CrossFit is a phenomenon which has seemingly taken the world by storm. It has its share of both fans and critics as well as its own distinctive language. Fitness Journal steps inside the world with a visit to Kaimai Valley CrossFit in Te Aroha.
When Stephen Currie first attempted the “Cindy” workout twenty-six months ago alone in a Hamilton garage, he managed seven and a half rounds in the required period of time.
“I thought I was the bee’s knees. Man that hurt, nobody could do better than that,” he says.
Feeling quietly satisfied the bearded Scotsman then googled to find what top CrossFitters might regard as the benchmark for the combination of strenuous bodyweight exercises he had just endured. To his surprise Stephen found that the elite could complete a staggering twenty rounds.
Cindy involves performing as many rounds as possible (AMRAP) of five pull ups, 10 press-ups and 15 squats in twenty minutes. It’s quite usual for the most punishing CrossFit workouts to be given girls’ names.
Coach Greg Glassman who opened the world’s first CrossFit gym in Santa Cruz California in 1995, proffered the following explanation; “I thought that anything that left you flat on your back, looking up at the sky asking ‘what just happened to me’ deserves a female’s name.”
“From that first workout I was hooked” he reveals. “The next day my upper body was smashed and my lower body was smashed from the press ups and pull ups and my legs were wrecked from the squats.”
Continual self-improvement is a CrossFit fundamental. Whether it’s a personal best back squat, mastering the technical barbell snatch or being able to successfully skip double unders, there are always challenging skillsets waiting to be developed.
Workouts (known as WODs or ‘workout of the day’ as no two are alike) are scaled depending on the age and experience of each member, without technique ever being compromised.
Time (or lack of it), is another feature of the CrossFit mantra. The digital timer mounted on the wall, visible to all participants serves as a reminder that each WOD is to be performed as quickly as possible. There are no leisurely strolls to the water cooler between sets at CrossFit, where intensity is paramount.
Upon completion of each workout individual times are recorded on a whiteboard so personal progress can be constantly measured.
Stephen began his formal introduction to the sport at CrossFit Te Rapa, which at that time, was the only one of its kind in Hamilton. Now there are eight.
Not only did he instantly love the exercise component of CrossFit but he appreciated the supportive, nurturing environment created through enduring punishment alongside fellow members. There are now more than 10,000 registered CrossFit “boxes” worldwide.
Within a year, Stephen had qualified as a CrossFit trainer.
“Between my love of osteopathy and my OCD about watching YouTube videos, I developed a pretty good understanding of the sport fairly quickly.”
In the spacious basement of Te Aroha Physiotherapy, Stephen opened Kaimai Valley CrossFit earlier this year. Fully equipped with kettlebells, medicine balls, squat racks, Olympic plates and gymnastic rings, the box runs daily WODs between Monday and Saturday.
In direct contrast to most traditional gyms, you won’t find any mirrors at Kaimai Valley CrossFit.
“We want members to develop a self-awareness, a real feel for how they are moving. They need to be able to lift objects safely in everyday life without relying on the visual cues provided by a mirror. Besides no mirrors mean no selfies,” he smiles. ”We don’t allow those in here.”
Stephen divides his working day between coaching CrossFit and treating patients upstairs in his role as an osteopath.
His background in this particular strand of sports medicine was partly inspired by his father who was struggling with a frozen shoulder.
“He couldn’t reach back to pull his wallet out of his back pocket…..even if he actually wanted to,” Stephen grins in reference to stereotypical Scottish frugalness.
Although Stephen enjoyed a well-rounded sporting background “playing rugby until everyone outgrew me, football my whole life and Shotokan karate for 20 years”, his primary motivation for studying in London at the British College of Osteopathic Medicine was to help everyday people (not just athletes) recover from injuries and be able to live pain free, functional lives.
“My whole sporting career has given me an understanding of how to move reasonably well. I’m a power lifter stuck in a runner’s body. I really enjoy lifting heavy things. I’d never done a clean and jerk or a snatch before starting CrossFit, now I love them.”
CrossFit has inadvertently caused a huge resurgence in the sport of powerlifting.
“The American Open which is the national qualifier for American weightlifters experienced a dramatic increase in competitors this year. Previously they had 70 lifters turn up, yet this year more than 300 qualified. That increase is purely down to CrossFit.”
There are some grumblings within the fitness world about the level of certification required to become a level one CrossFit trainer. Finding the right box with the best qualified coaches is imperative for any newcomers to the sport. In reality this is no different from choosing the right plumber, the best accountant or the most talented tattooist. It pays to do your research to find a coach who meets your personal needs.
Sceptics dismiss CrossFit purely as a fad that has hoodwinked the fitness industry through clever marketing. Sportswear giant Reebok in association with broadcaster ESPN annually stage the phenomenally popular CrossFit Games to a world-wide audience.
“The so called cult of CrossFit is strong,” Stephen grimaces. “It’s not something I’m into personally. The sad truth is that some people have gone fanatical about it. It’s a form of exercise after all.”
However the positives of CrossFit far outweigh any negatives, perceived or otherwise.
“The experience of shared suffering brings people together quite nicely.
“The way I work it here is quite similar to most other places. We begin with a foundations class. It is designed so we have a group of novices together who haven’t done CrossFit before. It’s far less intimidating and we spend more time with drills, learning to perform movements than lifting anything heavy. Then we conclude with a short, scaled down workout.”
The foundation classes teach new members how to correctly perform exercises like a kettlebell swing or a front squat.
Stephen takes his responsibility as coach seriously and readily admits there’s far more to it than posting workouts on the white board or screaming at clients to work harder.
“My job essentially is to make sure each member is working as fast as they can, as safely as they can. To get the most out of each workout you need to be pushing what you are physically capable of, without breaking your form, to the point where you are likely to injure yourself.”
The basic progression that CrossFitters should be following is mechanics, consistency and then intensity.
Being able to get the best out of each member and building successful relationships with clients is certainly an art in itself.
“You’ve got to learn about each individual. Who needs congratulating and who needs a kick up the backside. That’s why I purposely keep the class sizes on the smaller side. The quality of coaching disappears the larger the group.”
To promote quality coaching in all facilities, CrossFit owners are forbidden to run multiple boxes.
CrossFit revolves around developing 10 specific attributes which allows human beings to move and function correctly.
“We’re not bodybuilders or weightlifters, it’s not a weight loss programme either. It’s a functional optimisation programme. We’re training to create humans who can handle any challenge that is put in front of them.”
Kaimai Valley CrossFit has only been open for three months and already boasts 27 regular members. Numbers are gaining steadily. The age of participants ranges from 16 to 73 years, many of whom are already displaying noticeable physical improvement.
“One of the members who walks up the mountain several times a week has commented that her walking buddy is now finding it harder to keep up. Her energy output is now much lower. Another member whose wife also trains here commented that she is getting through much more work on the farm now.
“She’s so much stronger and physically more capable and she is flying through jobs. That’s why we call it Fitness for Life. We want members to be able to breeze through daily challenges.”
Calving is an annual seasonal activity fraught with danger for many in the rural community. Having to suddenly lift livestock every 12 months without being physically prepared invites injury.
“When you’re training and the muscles are being regularly used, the body is primed for activities like lifting calves.”
Stephen is clearly passionate with his current choice of vocation, completely aware that new concepts can take time to catch on in small towns. Kaimai Valley CrossFit is in it for the long haul.
“I’m never going to make a million dollars doing this, but that’s not the reason for it. It’s a lifestyle. I really enjoy doing it and like to see the changes in my members.”