Pulse: At Your Service: Pitch a Fit

It’s sweeping Philly. But can CrossFit really become the workout for people who hate working out?

CrossFit — the new fitness craze now offered at 15 area gyms — basically works this way: You do super-intense workouts in very short bursts (some workouts last as little as seven minutes), and your body snaps into shape. It’s designed to get people like me, who are hardly exercise lovers, back into the gym on a regular basis. I was skeptical. But Dan Kramli, the owner of New Hope Fitness, told me that if I gave him 30 days, I’d become a convert. Here goes.

[sidebar]Day 1: Most of the workouts are named after women (don’t ask), and my first is Fran: 21 “thrusters” (thrusting a 35-pound weight bar above my head) and 21 pull-ups, followed by rounds of 15 and 9, respectively, which you’re supposed to do as quickly as you can. My hands are bleeding from the pull-ups, of which I can only do two before needing a green band to assist me getting over the bar. Memories of Ms. Whitman, my drill sergeant gym teacher at Woodrow Wilson Junior High, flood my brain. I end up with a final time of 28 minutes.

Day 2: I am assigned 150 “wall balls,” squatting and then throwing a 8-pound medicine ball above my head, against a wall, 150 times. I group them in spurts of 15, but by the halfway point my arms and shoulders are starting to scream. Time: 16:16. It feels like 16 days.

Day 3: I have to do as many sets as possible of 5 squats, 10 push-ups, and 15 sit-ups in 10 minutes. How can 10 minutes today feel longer than the 16 minutes I did yesterday? I manage 4 rounds before crumpling in a sweaty heap. Saying to myself, “Screw it, I deserve it,” that night I treat myself to a vanilla milkshake. A vision of Dan as an evil genie floats above me.

Day 4: No workout. Thank God.

Day 5: On my own at the gym, I tackle a regimen of 300 jump rope rotations and 150 sit-ups, which takes me 29 minutes. A middle-aged woman shoots me a look that says, “What’s the fat guy doing skipping rope?”, probably because I jump like a fifth-grade girl at St. Dominic’s. Tom Molnar, another trainer, claps his hands rapidly, saying, “Remember our motto: ‘Let’s do it!’” I flip him the bird. I send Dan a text: “Pathetic!” He texts back, “We need to change your attitude.”

Day 6: Due to schedule conflicts, I am now in the unenviable position of having to do a workout at 9 pm and then come back tomorrow at 7 am. Ugh. Tonight is Helen: rowing (400 meters), 21 cowbell lifts, then 12 pull-ups. I clock in at 18:49. My arms feel like rubber.

Day 7: I’m in at 7 AM with hunky Dana Cole, who is pinch-hitting for Dan, who is away. We go through his long tutorial about proper form for holding a 20-pound ball, squatting, and shrugging your shoulders, digging your feet into the floor through your heels. Midway through he keeps yelling, “Heels! Heels!” I snap back, “Stop yelling at me!” A guy doing pull-ups nearby chuckles. I show some flashes of good form, but most of it is — as it has been since I started this a week ago — a Bataan death march to when the clock stops ticking. After the 15 minutes are up I have completed 6 rounds of the medicine ball squats (10 each) and push-ups (5 each). And I have now found someone I despise more than Dan.

Day 8: I am troubled by how much I now look forward to my “off” days. Am I not supposed to fall in love with working out?

Day 9: Back to wall balls. I remain severely winded, and I feel like I am losing form from my first go round. But I cut almost 3 minutes off the time, to 13:17. But I am nagged that part of that improvement came at the expense of my form, which went to hell in the last few rounds. I tried to channel Dana screaming “heels!” as I squatted and threw the ball, but as my quads yelp in pain I feel myself getting woozy in my stance. Not a good day. Later, I don’t feel as stiff or sore as I did after the first time around, which I take as either (a) me getting in better shape from all of this or (b) me cheating.

Day 10: The 10-minute torture (squats/push-ups/sit-ups) returns. I match the first time –4 rounds — and am bummed. No improvement. I fear this is the price I am paying for the pancakes I ate yesterday. I feel sweaty and exhausted, but not to the point of death, as I did last time. But I definitely showed better form on these, as opposed to the Wall Ball Fiasco. What does this all mean? I text Dan with an update, telling him I only matched the previous time, but that I did, I think, keep better form. “That’s what way it’s supposed to work,” he replies. Good.

Day 11: I trudge to the gym late, around 8:30, to do the jump rope and sit-up routine. I end up cutting the time by almost 3 minutes, to 26:40. This workout doesn’t feel as punishing, something I am loathe to admit to Dan, for fear he’ll replace it with something worse.

Day 12: My off day, but I come in for 45 minutes on the elliptical anyway. Such dedication! (And atonement for the doughnut I ate this morning.)

