Converts to CrossFit, the extreme exercise craze, swear it’s life-changing and take pride in their self-inflicted injuries. I was a true believer—until one punishing session landed me in the ER with a shattered leg and a dislocated ankle. I still couldn’t wait to go back
In early fall 2013, my husband, Andrew, and I joined a popular CrossFit gym in the city’s east end. Our first class consisted of an intensive hour of non-stop sit-ups, push-ups and squats. It left me riding an adrenalin high—I could practically feel my biceps moulding into hard nuggets. Andrew, however, threw up as soon as we got home. As he staggered out of the washroom, I danced around him, bouncing on the balls of my feet. He had barely finished telling me he felt a little better before I said, “We’re still going back, though, right?”
Like thousands of others in the city, I was hooked. Toronto is a trend-obsessed place: we gravitate toward the new and cool, tend to exhaust it into ubiquity and then move on to the next thing—be it Canada Goose parkas or gluten-free cookies. In recent years, the Instagramming generation latched onto the CrossFit motto “Strong is the new skinny,” incessantly posting workout details and close-up photos of impressive new chiselled quads and six-packs. As we encourage ourselves to live longer and stronger, CrossFit has become king of the “fitspiration” movement. Of all the trendy workouts, from booty boot camps to hot yoga, CrossFit is the one that fulfils extreme get-fit dreams best—not a slow progression toward moderate health and average bodies, but a breakneck pace to the exceptional. Joining CrossFit is like making it into the A-list world of fitness.
To an outsider, a CrossFit workout can look nuts. Participants heave 60-pound kettlebells high over their heads in repetitions of 50, slam medicine balls at a 10-foot-high target on the wall, pull themselves in a swinging arc above the bar of the CrossFit rig—a metal structure that resembles a jungle gym on steroids. Then there are the Olympic-style weightlifting movements, like the snatch (lifting a weighted barbell, up to 300 pounds, from ground to overhead in one explosive motion), the clean-and-jerk (raising a barbell to shoulder height, then overhead as legs spring forward into a lunge) and the dead lift (fast and controlled, hoisting barbell from floor to hips and back). Oh, and the intervals of intense running. CrossFitters pride themselves not on a singular expertise, like, say, mastering a marathon or becoming a rep-level hockey player, but on general physical preparedness. The regimen is designed to make everything your body does better, from stamina to strength to flexibility. If there is ever a zombie apocalypse, CrossFitters will be the ones who survive.
Andrew and I reorganized our lives around CrossFit. Each Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning at 6:50 a.m., we’d arrive at our rough, utilitarian CrossFit gym, or “box” in CrossFit parlance, swathed in layers of sweats and spandex. (It was winter, and the gym managers rarely turned the heat on.) The hour’s agenda would be scrawled on a whiteboard near a set of rowing machines. It always included, in order: a warm-up, stretching and skills improvement, then the Workout of the Day, or WOD, ending with a cool-down and the posting of your numbers (times, weights, reps) on another board. Guided by the coach, everyone followed the same workout—whether you were a 250-pound tank, like one intimidating class member, or a 165-pound, five-foot-eight woman (me).
As a newbie, I wasn’t strong or skilled enough to do everything the agenda prescribed. What the strongest man or woman in the box could lift got posted too—so you could see how far you had to go.
As a teen, I’d competed in kick-boxing fights but had slowed down after I’d popped ligaments in my left knee. I was wary of reinjuring that same knee in CrossFit and had to remember not to push myself too hard. For upper body exercises, I didn’t have any such excuse. Our workout almost always included at least 30 pull-ups (the chin-up’s slightly tougher cousin) but more often double or triple that number, which turned my arms and shoulders to jelly. When it came to weights, I fell even further behind.
Some coaches were great; others seemed unsure of how much weight I should be lifting. At times, the workouts made no sense to me, more a random testament to machismo than a targeted program. People occasionally complained when a WOD felt particularly cruel—like the time we had to run 800 metres, then do 30 kettlebell swings, followed by 30 pull-ups, five times in a row—but not very loudly and usually with a tacked-on chuckle. As long as we were killing it, most of us didn’t care. There was a cultish groupthink at work: I was caught in a flux of being cheered on and trying to beat the person next to me so I wouldn’t finish last in a timed WOD. After class, we’d all collapse on the black rubber floor, sweating and utterly spent.
My love affair with CrossFit ended abruptly on January 6. That day, we had one minute to do 12 burpees, hitting the bar of the CrossFit rig. Next came 12 box jumps—launching yourself onto a wooden box from a two-footed stance, no running starts allowed—also in one minute. We had to do both over and over again, a dozen times. I’d waffled over what size box to use, and was unhelpfully instructed to try “whatever felt comfortable.” I chose a two-foot box—slightly smaller than everyone else’s. Midway into the workout, my left knee began to feel wobbly every time I landed on top of the box. When I told the instructor, he swapped it out for another that was four inches lower. I should have stopped—but stopping was unthinkable. Two sloppy jumps later, my left knee gave out and I fell. I could hear my leg bones shattering—it sounded like gunfire.