Mashpee CrossFit Community Growing In And Out Of Gym
By: Brian Kehrl
At 55, Robb B. Sykes was feeling the long slide toward physical obsolescence. The Sandwich resident belonged to another gym, but it felt like a chore to go. He was looking for something else, something challenging yet fun.
Jeannette Watka, a Sagamore Beach resident who works as a nurse at two schools, used to run marathons but wanted a different exercise routine, something that would emphasize overall fitness and help her strengthen a hurt shoulder.
Kristen Young, a 33-year-old mental health clinician from Sandwich, was an insulin-dependent diabetic. She was overweight. She had begun exercising but was looking for a gym. She tried “every gym on Cape Cod.” None seemed to fit.
Each has found an exercise home, and a community of support, at CrossFit Cape Cod, a Mashpee gym that has grown recently from an industrial bay off Nicoletta’s Way to a space more than five times as large, in the old Blockbuster video store, one of the most prominent locations in Mashpee Commons. The business, started a year and a half ago by Mashpee residents Mark and Sarah Lee, moved to its new 5,000-square-foot building last weekend.
The Mashpee CrossFit is the first Cape Cod location of a popular exercise program begun by a fitness expert in California in 2001. The program, based on a particular definition of fitness, has taken root on the West Coast and is gradually moving east, with thousands of start ups nationwide. The program also emphasizes a sense of community among the clients, something that several Mashpee CrossFit members described as key to their productivity and enjoyment of the program.
“I couldn’t live without it. Never in my life have I looked forward to going to a gym, and I love coming here,” Ms. Young said. “It always worked out best when I went to the gym with a friend. But now I feel like I go to a gym full of my friends.”
On a recent snowy evening, about a dozen clients worked through their routines over the course of two, one-hour cycles. The workout of the day involved squats, some with heavy weights, some with just a bar, and stints on the rowing machines.
After a small group was done exercising around 6:45, they hung around, stretching and chatting. A few worked on and discussed some of the Scrabble-based games they are playing against each other on their iPhones.
The space is spartan, though a bit less austere than the old industrial bay. There are no snappy exercise machines, no locker rooms, no televisions, no tone-enhancing sparkly mirrors. It is populated by free weights and mats and other old school exercise equipment, from medicine balls to jump ropes. There is one big tire and a sledgehammer to hit it with, a climbing rope, and stepping blocks. The one piece of equipment missing from the gym now is a pull-up bar that can be tailored to users of different sizes, Mr. Lee said. The old blue Blockbuster carpet is still in place, the trodden rows between the shelves faded and worn.
No one is wearing headphones. There is lots of interaction between the clients and the trainers.
It feels in many ways more like a boxing club from yesteryear (minus the ring and punching bags) than a modern gym—and that is part of the point, Mr. Lee said.
“I’d take a good trainer in an open field over a kid moving pins for me on a machine that costs a couple thousand dollars,” he said. “I am the machine. I don’t need a machine to train me. I want to make this machine better.”
CrossFit exercises are meant to mimic movements people do regularly—the pushup is getting up off the floor, the press is lifting something overhead, picking something up off the ground is a deadlift, the squat is sitting up, and so on, he said. So rather than using an expensive machine to exercise just one confined muscle or muscle group, like the leg squeeze for the groin, CrossFit exercises are designed to be more functional, he said.
The approach is tied to a diverse definition of fitness—being fit, under the CrossFit mentality, is not just being strong or having stamina. It is both, plus coordination, flexibility, agility, and balance.
“Fitness is not someone who can run an ultra-marathon but can’t pick up a 95-pound object. It is not someone who can bench 2,000 pounds but can’t get up a set of stairs without breathing hard,” Mr. Lee said.
Someone trained under a CrossFit regimen is meant to fare well no matter the event. “It is simple: you want to be competent in a lot of different tasks,” he said.
The routines do not take long, typically no more than 40 minutes, he said. But they are intense, he said.
The program is designed to be “scalable” to different ages and levels of fitness and athleticism, from an elite performer to the couch potato who wants to get going. Mr. Lee said a 3-year-old and a 68-year-old belong to the club. Some clients squat with a plastic pipe; one does 500 pounds, he said.
The program is structured around completing a series of different exercises as quickly as possible, an arrangement that makes it so clients can compete against themselves and, relatively, against each other. The clients keep tracking sheets so they know how long it took them to complete the different tasks.
For Ms. Young, that “healthy bit” of competition is key to fitting in at the gym and fostering the sense of community, which she said is like a “family.”
Ms. Young said she has lost 80 pounds since she started CrossFit last July. “My whole outlook on life has changed,” she said. “It is everything. I have more energy. I feel better.”