Day 13: Agh! My first missed day. I have to work late, and I didn’t realize I was going to have to work late, so I didn’t schedule a morning workout. Now I won’t be home till after 9, and that’s going to be too late to make it to the gym. Dan is nonplussed but seemingly understanding. I text him, promising I will make it up with a harder workout tomorrow. He texts back: “You certainly will.”

Day 14: At the gym at 7 AM, we are back to… Fran. But this time I am going to do it with the assisted pull-up machine, a testament to my lame performance on the pull-up bar. I race through the routine in under 9 minutes, cutting my last time by half, but it’s not apples to apples, so I am a bit deflated. Instead of making me feel good, I can only feel bad about how obviously a wreck I was the first go-round. And now I feel worse, because it’s evident Dan has had to scale back the intensity of the workout because I am far more out of shape than he first thought. I leave the workout stiff, sweaty, and bummed.

Day 15: I am not due for a day off, but now that the schedule is already kaflooey I decide to take it here and then start over again and get back on track on Saturday. I feel the few pounds I’ve lost oozing back on.

Day 16: Down the shore for the weekend, I cut another 30 seconds off my 150 wall balls time, but am happier that my form is maintaining better, and that I am able to do more of them in each round (20 at a time rather than 15, with a final 30 push). Winded and sweaty, I try to walk off on Gumby legs afterward. My sister-in-law looks out of the window of our beach house. Her look says either she’s impressed at my commitment or she’s about to speed-dial Shore Memorial Hospital. I can’t tell.

Day 17: The 10-minute round. This time I only get through 3 rounds and then 7 sit-ups before the clock tings. Damn! A setback. I try to convince myself this is because I am really using good form, so it’s harder, but the truth is much more likely that it’s because I am doing this at 9 at night after I have taken a long walk earlier in the day. I am simply too tired.

Day 18: Dan introduces me to “The Filthy Fifty,” which is a series of 10 different moves, each done 25 times (except the last, jump rope). It’s normally 50 times, but since I am chubby and middle-aged, he is “modifying” for me (translation: cutting in half so I don’t end up needing paramedics). I label the routine “Dan,” because, well, I hate it. The lineup: Step-ups on a bench, pull-ups on the rings, kettle bells swings, walking knee lunges, wall balls, in-a-contraption raises/sit-ups, jump rope, drops to the floor followed by a push-up then a clap… Who the hell invents this stuff? I manage to clock in at just under a half hour. I think I have figured out what they were making the prisoners do at Abu Graib.

Day 19: Off. I eat some melon. I certainly feel better, but the whole sell of CrossFit is that (a) it’s short and (b) it’s addictive. I concede it’s shorter than most workouts, but addictive? Chocolate chip cookies are addictive. Martinis are addictive. This, not so much.

Day 20: I cut a whole 20 seconds off my Helen time and I have to admit: I am far less winded this time around. Could this stuff actually work?

Day 21: I do my jump rope/sit-ups workout and slice more than four minutes off the time, clocking in at 24:40, though I still jump rope like someone should be singing “A my name is Anna and I come from Alabama” during it. That night I try on a pair of pants that haven’t fit in months. They button. I’m beginning to see the CrossFit light.

Day 22: Motivated, I tackle my wall balls workout and push myself harder than ever before. In the end, I do the 150 — with good form — in just over 8 minutes: half the time I started at. Wowza! I text Dan with my exciting news, and he plays proud papa. “You weren’t supposed to be able to do that yet,” he writes. “Good job!”

Day 23: My day off. I feel good. Tired, but good.

And Now, We Interrupt Our Regularly Scheduled Workout: I take a week’s vacation down the Shore and pay for it, as my jump rope and wall ball gather dust. The beauty of CrossFit is its portability: Most of the workouts are really short and don’t require you even be inside an actual gym. Nevertheless my vacation evidently also means a vacation from CrossFit, as I slide into a morass of bad Boardwalk food and post-beach cocktail hours. I avoid texting Dan, who I imagine upon my return will look at me the way parents do when they find weed in their 15-year-old’s room.

Days 24-30: As anyone facing the gym the day after New Year’s can attest, getting back on the horse — or in this case, Fran — after drifting away from your workout routine is, shall we say, a challenge. I do my best, and Dan adopts a patient, Mike Brady-ish “Kid, you can do it” attitude, but as I limp to the finish line of my month of CrossFit, I feel…eh. Although my midsection is still more Jell-O than “Hello!,” I have dropped a few pounds (which would have been more had the Boardwalk not intervened) and my legs look amazing (even my sister-in-law Jean, not prone to notice such things, was impressed). More important, I feel better: my heart feels stronger, I am no longer winded going up inclines and stairs, even my skin is clearer. But I fall short of the CrossFit cult that has sprung up in Philly. Perhaps I will just never be the type who will set the alarm for 5 AM, venturing out into the cold to run my 2K before work. Which leaves me with one question: Are you going to eat that last slice of pizza?