Inside The CrossFit Culture, Part II: The Overhaul
How Briana Drost lost 30 pounds and went from desk potato to competitive CrossFit athlete.
How Briana Drost lost 30 pounds and went from desk potato to competitive CrossFit athlete.
PAIN IS TEMPORARY. QUITTING IS FOREVER.
Surely with a distressed look on my face and standing 20 yards south of CrossFit Ali’i, in Kona on Hawaii’s Big Island, a reasonable-sounding voice in my head was producing a variety of highly attractive justifications why I shouldn’t take forward steps. It was 5:15 in the afternoon, 15 minutes before the last workout at the gym—or “box” per CrossFit vernacular—on a sizzling, humidity-drenched day. CrossFit Ali’i is, like many CrossFit boxes, a warehouse space in an industrial zone that you enter through a vast roller door. I was off to the side, kind of hiding, where I could hear the 4:30 class emitting sounds that indicated they were in the throws of a metabolic conditioning workout, aka met-con, the CrossFit staple of constantly varying, high-intensity, lung-torching workouts relying on combinations of functional movements. Movements like burpees, box jumps and clean and jerks. Dick Meldrum was probably leading the class, an instructor who started with CrossFit during a deployment to Iraq when he was a member of the 82nd Airborne. I had been in his class the previous day, where I learned how to flip a tractor tire and had my clock cleaned in a wall ball throws and pull-ups met-con.
I didn’t want to go in. Alibis gamely marched through my head. I recalled how many years ago at the first practice of high school track season at Kennedy High School, in the miserable month of Iowa February weather, Coach Al Stiers told us how it was never too cold for a Cougar to run. He then handed us a “Handy Alibi Sheet” that listed about 100 of the most frequent excuses he’d heard from various whining Cougars over the years (my favorite being, “I drank too much pop yesterday.”)
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I could have used that sheet in Kona. A solid alibi would support me trumping my way down Palani Hill and into the Kona village, where I would find a good beach bar, order a mai tai and watch the sunset.
I was snapped out of my mai tai daydream when a ripped-fit Crossfitter, 6-foot-4 or 5, apparently just having finished the met-con, stumbled out the door and into the parking lot, hands on knees and heaving for air, where he announced, “That sucked!”
This was my future if I jumped in the 5:30. I knew one thing that wouldn’t suck: A mai tai. Now almost 100% about to bolt, I thought about Briana Drost. If I wimped out on this workout, how could I ever face Briana Drost, a fellow member of my home box, Crossfit Elysium? Or face any of the other CrossFit Elysium faithful?
If I wimped out, what would Briana think?
I went in and got clobbered. I was glad and relieved I did it, recalling a Navy SEAL motto: “Pain is temporary. Quitting is forever.”
CrossFit’s Tribal Power: Consistency & Intensity Through Community Support
Briana, Sam, Parnell, Raquel, Tiff, Dustin, Miriam, Brian, Dave, Andrew, Rachel, Irene, Bill, Courtney, Sara, Ben, Morgan, Elizabeth, Karla, Jen—these are some of my fellow members at CrossFit Elysium, a typical CrossFit tribe, who I meet with almost daily, and ask anyone who has been Crossfitting awhile and they too could will reel off a similar list of names. When I’m asked about what CrossFit is and why it’s so popular this is part of my answer: There’s a fiercely powerful tribal accountability at work—a friendship and alliance forged through simultaneously competing with each other in workouts and supporting each other through the same workouts.
CrossFit is not easy. Once, after a met-con at CrossFit Elysium—3 rounds for time of 20 kettle-bell swings, 15 burpees and 10 pull-ups—Parnell and I were, as usual, thrilled to have it over. While we half-heartedly did some post-workout stretches we chatted about the puzzling nature of it all—how despite the have-the-defibrillator-ready rigor of the effort, we kept coming back. We also talked about how the nerve-racking specter of an upcoming evening workout could haunt you through the day. I told Parnell how the nerves I experienced on my way to Elysium were not unlike how I felt before the start of a running race. “I know,” he agreed with a weary smile. “On my way here I have butterflies.” As we both departed we said the same thing: “See you tomorrow.”
