‘This Is Insane, What We Do’

And yet Crossfit keeps growing in popularity. What’s the appeal?

Upon crossing the threshold at Crossfit Las Vegas, it’s obvious this isn’t a typical gym. There are no lines of elliptical machines or treadmills, no rows of Bowflex look-alikes. Instead, it’s a warehouse-size facility with high bars, weight stands and tons of floor space. Walls have whiteboards with names of people, exercises and times scribbled on them. Some trainees throw weighted balls up the brick walls. Others dangle from Olympic-style rings or stand in a circle and do stretches with a stick. Above them, hanging from ceiling rafters, are T-shirts emblazoned with messages such as “Your workout is my warm-up.”

Credit: Anthony MairJoe Marsh, founder of Crossfit Las Vegas.

Sample Crossfit Exercises

Mary (named in honor of Hurricane Mary)

  • 5 handstand push-ups
  • 10 one-legged squats
  • 15 pull-ups
  • As many rounds as possible in 20 minutes

    Griff (named in honor of the late Air Force Staff Sgt. Travis L. Griffin)

    • Run 800 meters
    • Run 400 meters backward
    • Run 800 meters
    • Run 400 meters backward

    Executed for best time

“This is insane, what we do,” says Joe Marsh, the 32-year-old founder and co-owner of Crossfit Las Vegas (121 E. Sunset Road, 361-4428). “Crossfit pushes you farther than you thought possible, so you have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.”

Crossfit, which was introduced in 1995 by a pair of former gymnasts in Santa Cruz, Calif., is a strength and conditioning program that replaces treadmills with high-intensity workouts that combine gymnastics, track and field skills, and bodybuilding exercises, with little resting time in between. After a slow first decade (there were 50 Crossfit gyms in the United States in 2005) there are now nearly 1,700 around the world. Crossfit Las Vegas is one of eight facilities in the Valley.

Crossfit is as intense as it sounds, and that’s why it has gained a lot of momentum among the U.S. military, police academies, firefighters and elite athletes, including Olympians, football players and cage fighters. But in a place like Las Vegas—a city that thrives on its industry professionals looking their best—Crossfit has attracted many regular citizens to this growing flock.

But unlike your average-Joe gym, this regime doesn’t concentrate on weight loss and heavy machinery but instead focuses on performance and proper movement. Each exercise is used as a benchmark: Do the exercise, train a lot, then repeat.

“It never gets easier, you just get better at it,” Marsh says. “If you’re not nervous before you workout, you’re not working hard enough.”

The nervousness might begin when you hear that all female exercises are named after hurricanes, and all male exercises are named after a fallen war hero. And the workout sequences often live up to the billing. Each features one exercise performed right after the other in a timed manner, for about 20 minutes. For instance, a sequence can involve as many sets as possible of five pull-ups, 10 push-ups and 15 squats. For the more experienced Crossfitters, there is the “Murph” program: a timed mile run, 100 pull-ups, 200 push-ups, 300 squats and then another mile run.

Most CrossFit workouts address weaknesses in a person’s fitness, from overall endurance to specific movements. Whichever the case, Crossfit forces you to stare at it straight in the face and deal with it.

Marsh is no stranger to this feeling. After graduating in exercise science at Northern Illinois University, he was a personal trainer and discovered Crossfit in 2005 while researching Olympic-style weight lifting online. He was instantly hooked, but success didn’t come so quick.

“It took me 25 minutes to complete an exercise that everyone else was finishing in five minutes,” he says. “That day I saw what fitness really was.”

But not everyone has bought into the method. Controversy has followed the Crossfit name, especially after word got out about hospitalizations resulting from intense routines, including numerous cases of rhabdomyolysis—a sudden breakdown of skeletal muscle tissues because of muscle strain. Critics say Crossfitters do too much too fast, making them more prone to such serious injuries.

So, is it really worth the risk?

James Stella, the 35-year-old affiliate owner and coach at Kaizen Crossfit (4520 S. Hualapai Way, 982-3333), certainly thinks so. He believes people often misunderstand the goal. “Yes, there’s a risk—that’s a fact. But there’s a degree of injury that’s acceptable in mixed martial arts, soccer or even driving a car.”

Everything is scaled according to a person’s ability: Coaches introduce Crossfit slowly and use each workout as a template. A 70-year-old senior isn’t going to start at the same pace as a 25-year-old cage fighter.

“Crossfit is all about functional fitness,” says Roseann Hill, 43. “Everyone has a fitness starting point, and after two years doing this, I’m improving my overall fitness without sacrificing my body. That’s a great feeling, especially since my body isn’t as forgiving as when I was 20.”

Both Marsh and Stella emphasize the nuts and bolts of Crossfit as doing the common uncommonly well. That is why squats and dead lifts are core exercises.

“If you go to the bathroom, you are doing a full squat,” Stella says. “When you pick something up, that’s a dead lift. These are common human actions that Crossfit employs in a huge way, and makes you better at life.”

Like life, Crossfit thrives on community. Although some people enjoy more progress on the whiteboard than others, everyone gets support. “Egos are checked at the door, and accomplishments are applauded no matter how small,” Hill says.

But Marsh and Stella aren’t kidding when they say it takes a special person to do this. Slackers will get a rude awakening because with Crossfit, you’re not just a number in a computer. Your name is written up on the wall and you’re expected to show. If you don’t, Marsh says, “we’ll harass you.”