Wearing a pair of orange shorts and orange sneakers, Josh Levy was dripping sweat through his dirty-blond curls as he struggled to do another rep. “Go, Josh!” cheered his fans. After his coach squirted her water bottle over his head, Josh somehow found the strength to crank out a few more power snatches — a complex weightlifting exercise you don’t normally expect from a 7-year-old.
With a smile on his face, Josh was able to complete a brutal circuit workout, along with nearly 500 athletes who converged near the D.C. Mall last month for CrossFit for Hope. The event, a benefit for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Tennessee, was the debut of an annual fundraiser started by CrossFit, the popular strength and conditioning program that combines weightlifting, gymnastics, running and calisthenics.
It also promotes the idea that people of any age, sex and shape are capable of these kinds of movements.
And that’s how Josh, who weighs just 69 pounds, can be just as much a CrossFitter as his mom, Megan Columbus, 44.
Last fall, Columbus enrolled her son in CrossFit Kids classes at CrossFit Done Right in Rockville, Md. Owner Justin Bacon introduced the youth program in early 2011 to combat the notion that exercise isn’t enjoyable. “In a lot of sports, it’s a punishment to do push-ups,” Bacon said. “But if they’re having a push-up competition, kids think it’s fun.”
Thousands of children around the globe are now part of the CrossFit Kids program, which was established in 2004 almost by accident. “I couldn’t find any adults to do it,” said Jeff Martin. He and his wife, Mikki, began teaching children in Ramona, Calif., and soon CrossFit founder Greg Glassman asked them to formally create CrossFit Kids.
The couple’s martial arts background shaped how they approached bringing these exercises to a kid level. “You want to do something well before you do it fast. You break things down and then link them together,” Martin said. It helps that children don’t have the bad habits adults can build up, so they’re often faster learners.
Bears vs. crabs
A recent session for ages 5 to 8 at CrossFit Old Town in Alexandria, Va., started with a quick warm-up that involved drawing a stick figure. To earn a new body part, the kids had to do a couple of reps of an exercise: squats for the head, high knees for the body, sprints for the legs, etc.
Next they focused on how to do thrusters. Holding a barbell — or in this case, a PVC pipe or a light bar with two big circles stuck on the ends (called “Fred Flintstones”) — you squat and then lift up, using the power of your whole body to get the weight into the air. They also did a similar lesson on pull-ups. At that age, this mostly means holding on to a bar a few inches above their heads, jumping and trying to keep their chin up for a few seconds.
Then it was time for a quick workout incorporating those two movements. Before anyone managed to get too antsy, the coaches introduced a game.
That day’s diversion was tag inside a circle of ropes. The twist? Everyone moved in a different way. So the taggers were bear-crawling after crab walkers. And in the next round, it was skippers vs. side-to-side shufflers. Getting tapped didn’t mean you sit out, but rather run a lap around the circle before rejoining the game.
In the process of building muscle, the children are also building character. “Kids could cheat, but they’ll often say, ‘That last rep didn’t count.’ ” Martin said. “Those things transfer to the real world.” Same goes for the confidence they get from accomplishing something difficult, adds Mikki, who’s especially pleased with how CrossFit Kids affects girls’ self-image. “They focus on what they can do rather than what they look like,” she said.
Like CrossFit, which has become a global phenomenon over the past decade, CrossFit Kids is expanding rapidly.
“Kids imitate you,” said 34-year-old Meg Hixon, whose three CrossFit Kids, ages 10, 7 and 6, are well on their way to earning calloused palms just like Mom’s. “I like it better than team sports, because those don’t teach them about fitness. When the sport is over, you’re done.”
In just two years, word has spread beyond the CrossFit community that these kids’ classes provide an alternative athletic outlet. That’s why Elizabeth Schneider, 47, recently brought her 13-year-old son. “At many gyms, like ours, you have to be 16. We haven’t found good options for this kind of stuff,” she said.
With CrossFit Kids classes growing in schools and arriving at camps, expect a lot more options — and a lot more power snatches.