On a recent Wednesday night, I stuffed myself into a tiny elevator with six others, and made my way up to the fourth floor of a modest building hidden in the bustle of Midtown Manhattan. The doors opened to a gray space with barbells, kettlebells, pull-up bars, and gymnastic rings scattered around the room. No fancy dumbbell racks, no mirrors, no television sets.

Photo by Ben Draper

Training gyms for CrossFit are called boxes, and for good reason. There are no bells and whistles— just a bleak, unassuming space that reflects a mysterious exercise phenomenon.

As a runner familiar with weight machines and the occasional sun salutation, could I handle the much-hyped intensity of CrossFit? The growing strength and condition program calls for more than simple stamina; it combines weightlifting with sprinting, gymnastics with kettlebells, plus the fundamentals of powerlifting. Some call it God’s workout, and others, a cult. Some say it’s the quickest way to get fit, yet many question if the speedy results outweigh the safety risks. I was more than curious to dive in headfirst. Was CrossFit really for everyone— even a newbie like me?

I met Mike Kalajian, a trainer from CrossFit NYC who was leading the evening’s beginner’s class. He could sense my intimidation. “Don’t worry,” he assured me. “You won’t die. You’ll either leave thinking that was the craziest thing you’ve ever done and can’t wait to do it again, or that was the craziest thing you’ve ever done and are never coming back.”

Well then. And so we began.

Learning How to Move

CrossFit is built around functional movements, which mimic how we stand, step, and move through everyday life. According to Tony Budding, CrossFit Director of Media and Co-Director of the CrossFit Games, “We have evolved a set of standards for movement that are the most effective, efficient, and safe we know of.” So unlike crunching on a BOSU ball (how often are we doing that in the kitchen?), these strength and balance exercises aim to improve daily activity, making us stronger everywhere— not just at the gym.

The Internet has been essential to CrossFit’s compelling, and perhaps surprising, growth. Every morning, CrossFit.com posts a workout of the day (or “W.O.D.”) that many (but not all) boxes emulate. According to Budding, there were 13 CrossFit affiliates in 2005. Today, there are roughly 3,400. “And we’ve done nothing directly to create that growth,” Budding added.

“We used to ask people how they discovered CrossFit,” Kalajian said, “but we stopped because everyone usually had the same answer: Someone they know does CrossFit.”

And it’s true: Someone I know does do CrossFit. And for him, Sean Quinn, CrossFit is all about versatility and thrill: “Truly, everyday is something different. You can do bodyweight workouts alone in your apartment, or you can go to a black box and get more pumped up about a daily workout than you’ve ever been in your life.”

One of CrossFit’s main principles is to work weaknesses in order to improve overall fitness. “Always work at what you suck at,” Budding advised. “You work as hard as you possibly can— it changes people for the better.”

And here, Jordan Syatt, a trainer who is Westside Barbell certified, tends to agree. “[CrossFit] promotes hard work and lets people know you can’t just sit on your ass and make progress. You have to do something.”

So I did. After a rudimentary warm-up, I embarked on a 10-minute W.O.D. of pushups (the “what I sucked at” part), lunges, and sit-ups— as many as I could, and as fast as possible. It may not sound too terrible, but what amounted to 50 push-ups, 100 lunges, and 150 sit-ups was more challenging than any 10K road race I’ve ever run (and those aren’t exactly cake).

Safety First?

As with any exercise program, there’s always a risk of getting hurtIs it possible to prevent sports injuries? Review of controlled clinical trials and recommendations for future work. Parkkari, J, Kujala, U.M., Kannus, P. Tampere Research Center of Sports Medicine, President Urho Kaleva Kekkonen Institute for Health Promotion Research, Finland. Sports Medicine, 2001;31(14):985-95.. CrossFit has been criticized for pushing people past their limits, which can lead to serious injury. A New York Times piece suggested CrossFit puts the focus on speed and weight over proper technique, which can lead to chronic soreness, pulled muscles, and even rapid muscle breakdown in the form of rhabdomyolysis. But as Budding insists, “There’s no substitute for common sense. We never ask people to push past a sustainable limit.”

A recent video gone viral showed CrossFitters attempting the Continental clean & jerk, which had some in the fitness community up in arms. While the lift is a traditional strongman movement, many argued the athletes were using incorrect and potentially dangerous form, and some suggested the instructors shown were unqualified to teach the movement. Currently, aspiring CrossFit instructors can be certified by attending a course that includes lectures, demonstrations, presentations, and a hand-written test— all in one weekend.

But according to Budding, “The first and most important rule as a good trainer is you have to care. And no matter how good, strict, and refined we are, we can never enforce caring.” Still, Syatt had his own opinion. “Caring is irrelevant. If they can’t teach it or spot a weakness, they shouldn’t be certified.”

However, to prove the “no pain, no gain” mentality isn’t the way to go, instructors point to two (rather grotesque) mascots: Pukie the Clown and Uncle Rhabdo, a graphic cartoon oozing blood, sweat, and toxins. “It’s a dramatic example designed to make you pay attention,” Budding says. “But we’re doing it to keep people safe.”

And perhaps Quinn is paying attention. “I have never been injured doing the workouts, but that has a lot to do with the fact that I know my body well enough to modify the next day’s workout or take an additional rest day. When doing such a total-body workout, it is especially important to identify different types of pain.” CrossFit.com prescribes every fourth day’s workout as a “Rest Day.” Yet whether or not people actually stick to this recommendation is unclear.

CrossFit Crossroads

So, do we or do we not all head to the box? Perhaps there is no one answer, or as Quinn says, “CrossFit is and isn’t for everyone.” For starters, CrossFit definitely pointed out my weaknesses (wait, that’s not a real push-up?). Yet those heated 10 minutes made me think twice about the idea of an hour-long run as the way to stay fit. I was happily exhausted in the time it normally takes to put on my cold-weather running gear, so who knows. I may give tomorrow’s W.O.D. a whirl.

Have you ever done CrossFit? Love it, hate it? Share in the comments below!

Updated on Tuesday, January 24, 2011.