CrossFit pushes exercise buffs to their limits

Intense regimen hits Japan, endeavors to avoid fad label

by Shaun Mckenna

The grunting gets louder the further I walk down the path. It’s somewhat synchronized, and suddenly I hear a buzzer and everything is quiet — for 10 seconds.

Four men of various body types — all soaked in sweat — have squeezed into a small studio apartment located on one of the side streets of Tokyo’s ritzy Omotesando district. Their exercise space is a 15-sq.-meter room that has been converted into an office for Chikara CrossFit — the capital’s sole CrossFit franchise.

CrossFit is an exercise regime combining high-intensity aerobic activity with strength training. It has taken off in the United States, Australia and 39 other countries around the world, and in June a franchise opened in Tokyo.

Coach Michael Schaal, 32, stands in the doorway of the Omotesando space and carefully watches the four men in front of him. The buzzer on a nearby computer sounds again and the men start doing squat exercises for 20 seconds straight. The buzzer rings and the group takes a 10-second break. CrossFit members know this as a Tabata workout. The men repeat the process a total of eight times. At the end they tally up their scores and collapse, huffing and panting, on the floor.

Schaal proudly points out that one of the men, 32-year-old American businessman Doug Heimburger, is able to do three times as many squats as he could a month ago. Schaal adds that the squats are not just good exercise, but useful.

“In CrossFit we do a lot of squats and deadlifts because those are the things you need to do in life,” he says. “A squat is basically getting out of a chair; a deadlift is basically picking up groceries.”

The theory behind CrossFit is that it uses exercises that replicate movements in everyday life. There’s a lot of climbing, running, lifting and pressing. Schaal explains that when you go to a gym, the machines may be able to concentrate on a specific muscle, but the benefits aren’t necessarily transferable to real-life situations.

“When do you do this in life?” he asks, mimicking the movement of a bicep curl.

The brainchild of former gymnast Greg Glassman and his wife, Lauren, the first CrossFit gym opened in Santa Cruz, California, in 1995, when Greg combined gymnastics, sprinting and weightlifting in a program to help train the city’s police department. The training was intense and caught the interest of the military and professional athletes in the United States.

Schaal discovered it last year when he was thinking of leaving his post in the U.S. Navy to move on to the Special Forces, a division that demands peak physical conditions. He needed a regimen that could prepare him for the challenge.

“When I first went on to the main website, I didn’t understand it,” Schaal says. “I did one of the workouts, Filthy Fifties, and was crushed. It’s (made of) 10 different exercises and you do 50 of each. It took me about an hour to do. I went back to the website and saw that some people were doing it in under 20 minutes. I thought, ‘Wow, how are they doing this?’ So, I researched it more and more and just kind of fell in love with it.”

Chikara CrossFit (Schaal uses the Japanese word for power, chikara, in the name of his branch) currently operates out of two buildings. In the morning, Schaal takes his clients to a basement in Akasaka. The Omotesando space is used in the evenings and on weekends, but mostly as an office. Schaal prefers to conduct group exercises in a nearby neighborhood park (he has won over locals by keeping the park clean and cutting the grass).

Already bored of the strenuous regime of “Billy’s Boot Camp” and not fully satisfied with my experience at local gyms, I joined the CrossFit Foundations program — a monthlong introductory session costing ¥35,000 (after graduating from Foundations, regular monthly memberships cost ¥30,000). Each day consisted of a similar pattern: Start with stretches and warming up; learn form, technique and movement; wind things up with a high-intensity workout.

Maybe not ‘revolutionary,’ but ‘evolutionary’

Almost any type of exercise can impress a beginner, but what do fitness buffs think of CrossFit? The Japan Times spoke with Lucie Frischmann, a 29-year-old woman from the Czech Republic who does aerobics three times a week, Andrew Ballard, a 27-year-old British athlete with a history in aerobics and endurance sports such as triathalon, and Simon Palm, a 25-year-old German with a background in strength and anaerobic sports such as jujitsu and weight training. Both Ballard and Palm currently play on the same rugby team.

While the three say they thought CrossFit sounded like the next big fad when they first heard about it, they admit that the free introduction session surpassed their expectations.

“CrossFit is evolutionary rather than revolutionary,” says Ballard. “It’s a well-digested collection of sensible training advice. It’s like going to see a math tutor who has a collective body of data; there isn’t anything new, they haven’t invented a new sport, but they have collected the most useful tips from different sports.”

Frischmann liked the dynamic stretching portion of the session and believes having trainer Michael Schaal on hand is a bonus and might motivate nonathletic people. However, Ballard thinks a focus on motivation is what CrossFit shares with other exercise crazes and emphasizes the research of the organization.

“Schaal had good advice, it was very well-rounded and involved natural movements,” adds Palm. “I think if you pick up the elements and technique from (CrossFit) and combine it with doing other sports it would be good. I would want to focus on parts to help me with my sport, and then maybe do CrossFit once a week or even once a month.”

One thing the three didn’t seem to like was the promotional angle of CrossFit boasting about having the fittest people on Earth. Ballard feels this kind of self-promotion is somewhat American in its approach and wonders if European athletes are sold on the same angle. Palm added that every sport seems to promote its athletes as being the best, thus making the claim can get another athlete’s back up from the start.

(Shaun McKenna)

Though CrossFit rose to fame via the military, Schaal’s take on the regime includes a rather soft approach to training. There’s none of the yelling that might permeate a military or Billy Blanks workout (though I did come to hate the words, “That one didn’t count”). Both I and my classmate, 32-year-old Alyson Jenkins, received a lot of one-on-one time and feedback, something I never got from commercial gyms.

