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CrossFit: Where Navy SEALs and Pregnant Soccer Moms Help Each Other Get Ripped

A new rapidly growing, community oriented exercise gym, CrossFit, has developed its own multi-million-dollar slice of the fitness industry on the backs of all-star athletes, elite armed forces, and power moms.

CrossFit: Where Navy SEALs and Pregnant Soccer Moms Help Each Other Get Ripped

"Oh, F**k!" huffs a tree trunk of a man, whose hunched, sweat-drenched body looks like it was just tossed out of a professional wrestling match. I feel naively sympathetic, since I don't realize it is now my turn with the same workout. At CrossFit gyms, everyone does the same drills, from expectant mothers to Navy SEALs.

During my four-month experiment with the growing exercise brand, I learned that CrossFit proposes that elite athleticism and seemingly impossible workouts can be survived with a little help from supportive peers pushing each other through the pain.

Group workouts pack the most functional movements of Olympic lifting, gymnastics, and calisthenics into a 10-to-20-minute sprint. The routines are slowly creeping their way into the regiments of all-star athletes and armed forces divisions around the world. They've put me in the best shape of my life.

The community spirit of CrossFit seems to organically foster a sense of whole-body wellness. The local nutritionist at my CrossFit gym (DogTown) coordinated a gym-wide diet plan (putting me at my lowest body-fat percentage ever) and a fellow gym member and USC-trained physical therapist casually diagnosed my decade-old shoulder condition (side benefit to the social aspect: CrossFit DogTown owners Dusty Hyland and Liz Arnold also mustered their community together to raise $50,000 for a cancer charity drive, driven by their personal connection to victims of cancer).

Once the cult sensation of a few Santa Cruz, California, enthusiasts, the decision to place daily workouts on the Internet catalyzed its exponential growth, with a quickly expanding community of blogs by nutritionists, physical therapists, and niche styles. Affiliate gym growth went from from 49 worldwide in 2001, to roughly 500 in 2008, finally ballooning to its current size of 2,800, according to a CrossFit spokesman.

As a result, a cottage industry of CrossFit-focused businesses, from premium jump rope manufactures to apparel, have thrived throughout the recession, with at least one multi-million business, Again Faster, growing revenue at over 1,400% in three years.

"There's no question we think CrossFit is going to be bigger," says Matt O'Toole, Chief Marketing Officer at Reebok, which just Inked a 10-year exclusive deal on all official sponsorship, and designed an array of CrossFit-branded apparel.

The Exercises

The heart of CrossFit is the Workout of the Day (WOD), a common workout begun at hourly intervals throughout the day by cohorts of gym members. All exercises are functional in nature, cherry picking movements from gymnastics, Olympic lifting, army obstacle courses, triathlon training, and calisthenics, designed to prepare athletes for whatever real-world obstacles they may encounter, from police pursuits to lifting newborn twins.

Other than an indoor rower, DogTown CrossFit has no traditional machines. "You don't need a lot of fancy tools, that's fluff," argues Navy SEAL Commander Mark Devine, who has witnessed the growing influence of CrossFit workouts on the SEALs' operational preparedness. Compared to body-weight staples like push-ups and pull-ups, traditional gym workouts are "a total waste of time."

At traditional gyms, "A guy will work out for an hour and do nothing functional, nothing that has an analog in basic movements," jokes CrossFit founder, Greg Glassman, "There's nothing that happens on a job site that looks like this," he says while miming a bicep curl.

On a typical day, I would arrive at the gym, eavesdrop on members sharing horror stories or bragging about their experience with the WOD, drop my gym bag in row of cubby holes in the back, and prepare my body for 3 rounds of something like this:

  • 10 pull-ups
  • 10 push-ups
  • Run 1/4 of mile
  • 10 air-squats

That is merely the warmup. Last Tuesday, this was the actual workout (done as quickly as possible):

Carry barbells weighing half of one's body weight 200 yards,

Then 3 rounds of:

  • Jumping on top of a 24" box 25 times
  • 25 Airsquats
  • 25 pull-ups
  • 25 Burpees (push-up to a jumping-jack)

Finally, carry barbells another 200 yards

Weights are deliberately scaled for smaller women and newbie couch potatoes. They perform push-ups with knees on the ground, do pull-ups scaffolded by elastic bands, and lift skinnier Olympic bars.

"It's pushing your specific capacity," says Liz Arnold, who sees a benefit in mixing skill levels. "You're motivating each other, as a community." At DogTown, when members were seen struggling through a difficult workout, everyone would stop what they were doing, encircle them, and cheer them on.

Old, Pregnant, or L.A. SWAT

"CrossFit is what I was always looking for," says Santa Monica SWAT team member, Scott McGee, whose relentless evangelizing is quickly winning over his colleagues, growing from three CrossFitters on his force to 50 in "few" years.

As a result, at their bi-annual physical test, "everyone on the team, including sergeants, has to pass Murph," one of CrossFit's most grueling WODs.

CrossFit, however, bills itself as a movement bringing elite athleticism to any demographic. "Right now, I believe I'm in better shape that I've ever been," says 72-year-old Jacinto Bonilla, the oldest competitor at last weekend's CrossFit Games' Masters division, for +40-year-olds.