Photo Gallery: The 2011 Reebok CrossFit Games
I go to CrossFit for the purpose of my ongoing overhaul as a runner, and first and foremost for my overall health, but I can’t deny that the most emotionally-charged reason I keep going back is because I don’t want to let down my teammates. The grip of this accountability, as I discovered 2,500 miles away from the mainland, is ridiculously powerful. I’m convinced it’s the critical lever as to why CrossFit is known for rapidly producing stunning results. The accountability, due to coaches and the community, fosters a level of consistency despite the difficulty of the training.
Briana Drost as an unwitting agent of this accountability: I had only trained with Briana once when I went, as a spectator, to my first local CrossFit competition, called the Left Coast Invitational held at CrossFit Mission Gorge. The competition consisted of three different workouts, spread throughout a sunny Saturday in San Diego. I made it for the final workout. Upon first meeting Briana—her bright smile set off by hair died a deep raspberry red—you might figure her to be a nice hippie gal in the neighborhood that works as a dental assistant and likes to bake apple pie. In fact, after she finishes grad school she plans to become a police officer with on-the-scene-of-the-crime counseling duties for the trauma-stricken. (Writer’s note: She might well like to bake apple pie too, and be quite impressive at it; I don’t know.)
At the Left Coast Invitational Drost’s girlish sparkle had cohered into an unwavering intent. Fact is she looked a little pissed that she wasn’t winning. The WOD I watched her compete in was a furious mix of kettlebell high pulls, burpees, front squats and kettlebell swings with a 12-minute time cap—the first to finish was the winner, so rest between sets and reps was fought against. The competition space was lined with members of Elysium, CrossFit Mission Gorge and CrossFit 858. Standing room only unless you wanted to sit on a stack of bumper weights. Everyone was screaming. Briana was lashing her way through the sonic din with a 35-lb kettlebell, with two of the three CrossFit Elysium coaches, Leon Chang and Paul Estrada, howling encouragement at her. I noticed my mouth and throat were cooked dry. This was not the Reebok CrossFit Games at the Home Depot Center, where the venue was so large a distance existed between the athletes and the specators—this local triangular meet version of CrossFit Competition was like being in a mosh pit watching a punk band go at it. The air was desert dry and Briana was gasping for oxygen, her face cherry red, and I thought, Good God, am I even close to being as tough as she is? Nothing about her facial expression or body language communicated a hint of self-pity or resign.
I would later be astonished to learn that Briana, just a year before, had been, at the age of 24, sedentary and out-of-shape, a victim to the grind of 12-hour nightshifts, 6:30pm to 6:30am, as a police dispatcher chained to a desk. Thirty pounds overweight, a frequent patron of Denny’s and suffering the ill effects of all the above in terms of poor sleep and overall just feeling bad. One year of being in a CrossFit box had rejuvenated Briana, and as she told me in a recent interview, the initial reason she joined CrossFit Elysium was because she had seen friends achieve similar transformations training at CrossFit Invictus in San Diego. “Their results were phenomenal,” Drost recalled. “I asked them, ‘Oh my god. What are you doing?’”
Briana Drost’s journey to the Left Cost Invitational offers a telling explanation of why CrossFit is seeing such rapid growth across the country.
“I was working 40 hours a week as a police dispatcher,” she recounts. “And I was in my first year of graduate school, studying psychology. I wasn’t eating well or exercising. I was tired of feeling tired all the time. And the scale was reading 159 pounds—I’d gained 30. What had I done?” Drost said the fear of the scale reading any higher shocked her into action. “If I had hit 160 I would have had a huge mental breakdown.” Drost joined CrossFit Elysium in August of 2010.
What It’s Like To Join A CrossFit Gym–A Strangely Old-School Experience In A Corporate Age
Paul Estrada co-owns CrossFit Elysium with Dr. Leon Chang and together with Stacie Beal the three make up the floor coaching staff. Alessandra Wall, PhD, the Elysium nutrition coach, is married to Chang. It’s an eclectic mix of coaches. Early in the summer they moved Elysium to San Diego’s North Park neighborhood, where I live, and I decided to join—although I had experienced CrossFit workouts and coaching sporadically in months prior, I had never been a member of a CrossFit affiliate like Elysium. As far back as I can remember any time I’d faced the initial joining of a gym I felt a dark, loathing dread—I’d become accustomed to the unsavory experience of the marketing-glazed sales consultation and fear that somewhere in the triple-duplicate contract, the cancellation penalties and the small print of the automatic credit card debit plan, I was getting screwed over.
