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New Lincoln Square CrossFit Aims to Turn Couch Potatoes Into Elite Athletes

By Patty Wetli | January 28, 2013 9:18am

LINCOLN SQUARE — If a typical daily workout at CrossFit Defined sounds like boot camp for a Navy Seal — weightlifting, pull-ups, rope climbing, rowing, repeat — that's the point.

It's meant to intimidate.

"It weeds out the lazy person," said David Sutor, 34, co-founder and owner of CrossFit Defined, along with partner Noal DuBois, 31. The pair is set to open a second Chicago affiliate in Lincoln Square in March.

"You could be 200 pounds and never worked out in your life" and still find a home at CrossFit, Sutor insisted, referencing one member who's dropped 70 pounds.

"You come in with your own goals, ambition, agenda, and I coach you. I treat you like an athlete, I want you to be an athlete, move like you're an athlete."

Members range in age from 13 to 63, and nearly half are women, according to DuBois.

"Fitness can be for all walks of life, all ages," he said.

CrossFit isn't so much a gym as it is an approach — a program that combines a variety of movements aimed at developing endurance, strength, speed and agility.

"You could call it a methodology if you like," said DuBois, describing CrossFit as a response to traditional "mundane, lackluster" workouts that emphasize a single muscle group or a repetitive cardio routine.

"People come in here a hot mess. The worst are the runners," Sutor added. "They're fantastic at running a straight line" but are otherwise weak.

The partners met at LA Boxing, where Sutor was a manager and DuBois taught martial arts and worked as a personal trainer.

"It was some really good dumb luck that we ran into each other," Sutor explained.

The two were sitting around the boxing ring one day talking when the subject turned to opening their own place.

"Why can't we do it, and do it better?" Sutor asked.

Sutor, who grew up in Elmhurst and "played sports my whole life," has a degree in exercise science and is big on technique, as well as the how and why of exercise, whereas DuBois is drawn toward personal transformation.

"I used to be really overweight. I was an obese child up to 18," said DuBois, a native of Plymouth, Mass., who still carries a trace of a New England accent. "My parents weren't into fitness, I never grew up in sports. I was unhealthy, I was depressed, I was unhappy. I would grab my [fat] rolls and try to rip them off."

Fed up and "angry at myself," he turned to martial arts and now boasts the muscled physique of a wrestler.

Working with CrossFit's overweight members and "people who have emotional walls to break down" is DuBois' way of helping others achieve the same success.

"We're more like life coaches for these people," he said.

"They've tapped into something here that's missing from other places," said Cara Sabin, a member of The Seldoms dance troupe and a former client of DuBois' who now teaches yoga at CrossFit.

"Every day you see people getting better," she said. "People push themselves to find out what they're capable of, and that trickles into all parts of their lives."

A visit to the CrossFit Defined Lakeview location at 1235 W. Belmont Ave. revealed a wide-open space lacking the rows of treadmills and elliptical machines found at most gyms. Instead, members gather for group sessions of the "Workout of the Day," which are designed by Sutor and DuBois and led by a CrossFit coach, often the owners themselves.

Each athlete participates according to their own speed and ability. Some do 50 pull-ups, while others do five. Some jump on 24-inch boxes, while others on 6-inch squares.

"It's all relative to what you can do," said Sutor. "We had three girls — one [lifted] 200 pounds, one did 100, one did 30. For all of them, it was their personal best. You're going to do what you do, and I'll do what I do. That's something I have to really drill into people's heads."

Teaching, not training, is another core CrossFit distinction. Workouts for newcomers ensure that they are familiar with the movements that will be incorporated into daily routines, including yoga and gymnastics classes to augment the Workout of the Day.

"We call it 'positioning,'" said Sutor. "We take someone who's sat in a chair for 10 years, hunched over.... It's about how to get that range of motion back."

The personalized attention comes at a price: $195 per month, though no long-term commitment is required. Cost hasn't seemed to deter members, who now number more than 400.

In December 2010, backed by a $50,000 small business loan, Sutor and DuBois opened their first CrossFit Defined along the Southport Avenue corridor. Sutor built out the relatively tiny 3,000-square-foot space with help from his father, who's a general contractor, and his brothers, who work as carpenters.

"We didn't give ourselves a salary for a year," said Sutor, who moved back into his parents' Lombard home to save on expenses. "That was a pretty good ego punch in the gut."

Within six months, relying on nothing more than word of mouth to build the business, they'd outgrown their original location and moved to larger digs on Belmont Avenue. Now CrossFit is once again bursting at the seams, to the point of turning away new members.

This time, instead of relocating, Sutor and DuBois are expanding.

The partners scouted for a new home by riding around on their motorcycles, just as they'd done in 2010. Their criteria was fairly straightforward.

"On Southport, we got a really good taste of what a small town neighborhood feels like," said DuBois. "We wanted as close to that as we could get."

Lincoln Square, with its prevalence of small businesses and locally owned shops, fit the bill.

The two settled on a space at 2750 W. Lawrence Ave., a long-vacant auto alarm and stereo garage. With new neighbors that include the much lauded Goosefoot restaurant and recently opened art gallery The Space, CrossFit will join in the area's mini-revitalization.

"I think the location picked us," DuBois said.