Get fit as you feel the back-to-basics burn

Laura Ivill
IT’S Monday 7am on a cold winter’s morning in a cavernous railway arch near Tate Modern. “Say hello to Angie,” says my fitness instructor, Brian. Angie looks fierce. I don’t like the look of Angie at all. And 10 minutes later Angie is beating me up.

Thankfully, Angie is not some south London bruiser, but the name of CrossFit Central London workout of the day – known as the “WOD” – and she consists of 100 pull-ups, 100 push-ups, 100 sit-ups, 100 squats, done against the clock, with no rest. I finished her off in 30mins 30secs.

Crossfit is the name of a fitness regime that originated in America in 1995, with a chap named Greg Glassman who was hired to train the Santa Cruz police department, who knew he had found a great new form of exercise when his workout made him sick.

It is growing rapidly. In 2005 there were 18 affiliates; this year there are more than 1,600 worldwide, and it’s got some serious fans. The US Navy Seals and Marines have taken the methodology and many US Army regiments have their own affiliate run by their soldiers. The recently-opened railway arch on the South Bank where I made Angie’s acquittance is the first dedicated CrossFit gym in London.

The idea of CrossFit is to take gymnastics, weight training, Olympic lifting and “mono-structural” activities such as running, rowing and skipping, and mix them into constantly varied workouts that keeps training interesting and effective.

Angie used only simple bodyweight exercises, but other WODs add equipment such as gymnastic rings, medicine balls, kettlebells, skipping ropes, barbells and weights. The CrossFit gym looks basic, and while there are lots of weights and bars there, there are no machines, and no gimmicks. It’s the absolute opposite to the high-street gyms, and it gets results.

“The workouts are high intensity,” says Brian Sharp CrossFit Central London owner and instructor. “You won’t increase your fitness unless you push your body to the point it has to adapt.”

CrossFit might sound daunting, but while it is sure to make you fitter, it also caters for those who are beneath Olympic athlete level. All the workouts are scaleable, and if you can’t do 100 of something, you can do 50, or however many you can manage, and work your way up. The reason it is so effective is that whereas most sports will concentrate on one or two areas, CrossFit aims is to increase your capability in 10 components of fitness – strength, power, speed, stamina, cardiovascular endurance, coordination, agility, balance, accuracy and flexibility.

Another unusual element of CrossFit, which appeals to many, is the community element, as you exercise in groups. “There’s someone pushing you all the time, whether it’s yourself, Brian or other CrossFitters,” says Central London CrossFitter Matthew Honour, a Microsoft Windows engineer for a financial services company. “If you can’t provide the motivation for the day, someone else will. You are taught to do the movements properly and there’s always someone watching over you making sure there are no rounded backs on those deadlifts and no cheating on those press-ups.”

I first heard about CrossFit in 2007, training with a friend who uses the principles. It was tough, but my reward was in legs like steel, all-over muscle tone, strong back development, a solid core, increased stamina and greater flexibility. I experienced the mental and physical high of surges of human growth hormone, which my body was making naturally as a result of intense training (it’s the stuff sold on the black market as injectables). And now, despite getting up for Brian’s 7am class three times a week, I don’t really get tired.

Why does it appeal? Well, it really does make you fit. But also because it is about learning, and not just repeating. “CrossFit is a high-skill activity,” says Sharp. “You will be improving your Olympic Lifts and gymnastics five years into your training, unlike a spin class where you learn 99 per cent of the skills in the first session.”

CrossFit Central London, Ewer Street, London SE1 (tel: 07894 200701; £40 - £150 a month. The four London affiliates are listed at

CrossFit is not just about exercise. As they get more deeply into the lifestyle many people also change their diet too. The suggested approach is the “paleo” or “caveman” diet, which concentrates on organic meat and vegetables, nuts and seeds, some fruit, little starch and no sugar. Once you have mastered that, you can move on to the Zone Diet principles – protein, carbs and fats together in fixed proportions and according to your body mass index. It does involve lots of chopping and the chomping of lots of veg, but it gets results.