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Elysium was different. I walked in when Estrada was the only one there, sitting behind a reception desk in front of a computer. While the term ‘reception desk’ may prompt an image of corporate polish, Elysium is, like every other CrossFit installation I’ve been to, utilitarian in design, in this case a large, rectangular commercial space, most of it rubber-matted and the rear of the building with high ceilings. There were the iconic essentials: climbing ropes, rowing machines, barbells, bumper plates, kettlebells, medicine balls and squat racks, with a series of pull-up bars of varying heights mounted along the south wall. T-shirts from other affiliates hung on the northern wall—the primary dosage of color within the box. The outer walls of the reception desk were unfinished sheets of plywood.
I approached the counter. Estrada wore a beret and a day or two’s growth of facial hair. His greeting was neither warm nor cold; rather, it was forthright and even-toned. Energy-efficient. I told him I wished to join up and we discussed how much CrossFit experience I had. He nodded thoughtfully after my replies and surmised I didn’t need to go through their Fundamentals introductory program. He entered my credit card info into the computer. And that was pretty much it. There was nothing remotely resembling a sales pitch, and as I’ve come to know Estrada, Chang, Beal and Wall—I have concluded that the four are completely incapable of being anything but sincere in any conversation I can imagine. Estrada plainly told me the next workout scheduled was that night and I was welcome to get started. That was it. No posing for a membership card picture. No card key. No file folder of pink receipts and yellow contract facsimiles.
(Sidebar on these personalities. Estrada: focused and disciplined coaching manner with a stoic, shy presence that he consistently betrays with a surprisingly dry sense of humor; Chang: high-intensity doctor-type, highly competitive, nuts for Olympic lifting, keen eye for technique, fervently supportive of the gym’s membership; Beal: smart, firm coaching hand but exceptionally compassionate presence; Wall: equally compassionate—a clinical psychologist specializing in depression, anxiety and eating disorders, hell-bent on getting back into top shape after recently having given birth. All sharp, intense people, all passionate about CrossFit, both within coaching others and within their own training).
I attended that first workout the evening of July 1. Beal was the primary coach and Chang was also there. Through some sort of mystical osmosis they all knew my name, and somehow or another Chang guessed that Estrada had forgot to have me sign a waiver (so there was one piece of paper anyway). I had three classmates that night, July 1st, a Friday evening when many San Diegans had fled town for the holiday. The strength component of the workout was overhead squats, a movement in which you extend a weighted barbell over your head with a wide grip, elbows locked, and then proceed to squat as deep as you can, then power your way back up for one rep. I say weighted because the others in the class were progressively stacking on weight to either side of their barbells, whereas the 45-pound bar I was given alone proved to be too much for me, revealing the inflexibility in my shoulders and hips. I couldn’t do it. Poor Stacie Beal. She saw how impossible the movement was for me and had to give me the hard, humbling news that I needed to exchange my 45-pound bar for a 35-pound bar (aka the girl bar). Meanwhile, women across the gym, significantly lighter than I, were off to the races and setting PRs. I was waiting for Beal and Chang to take me aside and start informing me on the schedule for the Fundamentals class. Rather, they both watched me carefully and coached me through the specific details of the movement. By the end, I was nearing the level of what qualifies for an actual squat and had added plates to both ends of the bar. The plates were 2.5 pounders, baby plates, about the size of vinyl 45s, but hey, I still walked out feeling like I was better than when I walked in.
It’s been three and a half months since then. I still have days where I feel like a complete greenhorn, particularly with Olympic lifts, yet I’ve looked back over my training log and am surprised at the improvements. I’m 48-years old now—no spring chicken—but I’ve progressed to the point where I’m sure that I’m stronger now than when I played high school football. Two years ago I had a back that I constantly threw out and trick knees. That’s all vanished. I’ve recently bored the hell out of friends in boasting about my newfound ability to overhead squat 125 pounds. (It’s all relative of course–Estrada can overhead squat more than 300 pounds. My friends don’t know that.)
