Gone are the days when women’s exercise classes were ‘Legs, Bums ‘n’ Tums’ or “Yogacise’. These days, women are training like boys - we’re boxing, training for triathlons, sweating it out at Barry’s Bootcamp and lifting heavy weights. There is a general realisation across the fitness industry (that is slowly filtering down into gyms and women on the street) that training to exhaustion and lifting heavy things won’t leave us looking like a bodybuilder – on the contrary it will slim us down, really tone us up and sculpt our bodies like nothing else really can. What's more it can leave us ecstatically high with endorphins.
A real sign that women have got seriously badass is that this week, CrossFit in Battersea launched a class for women called Women's Club . If you haven’t heard of it, CrossFit is a fitness phenomenon that is literally sweeping the world. Founded 15 years ago by an American called Greg Glassman, it combines what he thought to be the best, most effective elements of all types of training, especially gymnastics, weight lifting, and high intensity interval training . It’s a tough but euphoria-inducing type of workout that has its members literally hooked - fanatical even - and there are now over 10,000 affiliated gyms (or ‘Boxes’ as CrossFitters call them) worldwide, and half of them are based in the United States. CrossFit prides itself on using ‘functional movements’ e.g. movements that benefit you in real life, such as pulling, pushing, squatting and using your lungs to full capacity. It is so popular that there is even a Crossfit Games – the Olympics of the Crossfit community.
I have trained with personal trainer and CrossFitting fanatic Steve Mellor (below) from Freedom2Train for over 3 years and much of what I do with him in our sessions is, CrossFit inspired. However I was intrigued by Women's Club, his new class which launched this week at CrossFit Perpetua in Battersea as it’s created to specifically target the female body.
Your initial thoughts on entering a CrossFit ‘Box’ for the first time may be ‘How the hell am I going to sneak out unnoticed?’. To a beginner it can look a little daunting to say the very least - there is no fancy equipment (save a few rowing machines hooked up the to wall), no shiny surfaces, no fancy changing rooms, no TV screens, no nice ladies on reception with clean towels, and no nice carpeted areas or squishy sofas where you can sit and order a mochachoccachino.
Instead Crossfit boxes have a ‘warehouse,’ ‘hanger’ or even ‘bunker’ feel about them – the Battersea one in particular is lined with painted corrugated iron, a black rubber floor with all sorts of torture-chamber type bars, ropes and bungees hanging off the walls and the words LIVE UNBROKEN more than six foot tall emblazoned across one wall! (Whaaat?!) But once you start to learn about Crossfit you realise it’s all about getting back to basics – it’s exercise that really works and Crossfitters don’t see any point in fluffing that up with frilly stuff. They believe primarily in functionality over fancy equipment.
So the class went like this – head coach Michael Price decided what the WOD was (Workout of the Day – something that happens daily at CrossFit, stay with me, there’s a lot of weird lingo), a series of movements which in our case was 15 weighted squats, burning 15 calories on the rowing machine and burpees with a box jump (God help me), all repeated three times over. It doesn’t sound like much but believe me it’s tough. We practised each movement for a while to ensure correct form and then started the WOD with a partner. What followed was an intense, lung-busting workout that left us sweating, swearing, utterly exhausted but totally and utterly exhilarated. The endorphin high you are left with for working out so hard is undoubtedly addictive and it brought out a competitive edge in me I never knew even existed!
Is it scary? Not at all - each class is capped at 15 to make sure the coach can pay attention to your form when you get tired (which you will), and they are friendly, funny and shout words of encouragement just when you need it. Can anyone do it? “Absolutely," says Steve from Freedom2Train, “Somebody who is fitter might be working more efficiently, but the classes are designed so all levels can take part.” Through my own fitness journey I have learnt that the harder you push yourself, the greater the endorphin high – which might explain why CrossFit is so darn addictive (Crossfitters BTW are reknowned for being utterly crrrrrazy about the sport, and yes it’s considered a sport now). But what is also addictive is the way you are pushed way out of your comfort zone (safely), which leaves you with such an immense feeling of satisfaction. This goes to explain why there is such a huge sense of community at CrossFit – you are all basically being wrung out together. Steve says, “I’ve been a member of many gyms in my life, but I’ve never made friends at any – at CrossFit I have loads. Everyone looks out for each other."
And let's not overlook the fact that people also love CrossFit because it gets unbelievable results - both in increasing fitness levels and in transforming your body shape. “CrossFit works, so you won’t find anything here that isn’t pointing towards a fitter, healthier you,” says Steve. They only sell snacks made of unprocessed ingredients for example, which makes a difference from my Bannatyne's gym in Oxfordshire which sells Mars Bars and Pringles on the counter (seriously, sort it out Duncan, this is 2015.)
One thing I challenge Steve on is whether Women’s Club will bulk women up? My girlfriends and I want to look fit and lean, I have absolutely no desire to end up a Madonna-style muscle-house. “We’ve tailored this class to the female physique,” he says, “We know that women want to focus on the stomach area, arms, bum and legs mostly, and so we’ve taken out the complex lifts and we’re going to make sure that the women are working for longer to burn more calories that will create a lean but slightly sculpted physique. It’s a total myth that lifting weights will bulk you up though – women don’t have enough testosterone to get bulky. The ones that do get big are working at it with up to 14 hours a week."
When I think about it, over the last few years I have unknowingly trained much like a CrossFitter with Steve (using body weight and doing very high intensity exercise) and my body is much firmer, leaner and more athletic for it. I have always felt my best body parts are my slim arms and legs and I've whined a lot at Steve, worrying I might bulk up, but I haven't - everything just looks a bit more toned and athletic. (This is me here in the blue leggings with orange arrows.) I also have definition in my stomach that never existed before, and I have barely ever done a sit-up, as CrossFit moves aim to target your whole body.
So if you’re up for an exhilarating challenge, get down to Women's Club (the only downside is that right now there’s only one of them). It’s by far the best workout class I’ve been to in years, and when the going gets tough, remember my favourite motto of all “It’s the hard that makes it great". Which I find is a great rule for all areas of life.
Perpetua CrossFit – Unit 74 Queens Circus, 326-342 Queenstown Road, London Sw8 4NE. Classes are £25 but can be bought in bundles or monthly contracts.
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