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Where Monsters are Made: Visiting CrossFit CSA and East Valley CrossFit

In Uncategorized on January 5, 2014 at 4:46 pm

Recently, a friend posted this article to his Facebook wall.

I believe this quote sums it up best:

“I think the name CrossFit now tells you about as much as saying ‘I’m going to go out and get a burger,’” says Werner. “It could mean grass-fed, pull out the stops, try to make a great burger. Or it could be mass-produced like McDonald’s or something. It could be some truly awful hole in the wall.”

After the many blind panegyrics or equally ignorant tirades I’ve seen for and against CrossFit, this one was a welcome, more even-handed assessment of the current state of CrossFit. Because CrossFit has taken such a hands-off approach in the management of its brand, for the uninformed individual choosing a new CrossFit gym, it’s kind of like playing fitness roulette. Just a couple days ago, my mother introduced me to one of her coworkers who tried CrossFit for a day, sustained a shoulder injury, and vowed never to return.

“We’re not all like that,” I found myself saying. Though, in my travels, I’ve also seen too many gyms “like that.” CrossFit has introduced me to some of the most passionate, gifted, and attentive coaches I’ve known. It’s also thrown me into some of the most disastrous “fitness” settings. To extend that burger metaphor—right now, if we’re trying to discuss “injury rates” in CrossFit, it’s like trying to assess incidents of food poisoning in all people who ate burgers. I’d be much more suspicious of the plastic-wrapped, lukewarm patty from a gas station than a gourmet platter from a Michelin starred restaurant.

So with such diversity in the experience of CrossFit gyms, I’ve found myself wondering a lot lately—what makes a good gym? What defines a good gym, even? Without much guidance from HQ, where does a new gym look for inspiration?

CrossFit CSA in the early A.M.: the calm before the storm

EVCF: the weightlifter’s dream. CrossFit rig visible in the back. Not pictured: strongman equipment to the left, an ample supply of sleds, GHDs, KB’s, rowers…

Something I’ve observed from both CSA and EVCF (my home-gym-away-from-home): good leadership helps—someone with a clear vision of what s/he wants the gym to be and to do for its athletes. Coach told me a while ago that CSA took really good care of its athletes, and I got to witness this firsthand when I visited. The owner conducted regular meetings with the competition team to check up on their needs and progress. He promotes the shit out of them, constantly updating their social media and getting their names into the public. Meanwhile, CSA also takes care of its tremendously diverse clientele. There are designated spaces for the powerlifters, the MMA fighters, the CrossFitters. There are coaches with clear programs that manage all of these clients and their unique needs. The coaches know how to coordinate a busy class and still tailor to the individual—diagnosing the needs of each person before the session and scaling everything to his/her ability. While visiting CSA, I had the immense fortune of working out alongside the competition team as well as dropping in a normal class. With the competitors, intensity reigned and I saw the ferocity we admire so much in our Games-level athletes. However, with the regular classes, I saw a much wider range. There was a regionals-level competitor who completed each round with 100 unbroken double-unders and decided to challenge herself on unbroken ring push-ups until her shoulders gave. But right beside her, there were much more everyday exercisers who got in a good workout with a different pacing. These were people who, after the workout, had to clean themselves up and go to meetings or classrooms, etc… who CrossFit for wellness rather than competition… who might need to be able to lift their arms later in the day and wouldn’t benefit from shoulder-failure. And that was okay. Despite the wide range of objectives and work capacity in the participants of the CSA CrossFit class, the environment was such that every individual felt comfortable working at his or her own pace—and the coach that managed each class was skilled and comfortable enough to coordinate all these differences at once.

I saw that same balance at EVCF. My favorite Phoenix gym has gotten even bigger since the last time I was in town. They have the broadest offering of classes I’ve ever seen—from a massive weightlifting program with world-class coaches to a dedicated mobility class, a kettlebell class, powerlifting, sprinting… There’s separate programming for normal CrossFit and for EVCF’s rather successful competition team.  On Saturday mornings, their competition team trains together, there’s a mobility course and the kettlebell class, as well as the “Big 3,” which focuses on the major powerlifting movements. There’s also two weightlifting classes—one at 11:00am and 12:30pm. In addition, there are sometimes a few drop-ins doing their own thing, or private coaching sessions. With that much going on, I expected it to be chaos. But somehow EVCF has enough space and confident, authoritative coaches that everything proceeds smoothly.