But I digress. The real story I want to tell you about is Drost: My inspiration for what apparently can happen when you grind through a year of Crossfitting.
Briana Drost’s Start
Estrada recently talked to me about those who achieve the results that Briana has and those who drift away. At first, Estrada wasn’t sure how she would do, noting that Drost was in her 20s, and in Estrada’s experience maturity factors in. Younger newbies suffered a higher attrition rate.
“There are two simple steps you need to follow to succeed at CrossFit,” Estrada says. “Number one is show up. Number two is don’t quit. Briana was a hard worker, but I wasn’t sure she would make it. She had a hectic, crazy schedule.”
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Chang knew that Drost had a soccer background in her childhood, which indicated she would likely be coachable but there were still challenges. “She was definitely out-of-shape,” he says. “She probably was carrying 30 pounds of excess weight and had little muscle mass, so the ‘useless weight’—the fat—was probably even higher.”
“The first few months were tough,” Drost says. “I felt like I was going to throw up every time. I was shocked. I thought, ‘What did I get myself into?’ If it wasn’t for the community I never would have made it. I would have quit.”
“Usually when I try something new I feel uncomfortable and I’m weary of being judged,” Drost adds. “I never felt that at Elysium. The support was genuine. It feels like a team sport.”
Chang commented on this community dynamic. “I can’t think of a better environment to train in and learn something new. Your fellow athletes literally will not let you fail if you put in the effort. True, the workouts can seem intimidating, and you’re going to have to bust your butt, but anything worth achieving is going to take effort.”
Nutrition & The Jet Stream Of Rapid Improvement
Per the CrossFit pyramid model as authored by CrossFit founder Greg Glassman, nutrition is the bedrock foundation, and documented thoroughly within articles and videos archived in the CrossFit Journal is the position that without nutrition Crossfitting alone will deliver a fraction of the possible benefits. The first few months Drost’s eating habits (Denny’s Grand Slams. Food stand beef chimichangas. Assorted other junk) had gone unchanged, and while her body composition and overall fitness were responding to the work, the reading on the scale hadn’t budged.
Combining the paleolithic (quality foods: lean meats, fish, vegetables, some fruit, nuts, seeds) and Zone diets (weighing, measuring, getting a handle on quantity and balanced macronutrient ratios) guidelines advised at most CrossFit boxes, including Elysium, in January of 2011 Drost attacked her diet. Drost was shocked when in the course of four weeks 15 pounds burned off her body.
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Chang says that Elysium purposely refrains from pushing members on diet in a way that other affiliates have been known to do. But when someone like Drost gets frustrated with the rate of improvement a dietary remake is what they’ll advise. “The reason Briana’s progress sped up so much when she paid attention to her diet is two-fold,” Chang says. “For one, the human body is like a machine, and any machine is dependent on quality fuel to run optimally. Put garbage for fuel in, and you get garbage out. In practical terms what that means is feeling lethargic throughout the day, sleeping poorly and performing sub-optimally in workouts. By eating better Briana was able to train harder, recover better and have more energy to make it into the gym more often. Under those conditions it’s easy to see why her progress would improve. The second reason is that Briana started giving her body the macronutrients in the quantities it needed. Under these circumstances it’s actually difficult for an overweight person to NOT lose weight.”
In an interview with Fast Company magazine, conducted during the Reebok CrossFit Games, Greg Glassman spoke about CrossFit’s emphasis on diet. “Excessive consumption of refined carbohydrate is the real 800-pound gorilla of metabolic derangement that is killing Americans by millions,” he said, referring to the connection of a poor diet to insulin resistance, adult-onset diabetes, heart disease and cancer. With CrossFit’s ultimate aim being to define and generate improved health, the application of dietary science is natural. But Glassman also spoke about the direct correlation between an improved diet and improved performance. Glassman said there are a number of reasons for this, the most obvious being fat loss and/or muscle gain.
“A guy drops 20 pounds of blubber and picks up 5 pounds of muscle, there’s a 15 pound differentiation on the scale, he’s got 10 more pull-ups,” he said. Glassman added that a Crossfitter has only “one oar in the water if you’re talking about nutrition or only one oar in the water if you’re talking about movement.” The alloy of a high-performance diet and CrossFit training, Glassman said, can move you into the “jet stream of adaptation.”
