What Really Happens Inside a CrossFit Gym

Courtesy: Lynda Shenkman

An excavator sits outside the ashen structure awaiting the command. A welcome sign still hangs above the door. The garage, once home to our local CrossFit gym, now a cement cavity of memories will soon be demolished, replaced by apartments.

On the last day of class, each attending member took a minute to reminisce during an icebreaker. I was absent, but watched the video on Instagram. The stories shared never highlighted the achievements of self. Members wanted to talk about their classmates; who made them smile, who broke through barriers, whose shirtless chest turned heads.

I replayed it a few times. With every rerun, my heart swelled. Change is bittersweet.

Nonmembers sometimes ask, What goes on inside those CrossFit gyms? I hear it’s a cult. I can assure the skeptics no one is fixing alters from barbells or sacrificing protein shakes to the fitness gods. Not yet, anyway. But a lot does happen.

Dreams happen

A man in his twenties left a budding corporate job to pursue a passion for training. He opened a CrossFit gym. Honed his skills. Built a team. Expanded a business. Stayed humble and kind. And in doing so, inspired clients to achieve little goals and big dreams.

Millennials quit secure careers to do what they loved. Young athletes competed alongside elites. A determined high schooler proved to her soccer coach she was good enough to make the team and an unsure peer found himself wrestling and winning. Many embraced healthy choices and most found their voice.

Baby Boomers and Gen X-ers learned to squat, clean and jerk. They climbed ropes for the first time, stood on their heads and jumped up on a box. They completed races, joined rock bands, sported bikinis, founded companies, sat for tattoos and concluded that age doesn’t define ability and intimidating does not mean impossible.

Love happens

As a new member, my friend was surprised at how fast she warmed up to people from the gym. “Is this normal?” she asked.

“Pretty much,” I told her.

Amid the pull up rigs, weight racks and wall balls, there’s no time to fear vulnerability. When the clock counts down, social norms go out the window. Strangers are thrown into a mental and physical predicament with a common goal; get it done and support a neighbor.

It started with fist pumps and cheers. Small talk came easy; CrossFit’s a built in conversation starter. Together, we rehashed workouts, movements, personal bests and rough spots until the non CrossFitting community told us to shut up.

In time, we stopped squawking about fitness, opened up and asked about a sick parent, a new job or a cranky toddler. And it didn’t take long before we were offering hugs, helping a teen find an internship, editing a college essay, buying from a buddy’s local business, sharing professional expertise, moving boxes, supporting a cause, hosting a dinner, celebrating a milestone or lending an ear.

We met for 4 years in the same space, during the same hour, several days a week. Friendships developed, spouses connected, siblings bonded, relationships bloomed, babies grew and grandchildren were born.

Fun happens

In an interview at Harvard Divinity School, CrossFit CEO Greg Glassman explained how CrossFit gyms emphasize camaraderie, which was once described to him as “agony coupled with laughter.”

I am inherently lazy. The first four decades of my life were spent avoiding exercise. But even when I’m feeling uninspired, CrossFit keeps me coming back because the people make it fun.

Beyond the crazy tights, silly tanks and occasional costume, our gym is a safe, happy escape. I can let curse words loose, chuckle at a double-entendre, lip sync to my heart’s content, whip out dance moves and laugh alongside friends who brighten my mood and let me be me.

Struggle happens

We failed lifts, lost to a workout, questioned our strength and ran out of gas. We agonized through divorce, mourned death, endured surgery and disease, emptied our nests and fought mental illness. But we did so side by side.

Perspective happens

We learned. To teach, coach and manage. About different cultural and spiritual traditions. To leave political divides at the door. To be students again. We learned about decency, respect and gratitude. That we are better as a team.

We strived. To find balance. To do our best. To try and to not be too tough on ourselves.

We recognized. The benefit of breathe, pace and letting it out of the tank. The value of stretching, the stupidity of sugar (even though we may indulge) and how, when done right, food is fuel.

We grew. To rethink Beauty, Age and Limits. To ignore scales and diets. To complain less and smile more. We grew to believe in ourselves. To know our bodies can generate power, that we can do anything for a minute and what it means to be a champion.

The closing doors were not a goodbye. The owner moved us into new, spiffy digs. Right up the block. With an open floor plan. Natural light. Fresh paint. Even showers. Just in time for the New Year.

