NEAR WEST SIDE — Imagine trying to motivate a class full of teenagers to do a set of burpees.
Burpees — an intense bout of exercise that involves squatting, jumping, push-ups and jumping jacks — are a staple of Crossfit, which is now being taught in physical education classes at Chicago Bulls College Prep.
“It’s an interesting challenge to get high school students to love something that is extremely difficult and challenging at times,” said Jason Ronai, assistant principal and director of physical education at Bulls Prep, part of the Noble Network of Charter Schools.
Ronai came to Noble in 2009 after spending six years as a physical education instructor at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. Ronai said Crossfit — an international fitness program built around “high intensity, functional movements” — had become popular in the military and he chose to build the high school’s budding physical education program around Crossfit and its culture.
“One thing we’ve learned with working with our kids is they don’t necessarily gain confidence by us always patting them on the back and saying, ‘You did a good job,’” Ronai said. “They gain confidence by learning skills, things they can take with them and say, ‘I know how to do this.”
Ahavah Bethea, a senior at Bulls Prep, said before taking Ronai’s "Fitbulls" class, she struggled with push-ups.
“I felt that my form was off. My knees would always go down before my chest,” Bethea said.
Bethea said at the beginning of the class, Ronai took the students through each of the Crossfit exercises — push-ups, burpees, thrusters, cleans, jerks, etc. — to make sure the students learned the correct form.
“Now that my form is great, I feel like I can do as many push-ups as necessary in a workout,” Bethea said.
Ronai said teachers at Bulls Prep have “a lot of autonomy” in what they teach. Some physical education instructors — many of whom have a Level 1 Crossfit coaching certification — choose to follow the main Crossfit website for its “Workout of the Day” or “WOD,” while others build their own workouts with elements of Crossfit.
“You’ll see a lot of our ninth-graders working on the basics — working on mobility, working on form,” said Ronai. “With our 11th- and 12th-graders, you’re going to start seeing them work into more advanced exercises and movements, but all under the realm of making sure we’re extremely safe.”
Although Crossfit has been at the center of some criticism in recent years for injuries, Ronai said there has never been a situation where Crossfit was the reason for an injury in the school.
“If we were teaching croquet, if we were teaching ballet, if we were teaching hopscotch, there’s still a chance of injury if the teacher doesn’t know what they’re doing,” said Ronai. “We really hold a high accountability for our teachers when it comes to doing the right thing.”
Laura Bruner, who is leading the national project to integrate Crossfit into schools, said she hasn’t heard any criticism from parents whose children are doing Crossfit in schools.
“I think a lot of these parents, the first time they’re hearing about Crossfit, it’s coming from their kid’s mouth,” Bruner said, “because it’s having such a positive impact, we haven’t really gotten any negative feedback.”
Bruner said the “all-inclusive” nature of Crossfit helps kids feel like they’re part of a community.
“There will be a kid who can lift 150 pounds next to someone who’s lifting an empty barbell,” Bruner said. “They’re doing the same workout, they’re putting in the same effort, their intensity is just relative.”
William Washington, a senior in Ronai’s "Fitbulls" class, said he embraces the difficulty of Crossfit workouts because he knows he can apply it to other aspects of his life.
“Just to achieve a Fitbulls workout shows that you’re a hard worker, you’re very exuberant, you love to help others and you want to be a role model for the younger classes,” Washington said.
To watch a "Fitbulls" class in action, watch the video.