By Mike Strasser, Fort Drum Garrison Public AffairsMarch 23, 2018
FORT DRUM, N.Y. (March 23, 2018) -- CrossFit athletes can endure a seven-kilometer trail run while wearing a weighted vest, then knock out a series of dead lifts with progressively heavy weights before handstand walking a few hundred feet to the finish line.
They condition themselves yearround to withstand intense workouts, and they do it to earn the title "Fittest on Earth."
Many Soldiers, Family Members and Department of the Army Civilians at Fort Drum have joined these and other athletes worldwide to test their fitness levels during the current CrossFit Open season.
The Open consists of a different "Workout of the Day," or WOD, every week, from Feb. 22 until March 26. Athletes can perform the WOD in front of a judge at an affiliate CrossFit gym, or they can record their workout anywhere they choose and submit the score online. The workouts are kept secret until they are announced at the start of each Open session, and then athletes have four days to secure their best score.
The Open is the preliminary event to the CrossFit Regionals -- where only a fraction of one percent of those participating will actually advance. The CrossFit Games features the top 40 men and top 40 women athletes, but there are also teen and masters divisions, as well as a CrossFit team series.
Learning a Different Kind of Workout
Staff Sgt. Benjamin Holland, Mountain Athlete Warrior (MAW) noncommissioned officer in charge, said that being prepared for anything is what makes this event so appealing to him.
"When I was first looking into CrossFit, I realized that it was really designed for first responders and the military," Holland said. "They actually say that it prepares you for the unknown and the unknowable. Well, what better way can you train as a Soldier, then to train for the unknown and the unknowable? It's training for any physically known contingency out there."
When Holland first heard about CrossFit, he confused it with another workout program that was popular at the time, P90X.
Holland wasn't immediately interested, since he was accustomed to powerlifting, agility drills and sprint intervals -- the type of workouts that had once conditioned him for high school football. It was also the way he trained while deployed with 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment.
"My buddies said, 'Hey, you're doing CrossFit,' and I said, 'No I'm not, this is interval circuit training,'" Holland said. "I saw one CrossFit video and it just looked like Olympic lifting for time -- squats, clean and jerk ladders -- and I thought, OK, I might like this. I didn't know anything else about it."
Holland said that, upon redeployment, his life took a downward turn -- "a bad life decision," as he referred to the situation. He said that he packed on some unwanted body weight, but because of his athletic background, Holland wanted to return to a sport he once loved -- bull riding. At 240 lbs., and over 25 percent body fat, Holland said he wasn't fit enough for that activity.
"That's when I got into CrossFit, around January 2016," he said. "From there, I learned as much as I could about it, did all the training I could for about a year and then I was going to compete in the last CrossFit Open. But then I went to JRTC (Joint Readiness Training Center), so this will be my first time officially competing in the Open."
Holland said that CrossFit covers multiple disciplines and types of training under one umbrella. The CrossFit equation, he said, amounts to how much work someone can complete in a given time with that person's fitness level.
"It's a system of constantly varied functional movements executed at high intensity," he said. "You are challenging your body, whether it's with more repetitions, more weight or longer time under a certain load. But you also want to find that threshold, right before your technique breaks down, and that's where you want to train because that is where you're going to find the most favorable gains."
Holland said that because CrossFit is an ever-changing series of workouts, he never gets bored with it.
"I want to do something that keeps my attention," he said. "With CrossFit, as soon as I feel like I'm good at one thing, I'm bad at something else … there's always something to work on, and that's why I sort of fell in love with CrossFit -- the fact that you're never fit enough because there's always something to improve."
Time Well Spent
People can find the workouts online, and Holland said that he does most of his training in his home gym.
In the CrossFit world, a 20-minute WOD is considered an endurance workout since many others are shorter durations. Two of the workouts in the Open were seven minutes long.
