"Three, two, one, go."
And the human body moves into action.
This is a simple calisthenic workout. Five pull ups, five push ups, ten air squats constitute a "round;" the goal is to complete as many rounds as possible in the given time frame. Today, for our protagonist, the time is five minutes. She's done some high school athletics before, cross country running, probably volleyball or softball, but other than some occasional treadmill running, has been more or less inactive since she got into college.
She's a loser. She wouldn't be friends with me otherwise. She's a geek, awkward, insecure, and immature. She's not sexy, at least in the way she probably wants to be. I'm watching her with a shit-eating grin on my face.
* * *
The standard format for most CrossFit sessions probably follow the same template. Warm-up, develop skills or components of movements that need work, then do the wod. Some trainees may include other work, like strength training or endurance work, depending on their needs and wants. This is all mostly extraneous information.
She is like most girls in their mid-twenties. She wants to have an attractive body. She wants to be thought of as sexy, even though in many ways she can already be said to be pretty fly. Us guys know how it is; "pretty" and "beautiful" and "cute" are never good enough. Girls want the ground they walk on to be worshipped.
"I want a toned back and a flat tummy," she's said, probably about a million times since she first started caring about how guys looked at her. "I don't like my MASSIVE love handles. I don't want anything to jiggle when I walk." She is also self-conscious about her generous hips, but she doesn't like to talk about them.
But what she's doing today isn't about being attractive.
I think the funniest part of all this is that the only selling point I had that actually got her to come to the athletic club was the hot, super built CrossFit instructor named Justin who would be acting as her coach. I mean I'm not gay or anything, I don't personally think he's hot, I just figure he'd be the type of guy a lot of chicks would go for. He's got these forearms that go KADOOSH whenever he demonstrates the false grip for gymnastics rings, it's pretty tight.
She gets more contact with Justin today than she could have probably ever dreamed of. Before she starts the workout, Justin has her drilling the kipping pull up, one of the bread-and-butter movements of the CrossFit repertoire. Your body's got to move one way while your legs and arms are pointing another. It's about "cocking" your hips - your center of mass - so that you can use them to generate momentum for the pull up, then being able to return to a favorable position to use the hips again for another pull up, and linking all these movements together in rapid succession with minimal adjustment of rhythm and maximum efficiency. A lot of people call this "cheating" because suddenly it's not the lats alone which are doing the work, it's a whole-body movement - but CrossFit recognizes that in true fitness, movements shouldn't always be about isolation, and pull ups are useful for more than just developing the arm adductors.
He's got the finger tips of one hand on her belly, and the other on her back, guiding the rocking movement of her torso from front seat and back. She's probably in heaven.
Justin's instruction is both kinetic and cerebral.
"When you jump and you reach the top of the pull up, you push yourself away from the bar. Bench press the bar. Because what'll happen is when you come back down, your body moves this way," he makes a C-curve with his hand, "and you come back to this position, arms behind you, torso in front. What's that called? Front seat. You come back to front seat, where you start another pull up, right? It's about keeping the rhythm, and coming back to the positions you need to be in. That's how you move efficiently when you're running against the clock."
There are a lot of things at work here, like the stretch reflex and plyometric development. It's all about positions. There is more to a kipping pull up than learning to use more of the body to travel a certain distance; it's about learning where you need to put yourself to move in the most efficient manner.
The human body is a science. People head to the gym with subjective thoughts on working out, but movement is a science. Efficiency is measured in terms of force, distance, and time; produce more force or move more distance in the same amount of time or less, and you've increased force production, work capacity, power. The effects a workout has on the body are physiological; it's not about feeling a burn, it's about producing a neuroendocrine response.
But right now, today, the academic stuff isn't important, at least for her. Right now it's about conceptualizing the movements, learning to feel what "front seat" is supposed to be, or identifying the proprioceptive awareness to know if her hips are moving the right way in an air squat. Baby steps. Movement reflects life; change doesn't happen overnight. You correct one thing at a time. This is all you can really hope for. Perfection is the goal, but progress towards it is an "as x approaches zero" function.
She bought a t-shirt that reminded her of me a long time ago; "I'm always chasing rainbows." Admittedly she wasn't talking about why I like doing stuff in a gym, but behavior and beliefs there tend to be reflected in life elsewhere.
* * *
She moves awkwardly at first. Bodyweight exercises aren't meant to be hard, but it takes time to get used to performing anything you're not used to doing comfortably. She's using band assistance for the pull ups, since she can't perform an unassisted one yet, but she can get through five push ups reasonably easy. She pauses awkwardly in-between squats, there's a lot of manipulation of the hips, the center of mass, and she feels like she's going to fall back onto her ass at the bottom of every squat.
She finishes round one in about :50.
Intensity is a keyword in CrossFit. Intensity is how aggressively you go into the workout, the pace at which you perform the movements, reverse direction, transition from each stage or round of the workout. Due to the awkwardness of most people who first start "working out" and deficiencies in their initial strength development, intensity is going to be pretty limited; it's hard for a person who is unfamiliar with a movement to perform it with aggression.