The parking’s different. The entrance is different. The setup is different. But the faces gathered around the white board to receive the daily challenge are the same.

It’s during this accepted routine our surroundings seem to fade. As the coach speaks and we listen, one thing is clear – family happened.

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Pass the Pierogis, Please.

Courtesy: R. Anscher

To experience the goodness of childhood through middle-aged eyes, to take a break from adulting and just get to be a kid again is a welcomed and sometimes needed escape.

Feeling drenched in joy during a stroll down Disneyland’s Main Street washed away the stress of cross country travel with young boys.

Watching Wonder Woman climb out of a fox hole and on to the battlefield left me invincible and ready to challenge any injustice.

And sitting nestled between the arms of a captain’s chair at my grandparent’s dining table snapping green beans and sneaking Italian chocolate dipped sprinkle cookies in earshot of my Gram as she masterfully labored over an anticipated holiday meal served in tight quarters to a dozen, boisterous relatives reaffirmed I was in the safest place in the world.

That wooden chair was a constant; as a young professional, newlywed and even a mom, always waiting on the edge of Gram’s small, square kitchen which opened into a dining area and an adjacent living room. Thick carpet, knitted afghans, framed needlepoint, family photographs and my Pop’s collection of electronic gadgets, projects and tools added to the cozy vibe. During the holidays, the air was warmer still thanks to a baking oven, charged discussions over football and war and shifting bodies in search of a seat.

When the meal was ready, generations crammed around the table in folding chairs, high chairs and stools. There was little room for lingering elephants. The trauma, addiction, abuse, divorce and rivalries that ran through my family’s veins were diluted by the pungent smell of eggplant, the sweet glaze of ribs and deep fried golden pierogis, Eastern European dumplings stuffed with potato and served with a side of sour cream. Holiday meals with Gram made each of us forget the rumblings in our world for a few hours. Unfortunately, after the pierogis ran out, the dysfunction remained.

Which is why, after she passed away a few years ago, holiday gatherings grew increasingly disjointed. Relatives branched off to do their own thing. My grandmother had been the glue holding the house together.

The week leading up to this Thanksgiving, I longed for a taste of childhood goodness. Really, I longed for my grandmother. I missed the lady who darted about her kitchen, supervising every boiling pot and baking pan. The butterfly who loved to gather with the women around the table and talk between basting, chops and stirs. The hostess who was happy to set an extra place or cook for a crowd. And the woman who helped me to feel connected and loved anytime I would have preferred to drift away.

This was definitely a drifting year. The heaviness in the world and the infected state of our country outside of my idyllic, suburban bubble compounded by typical life challenges and general parental angst has weighed on me. More than anything this Thanksgiving, I wished for my grandmother to drag me to shore, pull out a chair and hand me a bowl of unsnapped beans.

My husband, Mac suggested I fill the void by hosting a holiday meal for our entire extended family. I told him, “No.” I retired the art of pretend play after my grandmother died and have no desire to assume her role. The elephant figurines perched on my fireplace mantle are plenty enough. Besides, I wouldn’t even know where to buy Polish dumplings.

Then he proposed we visit my aunt and uncle’s farm on Black Friday since my grandfather, mom and a few regulars from Thanksgivings past would be spending the weekend there. Of my grandparent’s three daughters, my aunt is most like my grandmother: even, generous and welcoming. Turns out, she and my uncle were happy to have us.

Acres of space but as cozy as a three room apartment, their farm oozed with the goodness of childhood. A place with chickens to feed, barns to explore, orchards to roam and a wood burning stove to warm up with, Bubbe and Skootch dripped with joy as they talked to the animals, circled the pond, played darts with cousins and marveled over the Sgt. Pepper album spinning on a record player. They raced their parents down a gravel road and climbed the barn’s ladders to the highest loft, leaping from bales of hay to the floor below like Spiderman on a mission. And sat with ease amongst relatives nibbling on eggplant parmesan, gravy soaked turkey, beef stew and yes, potato pierogis fresh off the skillet.

For a few hours, rumblings disappeared and hearts filled. On the farm, Gram’s spirit was very much alive.

This holiday season, I’m grateful to my aunt and uncle; for sharing their home with us, for contributing to the goodness of Bubbe and Skootch’s childhood and for throwing me a life preserver by simply pulling out a chair.

Wishing you and your loved ones a wonderful holiday season!