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CrossFit an intense workout with a competitive twist

Christine Koesler (left) and Nykie Marzilli prepare to lift at CrossFit in Cambridge.

The Boston Globe

Christine Koesler (left) and Nykie Marzilli prepare to lift at CrossFit in Cambridge.

CAMBRIDGE — If you’ve never seen CrossFit, in all its heavy-lifting, grunt-inducing, sweat-pooling glory, then imagine a workout designed by sadists for masochists.

I first saw the fitness regimen-turned-competition in a broadcast of the CrossFit Games. The event showcased the best of the best, a group of shirtless, cartoonishly muscled men from around the world going through repetitions of weight-bearing lunges, pull-ups, rope climbs, push jerks, and handstand walks.

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Some people watch such displays and ask, “Why not?” Then they rush to the nearest CrossFit gym (a “box,” if you’re in the know) and lunge or handstand-walk ahead. After all, the fast-growing CrossFit had 138,000 competitors in last year’s CrossFit Games representing 84 countries. The North East Regional takes place May 30-June 1 in Canton.

CrossFit differs from traditional weight training and gym workouts with its seemingly endless variety of exercises done in unique, limit-testing combinations. One day, a session might include handstand pushups, jumping rope, time on a rowing machine, and a move called toes-to-bar in which participants hang from a bar and repeatedly touch their toes to it. The next day, the workout might involve running, kettlebell swings, dead lifts, lunges, and ring dips, in which participants lower themselves between two hanging rings.

Aiming to improve strength, endurance, and flexibility with “functional movements” performed at a high intensity (think lots of weight lifted and lots of reps done in a short period of time), CrossFit often encourages a distinctly aggressive and competitive atmosphere. For many, that’s a large part of the attraction.

I watched the hyper-intense, hyper-competitive CrossFit Games on TV and asked, “Why would you ever want to do something like that?”

When it comes to heavy lifting, communication between my arms and my brain sometimes comes to a screeching halt. The upshot: I’m more likely to knock myself out than lift anything above shoulder height. And truthfully, I’d rather run 20 miles than lift weights for 15 minutes. To each her own masochistic endeavors.

But CrossFit nevertheless made me curious. So, one day, I found myself outside CrossFit Medusa. The storefront near Porter Square marked my entry into the world of burpees and thrusters and box jumps and double unders and wallballs.

While there are more than 8,000 CrossFit gyms in the US, only two cater to women only. One of those is CrossFit Medusa. That was part of the appeal.

Instructor Liz Mellen spotted Christine Koesler on a hand stand push up at Crossfit in Cambridge.

Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff

Instructor Liz Mellen spotted Christine Koesler on a hand stand push up at Crossfit in Cambridge.

I have nothing against shirtless men lifting heavy weights in workouts that invite competitiveness, but I wasn’t sure that was the best setting for learning CrossFit basics. Also, I’d read enough about CrossFit to know that it has a high injury rate, particularly when exercises are done too quickly or with improper form or with weights that are too heavy or all of the above. CrossFit encourages participants to push limits, but it’s easy to overdo it.

A beginner-level class minus the machismo seemed a smart first move.

“If you had never done CrossFit before and walked into a co-ed CrossFit box, you might see 10 shirtless men walking on their hands,” said CrossFit Medusa owner Liz Mellen. “We take it a little slower, but it’s the same CrossFit.

“Is CrossFit dangerous? Crossing the street is dangerous. But if you know to look both ways, it’s not. And that’s how we impart CrossFit to the masses.”

Translation: Understand the proper form and technique behind each movement before you go full speed or try it with heavy weights. For that reason, CrossFit Medusa requires newbies like myself take at least 10 “Elements” classes in which coaches teach fundamental CrossFit skills.

Some of what I saw on TV was practiced in Medusa’s workouts, just broken down into manageable parts. Much of what I tried at Medusa’s was familiar to me from weightlifting workouts in college and even from my junior high gym class conducted by a no-nonsense Korean War veteran. Not surprisingly, the fitness regimen-turned-competition attracts large numbers of military personnel, and they excel at it.

A bit shaky to start

When I entered CrossFit Medusa — with large images of its namesake, the snake-haired Greek monster, staring from the walls along with its mythology-inspired motto of “Turn your body into stone” — I knew this wouldn’t be a watered-down experience.