Mr. Sykes said the community is tied together in part by their interest in fitness and a bond created by supporting each other through their workouts. “This month we are doing a challenge to cut sugar out of the diet, so you get a support network for not eating a cookie or a candy bar or whatever after you work out,” he said.
He said he is performing better at rock climbing, a hobby he recently started, and in other sports he plays.
Ms. Watka said the group had a party for the husband of one of the other members, who was on a quick visit home between trips to Afghanistan. “I don’t know any other gyms where you’d do that, get together outside for a party.”
She said she started CrossFit with a shoulder problem; she is now able to do two pull-ups. She said she will be cheered on when she is able to do three.
“It is definitely a community,” Ms. Lee said. “We play scrabble on our iPhones together. We have random 80s parties.” Ms. Lee ticked off by name a series of clients of have lost weight or recovered from injuries.
The Lees also communicate with their clients with a blog at www.crossfitcapecod.com, where the workout of the day is posted, clients ask questions, and the Lees impart general bits of information on fitness and nutrition.
Mr. Sykes said that at $125 a month, the program is on the expensive side for a gym. But it is worth it also because of the personal attention from the Lees, Mr. Sykes said. “He helps us through the whole thing. And that is all the time. That is all the time, all day long,” he said. “I am pretty enthusiastic about the whole thing, because I like Mark and Sarah so much.”
Ms. Watka, who drives all the way to Mashpee from Sagamore Beach four or five times a week, squeezing in time for her workouts between two jobs as a school nurse in Foxboro and Sandwich, said, “It is like having a personal trainer every time you come work out.”
Mr. Lee’s journey to a CrossFit trainer and business owner began as a teenager when his mother bought him a plastic weight set. Always an active child, he took to the weights and continued lifting through high school.
He moved to Nantucket after high school and took to body weight workouts like pushups, sit ups, and pull-ups.
But eventually exercise started getting monotonous. He moved to Cape Cod, but continued commuting to Nantucket to keep up his window- and power-washing business. He fell out of shape. One day he started having heart palpitations and felt dizzy. He went to the doctor. The experience scared him back into shape.
He started training for and competing in triathlons, which he stuck with for a few years. He took a second job as a trainer in a country club gym, back on Nantucket.
Then he was working out with a friend from New York who told him about this new fitness model that some other friends were doing that was taking them “to the next level.” He did some research about CrossFit and decided he wanted to get into it. He took to it, sold his cleaning business on Nantucket, moved to Mashpee about a year and a half ago and started CrossFit Cape Cod, which is affiliated with the national program.
Ms. Lee picked it up, too, and got her certification as a trainer.
Mr. Lee’s dedication to CrossFit and exercise is quickly apparent.
In a wide-ranging interview, he offered anecdote after anecdote about CrossFit—like the high school wrestler who was determined to take on one of the most difficult programs on his first day. He finished, but he made himself sick in the process. After a few months of CrossFit training, Mr. Lee said the teenager cut his time to complete the program in half. Or like the 68-year old: he can now do 20 pushups.
Mr. Lee also adds markedly technical assessments of fitness, wellness, and sickness; of different exercises; of the importance of diet; and of the use of wanting to look better as a prompt for exercise.
There is a particular culture and lingo to the program—“modal domain” means task, for instance—and Mr. Lee readily admits that it can get a little “geeked out.”
“We joke and call it drinking the Kool-Aid,” he said of his and his wife’s commitment to the program. “It becomes a real kind of positive addiction.”
There is also some pretension in Mr. Lee’s description—one saying that travels around CrossFit circles, he said, is “your workout is our warm up.” But he couples his pride in CrossFit with the understanding that different people have different preferences and the recognition that any exercise is good exercise, particularly given the chronic health issues facing millions of Americans. While CrossFit can work for anyone, he said, others are happy with other routines.
Some of the exercises can be dangerous. Squats for example, if done improperly, can cause back injuries. But Mr. Lee emphasized the training required at the Mashpee gym. All new clients are taken through an introduction that emphasizes technique and consistency, before they are allowed to work on speed. It is a ramping up approach meant to help form the right habits, he said.
Mr. Lee pointed to a quote from a doctor in a recent Associated Press article about the growing popularity of quick, intense exercise routines—there is more danger in no exercise than in exercise, he said.
The routines may be quick, but these days are long ones for the Lees—programs are offered in the morning, the afternoon, and the evening on weekdays, plus programs on Saturdays and Sundays, led almost exclusively by either Mr. or Ms. Lee.
Mr. Lee said when he gets worn down by the workload, he thinks of clients like one who is working to avoid hip surgery or like Ms. Young, whose exercise has changed her life. He thinks of them, he exercises, he clears his head, and he is into it again.
It is the group of clients, after all—their health and fitness and character, demonstrated by their willingness to help on the move last weekend—that is the best thing about the business, he said.
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