In the past couple of weeks, I’ve loved watching the EVCF competition team train. They actually work, well, as a team. Perhaps because CrossFit began with a certain individualized spirit (for the lone warrior who could train in his sparse garage gym), I’ve sometimes felt that some of the “team” efforts feel strangely detached—more like separate people working out beside each other than an actual team endeavor. But EVCF’s head coach, August, tailors his programming so that the athletes have to work together. They often go through the day’s workout in pairs and, though they need to train at different times throughout the week, they carve out that Saturday morning slot to come together. Like Kirian of CSA gym, August takes care of his athletes. He stresses to them the importance of recovery and mobility and oversees their individual needs. I’ve seen him sit around to direct his clients through specific stretches or assistance exercises—and I’ve seen him do this for everyone from his veteran athletes to the newbie who just walked through the door.

With a lot of younger gyms, I see such concern over labels and regulations, over what “is” or “isn’t” CrossFit. We do or don’t do certain movements. We must warm up or not warm up a certain way. We have to go at a certain intensity or we have to offer only these sorts of classes. But the success of CSA and EVCF shows that the spirit of CrossFit isn’t about any of that… it’s not about introducing all your members of Pukie. Not every class needs to follow the traditional metcon structure; not every CrossFitter needs to or wants to follow a standard “CrossFit” template. Part of the beauty of CrossFit is that it adapts to so many different individuals—and for that reason, we should remember that it’s not a one-size-fits-all program. CSA and EVCF have shown me what a diverse group of people and needs and training methodologies can come together in one place while still maintaining a tightly-bound community. Yes, there is definitely the danger that certain gyms will become too scattered trying to pursue too many shiny new interests at once– but CSA and EVCF have expanded their offerings (and their fitness-ings) without becoming chaotic by providing what can help their members rather than just what’s shiny and new.

Just there’s no single training approach that will build a great CrossFit athlete, there’s no single approach to creating a fantastic CrossFit gym… and it seems to me the most successful gyms recognize this. They aren’t afraid to experiment—to think, well, “outside the box.” Leading a successful CrossFit team involves treating them as such—as a group, yes, but one composed of unique individuals that must address disparate weaknesses and learn to work together. Creating a truly standout CrossFit box requires fostering an environment that encourages members to “go hard,” but also cushions them on the off-days—makes it okay to fail, and encourages them to come back the next day hungry for something better. For boxes that claim to welcome a wide range of skill-levels, they must juggle the needs of professional athletes and weekend warriors, and meet these needs on an individual basis rather than shoving everyone into a single mold.

I think because CrossFit began so simply—with Mainsite posting a single WOD for all the people—some gyms forget the unique guidance that their box can offer. If everyone would get the same quality workout doing burpees and pull-ups in their garage, no one would pay the $100+/mo gym dues at a CrossFit gym. We have the opportunity to treat members as individuals even as we create a larger, supportive community. I can’t imagine that meshing an MMA gym with a CrossFit gym with a powerlifting gym was easy for CSA… I can’t imagine that EVCF thought it would be easy to run a kettlebell class alongside a powerlifting class just as the weightlifting class begins warming up… But they’ve done so, maintaining a strong vision for what would best serve their community and their members. Though CrossFit CSA and East Valley CrossFit are very different places, what they share in common– and what I think makes them such effective powerhouses in their respective regions– is that they’re led by committed, level-headed in individuals that aren’t concerned with trends or what Rich Froning is doing in his garage. They aren’t trying to follow some paradigm of CrossFit, nor wasting their time trying to see what all the other gyms are doing. They’re concerned with the members of their own gyms who are already there and working their butts off day in and day out. They prioritize giving these people the best return for their hard work, and cultivate the most supportive environment for these specific individuals in their specific contexts.

Happy New Year, readers! Let’s make this one better than the last.

Bonus footage of CSA’s competition team training

(ignore the scrawny Asian interloper)

East Valley CrossFit

In Training on December 22, 2012 at 5:42 pm

I’m beginning to understand just how much you can gauge about a new gym from a drop-in day. Today, I had the good fortune of visiting East Valley CrossFit in AZ, and I was completely blown away. First off, the facilities are a homesick CrossFitter’s wet dream– fully decked out Rogue rig, a host of Oly-lifting platforms, bumper plates, kettlebells, ropes, plyo boxes, rowers– all the goodies, all neatly arrayed. More telling, however, was the behavior of the coaches. For me, it speaks volumes of a gym’s integrity if the coaches pay attention to their drop-in visitors, even if these people won’t be a huge source of income, even if these people might only be around for a day or two. This attitude shows that 1) these coaches actually care about their jobs as individuals responsible for the safety and well-being of those in their gym, and 2) these coaches give a damn about you as a human being even if you’re not one of their normal members.

