Crossfit or Crossing the Line?

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At 5:30 a.m., Harrisonburg is dead quiet and the sky is pitch black; streetlights still illuminate the roads as three or four cars drive down a traffic-free Port Republic Road. Much of the city is asleep, but JMU psychology professor Tracy Zinn is wide-awake, crouched in position and waiting for her signal.

“3. 2. 1, GO!” instructor Grady Ruckman yells. Nine minutes on the clock.

Zinn sprints down the street, hits the designated 100-meter mark and races back through the gym’s propped-open doors. She hits the floor, quickly finishes her set of 11 sit-ups and then, without hesitating, pulls her body up off the ground and goes into 11 air squats.

As Tracy speeds through her last squat, she turns and takes off out the door again, only to return through the gym doors and add 11 more repetitions to each exercise.

For nine minutes, Zinn repeats the routine, adding an additional 11 repetitions to each round until Ruckman calls out “Done!” in the midst of Zinn’s fourth round and set of 44 squats.

Tracy places her hands on her hips and steadies her breathing as Ruckman asks around the room for everyone’s scores. When Ruckman arrives at Tracy, she hesitates, briefly unable to remember where she finished. But within seconds, she recalls her score and laughs at her fleeting moment of forgetfulness.

Ruckman records each individual’s score on the large whiteboard in the front of the room, congratulates everyone on their hard work and gives the group two minutes to rest before starting the second half of the full workout.

Four days a week, this is Zinn’s morning routine. Welcome to CrossFit.

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Tracy has always been a fan of physical hobbies and working out. She has been lifting weights for over 20 years and has participated in one marathon, two half marathons, and dozens of 5 and 10K races. She always struggled, though, with what to do once she arrived at the gym for her regular workouts.

“When our kids were just born I worked out at home,” Zinn said. “So I’d go into the garage and be like, ‘I’ll do this, this and this’ and then be like, ‘Or you know, maybe instead of five sets I’ll do three; maybe instead of 10 reps I’ll do eight.’ It’s easy to do what you like and leave out what you don’t.”

So when Tracy’s husband gave her the unconventional gift of 10 CrossFit classes for Christmas, Tracy was eager to start a workout program that was pre-planned for her.

In CrossFit, workouts are called WODs, which stands for Workout Of the Day. WODs are short, high-intensity workouts that are typically between eight to 15 minutes long and include a combination of gymnastics, weight-lifting and some form of cardio. Before each WOD, individuals stretch for 10 minutes and then spend 15 to 20 minutes completing a designated strength exercise that involves one movement, such as bench pressing or squats, and a combination of reps.

In addition, there are levels to every WOD so that workouts are scaled to person’s fitness level. Level 3 is designed for competition-level athletes who are in the CrossFit games or trying to make regionals; Level 1 includes only bodyweight exercises and no Olympic lifts; Level 2 is a scaled-down version of level 3.

“When people come in, they can decide what they want to do,” Zinn said. “Depending on the day, I might do level 3 or level 2 or if I’m sore a day or I just want to take it easy, I’ll do level 1.”

But for Zinn and other CrossFit members alike, CrossFit is more than just a workout program or a gym — it’s a team, a family, a second home.

“It’s similar to something like P90x from what I know because they do the programming for you,” Zinn said. “But as far as the social and community aspect of it, that really is what makes it different.”

When a member finishes his or her workout, the member cheers on the remaining people who are still working on their own reps and sets. Encouraging members isn’t a requirement nor is it taught, but Zinn says that’s “how it is.”

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CrossFit gyms also tend to participate in various community-service projects such as toy drives around Christmas and 5K fundraisers. This past year, CrossFit Harrisonburg raised over $42,000 in their Barbells for Boobs Event, raising the most money out of any CrossFit gym in the nation.

“CrossFit has an incredible sense of community.” JMU psychology alumna Amanda Olimpio (’14) said, “When you go, it’s like you’re playing on a sports team rather than working out individually.”

When Olimpio lived in Harrisonburg, she attended CrossFit six times a week. Zinn was Olimpio’s research team advisor during her senior year, but the two also attended CrossFit together up to three times a week.

“Everyone is so encouraging and positive. The CrossFit community became my second family while I was at JMU,” said Olimpio.

However, CrossFit has come under some extreme scrutiny in the past year and received a large amount of negative media attention.

“While CrossFit motivates its followers to exercise, the growing fear is that the current model and lack of monitoring is more likely to build broken bodies than create a healthier nation,” Livestrong author Brooke Ross wrote in an article titled “The Controversy Behind Crossfit.”

Former athlete, coach and health-and-fitness promoter Erin Simmons, meanwhile, has criticized the fitness craze on The Huffington Post, saying CrossFit “seems to think that the more pain you are in, whether on that day or the days following the workout, the better. The more you disregard the pain and keep pushing through it, the ‘tougher’ you are. But this is not true, and more importantly, it’s not healthy.”

Zinn disagrees. She says there are rarely more than 10 people in the gym at one time, so  instructors are available if you need one-on-one attention. You are also encouraged to listen to your body and be self-aware about what you can and cannot do.

“You have to focus on what you’re doing,” Zinn said. “There are people that have such egos that they will try to do things that they shouldn’t do, but that’s not CrossFit’s fault, that’s their fault.”

Out of all the criticism, Zinn’s favorite misconception is that everyone gets hurt.

“People who run hurt their knee, get IT issues, get plantar fasciitis. People who play football are hurt all the time. People that play soccer get concussions,” Zinn explains. “So what I think is amazing is that when it’s CrossFit, it’s because of CrossFit and it’s a problem with CrossFit when in other sports, it’s not an issue with the sport.”

Olimpio, who has not continued to do CrossFit after graduating because of the cost of the program where she lives in Northern Virginia, doesn’t think CrossFit encourages unhealthy exercise habits, but can understand why some people have a negative attitude toward CrossFit after not participating for the past six months.

“It does get annoying when people talk about CrossFit 24/7,” Olimpio said, “When you’re involved in CrossFit, it doesn’t annoy you when people constantly talk about it. I imagine it’s somewhat like a sorority. To the people on the outside, it seems ridiculous, but to the people in the sorority, it’s fun and not annoying at all.”

But despite the controversy about CrossFit, Zinn still encourages people to give it a shot. She believes it challenges people to develop skills they never gave a chance and teaches a good lesson about focusing on yourself and what you can do, rather than comparing yourself to others.

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In fact, Zinn, who considers focusing on weight a dangerous dependent measure, has seen how CrossFit and its members encourage a healthy body image.

“I went to the doctor and found out I’ve actually gained 15 pounds since I started doing it,” Zinn said, “so I texted a couple of my girlfriends and a couple of my CrossFit friends that. My girlfriends were like ‘It’s OK, don’t worry about it,’ and my CrossFit friends were like ‘That’s awesome! That’s amazing! Do you know how much stronger you are?’ It’s a completely different reaction.”

And a different reaction is what Zinn wants when others hear the word “CrossFit” because, as she puts it, “you’re not just coming to the gym, it’s more than that.”