Hedge fund guys do CrossFit. So do cops. And construction workers, engineers, and professors. (Even rock stars, too!) Here are their personal stories from inside a global fitness phenomenon.
Ellis Henican is a New York City-based author and political analyst
“You can do it,” Rorke Denver said to me, and I swear I wanted to believe him.
We were standing on the sand in Coronado, California, the pasty-faced writer from New York City and the former head of training for the U.S. Navy SEALs. If you saw Rorke and me together, you wouldn’t have much doubt, which one of us was the SEAL.
The SEALs have a famous obstacle course at their beachfront compound—monkey bars, a metal pipe to squirm through, rows of barbed wire to slither under. I figured I could handle most of that. But then I noticed one station that scared the living hell out of me. It was a giant climbing net that must have gone 300 feet into the blue Pacific sky. Or maybe 1,000, I don’t know. You had to climb up one side then down the other.
“You wanna try?” Rorke asked.
This was two summers ago. He and I were writing a book together called Damn Few. I was working hard to see the world through SEAL eyes. But suddenly, some very un-SEAL-like thoughts were racing through my head: I know what’s going to happen here. I’ll get halfway up. I’ll be too scared to go any higher. I’ll be too scared to climb back down. They’ll have to send up a beach crane or a couple of wiry SEALs to grab me. By the time I return to earth, Rorke will be demanding we change the book title to Damn Shame!
“Tell you what,” I said, reaching for my best Plan B. “When I get back to New York, I’ll check out CrossFit.”
“Don’t worry about the net, brother,” Rorke said. He really does call people brother. “But you’ll like CrossFit. I have my sixty-nine-year-old mother doing it. They can scale the program for anyone.”
I was the most unlikely CrossFitter ever born. From what I’d read, the program was popular with cops, firefighters and special-ops guys. I knew some people called it a cult. Almost everything about CrossFit sounded awful to me. CrossFitters are told which exercises to do each day. They don’t get to choose. The coaches sometimes yell like high-school gym instructors. CrossFitters work out in groups, cranking up the peer pressure. And most CrossFit gyms are so dumpy, they aren’t even called gyms. They’re boxes. No spa services or aroma therapy at CrossFit. If you want a towel, you’d better bring one.
On paper at least, CrossFit was everything I knew I hated about exercise, all crammed into a single, sweaty basement room.
But I went. And I tried it. I did the three-session fundamental class. I paid the monthly fee. And I have to tell you almost two years in: I love CrossFit. I go four or five times a week. I think the coaches are amazing. They are supportive and generous, and they really know their stuff. I’ve gotten to know and care about my classmates. I’m still not the perfect human specimen. I’ll probably never be. But I’m in the best shape of my life by far. Call me a CrossFit cultist, if you like.
My box, Reebok CrossFit Fifth Avenue, is in the middle of Manhattan down a long flight of stairs. Amid some of the priciest real estate on the planet, the room still manages to feel stubbornly downscale. Compared to most gyms, there is very little equipment. Some pull-ups bars, some barbells and a rack of Russian kettle bells. Most of the daily workout could be performed in a medium-security prison yard.
But here’s why CrossFit works for me: The coaches are constantly on me, making sure I don’t round my back on the deadlifts or tilt too forward on the overhead squats. I haven’t gotten hurt since I began.
I’ve discovered I can do a lot of things I had no idea I was capable of. I can bang out handstand pushups, 30-inch box jumps and pull-ups in batches of 10. I can do a proper squat, lunge and burpee. On my Olympic lifts, my weights are still near the bottom. But hey, I’m skinnier and older than many of my classmates, and no one makes me feel bad. Quite the opposite. People seem genuinely excited when I beat a personal record.
I still don’t have muscle-ups or pistols, but one day I will.
We tell each other “good work” as we mop the sweat off our faces, and we mean it. I’m sure the people at my old gym were nice too. I just can’t prove that. I never to spoke to any of them. The only person I traded three words with was the staffer who checked me in. Otherwise, I worked alone in silence, using machines I was already good at, avoiding the ones I wasn’t and taking ridiculously long breaks between my sets. No one seemed to care if I was doing anything correctly. If they did, they never said.
No wonder I made so little progress.
I think the main thing I’ve gotten out of CrossFit is a new level of physical confidence. I push myself harder than I ever did before. I’m willing to try things I suck at. My heart is pounding, I’m swearing hard and I’m exhausted. Then, I keep pressing on. Another 10 cleans, another 15 toes-to-bar, another 20 air squats. That’s the WOD today, and damned if I’m not going to finish. It’s character-building as much as muscle-building. I want to be the guy who gets things done.
Rorke seemed happy to hear I’d gone to CrossFit, even happier to hear I’d stuck with it. When I get back to California, I’m definitely going to call him.
How high could that net be, anyway?