Lower Township resident Ruth Brant, a 36-year-old mother of six, rubbed some chalk onto her calloused palms at North Beach CrossFit of Cape May, then joined 10 other athletes ranging in age from 14 to 56 for a class with North Beach co-owner Mark Chamberlain.
The group had already completed a warmup consisting of six 40-yard sprints in the back parking lot and a quarter-mile run around the building, and had also worked on front squats as a strength movement. Now it was time for the WOD (workout of the day), which consisted of five rounds of three exercises.
Brant dropped to the ground for five burpees, churned out five reps of power cleans with 83 pounds, then grabbed a 35-pound kettlebell for 10 American swings.
Three years and more than 100 pounds ago, Brant couldn't have dreamed of even doing one rep of anything.
"The first time I tried CrossFit, I was so scared that I stayed away for three months before I went back," Brant said. "I had lost 40 pounds already, but I was still at 210. I was so heavy that Mark asked me to do a squat while holding a PVC pipe and I couldn't do it. I wasn't physically ready for it, but more importantly I wasn't mentally ready."
She tried it again after losing 60 more pounds and was hooked.
Every CrossFit box in Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland and southern Ocean Counties has members with similar tales. What was initially viewed as a fitness fad as recently as five years ago has morphed into a worldwide phenomenon.
Greg Glassman first developed CrossFit in Santa Cruz, Calif., in 1995, then formed CrossFit, Inc. five years later. According to the company website, the first affiliated box opened in Seattle in 2000. There were 13 by 2005 and now there are more than 5,500 affiliated gyms worldwide.
There are five in Atlantic County, four in Cape May, one in Cumberland and two in southern Ocean.
Living Well CrossFit, on Tilton Road in Northfield, is one of the biggest area boxes with 225 members. Like most affiliates, the membership spans a wide range of athletic ability, age and background.
"We have a kids CrossFit class that has 4-year-olds in it," Living Well owner Dr. Adonis Alejandro said. "Our oldest member is Rick LeVeque. He's 71 and he's a beast. He runs ultra-marathons and uses CrossFit as part of his training."
As Alejandro was talking, a dozen athletes were going through a particularly grueling WOD that featured an 18-minute EMOM (Every Minute on the Minute) with three movements, depending on their skill level.
The less-experienced athletes were carrying dumbbells in each hand for 20 meters during an exercise known as a Farmer's Carry, then performing 10 dumbbell push presses, followed by 10 box stepups and five hand-release pushups. The "performance" group was pushing sleds up and down a driveway for 20 meters, performing 10 kettlebell cleans with a lunge, then combining 20 double-unders (two revolutions with a jump rope) with five handstand pushups.
"I guess you could say we're kind of a dysfunctional family in that we have athletes on several different levels," Alejandro said. "You have people who are just starting out and then you have guys like (former Holy Spirit High School football player) Paul Smith, who just competed in the NorthEast Regionals (of the CrossFit Games)."
About a mile away, Rob Morgenweck, a 21-year-old Northfield resident and Mainland Regional High School graduate, was getting ready to tackle a WOD affectionately known as "Asphyxiation" at CrossFit OTG (Outside The Grid) in Egg Harbor Township.
The workout began with a 400-meter run, followed by 15 thrusters (a combination of a squat and overhead press). Depending on their fitness level, athletes could then either perform 300 single reps or 100 double-unders with a jump rope. Then it was 15 more thrusters and another 400-meter run.
"I was going cardio every day at a gym and a buddy of mine and I drove past this place about a year and a half ago and decided to check it out," said Morgenweck, who is leaving for basic training in the United States Navy at the end of the month. "I enjoyed it so much that I've been coming back ever since. I really like the variety of it. The workouts are different each day. And we're all like a family here."
Before you can work out at Living Well, prospective clients are required to undergo a medical screening to determine physical strengths and weaknesses. Most other affiliates also put first-time people through baseline testing to establish their fitness levels.
Although most local affiliates tailor the WODs to a person's capabilities, there is a danger of trying to do too much and thus suffering injuries. Regardless of the box, however, mental toughness also is a major factor.
"CrossFit is definitely not for everyone," said Chamberlain, who started North Beach CrossFit in 2011. "It's too intense for most people. You do scale it to their abilities, but a lot of people don't know their abilities and are often not willing to find out. Really, all CrossFit is is moving your body in a way you're not used to moving it. It's not that they can't do it, it's that they don't do it. But those that do are frequently amazed at what they can accomplish."
Just ask Brant.
The woman who couldn't do a single pushup even while on her knees was North Beach's top female performer last spring during the series of open workouts that serve as the start of the annual worldwide CrossFit Games. She can churn out 20 kipping pullups at a time and owns personal bests of 273 pounds in the deadlift and 130 in the push press and ...
She also can squat 200 pounds.
"I remember when I first went back to CrossFit we had to do Army crawls across the room with our feet on blue discs," Brant said. "The first round I only made it a few feet, but by the fourth round I made it all the way across the floor. That was a turning point for me. CrossFit helped me change my body and my mentality. Now I'm able to find the positives in everything in my life without doubting myself anymore. And that's a good thing."
(Note: Press sportswriter David Weinberg has been doing CrossFit at North Beach CrossFit of Cape May for three years. He still despises burpees.)
Common CrossFit terms
•AMRAP: As Many Rounds as Possible in a set time limit
•American kettlebells: Raising the Kettlebell overhead
•Burpee: Combination of a squat thrust and pushup
•Double-unders: Two revolutions with a jump rope
•EMOM: Every Minute on the Minute
•MetCon: Metabolic Conditioning Workout
•Muscle Up: Combination pullup and dip on the rings
•Pistols: One legged squats
•Russian kettlebells: Raising the kettlebell to eye level
•Tabata: 20 seconds of exercise, 10 seconds of rest
•Toes to Bar: Hanging on a pullup bar and raising toes to it
•Turkish Getups: Going from the floor to standing and back while holding a dumbbell
•WOD: Workout of the day
Local CrossFit facilities
Here are the local affiliated CrossFit facilities according to CrossFit.com
CrossFit Absecon, 24 New Jersey Ave., Absecon, 609-277-3133
CrossFit Buena, 525 S. West Blvd., Buena Vista Township, 609-381-4545
CrossFit OTG, 3330 Bargaintown Road, Egg Harbor Township, 609-513-9164
CrossCrossFit Vineland, 482 Tuckahoe Road, Buena Vista Township, 609-381-9039
Living Well CrossFit, 950 Tilton Road, Suite A, Northfield, 609-484-8333
Cape May County
CrossFit 609, 155 Route 50, Unit 1, Ocean View, 609-805-0829
CrossFit Parallax, 11 Clermont Drive, Unit B, Cape May Court House, 609- 624-1144
CrossFit Sand & Sweat, 3860 Bayshore Road, Unit J, Lower Township, 609-846-3831
North Beach CrossFit of Cape May, 3845 Bayshore Road, Lower Township, 609-898-3800
CrossFit 47, 1016 S. Delsea Drive, Vineland, 856-204-0458
Southern Ocean County
CrossFit A-Game, 509 North Main St., Manahawkin, 609-597-2221
CrossFit Razor, 299 Route 9, Waretown, 732-682-9493