CrossFit: too risky or safe enough?
Controversial, addictive workout takes Korea by storm
By Kwaak Je-yup
Sensing a reporter’s presence around them, the dozen or so people at the Wednesday evening session of CrossFit did not grunt as much as usual. But they were still sweating buckets with grimaces on their faces, moving around with dumbbells firmly in their hands or pulling ferociously on the rowing machine.
Their movements inevitably slowed and came to a halt. They then helplessly dropped to the floor, panting and grabbing onto plastic water bottles after each set of exercises.
How does it feel? “Terrible,” “excruciating,” and “about to die” were some of the responses hurled back between their audible gasps.
But their enthusiasm didn’t seem to diminish.
“I’m worried one day I won’t be able to do it anymore,” said Shin Jeong-ho, a public health physician in his late 20s, when asked if he ever considered quitting.
For many, there was no choice: they were severely injured and had to stop. Even Shin admitted that he gave up for two months in the last year because he could not handle the level of intensity.
“I pushed myself too hard beyond my limits.”
Tales of torn Achilles tendons and other body parts are aplenty in the United States, where CrossFit was developed by former gymnast Greg Glassman at the turn of the millennium.
Despite, or perhaps because of, his notorious 2005 interview with the New York Times in which he said “It can kill you,” CrossFit’s allure and membership continue to grow to this day.
It is self-described as “the principal strength and conditioning program for many police academies and tactical operations teams, military special operations units, champion martial artists, and hundreds of other elite and professional athletes worldwide” on its official website. It delivers “broad” and “general” fitness that goes against the specialist model for, say, someone training to run a marathon or hoping to bulk up to become a bodybuilder.
It is essentially a high-intensity workout that mixes aerobic and anaerobic exercises using as many muscles as possible, with few pauses in between. And it changes every day; the website posts “Workout of the Day,” intended to never make two sessions the same.
In Seoul, there are four gyms officially registered with the headquarters in Washington, D.C., with a few more around the country and several unregistered ones that avoid paying the annual $3,000 fee.
It even has corporate support from Reebok, the world’s largest fitness gear brand by revenue and subsidiary of German sportswear company Adidas since 2005. The firm heralded the coming of CrossFit with a high-profile event Wednesday that involved releasing a shipping container from a helicopter in flight.
The understandable fatal attraction to the extreme sports-like workout aside, there is another, more widespread appeal to both gym enthusiasts and business interests.
Though it started as a one-on-one training session, CrossFit’s strong community is its biggest asset.
“This exercise is done in groups, and so we cheer each other on for better results,” said Cho Ah-ra, an oriental medicine specialist who joined the Reebok-sponsored gym in Yeoksam-dong, southern Seoul in November. She added that the good vibe she received from this community spilled over to her patients.
“That is a great plus to this program,” said CrossFit trainer Lee Keun-hyung. “It is a crucial component to maximize impact. There is a productive competition — there is no trophy — but instinctively there is a bond that forms during the experience. They shake hands like soccer players after a match. I never tried to make it happen.”
There is a much larger community online. Lee’s online bulletin board has over 25,000 members. The number of affiliate gyms worldwide has grown from 13 in 2005 to 3,400 this year. And they respond to critics by fine-tuning the daily exercises collectively, according to Lee.
“(CrossFit) leaves all the information open, unlike personal trainers whose fitness programs are their most valuable assets,” he said. “The community makes progress with feedback from around the world.”
Though observers tend to associate the workout system with impossibly fit six-pack types seen in military promotional videos or the Spartan warriors from the 2007 film “300” (who had received CrossFit training before the shoot), the program prides itself in its scalability, the workout’s adaptation to people of different strength levels.
“The needs of Olympic athletes and grandparents differ by degree not kind,” said John Frankl, friend of Glassman’s for decades who opened the fourth-ever CrossFit affiliate in the world in Chico, Calif. in 2003. Six years later, he founded the first dedicated space in Korea, CrossFit SAP, which is near the Konkuk University campus in Hwayang-dong, eastern Seoul.
At the Yeoksam-dong gym, the relentless dozen did look like normal people, though their physical fitness was visible through their t-shirts and shorts. We work out, the muscles seemed to say. To make their scalability argument stronger, even video clips of women over 70 doing CrossFit have circulated online.
Frankl, coached by Glassman in California in 1999 and currently serving as an associate professor of Korean literature at Yonsei University, said he has never been injured through CrossFit.
“You want a good trainer and a good training environment,” he said, when asked to offer advice for those who refrain from joining due to injury fears. “Take some personal responsibility. Know yourself and let your coach be aware of your physical and psychological limits. No coach can make you go over your personal limit.
“You simply have to be honest with yourself.”