In Drost’s case, the application of a Zone-Paleo approach to food required long-range planning, preparing and packing up enough meals and snacks to get her through a 12-hour work shift, then to any school she might have, then intern assignments as a counselor and then her workout. But the payoff was rapid.
Estrada remembers Drost’s January acceleration. “I won’t comment on anyone’s weight loss unless it’s a big change, one I’m sure of,” he says. “There was a day when I saw a woman in a hallway. Her back was to me and I didn’t know who it was. She turned around and it was Briana. I had to do a double-take—she had completely transformed.”
After that six month mark, Drost startled co-workers as well. “They said, ‘Holy shit! What have you been doing?’”
Momentum: Success Breeds Success
May 13, 2011. A huge day for Drost.
To enable beginners to train alongside more experienced Crossfitters and even elite Crossfitters, scaling techniques are applied across the spectrum of movements. With pull-ups, dense rubber bands are looped over the bar and the Crossfitter uses the bottom loop like a stirrup, the elasticity allowing the newbie a springy boost. Drost’s goal was an unassisted pull-up, no band. “I wanted that so bad,” she recalls. “I was pissed off about it.” On May 13—no band—Drost glided through an unassisted pull-up. “Oh hell, yeah!” she said with glee, and bounded over to report the breakthrough to Estrada.
Drost described for me Coach Paul’s reserved response. Estrada took in the information, nodded slowly and, with a vocal inflection one might use to report the weather, said, “Good.”
“He understands it’s just one goal,” Drost says with a smile. “He always knows there are bigger fish to fry.”
After watching Drost’s consistency and commitment to the program, Chang was not surprised by the progress.
“To put it simply, Briana is a very strong-willed and dedicated person,” Chang says. “She is willing to work hard and make sacrifices to get what she wants—in this case, physical fitness. In this day and age those are particularly remarkable traits. Most people talk about what they want but are completely unwilling to lift a finger to help themselves get there. It’s as if they expect the world to do them a favor. Quite honestly I think this is infuriating. By contrast, for financial reasons Briana had to decide between cable TV and training with us—and she cancelled her TV subscription. I bet 99% of couch potatoes out there would have prioritized things the other way, thereby generating a convenient excuse why they ‘couldn’t work out.’ Her job involves her working long nights, and often she’ll train AFTER having been up all night. She is that dedicated.”
Chang continues. “It’s a shame her schedule is so busy because if she had half the time to train and rest that most people have, she’d be even further along in her journey to elite fitness. Briana deserves all of the success she’s had, because she’s earned it. Briana really is an example of the phenomenon of ‘success breeding success.’ Each achievement she’s made, each milestone she’s passed has only served to drive her to new heights. It’s actually amazing to watch as a coach and a friend.”
I asked Chang what his advice was for people who might be interested in joining a CrossFit affiliate.
“Go for it,” he says. “You have nothing to lose. Anyone truly can do CrossFit with the right coaching and right attitude. Our community has had multiple amputees, geriatrics and the morbidly obese all working out alongside elite athletes. At virtually all CrossFit affiliates you’ll find a community of regular people, all supporting each other in becoming more healthy.”
September 29, 2011. 2:45 a.m.
I woke up for no reason at all. It was one of those out-of-nowhere wake-ups where I checked my clock expecting it to be 5. But it was not even 3, and I knew instantly there was no turning over and going back to sleep. I got up, made a cup of herbal tea and woke up the computer.
Coach Leon Chang had posted the following announcement on Facebook:
“Announcing the first CrossFit Mission Gorge/CrossFit 858/CrossFit Elysium Throwdown! All the details are on our website, or just follow the link. Sign up and represent Elysium! Coach P and I can answer any questions you might have.”
Another CrossFit competition like The Left Coast Invitational, the Throwdown is scheduled for November 12—three workouts over the course of the Saturday, a team competition designed for beginner-to-intermediates. Reading the description, I knew it would be hard and hellish, three CrossFit workouts spread out over a matter of hours. Coaches, teammates and friends desperately screaming at me to go harder.
If I didn’t sign up, what would Briana think?