Members of Lu Crenshaw's CrossFit Allegiance share a common history: Most thought they were "pretty fit" before joining her gym. Give them a year of thrice-weekly "workouts of the day" and — regardless of age — they swear they're in the best shape of their lives.
"Never had I done anything that changed my body type," says Patricia Chambers, a 48-year-old Medford resident who ran the occasional marathon and attained a black belt in karate.
CrossFit converted Crenshaw, a former soccer standout and coach for North Medford High School, as well as a personal trainer who holds a bachelor's degree in exercise and physiology. Bored with her standard cardio, weights and abs routine, she agreed to try CrossFit with a friend.
"It wrecked me," Crenshaw says.
The 28-year-old soon gained certification in the fitness regimen that combines weight lifting, calisthenics, running and gymnastics. Beloved of military and police forces, as well as elite athletes, CrossFit has seen exponential growth in the past five years from a handful of affiliated gyms to hundreds listed on the official CrossFit Web site, launched in 2001.
"It spreads like wildfire," Crenshaw says.
Yet the Internet has been many enthusiasts' only connection to CrossFit, which posts the daily workout that, presumably, anyone could follow, given a few pieces of equipment. CrossFit forgoes sophisticated machines in favor of dumbbells, kettlebells, pull-up bars and even gymnastic rings.
Lacking a set of rings didn't keep 31-year-old Donny Guy from trying to translate CrossFit's workout of the day — or WOD — to Oz Fitness in Medford. Two other gym members recognized Guy's routine as CrossFit and joined him at noon for three months. But Guy became frustrated that the Web site didn't divulge details of how to warm up effectively.
"It just didn't seem the same," the Medford resident says.
A chance meeting with Crenshaw, a former 24 Hour Fitness trainer, pointed Guy toward her new gym at Fourth and Front streets in Medford. In one CrossFit session, Crenshaw established her credibility.
"It was completely how you see it," Guy says of how Crenshaw's classes compare to the official CrossFit Web site, its photos and videos.
That also means the atmosphere at CrossFit Allegiance couldn't be more different from your average gym or athletic club. Staked out with plywood partitions in a warehouse formerly used to store paper, the 1,400-square-foot gym is sparsely furnished with only the bare necessities, all of them low-tech.
"We're going back to the basics," Crenshaw says.
Rings and ropes hang from exposed wooden beams. Free weights and medicine balls squat on a black, Tarmac-like floor that covers burnished fir planks. A pile of tractor tires guards a corner near the door. Dry-erase boards display the WOD, gym rules and an explanation of the CrossFit philosophy and its terminology. The only feature suggestive of socializing is a separate board of quotes attributed to the Bible, Ghandi and gym members.
"There's no mirrors," Crenshaw says. "This is CrossFit — get in and get it done."
Crenshaw's taking her cue from other CrossFit gyms that look similar — just usually bigger — in cities across the country, Chambers says. In Oregon, CrossFit gyms can be found in Grants Pass, Klamath Falls, Bend, Redmond, Eugene, Springfield, Corvallis, Salem and the Portland area.
"They all look like that," says Chambers, also a certified CrossFit instructor. "Most of 'em are, like, in big warehouses.
"There's no machines," she says. "Instead of treadmills, we go outside and we run around the block."
Members don't seem to mind the absence of air-conditioning or televisions. Results ensure their return.
While running gave Chambers a slim build, she had resigned herself to a physique lacking in upper-body strength. She'd never done a pull-up before joining CrossFit Allegiance, but after four months of simulating a pull-up's mechanics with rubberized bands, she accomplished the unthinkable: nudging her chin above the horizontal bar.
"It was amazing," Chambers says. "If I could do a pull-up, I could do two pull-ups.
"Now, I could string together probably 15 pull-ups," she adds. "And I think it's very empowering for women."
After a year of working out with Crenshaw, 63-year-old David Stuart of Medford has reduced his blood pressure by 40 points and rehabilitated back injuries that required two surgeries. Capable of dead-lifting 180 pounds, he moves in ways he never thought possible at his age.
"It's at least as mental as it is physical," Stuart says.
He signed up for CrossFit in hopes of regaining enough strength to hunt a brown bear in Alaska, an expedition that requires all-day hiking through rugged terrain. Fearful of hurting his back again, Stuart avoided any lower-body exercise, squats in particular. But Crenshaw wouldn't hear his excuses and only insisted he keep working to perfect his technique.
"She said, 'If you'd been doing your dead-lifts, you wouldn't have blown your back out.' "
Such intensity — and the possibility for injury — has made CrossFit the target of criticism in some fitness circles, where it's even been described as an exercise cult. Stories in the New York Times and Los Angeles Times have portrayed Greg Glassman, a former gymnast who developed the method in the 1980s, as an abrasive figure no longer practicing his own program. Glassman, however, does deflect inquiries about CrossFit's safety with the caveat that CrossFit practitioners adapt the workout according to the weight and repetitions they can handle, not to their range of motion or physical limitations.
Adhering to that school of thought, Crenshaw is a self-proclaimed stickler for form and demonstrates every exercise in detail before class begins. The evening's group of five CrossFit acolytes — all women — hardly hesitate when Crenshaw tells them to load their barbells for a four-minute series of dead-lifts.
"Feet are hip-width," Crenshaw begins. "Janet, your hips aren't that big!"
"Yes, they are," snaps 52-year-old Janet Lopez of Medford.
Upper arms trembling, the women soon relinquish their barbells only to face sets of seven "knees-to-elbows." Suspended from the pull-up bars, they pump out as many rounds as their aching muscles will allow.
Crenshaw is eager to spot anyone who needs an extra boost, but on her watch, no one quits — least of all her own mother, 53-year-old Jan Garcia of Medford. Even her grandmother, who recently suffered a broken pelvis, benefited from learning how to squat properly, Crenshaw says.
"If my 83-year-old grandmother can do it, you can do it."