Dance music blares from the speakers. Two participants lift empty beer kegs over their heads in unison. Others are swinging sledgehammers onto truck tires as if they were chopping wood. A pair of brave souls repeatedly flip a 135-kilogram tractor tire. The rest are whipping 15-metre-long pieces of rope as if they were frantically escaping from police on a horse and buggy.
This is not military training or a Strongman competition. It's CrossFit training, the short but intensive boot-camp-style workout that's gaining popularity across Canada; the venue is the Academy of Lions, a body shop turned gym in Toronto's west end.
CrossFit, in which the participants move from station to station completing various tasks, incorporates kettlebells, gymnastics rings, barbells, climbing ropes and medicine balls. Because of differing fitness levels, not everyone will finish at the same time, but participants, once they've wrapped up their workout, are expected to stick around and cheer the others on to the proverbial finish line.
"I'm completely exhausted," said 25-year-old Robert Fraser after the workout. "But it's fun."
CrossFit programs range from five minutes to one hour and can be tailored to people of all levels by simply changing the weight of the item in use. The workouts, which change from day to day, emphasize functional movements such as running, jumping, pushing, pulling and lifting. The average length of a CrossFit workout is a mere 20 minutes, but that doesn't mean it's easy.
"Some days they have what they call a 'hero' workout," said Peter Norris, a 60-year-old semi-retired carpenter. "And you honestly don't know if you're going to live through it." Mr. Norris, who has been working out at CrossFit Vancouver for just under a year, finds that the workouts aren't elaborate and have helped him improve performance in his other hobbies.
"I'm a climber, a cave explorer and a skier," he said. "Doing CrossFit allows me to do those things at a pretty high level. I'd bury a lot of 40 year olds."
Montreal's L'Usine CrossFit has three strict rules. The first two involve technique and range of motion but the third is a little less conventional: If you see someone you haven't met, you must say hi. Those who break the third rule are forced to do 100 burpees, a combination of a push-up and a jump.
CrossFit, used by fire departments across the country as well as by the Canadian Armed Forces, was developed in the 1980s by a Californian named Greg Glassman, with the first CrossFit gym opening in 1995 in Santa Cruz. There are now more than 100 CrossFit facilities in Canada and almost 2,000 worldwide, from Germany to Vietnam and South Africa to Afghanistan.
But some experts say that aspiring CrossFitters, especially beginners, shouldn't rush into things too quickly.
"If you're a couch potato and you jump into CrossFit, you will easily be susceptible to injury," said Ranka van Voorst, assistant manager of strength and conditioning at the Faculty of Physical Education and Health at the University of Toronto.
"Your muscles won't be trained nor can they adapt to that kind of intensity right away," she said.
A recent piece in Men's Health magazine raised similar concerns, cautioning new CrossFit participants to always listen to their bodies. In CrossFit workouts, overly competitive people could be spurred on to do more than they're capable of, risking injury.
"Your body needs time to adapt," said Ms. van Voorst. "This applies to any form of physical activity. You need to ease your body into it."
Dhani Oks, co-founder of the Academy of Lions, says his gym does just that. "All good organizations will properly assess their clients, and that's what we do before we ever expose them to more demanding athletic tasks."
As well as encouraging participants to ensure their instructors have the proper certification, the Men's Health piece also touched on the potential danger of doing complex movements such as Olympic-level lifting when in a state of exhaustion. When your body is drained, your form could suffer, posing problems.
Douglas Rosa, a personal trainer in the same faculty as Ms. van Voorst, agrees that correct form and movement can be tough to achieve in a state of exhaustion. "Every time you're lifting, you want to be really strong and really fresh," he said.
"That's why Olympic lifters never go to exhaustion. They do one to six reps and then rest for three to five minutes."
Mr. Oks, who counts a bronze medalist in Olympic weightlifting among his staff, agrees that using the proper form is essential. "At [Academy of Lions] we're very dedicated to technique and form," he said. "I've seen many more atrocities with personal trainers in a high-volume commercial gym than in CrossFit."
Mr. Rosa said the key to a healthy CrossFit experience, or any form of physical activity for that matter, is knowing your limits and respecting them. "If CrossFit tells you to do as many push-ups as you can in one minute, maybe you should start with 10 per minute," he said, adding that CrossFit has essentially become the umbrella term for boot-camp-style workouts.
"People like being efficient and getting in and out," he said. "But it's not for everyone. I wouldn't recommend it for a beginner."
Special to The Globe and Mail