Where Intensity Meets Endurance: The CrossFit Regimen
Swinging a kettlebell up and down and doing "The Thinker" with an 8kg weight in your hand at rapid intervals make CrossFit an effective high intensity exercise. But is it safe? Our editor tried it out herself.
I’ve been physically active almost all my life, but there is one thing I go out of my way to avoid when I do sports, and that is injury.
In the past decade I’ve taken enough yoga therapy courses and educated myself with various physiology and anatomy books to know the long-term implication of a simple sports-related injury. These days I give yoga therapy treatments to people who injured themselves in accidents, sports, or even in their regular yoga practices.
So when I decided to try CrossFit recently, that was my first concern: Will I get myself injured?
If you didn’t know already, CrossFit is a fitness regimen du jour, a trendy sport more extreme and physically rigorous than, say, zumba and with less mass appeal than running. It doesn’t require expensive equipments. You can do it in your garage with a kettlebell and a couple of dumbbells.
The exercise is reputedly responsible for Jessical Biel’s six packs, Brad Pitt’s pecs, and Cameron Diaz’s biceps. The pop legend Madonna, a fitness diva herself, reportedly pulled a hamstring from a too strenuous CrossFit routine.
CrossFit is designed to build muscular strength and cardio endurance by mixing aerobic workout, body weight exercise and weight lifting. The core of its practice is exercises that resemble functional movements done at high intensity in a short amount of time.
Founded in 2000 by Greg Glassman, it has now grown to include thousands of affiliated gyms as well as a global virtual community of, well, jocks – techno-jocks might be the better term, what with their obsession with scores and technical-sounding lingo. At gyms, competitions are encouraged and scores are kept to track individual programs. Serious practitioners, who are called athletes, often adopt the paleo diet.
I went to Bengkel CrossFit gym in Jakarta’s commercial business district to join its women’s fitness class aptly named the Femme Fatale Functional Fitness. The class was relatively new to encourage more women, who may feel intimidated when they attend co-ed CrossFit classes.
This particular morning I was one of the two attendants in the class, which was led by Canadian instructor Rory and his female assistant Tiara. The gym was sparse, save some weights propped on one side and one or two large contraptions, which I had no idea what for.
Rory told us to run around the gym, about half the size of a tennis court, and we interspersed it with the occasional high-knee and heel-to-butt runs, and some crawls. After the warm-ups we each grabbed a pink 8-kilogram kettlebell, which is like a cannonball with a handle.
Our first practice was a two-handed swing. Gripping the kettlebell in between our legs, we swung it up as high as possible. At first I couldn’t seem to lift mine higher than my chest, but Rory told me it’s all in the way I thrusted my hips. Sure enough, the thing flew up beyond my eye level when I popped my hips forward. As I did this, I tightened my abs and my glutes, because loading your back in an extension movement like this can really put the lumbar in a compromising position. After about 5 rounds, we moved on to the one-handed swing, which is the same thing but done with one hand.
“The Cradle” came next. We squatted and lifted the kettlebell from the ground and rest it in front of our neck, under the chin. Think “The Thinker” with the fist holding the handle of a kettlebell. Then we did the same thing, but with a lunge added to the movement. Next was snatching the kettlebell and lifting it overhead. We then replaced it with a pair of dumbbells and did the squat while holding them.
And then it’s break time. I thought, huh, that’s not so bad. I took weight lifting class for PE credit in college, but this was different and more interesting. It helped that I keep up my cardio fitness level with cycling, running, swimming and boxing.
We gathered for the circuit workout next. This is the meat of the one-hour practice, when you peak from the intensity of the progressive intervals.
In our first round, we did a sequence of 40 seconds reps to 20 seconds interval. This means we’d do the same exercises that we just did at 40 second for each movement (and each side), with a 20-second rest in between, until all the movements are performed. I could feel my pulse quickened, my muscles getting tired, but I was able to finish the sequence feeling slightly triumphant.
Following the water break came the second round: a 45 to 15 interval. After each movement done for 45 seconds, a 15-second rest followed.
“Bend your knees more, get down lower to the floor!” Rory reminded me.
My heart beating really fast, I thought about those people who had cardiac arrest while exercising. What if I lost control and the kettlebell fell on my head? That would be a silly way to die.
I gently put the kettlebell down, avoiding any eye contact with Rory or Tiara. He told me to pick it up again once I recovered, and I did, while trying hard not to think about embarrassing deaths.
CrossFit is not without criticism. In fact it has been blamed for a number of injuries that caused permanent damages and fatalities.
Its detractors say the exercise is built on a platform of peer pressure, pushing the body to the point of near exhaustion. This can lead to Rhabdomyolisys, or Rhabdo, a serious and potentially fatal condition (such as kidney failure and other complications) resulting from the catastrophic breakdown of muscle cells.
I doubt that my class, which is actually quite gentle and well run, could lead to such severity, but I can imagine this happen in a class full of hypercompetitive men.
The final circuit round was the most painful: a 20-second sequence for each movement with no break in between. By this time I’d let go of my ego and resorted to a typical stalling tactic, which I’m sure instructors like Rory can spot instantly, taking my time with the movements and putting down the weights a few times. Then a few reps of burpees later, it was stretching time. Hurrah!
Driving home I faced a minor dilemma. I liked the physical challenge, but I really don’t like the part of being pushed. I don’t need anymore pressure in my life because my professional life has given me enough, which is why these days I avoid fitness classes and would rather get on my bike or stretch on my mat in the living room.
I think it was the next three days of extreme muscle aches and stiffness that decided it for me. But then again, I’m a bit of a jock myself, so I might come back for more.