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The latest fitness craze is an exercise in contradictions: It's a low-tech workout that thrives on the Internet.

Its mascot is a vomiting clown named Pukie, yet it inspires cultish devotion in hardcore musclemen and grandmothers alike.

And it's led by a jock who says he bases his operating model on the open-source software system Linux.

CrossFit promises elite fitness for the masses, and the masses have begun to take notice. Starting with an empty gym and a bare-bones website in 2000, trainer Greg Glassman ("Coach," with a capital C, to his disciples) has built a grassroots fitness empire with 350 affiliated gyms worldwide, including 27 in Canada, and thousands of online CrossFit addicts.

The program harks back to the "no pain, no gain" school of fitness. Some devotees brag of throwing up from overexertion (thus the mascot), and tackling the workouts too hard has sent several CrossFit newbies to hospital with rhabdomyolysis, a dangerous condition in which muscle cells break down.

But adherents say the results are worth it.

"I love the intensity of the workouts," said Jamie Maillet, a firefighter from Saint John, N.B. who lost 40 pounds doing CrossFit. "I have drunk from the CrossFit fountain and I am a believer!"

The premise is simple: You go to the free website, CrossFit.com and find the "Workout of the Day," or WOD in CrossFit parlance. Then you do it.

The catch, and the appeal, is that the workouts are crazy hard. One recent WOD ordered 100 pull-ups, 100 push-ups, 100 sit-ups and 100 squats, done as quickly as possible. Another prescribed 90 "squat cleans" (lifting 95 pounds off the ground to above your head), 90 pull-ups and a 2,400-metre run, broken into three rounds. And that's after the "warm-up" of 30 squats, sit-ups, back extensions, pull-ups and dips.

"I thought I was in good shape; then I tried one of the workouts and it literally floored me," said Kevin Wood, a 26-year-old schoolteacher in Moncton, N.B. But a year of CrossFitting has shaved six minutes off his five-kilometre run time, and he said he looks and feels better.

"I couldn't imagine going back to any other way," he said. Anticipating the daily workout "is like Christmas every morning."

The key to CrossFit's wide appeal isn't the puking - it's the scaling. Most people don't do the workouts exactly as prescribed; they substitute lower weights, fewer repetitions or different moves. Despite CrossFit's macho culture, there's no shame in that.

"I do things at my own pace. I don't feel self-conscious at all," said Sonya Scarrow, 57, who works out at a CrossFit gym in Toronto. She said she likes the variety. Rather than the usual cavern filled with beeping and clanging machines, the small gym has free weights, kettle bells, medicine balls, ropes and rings hanging from the ceiling, overgrown monkey bars, empty kegs and filled sandbags.

"You really do challenge yourself," said Ms. Scarrow, who added she's lost weight and had fewer aches and pains since she started CrossFit.

Mr. Glassman eschews conventional weightlifting routines in favour of exercises designed with real life in mind. Workouts include many overhead lifts, for instance, because people often lift groceries or children overhead - but no bench presses, because we rarely need to lift objects while lying flat on our backs. CrossFitters do endless squats, but no leg presses.

Despite its hardcore ethos, Mr. Glassman says, CrossFit is for everybody. "The needs of Olympic athletes and our grandparents differ by degree, not kind," he said. "One needs functional competency to win gold medals, and one needs functional competency to stay out of the nursing home."

CrossFit's intensity raises some eyebrows, though. In addition to Pukie, CrossFit's other mascot is Uncle Rhabdo - another clown, this one with oozing sores and what appear to be his kidneys falling out of his body.

Rhabdo is short for rhabdomyolysis, which can be fatal. Several CrossFit beginners have suffered from the condition after intense workouts, prompting a warning about starting the program slowly. The website also includes videos showing proper form for each exercise.

The risk of CrossFit "is very real," Mr. Glassman acknowledged, but he said it's mostly about attitude. "If you put 500 pounds on a bar, and like a fool just go rip it off, you're going to get hurt."

Experts have mixed opinions. Stuart McGill, a professor of spine biomechanics at the University of Waterloo, says the risk of some CrossFit moves outweighs the potential benefit.

"That's a great disc herniator," he says, watching a video of a hip-back extension exercise on the CrossFit website. "A lot of lifts and jumps are demonstrated by people with wonderful form. But the average person could open themselves up to the risk of injury."

However, the same is true of yoga or any type of exercise, Dr. McGill noted. Some people will benefit from certain fitness moves, while others will hurt themselves. The difference with CrossFit, he said, is that the extensive online component makes it easier to dive right in without proper guidance.

Still, Dr. McGill sees a lot of good in CrossFit, particularly in its emphasis on everyday strength and agility. "Our training culture is polluted by body building," Dr. McGill said. "It could be a very, very good thing to shift the North American training philosophy to a much more functional one."

Danger warnings don't dampen CrossFitters' enthusiasm - if anything, they wear them with pride. Sometimes literally. The first online post after CrossFit's rhabdo warning was a request, promptly fulfilled, for an Uncle Rhabdo T-shirt.

Hundreds of regulars from around the globe comment daily on CrossFit's website, asking questions and giving advice, posting times, congratulating and razzing each other.

"The community really helps," says Sandy MacQuarrie, 44, who does CrossFit with his wife in the basement of their Sackville, N.B., home. CrossFit.com is his computer's homepage. "There's very little negativity. They're looking for you to do your personal best."

The website allowed CrossFit to grow much faster than it could have otherwise, Mr. Glassman said. When he was a trainer in California, he worked with several computer programmers who were active in the open-source movement, in which source code can be freely used, changed and redistributed by anyone.

"We watched Linux rise and we understood the power of open source," said Mr. Glassman, who runs CrossFit from his home in Prescott, Ariz., with his wife, Lauren. His website operates on much the same principle, embracing a community-based approach to training - users are encouraged to modify the CrossFit regime as they see fit.

Not that he gives everything away. His CrossFit Journal costs $25 a year; becoming certified as a CrossFit trainer costs $1,000, and affiliates license the name for $500 annually.

Mr. Glassman doesn't advertise except by word-of-mouth. Luckily for him, CrossFitters are enthusiastic evangelists.

"You see the improvements, you feel a lot better, and you want to come back," said Mason Klep, a 16-year-old from Toronto who says the workouts have vastly improved his rugby performance. He thinks everyone should try CrossFit, but he hasn't managed to persuade any of his school friends.

"Not yet," he said, still panting from his workout. "They're too lazy."

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