Pretty soon, I was on the CrossFit website reading fitness articles, and started tweeting messages of support to members in other countries. I even showed my work colleagues how to run properly (correct running is a passion of Schaal’s). Was I, too, falling in love with CrossFit?

CrossFit tends to foster a cultlike sense of admiration among its practitioners. Devotees don’t just show up at the gym and then go home, they stick around. At the Omotesando session, once rested up the men began excitedly discussing different exercises along with strategies to improve. The makeshift gym almost became a boys’ clubhouse as sports drinks came out and the group began watching videos from other CrossFit branches.

There is a strong sense of community at CrossFit. Schaal says it comes from members being able to conquer something difficult.

“It’s competitive, tough and addictive,” he says. “But you feel that success and sense of accomplishment afterward. When you find another CrossFitter, you have a common bond. They tell you that they want to do more and eventually you can’t stop talking about it.”

Schaal took advantage of this community aspect when getting his Level 1 CrossFit certification, which made him an official trainer. He visited and trained at around 15 U.S. CrossFit branches before visiting CrossFit Asia in Okinawa. (CrossFit Torii Beach is also located in Okinawa, but is a U.S. military affiliate). In September 2008, CrossFit Asia was the first branch to open to the public in both Japan and Asia. Coach James Light, 39, says he trains between 100 and 150 members there, depending on the time of year. Light has a Level 2 CrossFit certification, which means his experience is crucial in helping CrossFitters become trainers themselves.

After getting help from the Okinawa branches, Schaal has paid the kindness forward by giving coach Ian Nigh a hand in setting up CrossFit Yokohama. The Yokohama branch, which started holding classes last month in Kanagawa Park (regular classes will be free for a limited time), has begun advertising via its own website and social networks. These online connections help cement that feeling of community.

Schaal doesn’t think the online element is particularly unique to CrossFit, but he says it helps the sport spread its gospel.

“We have the CrossFit Games and we claim the person who wins the games is the fittest person on Earth. . . . It’s all publicly displayed, so that’s why we can make those claims. We say, ‘If you have something better, then tell us.’ “

Of course, many have taken CrossFit up on that last challenge and there is no shortage of critics. One point of concern has been CrossFit’s use of “pukies” to indicate when a person has had “dry heaves (or worse) after or during the workout.” CrossFit can appear to make throwing up a point of pride, meaning you have pushed yourself past your limits. Another more serious worry has been rhabdomyolysis, the breaking down of muscles from over-exercise into the bloodstream, which can lead to kidney failure. Schaal says that throwing up after a session is a sign you’ve pushed your body to the limit, and that your body is telling you to stop.

“I’m not into the ‘pukie’ thing,” he says. “Some people puke after every workout, they don’t have an off switch in their brain. It’s not healthy to vomit. Pushing yourself up to the limit, though, is good because eventually that limit gets further and further away.

“I watch out for rhabdo(myolysis). When we do high-intensity workouts we try to do things in a way that rhabdo doesn’t happen. We don’t allow people to do negative exercises (exercises done in reverse to increase strength). It’s not a CrossFit rule, but there is a lot of guidance advising us how to avoid it.”

CrossFit is, perhaps, at risk of coming across as a fad. In fact, the more I talked about it, the more some of my friends began to wonder if I had fallen victim to the latest exercise craze.

It’s not an unsurprising conclusion to make, Japan is after all quite a fad-driven country. But Schaal is adamant that CrossFit is not just the next trend in fitness or weight-loss. He notes that fads are promoted nowadays in a concerted way with massive amounts of money pushing them onto consumers. CrossFit is too difficult for the uncommitted, he says, and will get its staying power from free word-of-mouth publicity.

“It has spread around the world and touched a lot of people’s lives without the help of sales and marketing,” Schaal says. “CrossFit is based on the results people get and then share with others and that’s what will keep it from being a fad. The marketing is through the people.”

Otoya Oshima is counting on word of mouth to help increase Japanese membership at Chikara CrossFit. The 35-year-old capoeira enthusiast joined Schaal as the branch’s second coach this month and will teach classes in Japanese.

Oshima has replicated the strategy used earlier on in the United States by creating a blog, social networking sites and flyers to promote the exercise, but notes that the problem he faces is much bigger than getting the word out.

“There is no information about CrossFit in Japanese on the Web, it’s all in English,” Oshima says. “Japanese people might translate the words ‘high intensity’ and give up right there.”

Oshima says ideas surrounding fitness in Japan are different and he has to target his marketing accordingly. “In Japan being fit means being skinny,” he says. “Even my friends tell me, ‘When I get fat, then I’ll come to you.’ I see girls walk with huge heels and their hip joints are all messed up and their posture is bad. That’s not true health or true fitness.”

Oshima stresses the aesthetic benefits of CrossFit in a specific way. He tells potential customers that by strengthening their legs it will affect the fat on other parts of their body, or by correcting their posture they will stand straighter and look taller.

In the last Foundations class, Schaal has me repeat the same workout I did in the first class: A 200-meter run followed by squats, push ups and pull ups done 15, 12, then nine times. I follow all of that with another 200-meter run. I manage to shave just under two minutes off my time. It might not sound like much, but it’s a start.

For more information about CrossFit classes, visit www.chikaracrossfit.com, www.crossfityokohama.com or www.crossfitasia.com