No Place for Pansies

I feel like I’m gonna hurl.

It’s round four of “The Chief,” a brutal combination of power cleans, pushups, and squats. We’ve been doing all three exercises—in rapid succession and with painfully short breaks between rounds—for 20 minutes now. I’m panting like I just sprinted a half-mile; sweat pours off my forehead in volumes reminiscent of an old Benny Hill skit. I have to stop.

“Let’s go!” John Murie, our trainer for today’s workout, yells. “Keep working!” Chest heaving, I glance around the gym: eight bodies, all gasping their way through the workout sequence. I reach down, grab the barbell, and power up three cleans. Then I drop, crank out six pushups, and get back on my feet for nine squats. As I move back to the barbell, my head swims and my stomach roils. My eyes search the gym for the nearest trash can, just in case.

“Time!” John finally calls out. Saved by the bell. I drop to a knee, using the one-minute break to regain my gastrointestinal composure. Just about the time I get my breathing under control—still rapid, but no longer convulsive—the break is over. Barbells rise and fall to a cacophony of grunts and groans. The pain goes on.

This is CrossFit 4800, Bozeman’s latest—and quite possibly, most masochistic—fitness craze. Athletes of all disciplines converge on the warehouse-turned-gym for prescribed workouts designed to maximize performance in their chosen sports. They never know what to expect—it could be sit-ups and the rowing machine one day, deadlifts and kettlebell swings the next—or exactly how long a workout will last. The only thing they can be certain of is that it will be short, demanding, and extremely intense.

Which is what CrossFit, the fitness phenomenon currently sweeping the country, is all about. “I like it because it pushes me until I hurt,” says Amber Peck, another trainer at the gym. As a wildland firefighter, she needs a combination of strength, stamina, and speed—three things the CrossFit methodology provides in abundance. And with today’s busy schedules, she finds the program an ideal solution to all the demands on her time. “You get a lot more done,” she says, “in a much shorter amount of time.” Being a longtime runner, Amber also likes the program’s versatility. “It’s all about functional movement,” she says. “CrossFit makes you more well-rounded; it makes you better at every sport.”

Jeremy Henrichon, the gym’s owner, agrees. “We’re not training specifically for one type of activity,” he says. “CrossFit’s goal is to give you a better, broader range of athleticism, which you can then apply to whatever sport you choose.” For Jeremy, that may be skiing—he’s a former ski-racer who now coaches the MSU alpine team—or any of his other athletic pursuits, which include tennis, dirtbiking, and waterskiing. “This isn’t about being a gym rat,” he emphasizes. “This is real training; it’s about finding your weaknesses and working through them.”

And if there’s one thing that CrossFit 4800 does for its members, it’s highlight those weaknesses. With everything from weightlifting and isometrics to gymnastic and endurance exercises, everyone is bound to discover the unknown gaps in their fitness regimens. These varied workouts mean that one day you might claim the lowest time or the highest reps, while the next, you’ll come in dead last. You can go from champ to chump and back again in three workouts.

Nowhere is this equalizing effect more evident than group class, where emblematic cross-sections of Bozeman-area outdoor athletes commingle in a competitive yet highly supportive environment. Stoutly built hockey players share floor space with ectomorphic triathletes; gorilla-armed rock-climbers alternate pull-ups and squats alongside cyclists with tree-trunk thighs. Scores are posted on a big whiteboard after each workout, for all to see—and to compare with one’s own.

There are no mirrors in this gym. No juice bar, sauna, or fashion magazines to flip through during a leisurely treadmill warm-up. CrossFit 4800 looks more like a boxing gym: no frills, no posers, and no whiners. It’s a place with a single underlying purpose: to drive your body to exhaustion. “Lots of people show up once or twice and then never come back,” Jeremy says. “This is definitely not for everyone.”

No doubt, the intensity alone seems to ward off all but the most serious fitness buffs—but more and more people seem to be coming on board. CrossFit is rapidly being incorporated by soldiers, police officers, and martial arts practitioners around the world. Tyson Bradley, CrossFit 4800’s first certified trainer, is a former Marine who, despite a vigorous outdoor lifestyle, couldn’t seem to maintain the fitness level he enjoyed in the military. “I started doing CrossFit less than a year ago,” he says, “and I’m in the best shape of my life.”

With so many hardcore devotees—there are now over 1,000 affiliate gyms worldwide—things look promising for the future of CrossFit. “A lot of fitness fads come and go,” John explains. “But this one is different.” It’s not a scheme, he says, like many other health trends. “Nope,” he says, “I think CrossFit is here to stay.”

Editor's Note: Since this article was published, several more CrossFit gyms have opened up around Bozeman. The latest is CrossFit Belgrade. CrossFit 4800, the subject of this article, is now 4800 Gym, with a similar workout philosophy but no official CrossFit affiliation. The trainers mentioned in this article, John and Tyson, now co-own Coldsmoke CrossFit off Bridger Canyon Dr.