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An Excerpt From 'Learning to Breathe Fire'

This article is more than 8 years old.

This excerpt appears in Learning to Breathe Fire: The Rise of Crossfit and the Future of Primal Fitness by J.C. Herz. Click here for our interview with the author.

Reprinted by permission of Crown Archetype, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House company.


IN THE DARKNESS BENEATH PHILADELPHIA’S I-95 OVERPASS, just after dawn, a man struggles against a chain attached to a truck tire. He is in the red zone of physical effort, pulling forward as hard as he can. His comrades, straining against their chains to drag each tire forward to a predetermined line, ignore the part of their brain that tells them it’s impossible to keep moving. They have learned how not to stop when the sane and obvious thing to do is to let the chain go slack. Rest is not part of the program. They do not allow it in themselves. They’re CrossFitters.

Jerry Hill, the alpha wolf in this pack of hard-core fitness buffs, is always the first to appear in the shadow of the overpass. In the spring of 2006 his green Honda Civic, hunched low on its tires, crackles over shards of broken malt liquor bottles. It is the hardest-hauling compact sedan in South Philly, weighted down with truck tires, sledgehammers, kettle bells, and medicine balls that will be hurled ten feet in the air, against targets chalked onto the concrete columns of the freeway. Jerry is paid to arrive with the equipment, to sweep away the shards of bro­ken glass, to formulate the day’s ordeal, and to throw himself into it as well. It isn’t the kind of fitness boot camp where the guy not exercising pretends to be a Marine drill sergeant. It’s a pack of people spurring one another on, with a real Marine leading from the front.

Jerry’s time in the Marines was a curious combination of training intensity and operational boredom. His training, as part of the Marine Corps 2nd Recon Battalion, was what most nine-year-old boys running around in the woods would invent as a military fantasy adventure: small teams snooping around behind enemy lines, taking notes on the terrain and counting the bad guys. Learning how to sneak onshore from a small boat moored off the coast, how to wade camouflaged through marsh­land, swim upriver, blow up bridges.

It was the ultimate Boy Scout adventure for a kid who’d never been able to sit down to study, or for any reason really. Growing up, Jerry lived for the moment-to-moment intensity of movement: running through the woods of his parents’ ranchette in Upstate New York, jump­ing onto things, negotiating some kind of ridership agreement with the neighbor’s pasture horse, playing basketball with himself just to burn off energy. He had wrestled for the winningest high school coach in the New York State Wrestling Hall of Fame. Coach Joe McCabe, also a Marine, had sent many restless and powerful boys into the Corps.

Being a recon Marine was a blast for guys who could take the phys­ical beat-down of on-the-job training. A typical day might entail ten to twelve miles of running through the woods in boots and camouflage, twenty minutes to eat lunch, then an obstacle course and the run back home. Or swimming a mile in Chesapeake Bay in camouflage and fins. Or long hikes in a severe state of sleep deprivation.

On “Death Run” days, Jerry and his best friend, a skinny and wild-eyed redhead named Jason Cox (aka “Chicken Man”) would tear out of their barracks on the beach in full camouflage, boots, and forty pounds of gear. A whole pack of young men kitted out in this fashion would sprint back and forth across the dunes until they collapsed. Given the code of honor and the level of testosterone, stopping short of collapse was not an option. There was no finish line. The exercise was over when only one guy was left on his feet. When they’d recovered, which at age nineteen or twenty took a negligible amount of time, Jerry and Jason would voluntarily hit the gym to powerlift. After a hard day’s run, swim, or a twenty-mile patrol, a series of deadlifts, bench presses, and squats were just the thing. No one got injured. That’s the glory of being twenty years old.

As if to underscore their invincibility, Jerry and Jason would vie for supremacy in feats of strength and idiocy: running at newspaper stands and tackling them to the ground. Seeing who could put the largest dent in a steel wall locker with his head. They would strategize about which head-butting technique would register the biggest impact on the lockers or on carnival boardwalk punching bags. The advantage of the carnival strongman targets was that, after five minutes, a crowd of thirty people would gather around the jarheads, cheering them on to greater heights of head-butting prowess.