East Valley CrossFit actually has a wide range of specialty classes– from kettlebells to rowing, running, Olympic lifting, and something called “Romanian conditioning” that piqued my interest. With my own fixation on my Olympic lifting weakness, however, I knew I wanted to at least make it to an Oly class with my limited time here in Az. The coaching staff at EVCF includes 7 USA Weightlifting Level 1 coaches. You can read more about the myriad accomplishments of their many weightlifting coaches here.

Anyway, I was one of three visiting members and I expected to just be heaped into the crowd and left to my own devices, as I often am in drop-in situations. But the coaches actually separated us and worked with us individually on technique. This meant going back to the very basics of the snatch, down to PVC drills with snatch pulls– which was actually perfect for me because in my hurry to learn all the things and lift all the weights, I really think I skipped too quickly through the basic introductory movements of the Olympic movements… and we all know I have trouble slowing down.

Some differences here: they taught us to keep our weight on the mid-foot rather than the heel with an emphasis of keeping the shoulders over the bar on its way up. Additionally (Coach) Alex pinpointed something about my pull that I never noticed– my legs extend too much before the bar reaches my hips, meaning I have no leg drive by the third pull. It’s something I’d like to slow down and work with light weight more when I get back to the box. Also, I need to begin videotaping my movements, as much as I don’t want to see how ugly they look :p

Anyway, it was really enlightening to see how another box teaches the most notoriously complex of CrossFit movements. And, my favorite thing about EVCF– it’s the first box I’ve visited that has truly the “community” feel that reminds me of my own home gym. The coaches and members all seem very familiar with one another, and they treat each other with that perfect mix of facetious derision and respect. Even better– they’re quick to embrace drop-in Jo’s as one of their own.

I really hope I have the chance to make it back before I leave town. One of the many things about staying at home that clashes with my OCD is that I can never get a handle on my family/friends’ itinerary and I’m constantly ambushed with last-minute obligations for which I did not plan.

But thanks again to the wonderful community at EVCF– I think I’ve found my new home base for all the many future visits I’ll have in Phoenix.

Expanding CrossFit

In Training, WOD on December 28, 2012 at 6:00 pm

I’ve been following a few conversations by CrossFit gym owners who’ve recently noticed a rate of attrition in boxes that offer purely CrossFit-type programming. The topic also came up in the most recent Paleo Solution podcast. Though I don’t always agree with Robb and Greg’s opinions, I do enjoy them and they’re well-educated in their respective fields. Anyway, the phenomenon that concerns some CrossFit gym owners is that they notice– while CrossFit is wonderful at being flashy and attracting hordes of new members– a lot of more experienced, more capable athletes drop off the box’s regular program after a while. Unfortunately, this kind of makes sense to me… We know that I was (/still am) a metcon addict for my entire first year of CrossFit. I probably  definitely still grow irritable and unfit for human contact if I go too long without a good WOD. But… intense WODs for six days a week gets not only exhausting, it starts to feel aimless. This explains why a lot of boxes now program in blocks (as ours has begun) in order to give more of an overarching structure for return clients. CrossFit athletes pay upwards of $100-$150 per month for their memberships. Reason would suggest that these aren’t the casual weekend warriors looking for a good, randomized sweat once a week. They’re paying for the guidance and direction of a well-thought-out program that will progress them towards their physical/health-oriented goals.

I think that’s also the reason why larger boxes such as CrossFit East Valley offer a wider array of classes than just the standard daily metcon. I didn’t get a chance to elaborate much on this in my last post, but I was very impressed by the amount of separate, focused courses they had– running, rowing, olympic lifting and power lifting, etc. There’s been talk at our own gym about offering a few more focused classes, and I’m really excited about this. The Oly class that I attended at CFEV was two-hours long, but it had an entirely different feel than the usual CrossFit class. There was structure– the athletes had a set of lifts and technique drills they needed to perform (think something closer to catalyst athletics’ programming) with snatch pulls, then full snatches, clean pulls, then cleans. Afterwards, there was a strength component with back squats, and finally a power/supplementary component with box jumps. Because lifting necessitates a much less… frantic pace than traditional CrossFit, the athletes took appropriate rest periods, they chatted without losing too much concentration, they had coaches critique their form rather than rushing from rep to rep. The class warmed-up together and did their box jumps together, and still communicated between working sets, so it didn’t lose any of that community-feel we so highly value in CrossFit, but it also allowed them more focused skill work as an alternative to the conventional WOD.

