Maddie Watkins of Bethesda focuses on squatting while lifting 105 pounds at CrossFit DoneRight in Rockville. Photo by Laura-Chase McGehee

But people often learn of the program through word of mouth, usually from passionate practitioners.

Ruder, a longtime runner, was visiting a friend in Chicago when she noticed that her friend’s husband looked “noticeably leaner and fitter.”

“When I saw him, I said, ‘Wow, what have you been doing for workouts?’” she says. “And he told me about this thing called CrossFit.”

Bored with her own cross-training workouts, Ruder tried a CrossFit class after returning home. It wasn’t long before she was hooked, and she and her workout partner, Kristen Wheeden, became two of CrossFit Bethesda’s first customers when the gym opened three years ago.

“At first, I kind of thought, Really? An eight-minute workout? What’s that going to do for me?” says Wheeden, a 43-year-old Bethesda resident who’s also a longtime runner. “But it works. It just works. It changes your body. You’re stronger, and you discover muscles you never knew were there.”

The two friends, both slim and blond with defined biceps and shoulders, worked out with a trainer in the past but just “moved from piece of equipment to piece of equipment” in standard, machine-heavy gyms, Wheeden says.

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Now they do exercises they never would have dreamed of on their own, including dead lifts, which require bending forward from the waist and picking up a heavy barbell, and thrusters, a squat-like move with a dumbbell combined with an overhead press.  

Ruder says CrossFit has made her a stronger skier and runner. And Wheeden says the program helped her set a new personal marathon record, cutting her time from 3:55 to 3:49.

Borakove says it’s that kind of physical transformation that has fueled the program’s growth. “It’s the results,” he says. “People see results after they come here, and that keeps them coming back.”

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Still, the phenomenal growth of the program has not come without consequences, including some gyms offering programs that lack highly trained, safety-focused instructors.

That may be because CrossFit affiliates aren’t franchises, so they don’t have to meet a standard set of requirements about how they operate, other than making sure that instructors receive basic certification, Borakove says.   

“There are a handful of really top-notch CrossFit gyms out there,” he says. “There are also some that are horrible, where you’ll have 50 clients working out with one trainer, or where the trainer isn’t actually training.”

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CrossFit Bethesda does not embrace the concepts of Uncle Rhabdo or Pukie, and Borakove prides himself on paying strict attention to form and safety. Coaches roam the room during each workout to monitor beginners and longtime members alike, halting anyone whose form is starting to falter and suggesting modifications for those struggling with a particular exercise. Workouts are scaled to be easier for beginners, who may do fewer reps or perform lifts with less or no weight.

CrossFit Inc. requires instructors to be certified in CrossFit 1, a weekend course, before opening a CrossFit affiliate. But Borakove requires his staff to be certified in the higher level of training, CrossFit 2, to work with him.  

“You can get injured doing any sort of exercise,” Borakove says. “Running is a good example—runners get hurt all the time. But if you have high-quality, well-trained trainers like we do, the risk goes down significantly.”

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Justin Bacon, owner of CrossFit DoneRight in Rockville, shares Borakove’s safety-focused mission. Beginners take a series of classes to assess their starting fitness level, and to learn proper mechanics for everything from the trickiest Olympic lifts to the basic pushup.

Bacon says he is aware of the criticisms about CrossFit’s safety, and knows there are CrossFit gyms that aren’t as focused as his on injury prevention.

“It’s like anything—you’re going to have your good and your bad” facilities, Bacon says. “There are bad dentists out there, but I wouldn’t recommend that people stop going to the dentist because of that.”

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Bacon says people of all ages and fitness levels can safely learn CrossFit. For proof, he points to real-estate developer Richard Cohen, 71, of Potomac, who began doing CrossFit workouts three years ago while he was struggling to recover from a broken collarbone.

Cohen discovered the program when he walked by CrossFit DoneRight, which is located in a warehouse he owns. Intrigued by the intense power-lifting that was going on inside, Cohen started working out with Bacon four or five times a week. Before that, he swam regularly, but didn’t consider himself an athlete.

Now Cohen, who has a long, gray ponytail and sinewy arm and leg muscles, can bang out dozens of pullups after squatting 125 pounds. He can deadlift 255 pounds, perform ring work like a gymnast, and climb up a rope and touch the ceiling.

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“I’ve got a son in his late 30s, and we were moving some furniture the other day,” Cohen says, wiping sweat from his brow after finishing a set of squats. “I was doing the bulk of the work. He said, ‘I’m going to have to start working out so I can get as strong as you are!’ ”

Then there’s Maddie Watkins, 24, of Bethesda, who discovered CrossFit in 2008, when she asked a trainer at her former gym what she could do besides running on the treadmill.

He introduced the petite Watkins, a former competitive figure skater, to a CrossFit workout called the Filthy Fifty: 50 pullups, 50 burpees (squat thrusts that end in a standing position), 50 box jumps, and 50 reps of several other exercises.

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“At the end, I was smoked, but I’d never felt better,” Watkins says. “I had strong legs from skating, but never lifted weights. I could barely do a pushup on my knees.”

In April 2011, Watkins’ trainer convinced her to enter a CrossFit competition. She showed up for the event in an old firehouse in the District, feeling “completely terrified.”

Still, she nailed the first event, in which she deadlifted her maximum weight once. But she struggled to complete the second event, which required her to throw a heavy sandbag to the top of a platform.

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“The entire crowd, even my competitors, were cheering for me, trying to help me,” Watkins says. “Everyone was so supportive. It was like nothing I’ve ever experienced. By the time I left, I was hooked.”

She joined CrossFit DoneRight shortly after, and before long she was a CrossFit trainer herself and entering more competitions. On a recent weekday afternoon, Watkins’ workout consisted of a series of snatches and power cleans, an exercise in which she and other CrossFitters hoisted a heavy barbell above their heads like Olympic weight lifters.

“At a regular gym, everyone’s got their headphones in and is doing their own thing,” she says. “At a CrossFit gym, everyone’s cheering for each other and supporting each other. It’s like being on a team again.”

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It’s that sense of community combined with personal accomplishment that seems to fuel the strong desire of CrossFit fans to let others know what they may be missing.

Eric Bruskin of Kensington, who has lost 50 pounds since starting with CrossFit DoneRight in July 2011, explains it this way:
“I know I proselytized for a good six or nine months after I started doing it,” he says. “I’m 34, and I spent 33 years not understanding how to be in shape, stay in shape and find exercising fun. Then I stumbled across this thing I loved going to, and that was really fun—it just lends itself to talking about it and sharing your accomplishments.”

So, Borakove asks, is it such a bad thing if people are a bit obsessive about CrossFit?

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“Most people who come in here can’t do a basic squat at first,” he says. “No matter what else you want to say about it, CrossFit is getting people in the gym who wouldn’t be there otherwise. And it is a place where people who share certain beliefs about health and fitness can find a sense of community.”

Where to Train

While many area gyms offer CrossFit, these two “boxes” specialize in it:

CrossFit DoneRight
12160 Nebel St., Rockville
301-535-1316
www.crossfitdoneright.com

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CrossFit Bethesda
7920 Norfolk Ave., Bethesda
301-312-6664
www.crossfitbethesda.com

To Learn More

If you’d like to learn more about CrossFit’s WODs (Workouts of the Day), see the community message board and more, go to www.crossfit.com.

If you’d like to learn more about “The Paleo Solution,” go to robbwolf.com/shop/products/the-paleo-solution-the-original-human-diet.

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Amy Reinink’s work has appeared in The Washington Post, Entrepreneur and Women’s Running. She lives in Silver Spring.