“If you still look cute, you didn’t train enough.” The inscription on the box at the entrance of CrossFit B-Town summarizes the ethos of its namesake, high-intensity sport that is gaining a foothold in Lebanon.
Coach Abdel-Kader Heraki stands atop the wooden boxes, CrossFitters gathered around, sweating and panting. They had just finished a workout of hill sprints, rope jumping, handstands, squats, planks, box jumps and flipping large truck tires.
“This was a little present to warm your hearts up,” Heraki said, smiling. “It was by no means your workout.”
The actual workout, a string of kettlebell swings, high pulls, box jumps and knee-to-chest pullups, scrawled on a whiteboard, draws a whistle from the crowd. They all get to work.
“All the stress of work and daily life goes away in this one hour,” Ahmad Abbas, 23, said at the end of his workout, visibly exhausted, face reddened and sweating.
Chiseled, with nary a visible ounce of fat, coach Heraki seems to embody the CrossFit ethos. He speaks animatedly and with enthusiasm to a group of newcomers attending an introductory workout meant to familiarize them with the principles of the sport. He wears a T-shirt that says “Respect is earned.”
An exercise philosophy and company founded in 2000, CrossFit has many adherents worldwide who swear by its mix of high-intensity exercises that combine running, Olympic weightlifting, gymnastics and bodyweight exercises like pushups and squats. Thousands of affiliated gyms have opened worldwide, one of which is CrossFit B-Town.
Heraki first discovered CrossFit during a visit to a gym in Montreal in summer 2009.
“I was mesmerized,” he said.
He was hooked on the mix of exercises on display, having long eschewed the traditional notion of bodybuilding that exercises isolated muscles and gives primacy to physique over fitness. By the second day, he said, he felt like part of the gang at the gym, a common refrain among new adherents to the sport, who often find the alternating camaraderie and competitive spirit a refreshing change from a solitary jog on a treadmill with the earphones on.
When he came back to Lebanon, Heraki said he would get together with friends at his local gym to do CrossFit workout routines. The intense and frantic nature of the routines drew a few strange looks.
“They would look at us like maniacs,” he said.
But Heraki flips it around. CrossFit, he said, is “training for life.”
Many advocates of the sport say it combines natural movements that strengthen the body and adapt it to physically challenging situations in real life, a form of “functional” training. Isolated weightlifting exercises, by contrast, are not as useful for overall physical health.
Another advantage over traditional gym workouts is the constant variation in training routines. Workouts are never the same from day to day – the organization that founded CrossFit posts a new “WOD,” or workout of the day, on its website every morning.
“It prepares you for everything,” he said. “It’s not sport specific. We’re not just training for a marathon, but you can run a marathon if you also CrossFit.”
Now, Heraki has his own CrossFit gym on Australia Street near Raouche, which opened nearly three months ago.
There, he does beginner, intermediate and advanced CrossFit classes three days a week. It costs $75 for access to 12 classes a month, and a lot of sessions, he said, are packed with the maximum of 25 people of varying fitness levels.
Heraki, a certified CrossFit trainer, also has background in martial arts, with a black belt in kickboxing and a blue belt in Brazilian jiujitsu.
To build the gym, Heraki converted part of an underground garage in the building into a brightly lit room where pumping music, his own shouts of encouragement and the occasional roar of a car engine enhance the desire to soldier on with the workout.
He designed the pullup rig on AutoCAD, and the wood exercise boxes that you jump on in some workout routines were built by hand.
“No one ever drowned in sweat,” says the inscription on one of them.
That sort of unbridled attitude and the high-adrenaline nature of the workouts can be off-putting to outsiders, who often mock the sport’s adherents for having cultish tendencies.
Many new converts to CrossFit preach its creed with zeal and bear blisters from frequent pullups as battle scars on their palms.
The competitive nature of the workouts, which are often timed and the performance recorded, can also be intimidating.
But those who take part in the sport often instead praise its camaraderie. At a recent workout, trainees gathered to cheer on a comrade who was last to finish her set of workouts.
“You’re always making friends,” said Maya Mirey, who has been training at CrossFit B-Town for a month and a half.
“You don’t feel intimidated.”
Workouts are also often scaled, with beginners doing fewer rounds or carrying lighter weights than the more seasoned crowd.
When she found out about the sport online and decided to try it out, Mirey said she was concerned about getting too “buff” or muscular. But after training about three times a week, she said the effect was more one of increased fitness. The adrenaline rush from the high-intensity workouts is somewhat addictive, she said, bringing her back for more.
Heraki agrees. He wants to change what it means to work out, to build a community. At the end of the session, the gym slowly empties out, faces flushed but enthusiastic after a few minutes of meditative stretching.
“What you will see [in a traditional gym] is a guy standing five feet away from the mirror doing bicep curls and then texting his girlfriend,” Heraki said.
At a CrossFit gym, you won’t find that, or a solitary treadmill run.