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How we joined the CROSSFIT cult

For Day 19 of her 30 workouts in 30 days Anna Magee tried CrossFit to find out what all the fuss is about

I first heard about Crossfit while doing an interview for Marie Claire about women who had busy jobs and social lives and still managed to keep superfit.  The first lady I talked to about it, Adrienne, a 29 year old recruitment consultant, was evangelical.   Her friend had started talking about this CrossFit thing describing it as an intense mix of heavy lifting, gymnastics and sprinting.

‘It sounded intense enough to challenge me – and it did,’ said Adrienne.  ‘After about a year of attending regularly in November 2012 I did my first ‘pull up’ and lifted my entire body weight while hanging from a bar.  It’s hard to describe the power you feel after doing something like that because you need more than brute strength in your upper body, you need it in all your muscles.

‘Now, I love that I can look in the mirror and see muscles, shapely, toned shoulders and legs (though my bum has disappeared). We have special women’s classes called Wonderbar that started recently after more women wanted to learn how to lift weights.  One woman summed it up perfectly when she said, ‘strong is the new black.’

Just two weeks later for another story about that exact thing, the rise of strong over skinny, I talked to another superfit woman, Emma who started Crossfit after her husband left her with a small baby for someone younger and thinner.

In classes, Emma regularly practiced a combination of gymnastics, weight lifting and resistance training. ‘People in the classes – men and women – were often stunned at how strong I was,’ she said.  Suddenly, whatever was going on at home or how down I felt, I had found something that I could actually do that I was good at.  It was a huge confidence boost’.  Discovering what her body could achieve – whether it was lifting her own body weight from a bar or squatting 60 kilos – gave Emma a huge lift emotionally, she says. ‘I was hooked and over the years, I think in building up my muscle tone I was somehow rebuilding myself and the confidence I’d lost.’

Suddenly it seemed everyone was talking about CrossFit.  I knew Cameron Diaz and Madonna had done it and that Jessica Biel was a convert.  I’d also seen Oprah’s star trainer Bob Harper rant about having ‘drunk the Crossfit Kool-Aid’ on the Huff Post.

Though all these people, including my two everyday CrossFitters looked great, they all seemed to gush over not how the training had shaved an inch off their arses but how it made them feel.  It was compelling.  I’d been wanting to try CrossFit ever since and to be honest, it was the first workout I booked in when I started this idiotic 30 workouts in 30 days idea (I am loving it really).

Last night, when I walked into my first ever CrossFit class, I said to the instructor Carolyn, ‘I have heard it’s addictive.’ She replied without hesitation, ‘Oh yeh, it’s a cult.  Once you start, there’s no getting out.’  From what I had heard she had a point.

The class took place in the Cross Fit HQ in one of three central locations where CrossFit London hold classes.  The gym is about as spit and sawdust as they come: communal change rooms, rubber flooring and old school iron weights and bars everywhere along with gymnastics hoops hanging from steel rods at the end of the main hall.  Utterly glamour free, it’s hidden at the end of a Bethnal Green laneway a few doors from a bona fide boxing gym.

crossfit studio 2My class was called Beginners level 1.1 and dedicated to learning correct squat technique. Rather than just rock up to a class, in CrossFit they recommend you learn correct technique in a series of level one classes numbered 1.1 to 1.7 – covering how to do everything from squats to pull ups, deadlifts to snatches or clean and jerks – before which you can move to Level 2 and start doing regular Cross Fit Training.  This consists of workout of the day that is issued globally and could be anything from Olympic lifts to sprints, gymnastics or handstand pull-ups – or a combination of all of that.

I have done a lot of squatting in my time but never have I spent 45 minutes learning exactly how to squat.  As it turns out I have been doing it wrongly which could be why my knees always hurt! Correct CrossFit squatting is going down butt first, with the weight in your ankles as though you’re about to sit on a chair, pushing your knees outward, keeping the chest lifted and high and the back straight.  An ex-ballet dancer, Carolyn was keen to see our squat form ‘look pretty’ and walked around correcting the fine details of our back and knee placement.  As a large proportion  of CrossFit is about lifting a bar, including squatting with it, it’s important to get this right.

crossfit squat studioSpeaking of lifting a bar – that’s what we did next.

