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CrossFit gaining strength as exercise trend

Just a couple years ago, terms like WOD, Fran or bar-facing burpee were unfamiliar to most South Floridians. That’s ditto for Pukey the Mascot and Greg Glassman, the former gymnast who founded the intense, grueling fitness craze called CrossFit.

Today, the strength and conditioning program that began in California — and was designed for police academies, commandos, Olympic medalists, pro athletes and martial artists — is a hit with teachers, stay-at home moms, and even kids in Miami and seniors in Hollywood.

Since Marcio Pizanelli opened the first CrossFit gym in South Florida in 2006, about 70 more “boxes” have popped up from Homestead to Fort Lauderdale, most within the past two years. The gyms, which CrossFitters call boxes because most are located in no-frills warehouses, have names that include CrossFit Fever, CrossFit Kingdom and CrossFit Fully Involved. They are independently owned and operated.

“I started it because I believe in it,” said Pizanelli, owner and operator of CrossFit Miami, a 2,000-square-foot space in Doral.

Powered by muscle

Nobody walks on a treadmill and reads Vogue at a CrossFit class. The only machines are rowers powered by muscles. But there are plenty of barbells, kettle bells, climbing ropes, medicine balls and PVC pipes.

The format is simple: a warm-up and a “workout of the day” known as a WOD. They usually are 20 minutes or less, but so draining they exhaust even buff, super trainer Bob Harper of The Biggest Loser TV hit.

“Everyone leaves sweat angels on the floor,” said James Piccolino, a sports chiropractor and avid CrossFitter in Miami.

Except for a few benchmark WODs such as Fran, and “hero” WODs named after fallen soldiers, the workout of the day is never the same. The challenge and variety are part of the appeal.

Glassman developed his ideas on fitness back in the early 1970s, when he was a high school gymnast who wanted to get stronger. His father pulled the family station wagon out of the garage so he could have a space to lift weights. He started with a 110-pound “Ted Williams” weight set bought at Sears. But the traditional weight exercises were not creating the feeling of strength and cardio fatigue that emulated what he went through with his grueling still-ring routines. So he created “Fran.”

It’s 21 thrusters (front squat with a follow-up push press of weight over the head) and 21 pull-ups, followed by sets of 15 and sets of nine, for a total of 45 each. The goal: Complete it as fast as you can.

On a YouTube video, Glassman told a group: “The first time I did it I unceremoniously threw up all over the floor.”

Glassman was so excited, he went across the street to get a fellow gymnast. “Never mind what’s on my shirt, come with me,” he said he told his friend. “A workout was born.”

But it was not until 2000 that he started CrossFit as a company. It had been a cult program, followed by sweat-soaked disciples who were bored by swanky, machine-infested gyms. They were willing to work hard for results.

Pizanelli had learned about the intense program from a friend who had been a firefighter. At the time, the nearest CrossFit gym was in Jupiter and CrossFit was just beginning to evolve into the mainstream.

Pizanelli took the leap and at age 23 debuted CrossFit Miami. “I was No. 175 on the affiliate list,” he said.

Glassman soon began putting his “Workout of the Day” online. Free training videos became available on YouTube. Firemen wearing full gear posted their exhausting-just-to-watch workouts. CrossFit caught fire. During the height of the recession, demand for one of the world’s toughest fitness regimes resulted in the rapid opening of CrossFit gyms. There are now about 3,400 boxes worldwide, with more than 1,000 opening in just the past year, according to the CrossFit website

It helped that CrossFit gyms are relatively cheap to open compared to traditional gyms. Guido Trinidad, a former professional football player, opened Peak360 Athletic Performance CrossFit in Miami in 2009. He said he had just $5,000 in his bank account, “about enough to pay the first month’s rent,” and some equipment he already had purchased when operating a boot camp out of his car.

He mustered another $50,000 to $60,000 in loans to purchase more equipment and the most expensive item: the rubber floor. Watch 300 pounds worth of barbell and weights drop repeatedly on the floor after dead lifts and it’s easy to see why.

