossFit workouts, available free at http://www.crossfit.com">http://www.crossfit.com. The "WOD" is often clear-cut and can be completed in 45 minutes or less, sometimes in 20 minutes.

But it's the combination of movements, and an unforgiving intensity, that makes CrossFit work.

Getting CrossFit

On a recent afternoon in Northern Virginia, a mix of officers and enlisted Marines converge on a patch of concrete tucked between a basketball court and some utility trailers at Marine Corps Base Quantico and begin stretching under the midday sun, in preparation for a workout that will stress the mind as much as the muscles.

Today's workout is the pistol squat — a one-legged body-weight squat that challenges leg strength and balance — preceded by stretching, a short run and a set of broad jumps.

CrossFit is all about varied routines and high-intensity functional movement. That translates to a disdain for monotony, a focus on speed and a constant eye toward exercises that incorporate everyday functions. For Marine 1st Lt. Geraldine Carey, it's a welcome retreat from the boredom of the traditional workout.

"It's not like going to the gym, where Monday's workout is Monday's workout and Tuesday's workout is Tuesday's workout, and you keep doing the same things week in and week out," she said. "It's different every day, so it's hard to get bored."

But most critical to the Marines on hand is the importance of camaraderie over competition.

No one pulls out a tape measure to gauge bicep growth. There's no list of top performers etched on a dry-erase board to remind participants of their superiority — or inferiority.

"It's all about community and being noncompetitive," said Marine Capt. Jose Vengoechea, 31, one of three instructors on hand during the advanced session workout. "No one is competing against anybody but themselves."

Leading by example

Forty minutes before the CrossFit Quantico crew is drenched in sweat, Marine Maj. Andrew Thompson is alone with only a medicine ball and a pull-up bar.

The 35-year-old former Naval Academy football player has substituted the traditional workout regimen of running and weight training — his mantra for years — with this new-age blend of three old-school disciplines.

Thompson typifies the CrossFit philosophy, making up for missing the previous day's session with a basic but brutal workout: 15 pull-ups, 30 push-ups and 45 body-weight squats. Repeat as many times as possible in 20 minutes.

"I'm smoked. I mean, really smoked," he said after completing the grueling session.

Thompson employed the CrossFit system while deployed in Kuwait and has endured weather of all types at Quantico to keep on track.

"We worked out of a trash pile and used whatever we could get our hands on," Thompson said. "Cinder blocks, steel pipes, bricks."

Not long after recovering from his own session, Thompson is pacing between the Marines, encouraging them with a mix of positive reinforcement and practical teaching. After that, he said, the participants take care of the rest.

"Marines like to be challenged. The sessions are very, very difficult. There's no doubt about that," he said. "Participating in a group setting also helps. Collective suffering has a tendency to bring people together."

More than anything, the program is attractive in its ability to prepare Marines for the rigors of combat.

"In combat, second place doesn't get to go home. If I'm not prepared enough to support the mission or my fellow Marine, that's going to jeopardize that mission," he said.

That's where Thompson's West Coast counterpart comes in.

Marine Lt. Col. Dan Wilson is the commanding officer of Infantry Training Battalion at School of Infantry-West, Camp Pendleton, Calif. At 47, Wilson has to work harder than the younger Marines to keep fit, and he contends that CrossFit has helped tremendously in that effort.

Wilson was introduced to the program by a fellow Marine and was rewarded with an eight-point improvement in his semiannual physical fitness exam after a nine-week introductory session last fall. Since then, he's been preaching the CrossFit scripture to whoever will listen.

He's also forged a strong friendship with Glassman, the CrossFit founder.

Their bond, and Glassman's unabashed love of the Corps' culture, resulted in Glassman donating the equipment from the original CrossFit gym in Santa Cruz, Calif., to the Marines at Pendleton.

"We did a final workout in the old gym, and then we loaded up the gear into a tractor-trailer and brought it down here to create the CrossFit warehouse at Camp Pendleton," he said.

Wilson stressed that he has not made the CrossFit program mandatory for his Marines, but he added that four of his five company commanders are involved in the system and teaching it to their troops.

"The company commanders have embraced it as a substitute for PT," he said.

Wilson hasn't built CrossFit into the school's curriculum, but he finds Marines gravitating toward the program.

"Say we are out at the range and we have some down time," Wilson said. "Instead of just sitting on their hands, they'll do sprints from one end to the other and develop an on-the-spot CrossFit program."

Why CrossFit fits

Glassman said the Corps has been the quickest branch of the military to adopt CrossFit into its fitness program. There is a CrossFit gym on or near practically every Marine Corps base in the country, and even one serving troops based in Okinawa, Japan.

CrossFit has a dedicated following at a host of military installations, including Fort Bragg, N.C., home to the Army's 82nd Airborne Division, and Fort Drum, N.Y., home to the Army's 10th Mountain Division. The CrossFit Web site also lists clubs at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, as well as Stumpf's Coronado facility.

"Just wanted to drop you a line from Afghanistan," reads one testimonial posted to the CrossFit Web site, from an Army major. "I was introduced to CrossFit at Fort Bragg after Army Special Operations Command incorporated CrossFit into their [Headquarters and Headquarters Company] gym. I was immediately hooked. After arriving in Afghanistan, I heard that two of the generals here love the concept and the exercises and are working on building a ‘garage gym' and filling it with CrossFit ‘tools.'"

CrossFit has also embraced its military users, naming many of the daily workouts in honor of troops killed in Iraq or Afghanistan, such as the June 9 combination of 800-meter forward sprints and 400-meter backward sprints nicknamed "Griff," in honor http://www.militarycity.com/valor/3466852.html">Air Force Staff Sgt. Travis L. Griffin, a 28-year-old airman killed April 3 by a roadside bomb in Iraq.

Glassman said witnessing members of the military benefiting from the CrossFit system has been one of the heights of his career as a trainer, topping his experiences training Olympic athletes and making big money in exclusive California gyms.

"If I can even make a marginal difference in one of our men successfully completing the mission, or coming home safely, then I'm happy," he said. "I wouldn't trade more Olympic medals or eight-figure contracts for bringing one more kid home in one piece."

DISCUSS: The CrossFit program

Related reading:

* Light on equipment, heavy on results

* An example of a recent CrossFit workout

* CrossFit locations across the country

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