It’s for this reason that I also value gyms that provide open gym hours– not haphazard open gym hours where people come in and screw around with the equipment, but hours during which coaches are available for questions and during which athletes may work on their weaknesses or on developing their particular interests. It’s a lot to ask of a gym to open its doors and provide space, equipment, and attention for people who may or may not show up… but provided that there’s a demand for it, and that athletes take advantage of it, it does wonders for the development of the CrossFitter. Everyone’s needs are individualized in more ways than the 5-day-a-week generic class setting can typically address, and the availability of open gym hours acknowledges that and allows those who care about self-improvement to work in their own time.

I know we’re spoiled by the amount of open gym hours we have a LionHeart, but I’m still disappointed by the amount of CrossFit gyms that have no open gym hours. I was pleasantly surprised to find that EVCF not only had open gym, but allowed wayward drop-ins such as the wandering Jo to stop by. So I paid by second visit to EVCF and worked on my cleans (all technique I’m afraid… even 90lbs felt absurdly heavy after not touching bumper plates for a week) and did a quick WOD with kettlebell swings and burpees– mostly just taking advantage of equipment I can’t access at LA fitness.

Anyway, I think one of the best things that  CrossFit has to offer is that it’s made fitness accessible and fun. Its format has turned something that used to be isolating into something communal and (if you want) competitive. I’m reminded of this every time I walk into LA fitness, beside the resigned patrons with their heads down, trudging their way to the treadmill where they’ll plod away for 60 minutes as if this were their daily penance. If you think about it, CrossFit introduces so many people to new ways of achieving fitness… even at our own gym– Zebrapants was a lifelong athlete before he ever trained with us, but he’d never heard of a clean before starting CrossFit and just yesterday he posted a video of a 255lb clean-to-thruster (yes what a showoff…) With my summers, I used to trudge alongside the LA Fitness zombies for preacher-curl day and long-slow-treadmill day. Now I’m the weirdo absconding with the bench press bar so I can do a clean-and-jerk/burpee ladder in the empty racquetball court. With this in mind, I’d like to think more about what CrossFit– and CrossFit gyms, trainers, affiliate owners, etc– can offer people beyond the daily metcon (which will of course remain central to the CrossFit universe). I just think that, if we introduce individuals to things like olympic lifting or powerlifting, why can we not also introduce people to better quality work in those areas? Why not Olympic lifting sessions that hone technique and form, or committed powerlifting programs for people who want to focus on strength gains? Or an endurance class for people who CrossFit to supplement their marathon goals? Of course, these expansions necessitate gyms with the funding and staff capable of supporting such ideals… but I’d be excited to see CrossFit bring its spirit, its enthusiasm, its mutual encouragement and support, and its adventurousness to modes of exercise beyond the traditional metcon.

Just food for thought.

Hope you’re all enjoying the holidays!

P.S. Just for fun, here are some shots of EVCF:

The Final Word

In Uncategorized on June 11, 2014 at 7:09 pm

Hello wonderful readers,

Exciting things have happened in the world of the Jomad, which may be why I have not posted sooner. Balancing blogging with grad school and life has become more difficult this year with coaching, and my comprehensive exams (which I passed!), and coordinating the graduate writing center. More significantly, one of my frustrations with this blog is that I have been limited largely to my own experience– which, while entertaining for a handful of readers, is not necessarily the most informative. But a fantastic opportunity emerged this summer when I returned to East Valley CrossFit and chatted with August– coach and gym owner, who also runs a weightlifting company called Iron Athlete. He invited me to become the content producer and editor for the Iron Athlete Blog– which means I now get to borrow from his resources to speak to and disseminate information from people with a lot more experience and knowledge than I. So, knowing that time and attention are limited and precious resources, I’ve decided to close this chapter of my life and direct my efforts to creating the best material for Iron Athlete. Thank you all so much for reading and for the encouraging emails I’ve received along the way. I invite you (beg/plead/coerce?) to please continue with me as I discover a much larger world of strength and conditioning and weightlifting and fitness and general awesomeness through the folks from Iron Athlete. My first post is up now on the new Iron Athlete blog. I also just completed an interview with Olympian weightlifter Norik Vardanian, which will appear on the page very soon. So, stick with me, friends– my wanderings are about to become a whole lot less aimless, but a hell of a lot more interesting.

Thinking Outside the Box

In General, Training on March 6, 2013 at 1:18 pm

Aryan Barto is a very chill, very enlightened, very large titan of CrossFit awesome.