She is awkward. You can see her thinking through that first round and part of the second. She pauses in-between air squats - "don't stop," Justin says, "you're wasting time here, you've got four minutes now, don't spend time standing there."
Anaerobic stress is one of the defining characteristics of a typical CrossFit metcon. CrossFit founder Greg Glassman has said, "We know that a good anaerobic athlete can put his hands in his pockets and walk up to a five gallon plastic bucket full of water and stick his head in and drown himself, and not pull out." Deprive the body of oxygen, but continue to strive for intensity while performing complex movements involving manipulation of many joints, that is what separates the "oh" from the "fuck." The 400m and 800m run, 500m and 1000m row, these are classic events that are representative of the glycolytic threshold, an energy pathway that CrossFit is renowned for developing without mercy. 400m is too long to sprint, the phosphagenic pathway doesn't supply energy that long, but too short to jog if you want to complete with a good time; you run at a pace that is sustainable for that distance. As this pace decreases from oh, 2:00, to 1:40, to 1:20, to sub-1:00, your life grows more and more miserable every time you tackle the 400m. It is hard to move with intensity when you can't sustain your body with enough oxygen to utilize oxidative phosphorylation. Forcing the body's energy needs to rely on glycolysis is a very painful process.
Life has proven itself to be cruel many, many times. Your only option as an athlete is to get cooler.
She has probably never been put into a situation where the goal of her immediate existence was to flood her muscular system with anaerobic by-products and continue operating under those conditions. As she completes the squats for round two and climbs into the power rack for the pull ups in round three, it probably hits her: this is going to be hard. Those push ups that were already a little difficult are now entering the burn zone. Her arms are tired, some of her muscles are not responding to her wishes. Squats that she smoked through about two minutes ago are suddenly a burning effort to get out of.
At the end of round four, Justin checks the stopwatch and says, "You've got a little under two minutes to get two more rounds. We wanted at least five, but we're going for six. Let's go."
Another CrossFit maxim; intensity is not finishing up the workout hard, you know, getting in that flashy, race-to-save-a-couple-seconds sprint finish. Intensity is being tired in the middle, knowing how little you've done and how much more there is left to do, and throwing yourself into the next round even harder. It's Commissioner Gordon in Batman Begins trying to be a good cop in a department that doesn't care. It's the 34 year old ex-college basketball player coaching 9 and 10 year old girls who started playing a month ago against girls who have been playing since age 4 and screaming from the sidelines, caring more than the parents probably. It's about being hopeless, and taking a fucking swing anyways. Humanity can't escape this theme: movement reflects life.
She keeps moving. In the fifth round of push ups, she's probably unsure if she can get all five, but she goes for it anyway. Go, go, go, Justin's voice is a distant echo in her mind, drowned out by her lungs sucking wind uselessly.
You can tell a lot by how a person responds to discomfort. She's been given a goal and she is unsure of her ability to achieve that goal. She is in oxygen debt and attempting to achieve that goal would require her to deepen that debt. She tries anyway and for the first time I catch a look on her face that is so, so unexpected but so very incredible to see. Scrawled across the furrowed brow, the sheen of perspiration, eyes fixed on something in the gym but not really registering an image, a statement of existence.
I have to keep moving.
Suddenly, what she's doing in the Wichita Falls Athletic Club is not about her love handles, her plentiful hips and thighs, which parts of her person in particular are the most jiggalicious, it's suddenly not about being attractive. It's about movement. What her body is and is not capable of, and what incapabilities she can overcome if she tries hard enough.
When she beats the clock and stands out of the last squat, she is smiling.
* * *
While I treat her to a post-workout dinner - sushi - I ask her if she feels invincible.
"It's like being a super hero," I say.
"How is it being like a super hero?"
"Because you have this normal life where you go to clinicals, you go to work, and everyone thinks you're this ordinary, nerdy girl who makes dumb faces. But after all that, you do these really cool workouts and people have no clue. It's like a secret identity."
She is pleased with that interpretation.
I don't mean to make all this sound dramatic. I talk a lot about the physiology of anaerobic conditioning, the theory and philosophy behind CrossFit, and the mechanics of a kipping pull up, but this is not about working out.
This girl is perpetually unhappy with the way her body looks. What girl isn't? It's a cruel world. She's pretty, but she sees so many others who are more beautiful, hotter, sexier.
But she faced a challenge. Nothing particularly deep or abstract, not some subjective bullshit about finding herself, growing in her relationships, being a better person. She faced a measurable obstacle, you can calculate the joules if you wanted to, and she produced the wattage necessary to overcome that challenge. That's a big fucking deal, I don't care who you are or what you can do. And you know what, she's going to face other challenges, and almost all of them will require more work to overcome, and she's going to get beat by some of them, but she's also going to complete a lot of them. And they are all measurable, each one is concrete enough that she's going to feel them with probably 99% of the fibers in her body. When someone asks her, "What have you done today?" she'll have an objective answer.
What she's building now, it isn't much, but it's hers.