I wasn’t fooled by the eight women stretching and chatting on the floor. You could pick out the ones who’d been practicing CrossFit the longest by their broad, muscled shoulders. Not close to stone, but still impressive.

The conversation centered around the all-important “WOD” — Workout of the Day — that typically forms the centerpiece of CrossFit sessions. Everything in class builds to the WOD, which is posted online the evening before workouts.

“I definitely enjoy my CrossFit fix,” said Christine Koesler, a model/actress who has become devoted to CrossFit after first trying it three months ago. “It’s nice to talk about our workouts or goals. It’s definitely a community.”

Koesler attends workouts five to six times per week and checks the WOD before each class to “mentally prepare for what I’ll be doing.”

When I showed up, I was not mentally prepared at all for what CrossFit entailed.

My first workout started with your standard stretching and foam rolling, then moved on to lunges and burpees, an exercise in which you essentially jump down into a pushup, then jump back up to a standing position.

Next, we took out PVC pipes and practiced the movement for snatches, a type of Olympic lift where you draw the bar over your chest and snatch it above your head, then finish in a full squat.

For me, it wasn’t pretty with a PVC pipe and it wasn’t pretty with an actual 55-pound weight bar. What should have been a fluid movement from start to finish looked herky-jerky, with my elbows and knees always pointed in the wrong direction.

The instructor, Beth Bryant, did her best to offer encouragement.

“When you’re bringing the bar up, think of zipping up a jacket,” she offered. “Don’t forget to squat at the end” (I often left out the second half of the movement).

Seeing my struggles, other members of the class told me it was just a matter of “muscle memory,” though I wasn’t so sure.

Sense of accomplishment

The class moved on to the WOD, and I did a modified version that involved increasing repetitions of ring rows — basically holding on to a pair of hanging rings and going through a rowing motion — and squats with a weight bar held above my head. The sets were timed, and I had to finish a certain number of ring rows and squats to continue the WOD. And as the repetitions increased, the amount of rest decreased.

When the WOD started, the gym came alive with a flurry of activity as the other women hustled between chest-to-bar pull-ups and overhead squats. There were intermittent shouts of encouragement coming from all corners.

“You got this!”

“One more!”

“Almost done!”

It was hard not to get caught up in the frenzy. Although many of the exercises practiced in CrossFit will be familiar to people with athletic or military backgrounds, the timed or rep-driven WODs add novelty and give the regimen its competitive mass appeal.

It wasn’t until I quasi-completed the WOD that I learned the workout was part of the worldwide Open competition. Over five weeks, the CrossFit powers that be post five WODs, and those workouts are scored (either in person by a judge or with video evidence) by how many reps are done or how quickly they are completed. The top 48 men, 48 women, and 30 teams from each region proceed to the regionals.

But at Medusa’s, it wasn’t about making the CrossFit Games.

“I know people talk about how cultish it is and how people obsess about CrossFit, but whatever you achieve at the gym doesn’t end at the gym,” said Bomin Kim, an architecture graduate student at Harvard who’s been practicing CrossFit for two years. “These skills are applicable to every part of your life — moving forward, setting goals for yourself.”

Even if I looked every bit the CrossFit novice and even if Bryant had to remind me to keep my elbows locked every time I picked up the weight bar and attempted a squat, I still felt as if I was accomplishing something. For a weight workout, it was far from the tedium I’d experienced with other routines.

“People who come to CrossFit find that their bodies are stronger and more capable than they realized,” said Bryant. “You have to have perseverance and drive to get through the workout.”

All true. And WODs change every day. When I returned a few days later, I added back squats to my repertoire and completed a modified WOD of ring rows, push-ups, and box jumps. It still wasn’t pretty. Again, I was told that with a little “muscle memory,” I’d get there.

Based on how sore my arms and shoulders were the next day, I’m pretty sure all my muscles wanted to do was forget. Still, it was the kind of sore that let’s you know you’ve challenged yourself.

Was I hooked? Not exactly. But I was thinking back to what first made me curious about CrossFit. And I wondered if someday I might climb ropes with only my arms and walk on my hands.

Shira Springer can be reached at springer@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ShiraSpringer
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