Mandi Davidson, CrossFit Diesel

Mandi Davidson owns CrossFit Diesel in Columbia with her husband, Evan. (photo by Sarah Pastrana)

It is said that when it comes to exercise, you get out what you put in. And for some women in Howard County, 20 minutes on the treadmill simply doesn’t produce satisfactory returns.

For these women, a workout means attacking a giant tire with a sledgehammer, lifting heavy barbells over their heads, or even grappling and throwing punches with workout partners.

These adrenaline junkies have found their fix at gyms that cater to those who crave intense workouts.

Howard Magazine checked out a couple of gyms in Columbia, and this is what we found.


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The CrossFit Culture

While Mandi Davidson, owner and coach at CrossFit Diesel, acknowledges that the workouts at her gym are tough, she also stresses that prospective CrossFitters should not be scared away by what they see when approaching the gym: two large bay doors revealing a group of athletes hoisting barbells toward the exposed warehouse ceiling.

“We’ve definitely had girls come that were very intimidated at first. They see a big barbell and overhead lift and say, ‘I can’t do that,’” said Davidson, who opened the gym with her husband, Evan, in 2010.

“My mother-in-law is doing it, and she’s 60. The beautiful thing about this is that everything is scalable, so we’re not going to ask a Day 1 person to come in here and do muscle-ups (an advanced gymnastics skill involving pull-ups and dips on rings). You’re going to be doing a modified pull-up and a modified push-up.”

A typical CrossFit routine involves a series of gymnastics (pull-ups, push-ups, sit-ups, squats, dips), weight lifting (dead lift, back squat, bench press, clean and jerk, squat) and cardiovascular (running, jump rope, rowing) exercises performed in succession. The routines change from day to day to keep things interesting.

The CrossFit culture -- and lack of mirrors in the gym -- encourages participants to focus on improving their performance and times rather than focusing on their physiques, according to Davidson, whose athletic background is in dance and Pilates.

Rachel Morano, a psychiatric resident at Johns Hopkins, was perfectly happy with her routine at a traditional gym until about a year ago when she tried CrossFit with her husband.

“It was the most amazing hour of fitness I’ve had,” said Morano, 30. “The hour slipped right away. I joined up, and I’ve been here six days a week since. They only have class six days a week. I have trouble not coming.”

Morano, who still occasionally attends yoga classes just to mix things up, says that she used her CrossFit training to prepare for a half-marathon.

“We do a little of everything here, and everything is so intense that you really see the changes in your body and you get that body-mind connection that you crave, that endorphin rush. People run for an hour to get that rush; here you get it in like 15 minutes,” she said.

Susan Stephens, a district sales manager for a pharmaceuticals company, is using CrossFit training to make a run at several national power-lifting records.

Stephens, who grew up in Pennsylvania, was a gymnast at Kent State, graduating in 1991. She used weight training as part of a rehab program after a knee injury, which eventually led her to power-lifting competitions. Once she heard about CrossFit, which combines both of her athletic passions, she was intrigued.

“I had tried yoga; I had tried kickboxing; I tried hip-hop dancing, and I just found that this was a lot more focused and competitive and I just thrived in this environment,” said Stephens, 43, who lives in Kings Contrivance.

For some, CrossFit is a sport.

Teresa Luz, for example, is CrossFit Diesel’s star pupil. The 32-year-old nurse from Ellicott City qualified for the 2011 Reebok CrossFit Games Mid Atlantic regional qualifier in Virginia in June, and finished 12th out of 30 competitors. Only the top three from each of 18 regions from around the globe -- a pool of more than 25,000 CrossFitters -- advanced to the world finals in Carson, Calif., and that is Luz’s goal for next year.

At the world games, athletes might be asked to swim through the ocean or charge up a steep hill while carrying a heavy sandbag.