"It's not really the time spent but the quality of the repetitions, and the emphasis you put on the small things," Holland said. "Making sure that the basics are done correctly. When you look at some of the best tactical units in the Army, they are extremely efficient at the basics and they do it with absolute perfect ability. Virtuosity is defined in the world of gymnastics as performing the basics extremely well, or doing the common uncommonly well. That goes for anything in life -- fitness, marksmanship, any Soldier skill -- at the highest level of tactical proficiency you are not shooting a weapon any way different, you are just doing the basics extremely well."
Lt. Joel Sova has been a firefighter at Fort Drum for 18 years, and was first introduced to CrossFit at a fire station about five years ago. He said that most workouts usually end with puddles of sweat on the floor and a great feeling of accomplishment.
"Every workout, I believe you overcome some sort of obstacle," he said. "The workouts are designed to challenge each person and to get them out of their comfort zone. You can see it on their faces after a workout -- they cannot believe they just did what they did."
First Lt. Anthony Imperial, assistant S2 at 10th Combat Aviation Brigade, started doing CrossFit workouts in 2008. He said it wasn't considered authorized PT where he was stationed because senior leaders thought it would cause injuries, and even Imperial wasn't certain he could benefit from it.
"At first I thought it was dumb because I was into bodybuilding. I just wanted to get huge," he said. "Then, I started following the workouts on the CrossFit website, and doing them at home. I would do my pullups on this small, wooden swing set in the backyard."
Imperial said that he responded to the intensity of the workouts and the spirit of competition.
"I hadn't played any sports since high school, but I am very competitive, so it was a fun -- very fun -- element to add into otherwise boring lifting routines," Imperial said.
He said that the added benefit of CrossFit began showing up on his APFT scores.
"Up to that time, I had never been able to quite max my PT test -- always coming up short on either the run or the situps, depending on the day," he said. "After a while though, switching to CrossFit, I've never not easily maxed a PT test since."
Capt. Stephen Vogel, MEDDAC Family Medicine physician, also thought CrossFit would help him on the APFT.
"For the first two weeks I was sore from my neck down to the top of my ankles," he said. "Each session I was learning new ways to work out, and it was a lot of fun. Once my body got used to the workouts, the soreness was much less."
Vogel said that he used to find exercise boring, and with a limited fitness knowledge, he didn't know how to make it any more than a requirement to stay within Army regulations.
"Because of the variety of movements CrossFit incorporates such as Olympic style lifting, metabolic conditioning, plyometrics, and gymnastics there is always something new to keep the workouts fresh," he said.
Vogel said that he found CrossFit different than traditional weightlifting programs is the way metabolic conditioning is combined with lifting weights.
"A good example is a workout that will have moderate heavy deadlifts and burpees which you are trying to finish as fast as possible," he said. "It gives you a better all-around fitness."
Being able to complete workouts brings a sense of accomplishment, Vogel said.
"I can do gymnastic skills such as muscle ups on a bar and on rings, which are big goals for anyone doing CrossFit," he said. "Also, my original goal of being able to pass the APFT without any stress has been met several times."
When Heather Famiano went to Atkins Functional Fitness Facility for one of the earlier WODs in the Open, she was joined by a couple other patrons also interested in the challenge. More recently, Famiano partnered with another military spouse, Jenni Lowell, for another workout. Nine minutes later, faces beaded with sweat, they congratulated each other on finishing.
"I'm going to do it again," Famiano said. "So far, I've done all the workouts twice just to see if I can improve."
She said that she had practiced handstand pushups before, but this event required athletes to do more than she ever managed before. Famiano said that as the workouts become harder, it challenges a person to dig deeper.
"It very humbling," she said. "I know I have some work to do, but I am far better than I was a year ago."
Typically, Famiano would share CrossFit workouts with her husband, but since he is currently deployed overseas they can only trade results with each other. Famiano, a Carthage native, said she became hooked on CrossFit while she used it to cross-train for marathons.