But Jerry Hill didn’t see any actual combat. Between 1989 and 1991, there wasn’t much live fire exchanged by the few and the brave. Jerry collected weapons from Panamanian villagers, spent six months float­ing around the Mediterranean, and was benched for Operation Desert Storm. He loved the spirit of the Marines, the people, and the bonds between them. He hated the hierarchy. Perhaps if there’d been battles, he would have felt differently about being ordered around so much. But in the absence of any real-world need for do-or-die, the sense of being at a commanding officer’s behest twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, was stifling. He didn’t want to work for anyone, ever again, if he could help it.

When he got out of the Corps, he started powerlifting competitively, to recapture the training intensity he missed from Death Run days. He could lift three times his 165-pound body weight on a bench press, deadlift, or back squat. He became a local contender, went to state com­petitions. Competing nationally as a member of the Pennsylvania pow­erlifting team, he could squat 500 pounds. But there were guys in his weight class who could squat 700 pounds. He was out of his league.

When he started running boot camps as a personal trainer, Jerry Hill’s competitive powerlifting days were over, and he was doing what most aging athletes do: trying to ward off the specter of injury and de­cline. Just trying to maintain. He had two little girls, a baby and a tod­dler, to take care of at home when his wife went off to her office job. He didn’t have enough money to open a gym. So he found a pack of people who were tough or crazy enough to train outdoors ten months out of the year. It was like being back in the Marines, a shot of pure testosterone before going home to change diapers.

“No machine,” he’d holler in the shadow of I-95, “will ever make you this strong.”1 For a decade, he’d been railing against the idea that Cybex and Nautilus machines did anything to enhance real-world fit­ness. Every one of his personal training clients used barbells and did functional movements that taxed their whole bodies, not just isolated muscles. They got results. But coming up with workouts, and measuring progress, were difficult. Powerlifters were starting to buzz about Cross­Fit, a cult training method out of California that anyone could get for free on the Internet. At a strength training seminar, Jerry saw one of the coaches wearing an old-school CrossFit T-shirt. It was simple, declara­tive, truthful: “CrossFit: Mess You Up.”

Jerry quizzed the guy about it and got his hair blown back by the passionate ravings of a dedicated CrossFit acolyte. He started poking around the website, where CrossFit founder Greg Glass­man posted daily workouts and far-flung participants posted their re­sults in the comments field. There were detailed analyses of Olympic weightlifting technique, video demonstrations, and manifestos on the superiority of “constantly varied functional movement, executed at high intensity, across broad time and modal domains.” It was all very intense—the training recipes, and the rhetoric.

Most of the movements were familiar compound functional move­ments. But the way they were combined was novel, and everything was timed. The clock added intensity, and the structure of the workouts, many of them named after women, provided measurable benchmarks. There was huge variation in the program—workouts were different day to day, but also week to week and month to month. The mind-numbing alternation of chest/biceps, back/triceps, common in the bodybuilding world, was nowhere to be seen.

But the obvious thing, to a trainer, was how curiously short the work­outs were—five to twenty repetitions of two or three movements, for three to five rounds. It seemed almost trivial, until you tried it and dis­covered how diabolically intense these Workouts of the Day (WODs) could be. They weren’t cardio, in the traditional sense of running or cycling or rowing, the stuff that’s supposed to tax your heart and lungs. And yet the combination of weightlifting, sprints, and gymnastic move­ments left Jerry, who fancied himself an elite athlete, completely gassed. Here was a guy who’d been doing push-ups and pull-ups since he was thirteen, all through the Marines, and squats his whole adult life, includ­ing 500-pound back squats. And yet “Cindy”—a workout consisting of 5 pull-ups, 10 push-ups, and 15 unweighted squats, as many rounds as possible in 20 minutes—left him flattened and gasping.

