CrossFit, the latest fitness trend to have swept across the US, has built a fast-growing and devoted fan base here in the UAE.
CrossFit: a workout that keeps you coming back
Created by a former high school gymnast, Greg Glassman, in 1995, CrossFit offers a workout of the day (the WOD) which randomly exposes you to different full-body exercises with different types of equipment over varying amounts of time. From gym rings to sprints, box jumps to Olympic lifting - CrossFit aims to build the all-round athlete.
Matt Coe, a former professional rugby player, has seen both sides of this fitness phenomenon, which has gone global since the launch of the CrossFit Games in 2007.
He has seen the transformation it can make in people's lives. "It empowers people," he says, not least women. "CrossFit shouts out to women that they can lift weights and still be feminine. It also develops good posture and a greater physical presence," he says, adding that the variety of the different workouts every day keeps it interesting. "There are very few people who can spend years doing spin bike classes day in and day out," he says. The camaraderie of CrossFit means participants are "more likely to continue to turn up and exercise over a long period of time".
The measurable results compound this. "One of the great things about CrossFit is that performance and achievements are recorded continuously. Be it a weight, time or acquisition of a new skill, the CrossFitter is constantly informed about where they are in their journey," he adds.
However, the sport also has its cons, not least the propensity for injury. Coe explains: "CrossFit has very little in the way of an initial assessment of an individual's movement capabilities. Although some very good trainers out there have implemented their own screening protocols, in general a 'take the brakes off and go for your life' approach is encouraged. This has led to high injury rates and the US army withdrawing the CrossFit training system from their programme."
Coe, the curator of the Dubai Fitness Competition, says that CrossFit draws on many highly technical and specialised skills, such as Olympic lifting and gymnastics, that athletes can spend their lives mastering, and this has been one of the major causes of injury.
"CrossFit is a direct reflection of the modern-day need for instant gratification," he says. "In times past, people understood that performance and achievements were earned through strict, repetitive and sometimes boring progression. Most working adults spend the majority of their life slouched over a computer, and you can probably realise that going from an office job to a high-repetition Olympic lifting workout in a CrossFit gym is a risky business."
One pitfall is coach training. "The requirements to become a coach are very low," he says. "At present, someone can literally be flipping burgers on Thursday, go to a certification course on Friday and Saturday, and come out teaching Olympic lifting on Sunday."
Candice Howe, the co-owner of Reebok's CrossFit Lifespark facility in Dubai, says CrossFit in its truest sense has been corrupted in Dubai. "CrossFit is, at its core, a community-based strength and conditioning fitness programme," she says. "In Dubai, I think it has become popularised as a brutal workout regime that pushes you beyond your limits regardless of the results", with many trainers jumping on "the high-intensity bandwagon".
At CrossFit Lifespark, a mix of people become members - old and young, professionals to stay-at-home mothers. "We know our community and programme in such a way that it challenges but never destroys them, and enables them to continue to train week in, week out, for years to come," says Howe, who came second at the 2012 Asia Regionals, having begun CrossFit only in 2010.
She says going to a gym with well-trained coaches is vital, as are small classes, Lifespark having a maximum of 15 per class with two coaches. "We regularly see shocking technique in new members who think they have been doing CrossFit," she says. "CrossFit is and should always be based upon mechanics, consistency and then intensity. You learn the correct technique, learn to consistently perform a movement well and then increase the intensity either through speed of movement, weight or complexity of movements." So popular has CrossFit become that the gym chain Fitness First has introduced its own version, XFit, just launched in the UAE. It will incorporate the same fundamentals.
Coe says anyone wanting to try CrossFit must ask the right questions initially. "Ask the gym what qualifications the trainers have, the amount of experience they have and whether they have any screening procedures," he says. If carrying an injury, he recommends asking if the facility has had experience of people with similar conditions or whether they can cater for it. "If you are happy with this, go for it. CrossFit is highly enjoyable and immensely self-gratifying."
Howe adds: "You would not visit an unregistered or unlicensed doctor, dentist or lawyer and expect a sound result. The same approach should be taken to your health and fitness. Work with a professional who understands your needs, requirements, limitations and can work with you."
Fittest on Earth
If you fancy taking up a new challenge this year and want to enter the CrossFit Games taking place this summer, the season starts with the Open from March 6 to April 3, consisting of five workouts over five weeks posted every Wednesday. Athletes have the choice of competing at a participating CrossFit gym or submitting a videotape of their performance to the Games website.The winners from each region will then move onto the Regionals, a three-day competition where individuals compete head to head in front of a panel of judges. Winners from there will go on to the Reebok CrossFit Games. For more information, go to www.reebokcrossfitlifespark.com. The deadline for registering is January 30 on http://games.crossfit.com