"When I run, I don't get as tired," he says, comparing his fitness level to when he was running the New York Marathon in his 40s. Perhaps even more astounding than his age, Bonilla credits CrossFit for helping him recover from cancer radiation, which he received just six months prior to qualifying for the national competition. "I credit CrossFit for my health now."

Below is a video of the women Master's performing toes-to-bar at the 2011 CrossFit Games:

"I think CrossFit can be for everyone," says Val Voboril (who is pictured in the handstand, 9 months pregnant, below). "It made my pregnancy easier," she contends, as the "strength, conditioning, and endurance," helped her deal with the added weight of carrying another human being.

At CrossFit, however, men aren't always the alpha dogs, such as 106-pound Ting Wang, who deadlifts nearly 3x her body weight in the video below (I still can't deadlift double my own weight).

Humble Beginnings On The Internet

Prior to CrossFit.com, Glassman's program was a tiny cult sensation in the lazy beach town of Santa Cruz, Califonia, where he began training clients in a functional workout program. The company's primary revenue stream, licensing entrepreneurs to start CrossFit gyms (for what is now a $3,000 annual fee), had only a few adopters, mainly from Glassman's friends who he says begged him to start an affiliate program.

According to Glassman, the enthusiasm garnered the attention of Venture Capitalists ready to bootstrap his program; then the Silicon Valley bubble burst, investors stopped calling, and he said, "I was left with the nagging suspicion that we could just post our workouts and attract some attention."

So, while he could never find enough people in any particular city to get momentum, the Internet could pull together all the disparate islands of potential clients, "I found a few on the net, hundreds on the net, and then thousands."

Additionally, he says, the new blogging trend allowed recently deputized zealots to write about their experiences and pull in fellow fitness enthusiasts from their network. Today, the Internet is sprawling with CrossFit blogs, some from official affiliates, and others from specialists who post their expertise for free.

"The more you give away for free, the more you thrive," says clinical physical therapist, Kelly Starrett, founder of MobilityWOD.com, a daily video blog on improving range of motion, injury prevention, and flexibility (one of the blogs I now follow daily). Starrett's, whose blog has seen 3.5 million views since he began posting free daily lessons 9 months ago, says that giving away information has boosted both his reputation and personal practice, including an invitation to speak at Google HQ. "Here are the recipes, but you're still going to come to my restaurant," he explains.

In my own experience, the more regular impact of the Internet was Facebook and Twitter updates from DogTown's social media accounts—pictures of strenuous workouts or post-workout group photos.

"Social media is itself a good platform for everyone to keep in touch," says Arnold, who helps run the DogTown Facebook and Twitter accounts, "People like to see themselves, or see their friends and then comment on it; it gets people talking more."

CrossFit Economics

CrossFit is a premium sport—much to the detriment of my bank account. Membership dues are $200 a month—a piggy-bank-smashing five times more expensive than the traditional gyms peppered around my apartment. My already health-packed grocery bill more than doubled, largely due to the swelling volume of protein products overtaking my fridge (most gyms strongly encourage members to abide by the Paleolithic dietary guidelines).

But, what makes my bank account weep also makes CrossFit entrepreneurs sing: Gilson estimates that the average gym owner can rake in $135K a year, with 125 members at $150/month and $90,000 in overhead (owners also make money on merchandise, private lessons, and food supplements).

The equipment suppliers fueling the affiliates are, perhaps, doing best of all. Gilson says he's experienced 1,000% growth through the recession, with $3,000 in revenue in 2006, $2.94 million in 2010, and a projected 4 million in 2011. "If you chart Again Faster's growth, it is in almost exact line to affiliate growth," he says. "CrossFit's amazing in that it's created its own economy."

There's even enough momentum to support smaller niche suppliers, such as RX Jump Ropes, which specializes in helping athletes perform only one of CrossFit's many common moves, a rope jump that passes twice under the feet before landing ("Double Under"). "This was an accidental business," says David Newman, who got caught up in the unexpected upswing of CrossFits's growth thanks to his personal friends who spread word of his product.

Gilson says it remains to be seen whether outsiders can muscle their way into to the close-knit economy. Indeed, every business I spoke with, including the largest industry supplier, Rogue Fitness, were all founded by CrossFitters.

In recognition of the fact, Reebok, the first mainstream fitness brand to break into the sport, has focused most of its marketing on paying homage to the community: The CMO is a Crossfitter himself, Reebok HQ has opened up their own onsite gym with a reported 400 active members (out of 1,200), and produced an emotionally over-the-top commercial, spotlighting CrossFit celebrities:

Grow or Dissipate

The strength of CrossFit's market-oriented approach may also be its biggest challenge. Since workouts and individual culture are largely decided by independently owned gyms, CrossFit can only maintain a level of quality to the extent that trainers buy into the core philosophy and execute smart business practices. Moreover, since Glassman can't patent "functional, high-intensity movements," there's nothing to prevent a Gold's Gym or military division from wholesale adopting CrossFit's basic approach without renumeration or giving credit. Ultimately, the survival of the official brand will depend on Glassman's ability to maintain its community as the exercise program swells.

As for me, I'm taking a break from CrossFit, but plan on returning—I don't want to completely let go of my new six-pack.

Follow Greg Ferenstein on Twitter, Google+, or Facebook. Also, follow Fast Company on Twitter.

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