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CrossFit aids in growing fitness

Dec. 15, 2013 @ 11:11 PM

HUNTINGTON -- It's not traditional fitness.

The gym is sparse, with a lot of open space. There are barbells lining the wall and rubber mats on the floor, lined with wooden slabs. Rings hang from the ceiling. A large metal apparatus serves as a place for pull ups. Some rowing machines can be found, and not much more.

You won't find people coming into CrossFit Thunder on 5th Avenue and minding their own business, getting on a treadmill and working out alone.

CrossFit -- a fast-growing fitness trend locally and throughout the country -- is pretty much based on the opposite principle. Promoters tout that you can be any age, any ability level, but if there's one trait that you must have to be a good CrossFitter, you have to be willing to support others and accept their support in return.

"It's like being on a team again," said Matt Lockhart, a Huntington attorney who serves as community outreach volunteer for CrossFit Thunder, Huntington's and the state's founding CrossFit establishment. Owned by registered dietitian Jeremy Mullins, it just celebrated its fifth anniversary.

At CrossFit, you show up on the hour and go through a "workout of the day" or "WOD" with whomever else shows up at that time. Every workout has a coach assisting the group and modifying exercises for each participant, based on their abilities. Everyone cheers on everyone else.

"CrossFit is the one form of working out where the last person who finishes is going to get cheered on more than the first," said Drew Leonhart, head coach at CrossFit Thunder, adding that participants take notes of their weights lifted and times so that they can track progress. It's objective data to show improvement, he said. Many CrossFit participants add the all-natural "paleo" diet into the mix.

At CrossFit Thunder, the four goals of the program are to: help people get stronger and faster, improve their quality of life, decrease their body fat and improve their bloodwork scores. And it may get its intimidating, perhaps cult-like reputation from its lingo. Words like WOD, burpee and the names of other exercises are common among CrossFitters but confusing to those less familiar with weightlifting workout terms.

It's a bit like high-intensity personal training, except its intensity is amended for each person.

Take Susan Welch, a 55-year-old nursing instructor at Marshall.

She started about a year and a half ago, after her daughter talked her into diving in together.

"I was scared because I was kind of sedentary, but I loved it," Welch said. "Now I'm here more consistently than my daughter is. I feel so good after I've worked out. I lost 45 pounds, lost fat, gained muscle and had to buy a whole new wardrobe. And I feel younger."

She's never felt judged, either, even at 45 pounds heavier.

"I can't do what the 20-year-olds do," she said. "Everything is modifiable so that everyone can do it. Coaches here are great -- they're knowledgeable, and there seems to be a lot of health professionals who work out here, so that tells me that it's safe. You just have to know your limits."

It's growing so much in popularity that several communities throughout the state have more than one gym, and Huntington is about to be one of them.

Mark Campbell has enjoyed CrossFit so much that he's opening up Huntington's second CrossFit gym with his wife, Ann, and friends Jeff and Amy Ash.

It will be located in the Kindred Communications Building at 555 5th Ave. in Huntington and is expected to open early in January, he said.

"I had been looking at business opportunities a long time, and if you know me, you know I have a passion for fitness. I like to work with folks like myself who struggle to lose weight or put on muscle," he said. "We thought this is something we truly believe in, and it's a good business decision."

It's fast-growing fitness trend in America, and they have faith that Huntington will support two CrossFit gyms.

"We all four sat down together and looked at financials, and we thought it was (something that can be a) sustainable, viable healthy business, and we're all excited about it.

"Ann and I have fantastic results from it. To actually see defined muscle in my body -- I've never had that before," he said. "Amy has had an entire life of fitness and has been trying to do this a very long time. ... Amy is really passionate about helping folks lose weight. She already has a core group of ladies she knows want to come work with her because it's proven weight loss."

There are class sessions on the hour, and you go through the "workout of the day" or WOD, with a small group, he said.

He likes the camaraderie of it.

"You're always there, side by side with somebody, pushing each other and holding each other accountable. You get to be friends and make friends outside the 'box' (CrossFitters' word for "gym").

"I've made some very close friends, friends I think I'll have my whole life, and they hold you accountable. They call you and say, 'Mark it's 6 o'clock. Where are you?' "

The high intensity, short bursts of weight training and cardio training have good results, he said.

"You can gain and sustain as much with short high intensity workouts as you do with longer endurance workouts," Campbell said. "We also believe in subsidizing with weight training. I was a runner and triathlete all these years and never put in muscle (training). I started doing back squats and started getting abs and strengthening in my core."

Varying workouts each day, or WODs, mean different muscle groups get worked every day.

"You may go three, four, five months before you repeat anything," Campbell said. "Your muscles get accustomed to not doing the same workout all the time."

If there's anything that the fitness movement has been criticized for in national media reports, it's that the high-intensity of CrossFit can be dangerous, even life-threatening, if participants push themselves beyond their limits. "Rhabdo," short for rhabdomyolysis, is a term known in some CrossFit circles. It's a kidney condition most commonly induced by excessive exercise, when muscle breaks down and myoglobin, the biproduct of muscle fibers, is released into the blood stream. As kidneys work to clean the blood, they can get clogged and start to fail.

That's a rare occurrence but a possibility that CrossFit founder Greg Glassman does not try to hide.

While one of CrossFit's biggest local promoters, Lockhart himself got rhabdomyolysis last year. He had missed some workouts and then did too much over the course of a few days before realizing what was happening.

Campbell said participants are encouraged to work at their own pace.

"We have foundation course, so you understand the methodologies and the training," he said. "... It's a little bit intimidating. You can make the assumption that it's for the elite athletes, but the glory of it is that it's for everybody. It's scalable. You can push (different amounts) overhead. It truly is for everyone.

"Without question, it comes down to making sure you have an experienced, trained coach to adjust the workout and movement to fit you."

He likes to see that variety of backgrounds and abilities in the gym -- huge guys working out alongside older women.

"You have doctors, janitors, UPS delivery men, coaches, teachers, people with different personalities and different backgrounds coming together for that common cause," Campbell said. "We actually encourage folks who do find it a little intimidating because those are people we want to see come there, those are the people we're reaching out to."

The feeling of being on a team or part of a family has led to a lot of fundraising success for CrossFit Thunder, including an event just Friday to raise money to provide Christmas for 25 children in need. It has raised $5,000 annually in recent years as part of that project, simply by inviting CrossFitters to workout at a certain time and asking for a financial donation of their choosing.

CrossFit Thunder also is one of a few CrossFit affiliates nationally to host the "Barbells for Boobs National Tour." CrossFit Thunder raised approximately $20,000 over two years for this charity that provides mammograms for underprivileged individuals.

Social media also has helped foster the team spirit.

You get out of school and past a certain age, and it's harder to find successes and milestones to celebrate in life. CrossFit makes an effort to celebrate achievements on social media, posting photos of participants as they meet new goals, Mullins said.

"We're celebrating things they've worked hard for," he said.

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