It’s 6am and my limbs have yet to wake up, which doesn’t bode well considering the fact I’m about to partake in my first session of CrossFit, the exercise regime responsible for toning up the cast of Spartan movie 300 and fast becoming a competitive global sport.
I’m stood in a bare-bones gym – the CrossFit box – and the absence of shiny exercise machines and treadmills makes matters all the more frightening. CrossFit is back-to-basics training that combines traditional Olympian values of sprinting, gymnastics and weightlifting to improve 10 facets of fitness. The training promises to develop your stamina, strength, flexibility, cardiovascular endurance, power, speed, agility, balance, coordination, and physical accuracy.
CrossFit is raw and real, but I’m comforted by the fact I’m not in the company of aggressive muscle-bound types; rather a soft-spoken, personable coach by the name of Ben Ford. His infectious enthusiasm about CrossFit is enough to put me at ease ahead of what promises to be an hour of tough physical exertion. Ben has long been a sportsman and fitness fanatic and stumbled upon CrossFit by chance as he was browsing the web for workout techniques. At first, he thought little of it, but the more he heard about the regime,originally developed online by gymnast Greg Glassman, the more he liked the sound of it. He now takes part in international CrossFit contests: Ben and his coaching partner Candice are currently competing for a place in the Asian regional finals in Tokyo. Candice is currently rated second in the women’s competition.
The beauty of CrossFit, according to Ben, is that it incorporates functional, everyday movements. He gives the analogy of an old lady picking up shopping bags or reaching for the top shelf – making the point that CrossFit is for any age, and the fitness benefits can be utilised in even menial everyday activities. As I’m about to find out, the intensity of a CrossFit session can be adjusted on the basis of age, gender and physical ability, which is just as well considering today’s workout involves squats, shoulder presses and chin-ups. Chin-ups. My heart sinks. I haven’t attempted a chin-up since I was laughed out of PE class at the age of 14.
But I’m in good hands. Ben starts the session with warm-up and mobility exercises, which involve a lot of flailing arms and stretching to wake up my sleepy limbs. We then move onto the second component of the session: a skill or strength exercise. The CrossFit exercises are different in every session; today we’re working on the standing shoulder press. Because CrossFit is all about functional, compound movements and shorter, higher intensity cardio sessions, Ben spends time helping me fine-tune my technique for the standing shoulder press. Once I adapt, I feel more balanced as I raise the bar, neck and spine in perfect alignment, core muscles pulled in tight.
Once I’m ready, I pump out the reps assigned by Ben – an exhausting but wholly rewarding endeavour. We also work on my squat technique before I start bearing any weight or pumping out reps. I’m amazed how different my body feels once I’ve perfected the technique – more efficient, working leg muscles I didn’t know I had.
We’re now ready to move on to the Workout of the Day (‘WoD’, in CrossFit-speak). This is effectively the competition aspect of the CrossFit workout. There are two kinds of WoD: time priority (as much work as you can do in a fixed amount of time) and task priority (doing a set amount of work as quickly as possible). Today is a time priority exercise: alternating sets of chin-ups and front squats in decreasing sets of 21, 15, and nine. I’m relieved to discover that chin-ups are aided by what is essentially a huge rubber band, looped round my foot and up around the bar, though it’s still tough work and 17 chin-ups into the first set I’m transported back to the humiliation of the school PE hall. But with Ben’s encouragement ringing in my ears, I persevere and move on to the squats. I find these marginally easier, but the burn soon sets in.
Then it’s back to the chin-up bar: after hanging for what seems like an eternity, I manage to pull my contorted face as near to the bar as it’s ever going to get to finish my last set of chins. My muscles are screaming and it’s not even 7am. Ben scribbles my score onto the white board and tells me it’ll be going online. I’m not sure whether this is a good thing or not, but I can see how it motivates those with a competitive streak and persuades those with a thirst for ultimate fitness to come back for more.
Drop-in sessions are Dhs100, twice-weekly sessions are Dhs700 per month and unlimited classes are Dhs1,000 a month. Star International School, Umm Suqeim. For a schedule, see www.crossfitlifesparkdubai.com