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Killin’ it at CrossFit

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At 6 a.m. on most weekday mornings, Izzy Donabed, a junior human performance major, can be found hunched in the front of a crew boat, steering the vessel and yelling into her microphone to pick up the pace. At 5-foot-2-feet, most would think this is where she belongs. However, Donabed has shown that size won’t stop her from anything.

After crew practice, Donabed makes her way to CrossFit 813, where she’ll train alongside other muscular college students and young people. During a workout full of handstand push ups, rope climbs, double-unders and other high-intensity exercises, it’s not uncommon for her to burn up to 700 calories. Donabed works out four or five times a week during the school year and every day during the summer.

CrossFit 813, like many CrossFit gyms, is housed in what looks like a mashup between a warehouse and a gymnastics center. The walls are made of cinderblock and the edges of the main room are lined with weights and machines of all shapes and sizes. Ropes dangle from the ceiling and people stare with intense concentration at the myriad of barbells throughout the room.

“It’s basically a warehouse; it’s got the big garage doors, and there are a ton of members,” Donabed said. “They have like seven classes a day, and they’re usually pretty full classes.”

CrossFit was founded in 2000 by Greg Glassman and began very small, with only 13 CrossFit-affiliated gyms in 2005. Today, there are over 13,000 CrossFit affiliates around the world.

Glassman, the current CEO of CrossFit, defines fitness as “increased work capacity across broad time and modal domains,” according to the CrossFit website. A CrossFit workout needs to be constantly changed so that the body doesn’t grow accustomed to the same movements, according to Glassman.

Exercises are performed at high intensities and are based on everyday functional movements. CrossFit combines skills from gymnastics, rowing, weightlifting, running and other fitness activities. By combining these different functional movements with increased intensity (more reps during a certain amount of time, or higher weights during a certain amount of time), individuals can greatly increase their levels of fitness.

“It’s high-intensity for a short amount of time. There are so many different movements and there are some workouts that don’t even have a barbell,” Donabed said. “There’s a lot of kettlebell swings and pushups — stuff you would do at the gym normally, but more in a competitive setting. You really feel like part of a team when you do it, even though it’s an individual thing.”

Some movements found in CrossFit workouts are muscle-ups, which use the men’s gymnastics rings; kipping, which is using one’s hips to gain momentum before a pull-up; and wall ball, which is performed by squatting with a medicine ball, throwing the ball to hit a target on the wall, catching the ball, and repeating the movement. There’s also the rope climb, which isn’t as common in workouts, but one that Donabed enjoys.

Although she doesn’t have time for many CrossFit competitions during the school year, Donabed does take part in the CrossFit Open, a five-week challenge during which a new workout is released every Thursday night. CrossFit athletes can perform these workouts and see how they rank against other competitors.

“At the end, you can see where you stack up against people in your age group, or people in your state, or worldwide,” Donabed said.

Over 324,000 participants from 175 countries competed in the CrossFit Open in 2016.

During the summer, Donabed will compete in one or two competitions near her home in Massachusetts. CrossFit athletes don’t know the competition workouts until a few weeks beforehand, so Donabed says it’s important for her to practice moves and exercises that she isn’t particularly good at in order to prepare.

“You don’t really lift as heavy during competition season, you just work on staying consistent, and then after you can start progressing and go back to doing crazy things,” Donabed said. “It’s fun; it’s how you meet people. You can really test yourself.”

While Donabed usually doesn’t physically row on the team (the coxswain’s job is to give directions to the rowers and steer the boat), she says that CrossFit workouts have definitely improved her rowing abilities.

“Rowing is mostly legs, so definitely squatting and deadlift will grow your leg muscles for rowing,” Donabed said. “Also, there is rowing in CrossFit. A lot of workouts having rowing for calories or rowing for distance.”

Despite being on the shorter side, Donabed has shown that anyone can thrive in an athletic setting. While some CrossFit moves, such as rope climbs, are more suited for taller people, there are other exercises that shorter people excel at, such as wall balls.

Along with the misconception that only tall or big people can do CrossFit, some people also have the misconception that the sport is dangerous, Donabed said.

“A lot of people think it’s dangerous — my parents definitely thought that,” Donabed said. “But if you have a good coach, they’ll stop you the second they see you doing something wrong. And your body will tell you, too, ‘Oh, that didn’t feel right; I need to fix my technique.’”

After practicing CrossFit for over four years, Donabed says that the sport has helped her make new friends and become more mentally and physically strong.
“CrossFit makes you more confident, more patient, makes you conquer fears and be more open. You get as tough mentally as you do physically.”

Liz MacLean can be reached at

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