A CrossFit WOD called “Fight Gone Bad” beckoned to Jerry—how could it not, with that name. The workout moves between five move­ment stations: (1) wall ball shots (a 20-pound medicine ball thrown to a 10-foot target); (2) sumo deadlift high pull (grabbing a 75-pound bar in the middle, with a wide stance, and pulling the bar up above the collar­bone); (3) 20-inch box jumps; (4) a 75-pound push press (raising a bar­bell from shoulders to overhead, with momentum from the legs); and (5) calories on a rowing machine. At each station, an athlete does as many repetitions as possible in 60 seconds. One round consists of 5 minutes of work. “Fight Gone Bad” is three rounds of all five movements, with 1 minute between rounds, 18 minutes total.

At the time, Jerry had a 550-pound deadlift, so he thought a 75-pound sumo deadlift high pull would be a cakewalk. Lots of them? It was only 60 seconds. Jerry blazed through round one of “Fight Gone Bad” in his backyard and was feeling great. By round two, he was barely hanging on. Midway through the third round, he was leaning against the stucco wall of his house, watching the world spin. He didn’t finish. It was terrible. It was great.

As far as he was concerned, CrossFit was obviously the way to train. The tricky part was convincing his boot camp clients that this new awful-fantastic high-intensity regime wasn’t the sign of a diseased mind. But then, it’s amazing what you can get people to do if you have just one other person who’s willing to act as if your unconventional behavior is completely normal.

As it happened, Chicken Man lived in Philly. Whatever crazy thing Jerry had ever suggested to Jason, the answer was always, “Yeah, let’s do it, Bubba.” So when Jerry rolled up in his gasping green Civic to sweep away the broken glass, Jason showed up too. When Jerry had everyone throw twenty-pound balls ten feet in the air against the pillars of I-95, Jason threw wall balls as if he’d been doing it all his life.

When new people showed up wondering where the gym was, Jason would shrug. “This is it. Just do your best, and in a few weeks you’ll be feeling the greatest you’ve ever felt. Just trust him.” Some people tried it and never came back. Others stayed, abandoning the comfort and conventional wisdom of gym training for intense bursts of all-out run­ning, jumping, lifting, and dragging heavy objects until their lungs and muscles were spent. It was terrible, in the cold and heat and darkness, to be doing this. But it was great to clock personal records doing it, to see progress, to get stronger—and to be surrounded by others who were willing to run the same gauntlet.

When it got too icy in winter, they would move into a nearby jujitsu studio whose owner was happy to sublet space in off-hours. In spring, Jerry found a more scenic waterfront location at Penn’s Landing, and another prime spot by the Korean War Memorial. They lived for the moment-to-moment intensity of movement: running up and down the steps of an outdoor auditorium, jumping onto park benches, doing push-ups and squats and walking lunges that made it difficult to walk the following day. Some part of their bodies ached, all the time. But it was a good ache, the soreness of muscles rebuilding themselves. There is noth­ing like knowing you will be stronger tomorrow than you are today, that you will notch another gain in a month and blast past previous perfor­mance records in the space of a year. Most adults don’t even remember what that’s like.

After eighteen months under the bridge, in the dojo, and on the waterfront, it was time for Jerry Hill to move. His wife had found a job in Alexandria, Virginia, and the job performed indoors with air-conditioning determined the family’s location. Jerry’s first order of business was to find another jujitsu studio to sublet in the mornings. He hauled his kettle bells, medicine balls, and barbells into the dojo’s second-floor space. Blue mats covered the floor. Pull-up bars hung by chains, like trapeze bars, from the ceiling, lending a circus atmosphere to pull-up-intensive WODs.

A few evening jujitsu students joined Jerry’s morning workouts. Strangers wandered in after’s geographical directory iden­tified Jerry’s CrossFit Oldtown as the closest place to hit a WOD. Some of the newcomers had been lone-wolf CrossFitters following WODs from their garages. Others had incurred the wrath and anxiety of health club floor managers for doing Olympic lifts in free-weight areas or handstand push-ups against the mirrored walls of local gyms. What they all had in common was this: they had abandoned the principles and conventions of mainstream fitness—what all the exercise video celebrities, magazine features, and public health authorities say is necessary to get in shape, lose fat, and build muscle. Gasping for air on the floor after eighteen minutes, sometimes after five minutes, in the best shape of their lives, they had repudiated every tenet of the modern gym and fitness industry. And none of them was looking back.


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