Now I have been frequenting gyms doing various guises of aerobics and weights for the last 20 odd years.  But I have never, ever learned how to do the bar – never even tried it.  It always seemed like something the men kept back for themselves and well, if you didn’t grunt and have tattooed forearms, the unspoken message was ‘Keep away, girl.’  Not anymore. More women I know are doing bar training and looking amazing for it, not bulky or big but hot and superfit.  Did I mention Jessica Biel is a CrossFit fanatic?  In fact, as Adrienne said, CrossFit even hold Wonderbar workshops for women-only where you learn the squats, the lunges and lifts that can really tone the body and turn you into a lean goddess.

But it’s heavy.  It’s not easy.  And it’s not exactly fun.  Standing beneath the bar and holding it on my collar bone as I squatted – there were only 10 kilos on it in total but that felt heavy as hell for me as I squatted – I got that awful feeling halfway down of ‘can I do this?’ with lots of swear words on the tip of my tongue.  But Aisha, who I had been paired up with – bonding, Carolyn said is a big part of CrossFit – was encouraging me and I managed my first three squats with the bar through gritted teeth and endless satisfying moans which seemed part and parcel of the whole production.

But my class consisted of normal looking people, three women including me and five men.  As we finished up and people started streaming in for the next Level two class I noticed a) lots of buff mean do CrossFit level two and b) there are also all sizes, shapes and ages – one lady looked like she was in her fifties and strutted in looking upright, strong and capable greeting all the Level 2 people in the next room before she started on her skips and warm ups while waiting for us to finish.

Once we had learned the technique, the class ended with a ten minute squat workout that practiced what we’d learned.  It was short and intense:

21 squats

21 sit ups

15 squats

15 sit ups

9 squats

9 sit ups

One word. Pain.  About three into my first 21 squat set I was thinking, there is no way I can do another 18 of these. But slowly I kept going.  I lifted through the pain imagining I was Rocky or Arnie, the muscles and fibres in my gluteus muscles burning and aching so deeply it felt impossible to go on.  But somehow I managed them and loved being able to groan and grit and have no one even blink or notice, it almost seemed rude not to.

Despite the fact that I finished last out of the whole class – it was my primary school sports day all over again – I completed it. I pushed through the pain and lifted the weight.  I couldn’t escape the idea that in my own head at least, I had done something amazing with my body by squatting 10 kiliograms on my shoulders 45 times.  When I finally finished grunting, I wanted to shout: check me, bitches!

crossfit gym

Though my legs ached and shook after class I went home with my chest as puffed out as it was during my squats.  Proud and a bit happy with myself.  I remembered Emma’s quote about CrossFit being about what her body could do rather than what it looked like.  It was like an epiphany.  The buzz it gave to my self-esteem was priceless and I am worried now whether that’s the CrossFit cult doing its work on me because frankly, I can’t wait to go back.

PROS Lifting is great for your self-esteem and confidence, friendly but serious about the training, focus on form and technique, great mix of genders if you’re looking to meet men! CONS The difficulty could be off putting but you can work at your own pace

Where: CrossFit, 3 Gales Gardens Bethnal Green, E2 0EJ 

How much? £15

Did I pay? Yes

Calories burned: 116 Calories calculated using the Ki Fit Body Monitor

PS – CrossFitter Kate Pankhurst has just been in touch to say:

There’s a Masters’ Olympic Weightlifting Masterclass on Sat 26 October 2013, 2-4pm (3 hours).  For men and women age 45+ It will provide the opportunity to learn the Olympic lifts (snatch, clean & jerk) in a safe, supportive and fun atmosphere. This workshop is aimed at people who are over 45 years in age, are active, but who are new to Olympic weightlifting, or would like to take their technique back-to-basics.  The cost is £50 and you can book here



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