"It was mostly for strength training, but I began liking it more and more," she said. "I've been heavily into that training now for almost three years. I still run, but I don't train for marathons anymore."
Famiano said she was adept at the speed and endurance exercises, but the strength routines became her greatest challenge.
"I really got into the weight training, and I liked the fact that I could do a 20-minute workout and sweat as much as if I ran 15 miles," Famiano said.
She had learned the basics of functional fitness while in high school from the personal trainer on the swim team.
"When my husband and I moved to Alaska, I attended a couple of CrossFit classes there and got some more information," Famiano said. "It's been a learn-as-you-go thing. I'm trying to perfect everything, and I'm very critical as far as form goes. I'm trying to master that to the best of my ability."
"Best Shape of My Life"
Steve Booth is another CrossFit enthusiast who can often be seen working out at Atkins Functional Fitness Facility. He usually begins his mornings there, completing a WOD before heading to the Lt. Col. Dured E. Townsend Mission Training Complex where he works as an instructor. He said that ending a workday with another workout for the Open requires him to store up some extra energy.
"You have to stay motivated throughout the day and then come in focused," he said. "But then once you start warming up, everything starts waking up a bit."
He said that his son introduced him to CrossFit about two years ago.
"It was just a random workout that he came up with, and we did that together, and it just clicked," he said. "It feels great to be able to do this," he said. "It gives an old guy like me a chance to compete again, against a worldwide leaderboard."
Before that, Booth said that he mostly just lifted weights for exercise, but nothing like the strength-endurance-agility workouts that are associated with CrossFit.
"Honestly, I'm in the best shape of my life at 50," he said.
Booth retired in 2014 as a sergeant first class after 21 years of service, spending 14 of those at Fort Drum with 2nd Brigade Combat Team.
"I think functional fitness was just getting into the ranks," he said. "It was mostly just the pushups, the situps, running -- your standard PT. There were some functional movements in there, some road marches and things like that, but I never did anything like what I'm doing now."
Booth sees a lot of Soldiers performing functional fitness routines, and he said that it is encouraging.
"They're in there working hard at it, he said. "You have the powerlifters in there, someone who can deadlift 500 lbs. And then you have a guy who can deadlift 225 lbs., 55 times and then do 55 calories on the rower and then 55 handstand pushups. Well, that's the Soldier I want on my team."
Maj. Kenesha Pace, Medical and Dental Activity-Fort Drum chief of pharmacy, had a couple of friends cheering her on at a recent Open workout. It was a brutal 12 minute WOD and they were clearly impressed. Afterward, Pace told them about the series' opener -- an AMRAP (as many repetitions as possible) -- with a toe-to-bar movement on the pullup bar, a calorie-burn row and a dumbbell press.
"That was the longest 20 minutes of my life," Pace said.
Pace said that she was always athletic -- playing volleyball and track in high school and college. She began CrossFit in 2013 to stay active while stationed at Fort Sam Houston, Texas.
"I was looking for something that would keep me fit, but also engaged," she said. "CrossFit was different than anything I had been doing, and it had that group setting that I wanted."
Pace said that she discovered how hard she could push herself, and she liked the results.
"I could run longer and faster, and I was gaining muscle mass without getting bulky," she said.
Pace said that she had to get over a fear of being inverted and gain the strength needed to push her body weight before she managed her first handstand pushup. She is also improving the double-unders -- jumping rope with double revolutions.
"I can now string along about six to 10 revolutions of double-unders before I lose my form and technique," she said. "This works you a little harder than single jump rope, however, I was told once you get good at it, it is supposed to be an active resting movement."
The double-unders was prominent in the third Open workout, and so was the muscle up, which she said requires more technique than strength to pull the torso up and over a bar or the gymnastic rings.
"This is my fourth year participating in the Open," she said. "A little competition is always fun and when you have people cheering you on to go a little further, you feel like you can actually do it. Participating in the CrossFit Open gives people like me an opportunity to set personal goals and train during the year so you can see how you rank with other people your age. I don't have plans to become a national CrossFit champion, but I do have plans to be physically fit for as long as I can."
