CrossFit ‘boxes’ offer challenging workouts and a community of believers

CrossFit athletes have a reputation for being tough. Have you seen people running uphill on Second Street with sandbags over their shoulders or sprinting along the Warrenton Greenway as twilight settles? 

They are “CrossFitters.” In gyms throughout Fauquier, they are lifting heavy weights, climbing ropes like Marine recruits and otherwise challenging themselves to new levels of physical fitness. 

CrossFit is a form of “functional exercise.” Rather than relying on exercise machines or a narrow series of repetitive movements, CrossFit makes use of a variety of modalities. Barbells, pull-up bars, gymnastic rings, rowing machines, kettlebells — all and more may be employed in a CrossFit workout. 

Besides being hard-core about their workout methods, CrossFit enthusiasts are difficult to stereotype. Men and women are about equally represented. College athletes share the gym with grandmas, and even kids as young as 4 are into the act. The first CrossFit gym opened in 1996 in Santa Cruz, California. Today there are more than 13,000 locations in 120 countries.

Many athletic hopefuls will head to gyms this January, hoping to keep their resolutions going at least until March. In CrossFit gyms, known as “boxes,” athletes will insist their friends try a class or two, hoping they get hooked for good — just like they did.

Warrenton CrossFit

“In CrossFit, your body is the machine,” said Crystal Willis, who owns CrossFit Warrenton with her husband Justin.

Some athletes show up to CrossFit classes to lose weight. Some want to be able to get down on the floor —and back up again — to play with their grandchildren. Others are elite athletes. Crystal Willis said that although each workout of the day – known as a WOD — is the same for everyone, the ability to scale those workouts is infinite. Range of motion, aka ROM, exercises and flexibility training are all incorporated to further reduce the chance of injury.

In its current Old Town Warrenton location since 2013, CrossFit Warrenton has been in operation for 10 years. The CrossFit box recently expanded to include three large bays with a variety of workout equipment. The gym employs seven certified CrossFit instructors and welcomes about 130 members through its doors each week. 

Every CrossFit gym, it seems, has stories of health and healing. Crystal Willis said one of their members has multiple sclerosis. “She says this is the only thing she’s tried that makes her stronger,” she said.

Cathy Hall, 63, was diagnosed with MS when she was 19. She said she is one of the lucky ones because her disease has progressed slowly. She said it may be because she has always been physically active. She’s been an equestrian for 30 years and started running when she was 25. 

“I quit running about eight years ago because I kept falling — face-planting kind of falls,” she said.

Hall has been doing CrossFit now for about four years. “I do run as a part of the workouts, but in short bursts,” she said. “I can get up and down the hill five or six times during a workout.”

Although Hall is sure CrossFit has improved her strength, for her there has been a more crucial benefit. “I think the biggest difference for me has been in my balance.” 

When she started, she had to hold onto the wall while stepping up onto a box that everyone else was jumping onto or over. “It may sound like nothing to most people who are doing real box jumps, but I can now jump on a box 6 inches tall without holding onto anything. That’s a big deal for me,” she said.

Hall has also mastered lunges, both forward and backward, and can lift 30 pounds above her head. 

“When I first started I wouldn’t have had the balance to do lunges, and I couldn’t lift any weight at all. Crystal [Willis] has been great about encouraging me to do what I can,” Hall added. “She and Justin tell me that it doesn’t matter how much weight I can lift, as long as I’m moving forward.”

Mike Houston is another CrossFit believer. He has been coaching at CrossFit Warrenton for about four years. “I would do it all day, every day if I could.” He said he’s at the gym six or seven times a week. Which classes are his favorites? “I like all of them.”

On a recent visit to CrossFit Warrenton, Crystal Willis waved to a 4-year-old in a shiny blue princess dress. “Can you show me how you do a burpee?” The tiny princess dropped to the floor onto her stomach, did a sort of push up, and then stepped on the hem of her dress as she got back up. She was giggling the whole time. Crystal and Justin Willis teach a kids class on Saturdays and Thursdays.

Other special options include a partners class on Saturdays where two CrossFit athletes work as a team to complete the workout. Occasional in-house challenges inspire a healthy spirit of competition and keep workouts fun, said Willis.

The exercises are engaging, the coaches attentive, but Crystal Willis said she thinks folks keep coming back week after week because of the sense of community CrossFit provides. She  remembers when a particular member was going through a serious life struggle. 

“We support each other through difficult times, health crises or personal tragedies,” she said. The community responds with anything they need, from emotional support to fundraising.

CrossFit Vint Hill

Alana Jenkins tells the story of one 55-year-old woman who started at CrossFit Vint Hill after being encouraged by her husband, who was worried about her health. 

“She was diabetic, had high cholesterol and high blood pressure, and signs of arthritis,” Jenkins said.

That was two years ago. “Now she is no longer diabetic and is off all her medication. She is able to play with her grandkids and says she feels the best she’s ever felt.”

Alana and Rob Jenkins started the business in their basement, moved it to the garage and acquired the warehouse space at Vint Hill a little over a year ago. They doubled their space about four months ago to accommodate their 100 or so members. 

The main workout room is huge, punctuated with rowing machines, pull-up bars, barbells and more. A new room hosts  kids classes, as well as yoga and some personal training.