I have returned from Houston– to the land of too much work and insufficient time, but one populated by enough wonderful WODpals that it’s all worthwhile. The trip was wonderful, rejuvenating, and everything I need to reinvigorate me for my work, my work outs, and my life in general. While I was in Houston, the Cookie Monster took me to Behemoth CrossFit — the gym owned and run by the Barto brothers. Unfortunately, Aja Barto was out of town to represent Rogue at the Arnold Classic, but I got to meet Aryan Barto, who was just exemplary of everything I love about the CrossFit community– how willing everyone is to embrace newcomers, how humble and down-to-earth even the elite athletes are, how they dedicate their lives to CrossFit out of a very human impulse to just reach out and help others. I was rather lucky that the workout of the day was bodyweight-centric (a partner AMRAP involving kettlebell swings, box jumps, burpees, and dumbbell shoulder-to-overhead), so obviously the Jomad was comfortably in her element for the metcon. However, there were many things that Behemoth also conducted differently– some of which I’d love to borrow and implement as a coach someday.

Apparently, Saturdays at Behemoth are dedicated to partner WODs and team-building activities. I love that. I love that this is a day about the collective, about getting to know one another as much as it is about improving yourself. Behemoth is a bit quirky in that its facility is housed by a larger, multisport warehouse. This means that their “warm-up” consisted of shooting hoops, and playing “knockout” (which I haven’t played since… possibly elementary school?). But in the spirit of all things CrossFit, they smiled at me goodnaturedly when I bumbled through the rules, and they patiently explained to me how to play. The workout of the day was actually a commemoration of two members’ birthdays. Apparently two individuals were celebrating their dates of birth this week, and they each named their favorite and least favorite movement, and Aja compiled them into an AMRAP. The equipment was a bit new to me– the box was a little lower, the kettlebell lighter than the one I would have chosen. I only ever WOD with dumbbells while at home, so that movement was new, but the spirit of the workout felt familiar. The members of Behemoth reminded me a lot of the community we have at Lionheart– where everyone wishes you well, everyone’s pushing to his or her individual limits and willing you to do the same. There’s no allowance for ego or petty competition. It’s about bettering yourself while contributing to the whole. I enjoyed it a lot. Poor CM (Cookie Monster) had to put up with a bouncy Jo for the rest of the morning as I rode that adrenaline rush.

Anyway… I think there’s so much potential in CrossFit. It can be so much more than a sport. It’s a perspective– a way of seeing and living life that celebrates and enjoys physical wellness. The Saturday class at Behemoth is not about putting up the most rounds or getting the fastest time on the board (there was no board); it just seemed like a group of buddies getting together for a a bit of sweat, hard work and a good time.

Though Lionheart gained way too many new perks by moving to its new facility, I do regret that we no longer have the space to play dodgeball there– that was a fantastic way to gather our community and just hang out for a small chunk of the weekend. I’d like to think of more opportunities to “think outside the box” though, and find more creative ways to engage with one another. I’m also reminded of the weightlifting classes at East Valley CrossFit– an hour and a half of time when members just came in, and there was a series of lifts on the board, but people moved at their own pace, with plenty of rest, and coaches walked around to troubleshoot technique and form. Other CrossFit gyms offer focused classes on gymnastics or endurance. I would personally like to improve my kettlebell skills and hope to visit a gym sometime that has specialty classes for that– or a facility that specializes in kettlebells. Anyway, there are just unique ways to focus and play. The other thing is– it can be that– PLAY. Adopting fitness as a lifestyle extends way outside the gym itself. You can go hiking and explore nearby landmarks. You can meet up with a buddy to shoot hoops or go for a bike ride. Unfortunately, I was laden with a bunch of last-minute assignments before I left for Houston. The Cookie Monster was wonderfully accommodating and put up with me having to mutter at my computer all weekend, but we also took a quit 3-minute break for a double-under race. Perhaps if I ask sweetly, next time I can coerce him into a burpee-off ;).

The first workout of this year’s Open will be announced in less than seven hours. I’m all for the competitive spirit of the Games, but let’s also approach this season with the reminder that this is a sport fueled by camaraderie. My favorite part of watching the Games is seeing how the CrossFit elite cheer one another to the end. It was inspiring last year to see each competitor drop from the last pull-up after a brutal weekend of physical activity, after a nightmarish cluster of Elizabeth, Isabel, and Fran… and still every stay on the field, applauding each competitor until every last one finished.