This is the seventh year that Imperial is participating in the Open.
"The allure of seeing how I would stack up to all the other people in my region and the world was too good not to try it," he said. "I personally compete to test myself."
Imperial said that because of his competitive nature, he wants to do well in the Open and try to advance, though he realizes he will never get to the actual CrossFit Games.
"If I was the next Rich Froning (4-time CrossFit champ), I would know by now," Imperial said. "So, this is really about being as fit as I can be. The confidence I gain from doing well in a workout, or getting a personal record, is a huge reason why I am doing this."
Honoring the Military
Imperial said that competing annually lets him know how much he's improved, and now he is even able to see how he rates among fellow service members. In 2017, the CrossFit Games included a military and first responder competitive division -- allowing one person to claim the title of "Fittest Military Member on Earth."
"CrossFit started the 'Service Open' in the last two years, which added the ability to designate that you're in the military," he said. "There's a leaderboard with only military on it. It's a lot more fun to watch that one, since I can legitimately compete toward the top there, versus much further down on the regional or worldwide leaderboards."
With its roots in the Navy SEAL community, the close relationship with the military is also honored with "Hero WODs" -- workouts named after a fallen service member that are particularly difficult to complete. One of the more infamous of these is the "Murph," named after a Navy SEAL killed in Afghanistan in 2005. All experienced CrossFit athletes have attempted the "Murph" at one point in their training, and it has shown up twice at the CrossFit Games. One elite athlete dropped out of the competition after overheating during this workout.
"CrossFit forces you to just be prepared for pretty much everything, or suffer for it," Imperial said. "It's one of the more interesting and fun parts of the sport -- so many things are unknown and you just have to be as ready as possible. There is a definite parallel with that and the military."
Imperial said that he works out at Atkins Functional Fitness Facility during his lunch break, where quite often Soldiers are combining strength training with functional fitness exercises with the equipment available there.
"I think when it is presented properly, Soldiers respond very well to it," Imperial said. "Leaders should learn how to demonstrate things properly, follow a solid plan, and create buy-in so Soldiers eventually want to be there pushing themselves instead of being forced. And that's where I think CrossFit makes it easy because it can be a lot of fun when it's implemented in a good way."
Sgt. 1st Class Chris Huffmire is a master fitness trainer with Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 1st Battalion, 10th Combat Aviation Brigade, and has been doing CrossFit workouts since early 2015. He said that it offered the intensity, variety and challenge he wasn't getting anywhere else.
"It's a challenge designed to push the limits of everyone -- from the fittest on earth to someone looking to change their lives," Huffmire said. "It can be adapted for someone who has never touched a barbell to someone in a wheelchair."
Huffmire, Famiano and Lowell recently competed in Fort Drum's version of the CrossFit Games. The Better Opportunities for Single Soldiers members team up with the Atkins Functional Fitness Facility staff for "BOSS Invades Atkins" for Soldiers, Family Members and DA Civilians. Organizers switch up the competitive workouts each time focusing on different tenets of functional fitness: speed, strength and agility.
"Every year we do one speed workout, one strength workout and then we have one that combines speed, strength and agility," said Randy Gillette, AFFF manager.
More than 30 Fort Drum community members competed in the event held March 22, to include nine Soldiers taking the Pre-Ranger Course from 3rd Battalion, 6th Field Artillery Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team. The competition featured seven different activities ranging from box jumps and tire flips to overhead sandbag lunges and heavy dumbbell carries.
"This type of functional fitness training falls under the Army standards for developing a total-fit Soldier and getting them ready for combat," said Gillette. "There's no such thing anymore where you just go work on one particular piece of equipment. We're after that total body workout and that's what functional fitness is all about -- it betters the Soldiers for a better quality of life."