In shape for summer?

There’s still time to craft yourself into a hard-bodied soldier-athlete
By MELISSA NELSON  |  July 25, 2012

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PREPARING FOR TORCHES AND PITCHFORKS? At CrossFit MF, members train with basic exercise equipment in ways that echo military workouts.

Watching a CrossFit workout is reminiscent of a movie montage showing a rabble of villagers training to become the militia necessary to protect their homesteads from invading bad guys. The attendees are a diverse gang ranging from teens to grandmas, overweight to overbuilt, spotting for each other as they all lift weights, swing kettle bells, and endlessly squat. Some people seem to go through the workout with relative ease, some stumble along, but everyone does the same moves. People yell, grunt, groan, sweat, turn bright red, glare at the clock, glare at the workout-of-the-day written on a whiteboard, but they all finish — sweating, panting, collapsing on the gym floor, and patting each other on the back — looking much more like a team than like gym rats.

On paper it may seem like another workout craze that has hit Portland just like Curves or yoga did: There are currently three independently owned CrossFit gyms within the city of Portland alone; CrossFit Casco Bay on Congress Street, CrossFit MF on Warren Avenue, and CrossFit Beacon on Marginal Way; yet they all remain successful in business. But CrossFit is drawing attention due to the manic intensity with which attendees attack their workouts. CrossFit's founder, Gregg Glassman, is known for such dramatic quips as telling the New York Times "CrossFit can kill you, I've always been completely honest about that," or publishing in his Trainer's Guide, "Our specialty is not specializing. Combat, survival, many sports, and life reward this kind of fitness and, on average, punish the specialist," but quotes like these are not just publicity stunts. CrossFitters actually are punished by their workouts. When Drew Crandall, founder and co-owner of CrossFit MF, drove away from his first CrossFit workout in college he had to pull over, so worn out he was physically unable to drive.

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"Crossfit never gets easier," says Crandall, "you only get better at it. It's always really hard, but the time period between when you feel like you're going to die and when you feel awesome, euphoric, that gets shorter." Crandall stands in the middle of the gym he owns with friend Seth Page, leading stretches as Page offers advice and encouragement to the attendees. Their "box" (CrossFit's term for a gym) is a large, well, box of a space. Rather than standard gym equipment, scattered around the box are kettle-bell weights, rowing machines, barbells, free weights, jump ropes, obviously homemade step boxes, pull-up bars, and a Schwinn Air Dyne, a sort of exercise bike that Crandall informs me they found recently at a yard sale. Hung on one wall is a questionably motivational poster with the quote from running legend Steve Prefontaine, "the best pace is a suicide pace, and today is a good day to die." On the wall opposite are the flags of each branch of the US military.

CrossFit's most interesting aspect is perhaps this militia mentality — that its founder references combat and survival and that the gym's walls are draped with flags reading "Don't tread on me" and "Semper Paratus" (always ready), rather than with pictures of toned abdomens or promises not to judge. When asked about his program's explosion in popularity, Glassman attributes growth to the coinciding of his CrossFit website's launch with the start of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. He believes that around this time "people began to take fitness much more seriously," but the actual not-so-secret to his organization's global expansion may be via CrossFit's direct military links. In part because of CrossFit's simplicity, variety, and the fact that participants don't need a large space or expensive equipment, CrossFit workouts are used for training just about everywhere — at local police academies and military bases in the Middle East.

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