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Crossfit Gyms Ditch Machines for Human Feats of Strength

By Mathew Katz | January 10, 2012 7:04am

GRAMERCY — It may be the only hot new fitness routine that doesn't promise to help you lose weight.

Crossfit, a wildly popular workout regimen that emphasizes strength, functionality and agility over vanity exercise more focused on appearance, helps people get stronger and faster, causing them to put on weight — in the form of muscle — as they improve.

The workout-area aesthetic is equally focused on function over fashion: Crossfit boxes are often built into warehouse spaces, and are more like sparse garages than chic gyms. Workouts are designed to be tough, so much so that Crossfitters joke about getting a visit from one of the sport's mascots, "Pukie the Clown," when they push themselves past their limit.

Instead of leaving out wipes to clean the exercise equipment, one Crossfit gym keeps a jug of rubbing alcohol to wipe away the blood that's left behind on the bar from torn-up palms.

"I hated it and I loved it at the same time," said Joel Bencosme, 29, after finishing a grueling workout at Manhattan's first Crossfit location, Crossfit NYC at 25 W. 26th St. "It's all about doing something you never thought you could have done before starting."

At a recent class at Crossfit NYC, dozens of people turned out for an endurance workout — 10 rounds of three pull-ups while clutching a 45-pound dumbell between their feet, five more unweighted pull-ups, and then seven "kipping" pull-ups, in which they swing their hips upwards to help get their chin above a bar.

The entire workout was set to a soundtrack of screaming metal and rap music in a decidedly low-tech setting devoid of mirrors, machines, pulleys or treadmills.

The sport is gaining ground in New York: There are 15 licensed Crossfit gyms in New York City, with several more set to open in the next few months. Crossfit's cult-like adherents have their own language, their own parties, and even their own international Crossfit league.

Crossfit's appeal has grown nationally and internationally in recent years. Reebok now sponsors the competitive Crossfit Games, which pits competitors against one another in a range of workouts to find "the Fittest on Earth." In 2011, the games were broadcast on ESPN, and the top male and female athletes were awarded a grand prize of $250,000 each.

It's also breaking into network TV. "The Biggest Loser" trainer Bob Harper said that Crossfit will feature heavily in the new season of the popular NBC weight loss show, as a way to improve contestants' fitness and strength while they lose weight.

"You can come in and use a thick elastic band to help yourself pull up. You can do jumping pull-ups. Whatever helps," Crossfit NYC's coach Will Lanier said.

The goal, Lanier said, is to help an athlete get through the range of motion — pulling themselves all the way up with the help of a large elastic band that reduces resistance — instead of just pulling themselves up halfway.

"Anybody can participate at any level," said Lauren Klingsberg, 46, who used a bright green elastic band to help her through the workout. 

Crossfit boxes also encourage more of a sense of community than typical gyms — participants aren't allowed to plug in their headphones and ignore everyone else. Crossfitters diet together, descend on bars for after-workout drinks, and even dance at the Crossfit Prom.

They also do charitable work. A tongue-in-cheek event called "Barbells for Boobs" had hundreds of New Yorkers lift weights to raise money for breast cancer research in October.

Crossfit NYC has seen its own share of success. Now that it has hundreds of clients, it has outgrown the small third-floor space it has been in for years, and will soon move into a space that is five times larger.

"I can't ever see myself going back to conventional training after experiencing Crossfit," said Bencosme. "It's just a lot of fun, and it works — why go back?"