The CrossFit workout seems intimidating but it's actually not

It's that time of year when the gyms are packed with new members working on that New Year's resolution to finally get in shape, lose a few pounds or just be healthier.

I'm not big on making resolutions, but late last year I found myself growing bored with my fitness routine. I was hitting a plateau, getting bored easily and losing motivation. I needed to shake things up. I resolved to find something new, and soon.

Ryan Shupe, owner and instructor at CrossFit Seven in Fort Worth, felt the same way just a few years ago. A former college and professional tennis player, Shupe dabbled in several fitness routines before his quest for something new prompted him to do a Google search. "I think I literally searched 'insane workout' and found a video of people doing CrossFit," he said.

An insane workout -- not exactly what first came to my mind when I thought about changing my routine. I first heard about CrossFit more than a year ago. I was sitting on the patio at Winslow's, enjoying a glass of wine outdoors before the unbearable annual heat wave came in. A woman who I guessed to be her early 40s walked outside, and I couldn't help but notice what great shape she was in. I felt compelled to tell her that, and ask her how she did it. Her answer: CrossFit. More specifically, CrossFit Seven. Three times a week for less than 30 minutes at a time, and that's it.

Making the move

I thought about that conversation a lot over the next several months, though it took me until just recently to do any research. CrossFit was developed over several decades by a man named Greg Glassman. With the main goal of creating peak fitness, CrossFit is a mixture of several sports and physical activities. As Ryan explained, "Who are the fastest runners? The 400 to 800 meter sprinters. Who are the strongest people? Weight lifters. Who are the best at building strength with their own body weight? Gymnasts. CrossFit takes the best parts of many activities and puts them together for one, effective workout." CrossFit does not focus on any one thing. In fact, what's special about it is that it does not specialize.

Once I did my research, I knew I wanted to try CrossFit. I was also terrified. It looked really hard. I wasn't sure I was ready to find out that I was actually out of shape when I'd worked so hard to get to where I was. The people in the videos were extremely muscular acrobats, as far as I was concerned. But it was time to suck it up. I decided to attend a class on Christmas Eve at CrossFit Seven.

I bundled up and headed over to the warehouse area just north of the West Seventh district for my first class. When I walked into the gym, I saw about 15 to 20 people, some standing around waiting to be given instruction, others warming up on the row machines. Many looked really fit, others just looked like "normal" people. The gym itself was pretty chilly (the weather had finally decided to cool off), and it didn't have the warm, friendly vibe that I'm used to at my gym. There were mats covering much of the concrete floor. Kettlebells, bars and barbell plates lined the perimeter of the room, along with rowing machines, different sizes of wooden boxes, and ropes hanging from the ceiling. Looking around, I did my best to suppress the sense of intimidation I could feel creeping in.

Shupe was teaching the class, and right at 9 a.m. he moved to the whiteboard near the door and went over the Workout of the Day, or WOD. He explained that you could choose one of two workouts -- an easier one for those newer to CrossFit, and a more advanced one for experienced participants.

Then, because I was a newbie, he gave me a third, bunny-slope version of the workout. All three options combined five or so exercises that you complete as quickly as possible, then repeat three or more times. He finished talking and everyone got started.

Quick introduction

After Shupe explained what my technique should look like, I began my own workout. I started on the rowing machine, something I'd never done before, quickly rowing for what seemed like just a minute or two. After that, I moved to a nearby mat and pumped out 10 pushups. Next were squats, of which I did 10. Once those were done, I grabbed a bar, and from a position in front of my hips, pulled it up in line with my shoulders, pressed it up until my arms were extended over my head, then back down to shoulders and then hips, repeating for 10 reps. I finished with 20 situps, coming all the way off the ground and touching my feet each time. That was one set; I needed to repeat all of that three more times before I was finished with my workout.

I had a much easier workout than everyone else, but I wasn't complaining. I was just happy I wasn't dying. I moved through my second set, which went about as smoothly as the first. When I sat down for the rowing portion of my third set, I looked around at what everyone else was doing. Working at their own pace, on their own exercises, few of my classmates were doing the same thing at the same time. This wasn't like any workout I had done before.

People were working hard, pushing themselves individually, but I could feel the sense of community that bound them together. "You probably noticed that the gym itself is not all that warm and comforting," Ryan said. "But that comes in the community you see here. When you're new, people want to know you, and after a few classes, everyone knows you by name."

My focus was pulled back to the rowing machine when a more experienced CrossFitter sat down on the machine next to me and gave me some friendly pointers on how to improve my rowing. It was that encounter, along with Shupe's help throughout my workout and the friendliness of everyone there toward me, the newcomer, that made me understand the real appeal of CrossFit. The feeling of community is tangible, and it helps make the intense, all-out workouts enjoyable.

I started to feel a little fatigue set in. I silently urged myself to not slow down, to push through. I'd started to sweat despite the cold temperature in the room. Soon I was done with my third set, and got through my fourth and final set, grateful that it was the last. I finished the workout in about 16 or 17 minutes. I was done! I half expected there would be something else to do because I couldn't believe I just completed an entire workout, one during which I really exerted myself, in such a short amount of time.

Sense of community

As everyone finished their workouts, some lingered to talk, others took off, and still others continued working on different strength-training exercises. I lingered for a little while. I felt good -- exhausted, but good. I couldn't help but be in a great mood. I was hooked.

And the next day, yes, I was a little sore. But the day after Christmas, I found myself back at CrossFit Seven. I showed up for the 8 a.m. class and performed a different WOD called "Fight Gone Bad" with two other women. We moved through the workout together, and they provided great encouragement through our three sets. That workout was more challenging than my first (especially after numerous Christmas cocktails the day before), but still just as satisfying in the end.

"Most people come three times a week for CrossFit," Shupe said. "But some people, the ones that are really into it, come as often as four or five days a week."

Thinking about trying CrossFit? Go for it. It's challenging, it's fun, it's probably very different from what you've been doing (or not doing), and it changes with every class. But before you buy a membership, know what you're getting into, and have realistic expectations.

"CrossFit isn't what you do to lose weight fast," Shupe explained. "It's not a crash course. It's meant to make you as fit as possible, which doesn't mean losing 20 pounds in two weeks, or gaining 20 pounds in two weeks."

But, he said, "CrossFit is for everyone, because all the movements are scalable to fit any skill level." That means I worried for no reason before I attended a class.

"Lots of people are intimidated by CrossFit because of what they see on TV, but we start each person at a level they can handle," Shupe said.

"It's one of the fastest growing fitness programs in the world," he added. "It's proven and effective."