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.
"This was my first year to do it, and I'm already training for next year," said Luz, who works at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore.
Like many others, Luz started off running on treadmills and using resistance machines in what CrossFitters playfully refer to as Globo Gyms, borrowing the name of the big box gym run by Ben Stiller's character in the 2004 movie "Dodgeball."
"I tried so many things before CrossFit. At the time, before I knew better, I thought that was a good workout. Now I know better," said Luz, who was introduced to CrossFit in 2008 when her friend's husband was using it to prepare for military Special Forces training.
"It's a good way to not get bored, which happens so often at the gym," she said. "You're always going to be challenged. Their concept is to prepare for the unknown, and you just hope that you're going to be able to do it."
Luz said that she completes her CrossFit routine six times a week, if not more, even when on vacation (since CrossFit's daily workouts can be followed online even without membership at a CrossFit gym). For example, while visiting home in Ballinger, Texas, recently, she wowed her family by performing handstand push-ups against the side of the house. She wasn't trying to make a spectacle, but just to get a little closer to the 2012 world games.
"They look at me like 'Why do you do that?' They look at me like I'm crazy," she said. "But I've never felt better, and I've never felt more prepared for each day."
Fit for a Fighter
The Lights Out Gym off Red Branch Road, which Mike Richards opened earlier this year, can help a couch potato get back into shape, but the facility also is equipped to prepare aspiring combatants to step into a boxing ring or a mixed martial arts (MMA) cage.
A popular offering at Lights Out is the Fight Fitness class.
Fight Fitness is billed as a class for those who want to train like fighters but don't necessarily want to trade blows in the ring.
"If you train like a fighter, you'll look like a fighter," said Richards, whose wife, Amber, participates in the Fight Fitness class to stay in shape. "The results come a lot quicker with the grunt workouts."
Fight Fitness has participants skip rope, run laps around the building, throw flurries of punches at a heavy bag and swing a sledgehammer at a large tire.
Some of that may sound a little far out, but Richards points out that this kind of training is far from a fad. "George Foreman used to chop wood (as part of his boxing training), so the theory on that has been around for a long time," he said.
Most of Richards' female Fight Fitness participants have no plans for a career in MMA.
Kathleen Williams, a 38-year-old veterinarian specialist from Ellicott City, does the class because, she says, it works.
"A lot of my friends who are girls want to come and take the class because it is so much fun, and everybody that is in the class gets along very well," she said. "You push each other to continue moving upward instead of falling backward."
On the other hand, a few of the women at Lights Out are using the Fight Fitness class as a first step toward an MMA match.
"MMA is growing, and I don't see that stopping," Richards said. "I've seen a lot more women wanting to get into combat sports."
Jordan Geddes and Sheila Smith, both 23-year-old students at Howard Community College, coincidentally met at Lights Out after deciding to start an MMA training regimen.
"I used to be 300 pounds, and about four years ago I lost about 120 pounds, and since then I've been really trying to get as fit as I can," said Geddes, a Howard High grad. "First I quit smoking, then I started running and all that, but if you look at athletes, the people who look the fittest -- the crazy fittest -- are in boxing and mixed martial arts."
Geddes did not compete in any team sports in high school, but joined a women's rugby team after graduation. At 6 feet tall, her size gave her a natural advantage in contact sports. But as a woman the opportunities were not plentiful, until she heard about MMA.
"I told my friends that I was going to be doing this, and they're all about it. My parents aren't quite so fond of the idea, but they want me to feel good about myself, and I think they see that this is going to do that," said Geddes, who has adopted a vegan diet and works parttime at David's Natural Market in Wilde Lake.
Smith is seeing immediate dividends from the training as well, but calls an actual MMA fight "a distant fantasy right now."
"I really can't even imagine me going pro, but it would be really sweet if I did. ... I can't wait to learn submissions and takedowns," she said, referring to techniques to take opponents to the ground and cause them to give up or "tap out."
Smith played softball at her high school in Silver Spring and had contemplated joining the wrestling team, although she ended up abandoning that idea.
"I should have stuck with it; it might have helped me out now," she said.
Unlike Geddes, Smith said that her parents are excited that she wants to compete in MMA.
And she said that her boyfriend, a distance runner who shares her appreciation of the Ultimate Fighting Championship -- MMA's most popular and competitive promotion -- has no problems with her aspirations to become a competitive fighter.
"He's never mentioned anything about me being more feminine, but I don't know. Maybe when I start coming home with welts on my face, I'm kind of excited to see everyone's reaction," she said.
Smith acknowledges, however, that it will be a major leap to go from training like a fighter to fighting like a fighter.
"(Richards) said that for a lot of people, getting hit in the face is usually the breaking point. Whether that will be the case with me, I guess we'll see."