As fitness crazes go, the workout program CrossFit has some of the most dedicated disciples.
The wildly popular, self-directed program, which puts a focus on core strength training and conditioning, has built a robust online community, where its participants set goals, share routine variations, and track their progress. They've even developed their own language: WOD is the workout of the day, AMRAP is "as many reps as possible," and a C&J is what's better known to weight lifters as a "clean and jerk." It's safe to say that for many of its followers, CrossFit is a philosophy as well as a workout regimen.
Chiropractor Patrick Landry, 48, a former college athlete, discovered CrossFit while training for a marathon several years ago. He didn't feel that he was getting what he needed from his running and his judo practice and decided to give the program a try.
He was so pleased with the results that he opened a CrossFit gym in Latrobe, Westmoreland County, in January 2012.
"I know there are a lot of skeptics of CrossFit, and some people call it a cult," Landry said. "But it creates an emotional anchor for people, emotionally, spiritually, and physically. People who have never exercised a day in their lives are learning to control their bodies, to move better, and have better flexibility, better coordination, and stamina."
In the fall of 2012, Landry took what he thought was the next logical step: starting a kids program. He has four children of his own and wanted to give them options besides team sports. He now has about 30 children who participate regularly and semi-regularly in the program.
Barry Novotny and his daughter Ainsley, 12, are part of a CrossFit family that goes to Landry's gym. She uses the training as a supplement, to help her build endurance for cross-country running and the other sports she plays.
"I think the majority of her soccer team does CrossFit as an extracurricular activity," Barry Novotny said. "We try to go as a family as many nights a week as we can.
There's a real community aspect to it, which makes it more fun for the kids."
That's a primary goal for Landry: that the kids participating in the program aren't seeing it as one more thing on their already full schedules.
"The way I teach the classes, you can drop in and out, and you don't have to be here every day," he said. "There are too many sports where kids are told they have to be there, at practice, at the games, and they get overcommitted."
The Latrobe gym is one of the 1,800 CrossFit facilities (there are at least 12 in the Philadelphia area) that teaches the CrossFit Kids program. According to the program's website, the aim is to "provide an active alternative to sedentary pursuits, which means less childhood obesity and all-around better health for our children."
The CrossFit Kids program is structured so that it builds mechanics first, then consistency, then adds intensity, which Sara Colley said was a good way to prevent kids from performing exercises before they're prepared. She added that a big concern with growing children is growth-plate injury, which can result when children try to do exercises they're not ready for.
Colley, a physical therapist with Pittsburgh-based UPMC Sports Medicine and the Centers for Rehab Services, said that although she has some concerns about inexperienced children possibly injuring themselves with some of the ballistic movements in CrossFit's weightlifting routines, such as snatches and clean-and-jerk lifts, there are plenty of positive things they can gain from the program.
"It can be fun, and there's no emphasis on 'winning,' which is a great idea," she said. And, CrossFit can provide an alternative exercise for kids who are involved in only one sport, which can lead to repetitive stress injuries, Colley said.
"If they're doing CrossFit while they're taking time away from their sport, that's a good thing," she said. "And any time you can boost a kid's self esteem, that's good, too. But that requires a good coach."
She said that was an area of concern for her because according to CrossFit's website, the training to instruct children consists of a weekend session and a criminal-background check but no additional certification or degree, which Colley doesn't think is sufficient.
Landry said he has a good rapport with the kids in his program, which he agrees is crucial to their participation.
"If I don't know how to connect to kids, they won't respond," he said. "I want it to be fun for them, for them to want to be here."