As Alana Jenkins gives a tour of her gym, she points proudly to the nursery where a staffer entertains a handful of children while their parents sweat. Two showers and two changing rooms are also part of the space. “We treat it like our home. We keep it super clean and comfortable.”

The Jenkins’ origin story started when Rob Jenkins was a 335-pound tenth grader at Liberty High School. His strength coach helped him lose 120 pounds in eight months. “I knew then that I wanted to take what my coach did for me and do that for others.”

The Jenkins know CrossFit can be intimidating. CrossFit Vint Hill offers ramp-up classes called “Fundamentals” or “Elements” classes.

 “We teach the movements for squats, pushups and barbell work,” explained Alana Jenkins. “We check out range of motion, mechanics. By the time they start class, they feel super confident. We’ve taught them how to perform the exercises safely and how to scale the exercises to their abilities.”

Classes are designed so that everyone can participate. “They are made for anyone and everyone,” said Alana Jenkins. “Olympic lifters and grandmas are in the same classes. Same class, different weights and intensity.”

Local orthopedist Dr. James Ward started doing CrossFit about seven months ago at the urging of his wife, Susan. 

“With any sort of weight training, particularly using explosive movement, there is an injury risk. Done appropriately, though, while monitored, with good coaching, it can be good for all ages,” he said. “They do a good job here of coaching you to your level, helping you modify movements for your abilities.” 

Ward said he believes CrossFit has helped him get faster and stronger. He attends classes three or four times a week when his schedule allows. What exercise makes him groan? “Burpees. Nobody likes burpees.”

CrossFit Vint Hill also offers a 45-minute class for children twice a week. Alana Jenkins said, “The idea is the same as for the adults. We teach skills and techniques, body mechanics. The kids are still learning body awareness, so the intensity is different. It’s geared for their abilities. They love it.”

High-fiving and fist-bumping erupt at the end of every class at CrossFit Vint Hill. “We want you to feel victorious just because you walked through the door. When you’ve finished a class, we want you to feel as if you’ve won the Super Bowl,” Jenkins said.

Virginia 15-29 CrossFit

Kay Young, 61, is an ex-Marine who is classified as “80 percent disabled.” Or as she puts it: “I have lots of parts that don’t work anymore.” 

But in Virginia 15-29 CrossFit classes, she concentrates on what she can do. When she started doing CrossFit at the insistence of her son, she couldn’t do a single squat. Last week she hit a personal record: 90 squats, with weights. 

“I’m mobile now. I can walk. I can split wood for an hour at a time,” she said.

Susanne Taylor, 62, has been doing CrossFit off and on for seven years. She battles the unpredictable symptoms of fibromyalgia and the side effects of the medication. She’s also had back surgery and has arthritis. During a recent workout, a bell rang out. The PR bell proclaimed Taylor’s latest achievement: push jerks with 60 pounds of weight.

Sherry Sprague, 49, is an ex-police officer who nearly died in a motorcycle accident in July 2017. She was lifting heavy at Virginia 15-29 CrossFit a few days before Christmas. The biggest factor in her recovery: “Working out at this gym.”

Jason Saunders and his wife Keesha operate Virginia 15-29 CrossFit, located just a few steps from the Warrenton Greenway. 

“It’s great for the running parts of our workouts,” Saunders said. “About 400 meters of it are lit up from the buildings, so the Greenway is usable any time.” 

For newcomers, the gym offers an on-ramp program that includes three one-on-one classes. The time is used to teach the gymnastics moves, Olympic lifts and other movements athletes may not have seen before. Once the three classes are completed, participants have the rest of the month to take as many classes as they like. 

Saunders explained, “It’s a good time to see if CrossFit — and this gym in particular — is a good fit.”

Saunders and his wife opened the location about a year and a half ago. About 60 members are coached by five coaches. 

CrossFit gyms have a different business model, said Saunders. 

“Most gyms take your money and hope you don’t come. If you don’t show up here for four or five days, you’ll be getting a call or a text, reminding you that you have goals,” he said.

Classes are offered twice a week for children, and 15-29 CrossFit has added classes specifically for teens. 

“We found there was a huge difference between the little kids who just wanted to have fun and teens who were a lot more serious,” he said. “They do the same workouts the adults do, with coaching appropriate to their level.”

Saunders admits CrossFit can seem intimidating. “What people see on TV, that’s the 1 percent of the 1 percent. We have ladies in here in their 60s, moms and dads. It’s totally scalable to each person.”

Saunders said he and his coaches focus on three principles: mechanics, consistency and intensity. “Once we get the mechanics down, we add consistency. Then and only then, we add intensity.”

In the spirit of encouraging community, Virginia 15-29 CrossFit sponsors friendly competitions, as well as game days where members play volleyball or flag football, enjoy one another’s company and share potluck food.

Saunders said Fauquier is fortunate to have three strong CrossFit boxes, all with good coaches. The first rule of CrossFit, he said, is to always talk about CrossFit. “The second rule is, see the first rule.”

By Robin Earl from Fauquier Times


Editor-in-Chief and founder of Web developer for the stars of CrossFit, and all-around fitness enthusiast and fan.

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