Booming business

“I think I paid a little over $2 a square foot for the rubber floor and over $1 a pound for the weights,” Trinidad said. He now has more than 200 members at Peak360 and is about to open another CrossFit on Miami Beach. “Business is booming,” he said.

While CrossFit began as a fitness workout, it also has evolved into a sport. The first CrossFit Games, to crown the world’s “fittest” male and female, were held in 2007 with about 500 competitors. The 2012 CrossFit Games are coming up in July at the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif. More than 70,000 people from around the world participated in open and regional qualifiers, in which athletes have no idea what the competitions will be.

$1 million purse

The top three women and men from each of the 17 regionals worldwide advance to the final three-day competition, which has a $1 million purse with the male and female winners each receiving $250,000.

Trinidad became the first Miami athlete to make the CrossFit Games, when he finished in the top three at the South East Regionals held last month in West Palm Beach.

Rich Froning Jr. of Cookeville, Tenn., will be defending his men’s title. “You can’t necessarily be the best at one thing,” Froning, 24, said. “You need to be good at a bunch of stuff and eliminate your weaknesses. That’s the whole thing about CrossFit.”

He and his cousin began doing CrossFit in his dad’s barn. But he prefers the camaraderie and competitiveness of classes. “The Crossfit community is so strong because of the shared suffering,” he said.

Ron Medina, a roofing contractor, had just finished his WOD during a recent class at Peak360. At 43, he said he’s in the best shape of his life.

“Going to the gym was very boring for me,” he said. “Here, it is like a competition. Today’s workout was only nine minutes, but it was very hard. I’m pretty sure everybody wanted to pass out at the end.”

But while CrossFit is growing in leaps and bounds now, Walter R. Thompson, professor of exercise science at Georgia State University, said it’s likely to become just another fitness fad. High-intensity training programs, like CrossFit and Insanity, did not make the top 20 of the 2011 annual survey of 20,000 certified trainers of the American College of Sports Medicine. And he doesn’t expect it to crack the top 20 for the upcoming 2012 survey.

“CrossFit is real attractive because it’s new and sexy,” said Thompson, who heads the survey and has been studying fitness trends for 32 years. “But my suspicion is the rate of injuring is going to be so high it’s going to fall off.”

Thompson also said he does not believe CrossFit is “sustainable” because it’s trying to appeal to everyone. “Once these companies like CrossFit and Insanity start messing with their core, not their core muscles but their core marketing strategies, and adapt to older people and people with chronic disease and maybe disabilities, it becomes a hybrid program. You may have the CrossFit brand, but it’s no longer the CrossFit program.”

Reebok, one of the world’s largest makers of sports footwear and apparel, disagrees with that short shelf-life assessment.

“I’ve seen all [the fitness fads] come and go, but CrossFit is here to stay,” said Chris Froio, vice president of fitness and training for Reebok.

The global company, with $3 billion in sales, is banking on CrossFit to help the company with it’s new direction — turning to its fitness roots, a reaction to the loss of its 10-year contract with the National Football League and its purchase six years ago by Adidas. In 2010, Reebok signed a 10-year deal with CrossFit that includes title sponsorship of the CrossFit Games, which a Forbes blogger called one of the fastest-growing sports.

The sponsorship was not a snappy decision. Reebok spent a couple of years exploring many types of fitness activities. “Along the way, we stumbled onto CrossFit,” Froio said, discovering that some employees were trying the exercises on the back field of Reebok’s Massachusetts headquarters. “Basically, it spurred about 20 of us to try it. We instantly fell in love with the whole physical part, and the social, community and team environment it provides.”

But, Froio conceded, “I was as skeptical as anybody when I first started researching it.”

Froning said he thinks Reebok’s sponsorship makes the fitness workout with the macho image more appealing to the masses. “It may be kind of scary at first. But put a name like Reebok and there is a sense of security. Maybe I can try it. And the beauty of CrossFit is that it’s not just for competitors like me. You can scale it back.”

Reebok owns two CrossFit gyms for its employees near Boston. It also is affiliated with about 50 CrossFit gyms in 20 countries, but only three are in the United States. One of them is Reebok Miami Beach CrossFit.

