The sound of weights smashing against the floor boomed through the gym at 55 Crescent Street in Stamford on a recent Monday evening, as Crossfit gym goers practiced their overhead squats. For some, it was a few dozen pounds slamming on the floor between sets; for others, the weights reached weights of more than 100 pounds, crashing a thicker echo into the humid evening air.
As the first 5 p.m. class for Iron Resolve Crossfit, a new gym in Stamford’s Glenbrook area – and the city’s fifth Crossfit location – attendance was sparse. But those who were able to make it in immediately after the end of the official workday were sweating enough for a busload of athletes, with shirts soaked through only five minutes into the hour-long class.
Crossfit – a high-intensity workout that throws a constantly varying lineup of strength- and endurance-based moves at participants in an effort to prepare them for any physical challenge that may come their way, like Monday’s Workout of the Day (which Crossfitters call WODs) which consisted of five rounds of 15 pull ups and 15 wall balls in succession as fast as possible, with a time cap of 12 minutes – is a growing trend across the nation.
It began in the late 1990s, when the first gym opened up on the West Coast, and by 2005, there were more than 1,500 gyms operating. These days, the number of CrossFit centers has exceeded 4,500 in the continental U.S., including 77 in Connecticut – and 18 in Southwestern Connecticut.
Iron Resolve, opened in March by Felipe Polanco and Mike Nguyen, is an extension of the franchise. Two months after opening its doors on High Ridge Road in Stamford, the business was already bursting at the seams and Polanco and Nguyen had to find a bigger space for the growing gym. These days, it’s located in a massive warehouse-style gym on a tiny, industrial side street in Stamford. Thanks to the move, the people working out with the duo have more space to sweat, stretch and slam the weights.
In an effort to learn more about CrossFit, a trend I sometimes heard described as cult-like and too-intense, I signed up for a three-week on-ramp training course at the gym so I could see what it’s really like. My on-ramp, which ran on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday nights, had about 10 people in it. During the first week, when we were still in the High Ridge facility, quarters were tight. But by week two, it was like working out in an empty bowling alley – a super hot and sweaty, turf-lined bowling alley
The Crossfit franchise is known for its intensity, but at Iron Resolve, there’s also an everyman aspect of the fitness fad. The people in the on-ramp ranged in age from their 20s to 40s, and our sizes and fitness levels were just as varied. From the couple who wanted to get back into shape after their first year of marriage, to 42-year-old Lana Buccieri who was looking for a fitness trend that she’d finally love, and the new employee at a hedge fund where almost everyone on staff swore by the sport, reasons for joining ran the gamut.
So did our expectations.
“One of my goals was just to be able to do a single pull up,” Buccieri said earlier this week in a follow-up phone interview. She’s through the on-ramp now, and has been heading to the gym three or four times a week for the past six weeks. “I haven’t gotten that far. I’m still doing ring rows, but I know each time I go, I get a little bit stronger.”
She has to scale a lot – which essentially means that she rarely does the full, prescribed, workout, but uses a smaller amount of weight or modifies a skill like pull ups or handstand pushups – but that’s just fine with her.
“In an odd way, it’s very comforting,” she said. “It sounds ridiculous, but it’s comforting to have such a wide variety of people, because they really try to get you to focus on competing against yourself … Having all the different levels reminds you of where you’ve been and where you can get to, and it still makes you feel OK that you are where you are. And that camaraderie, it makes a big difference.”
The scaling is just fine with Polanco, too, who said he’d rather see people in his gym focus on form until they nail it and build up to big weights than see them hurt themselves because they weren’t prepared for something.
“What good does that do, if you lift a ton of weight and break something or hurt yourself? Then you’re out. Then it’s not fun, because you’re hurt,” he said over a cup of coffee.
Injuries and stupidity have given CrossFit a bad reputation over the years, and that’s not something he’s interested in participating he said matter-of-factly.
“There are a lot of incidences of muscle breakdown and injuries for people who are doing these things, especially in addition to other training, giving them fatigued bodies and a number of injuries,” said Michael F. Bergeron, executive director of the National Youth Sports & Safety Institute, and a scientist with the American College of Sports Medicine who has penned a study about military-style workout routines like CrossFit.
In addition to concerns about injuries, CrossFit has also been criticized for elitism, with membership makeup consisting of one-percenters.
Sure, there are plenty of hedge funders on the gym’s roster, and at about $200 a month, the membership price demands a more affluent crowd than your typical chain gym like LA Fitness or New York Sports Club. But on that Monday night in early July, there were three people in the 5 p.m. calss: A 32-year-old registered nurse; a 36-year-old teacher and a 55-year-old North Stamford resident, all grunting as they thrust metal barbells over their heads.
“Yeah, we have a lot of hedge funders and blah blah blah, but if you think about it, those guys, they’re really type-A, competitive people, and that’s what CrossFit is,” Polanco said.
“CrossFit is what you make of it,” he continues. “It can either be as competitive as all hell, and that’s where the hedge fund guys come in, or it can be just going in for a kick-ass workout, which is what our 73-year-old guy does. He just comes in, doesn’t plan on doing anything RX. He scales stuff, but he comes in for a workout and a laugh and then he leaves.”
At first, the very idea of performing some of these WODs can be just as paralyzing as is if someone asked you to hike Mt. Everest, but after a while, it’s all in a day’s work. For example, on the first night of on-ramp, people are told to complete four rounds of five burpees, 10 sit ups and 15 squats as quickly as possible. For me, a 27-year-old reporter who’d let her body situate into a softer form than she would like over the past couple years, it sounded like a daunting challenge, and I completed it in six minutes and three seconds.
“The look on your face that first night, it was clear, you were just all about survival,” Polanco told me a few weeks later as I admitted just how terrified I’d been in the beginning, before cutting my time down to four minutes and 44 seconds during the last session. “But then that last night, I saw this switch flip and it’s like you were out for blood.”
Buccieri’s experience was similar. On the first night, she didn’t quite make it through all the movements in the prescribed time. But three weeks later, I chanted and screamed with the former stranger as I counted her reps, “You’re gonna finish in time, Lana! You’re gonna do it!”
And she did, in around seven-and-a-half minutes, a moment she described as a total victory for herself.
“I think people, they hear you describing it or trying to describe it, and you just always feel like you have to say, ‘You had to be there,’” she said this week. “And once you explained it, or you found like a YouTube clip you can show them, the look at you, as if to say, ‘Are you kidding me? You do this?’ But since you’ve started doing it, it doesn’t feel nearly as intimidating. You think, ‘Wow. If I can do this, what else can I do?’”
And there it is – the mystique that keeps the trend growing, and feeds Polanco’s confidence in the idea that taking the risk to open his gym was indeed a safe bet.
“It’s just addicting,” he said. “That’s it. It’s fun. It’s hard. It’s crazy – and it’s addicting.”