Reebok backing

“The Miami Beach box is in close proximity to athletes, celebrities and employees,” Froio said. “We want to be anywhere there is an epicenter of the Reebok brand. But we do not want the independent affiliates to think Reebok is coming in and opening monster gyms to put them out of business. There is nothing further from the truth.”

Reebok wants CrossFit to thrive, so CrossFitters will buy zillions of dollars worth of their shoes and apparel designed especially for the strength and conditioning program in which people can sprint, lift weights and jump in the same workout. CrossFit’s motto is “our specialty is not specializing.” Reebok launches its new CrossFit line on June 1.YouTube had played a big role in bringing the CrossFit community together. On one YouTube posting, Glassman explained how he came to name the infamous Fran WOD. “Anything that left you flat on the back, looking up at the sky and asking what the [expletive] happened to me deserved a female’s name … right?” Glassman said. “They’re not old girlfriends. They’re just like storms. If hurricanes that wreak havoc on the whole town can be Fran, so can a workout.”

Most CrossFitters know their Fran time. “Having a sub 2 minute and 30 second Fran is amazing, like running under a 4-minute mile,” Piccolino said. Froio said his best Fran is 4:37, “kind of mediocre.”

But there are risks with CrossFit. In 2005, Glassman began warning his followers about exertional rhabdomyolysis, which he described in a CrossFit journal entry as a “potentially lethal systemic meltdown initiated by the kidneys in response to the presence of shed muscle-fiber debris and exhaust in the bloodstream.”

CrossFit now requires training certification through the American National Standards Institute. Trainers learn how to properly demonstrate exercises and movements, and how to work with individual participants to ensure they are doing the workouts with proper intensity and the right amount of weights for their fitness level — for both results and safety.

Marcus St. John, a 39-year-old cardiologist at West Kendall Baptist Hospital, works out regularly at Peak360 CrossFit. He said while there is risk of different types of injury, workouts are generally safe if done correctly and without ego.

“I’m OK lifting the same weight as the women,” said St. John, who stands at six feet eight but is thin at 205 pounds.

Vidal Lazo turned a Tire Kingdom in Miami into a CrossFit Kingdom nearly three years ago. He said it offers something for everybody.

“CrossFit on YouTube looks intimidating,” Lazo said. “But the majority of people in CrossFit are regular people. … There is CrossFit for kids, teens, masters over 45, disabled veterans and women who are pregnant. It’s adaptable.”

CrossFit makes money on trainings for certification and specialty seminars, most of which are sold out months in advance now. It also licenses its name to gyms for an annual fee. Pizanelli pays just $500 per year since he was among the early CrossFit affiliates. Shondelle Soloman-Miles, who transformed her Synergize gym in Hollywood into CrossFit 954 in 2009, pays $2,000 per year. Now the license fee is about $3,000 per year and expected to rise, she said.

“It’s still way less than a franchise with no independence,” she said. “I like that you can run your box the way you want to.”

In South Florida, most CrossFit gyms charge an average of $125 per month. While it’s more expensive than most traditional gym memberships, it comes with trainers who work with you at every session.

Surprisingly, women make up the majority of CrossFitters at many South Florida gyms. Many also work out at home.

“When I turned 41, everything started heading south,” said Helen Mopsick, a mother of three young boys. Her husband, Adam, trains her, as well as her sister and friend, at 5:30 a.m.

“In just three weeks, it changes your body,” Mopsick said. “And it’s exciting to do a pull-up. I’m doing things I wasn’t able to do as a child.”

Passionate fans

Soloman-Miles recently led a class with her workout of the day that included 10 bar-facing burpees, which she had a college student demonstrate. “You jump down, kick your legs back, let your chest touch the ground, kick your legs in and jump up. Then you jump over the barbell lying on the ground,” she said.

A few yards away, Nadine Laurent, 37, was doing 215-pound dead lifts. A year ago she could only do 110 pounds.

“Right now, CrossFit is growing so rapidly; maybe at some point it will fizzle out,” said Solomon-Miles, 37. “But I still think there will always be a CrossFit population of people passionate about it. I’ll be doing this until I’m 90 with a walking stick.”