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Pittsburghers Flock to Join the CrossFit Sensation

Jul 01, 2014 12:57PM ● Published by Mary Margaret Fisher

By Veronica Davidson Tucker

Wall balls. Box jumps. Toes-to-bars. All terms that evoke excitement (and maybe a little trepidation) in the hearts of those who have joined the CrossFit craze. And it’s a phenomenon that seems to grow in popularity as more ‘boxes’ (gyms) pop up throughout the area.

So what is CrossFit? According to Blake Schaub, owner and head trainer of CrossFit Iron City, “CrossFit teaches you to do efficiently the things that you do in everyday life; this program will get you in the best overall shape of your life.”

CrossFit workouts incorporate elements from high-intensity interval training, Olympic weightlifting, plyometrics, powerlifting, gymnastics, girevoy sport, calisthenics, strongman and other exercises. The traditional CrossFit session lasts one hour and consists of a warm-up, strength training and the Workout of the Day (WOD). Most classes have one or two coaches per session, who encourage athletes and help with proper form and technique.

Mike Pietragallo opened up one of the first CrossFit locations in the area in 2006 with CrossFit Pittsburgh. Having been in the business for a while, Pietragallo has noticed a shift in interested athletes asking, “What is CrossFit?” to “What’s your schedule and when can I start?”

The paths leading athletes to CrossFit are diverse. Pietragallo first heard of CrossFit while deployed in Baghdad. After the encouragement of a teammate, he reluctantly gave it a try. “I was getting stale doing the same workouts. My first WOD was 10 single-rep deadlifts, and I watched online videos to learn the correct form,” he explained. “It was a great whole-body workout. I was hooked.”

Sean Parnell, a member of CrossFit TPA and a retired Army Captain, shared a similar story. “One of my soldiers convinced me to try it,” he said. “I thought it would be too hard for me; I was wrong.”

Parnell then encouraged his wife, Laurie, to give it a shot. “CrossFit was something that Sean wanted to share with me, and I thought it sounded like a great idea,” she said. “I hadn’t competed in anything since playing college soccer. I was experiencing a running ‘rut’ and needed a new challenge.”

Many of the members of CrossFit TPA, like Parnell, are former athletes looking for a challenge. While CrossFit has increased in popularity after Reebok’s sponsorship of the CrossFit games, Tammy Friedt, owner and coach of CrossFit TPA, credits the popularity to the workout. “CrossFit is addictive; it increases the serotonin level in the brain more than a traditional group exercise class,” she explained. “It’s a constant challenge. You can always improve and be better than you were yesterday.”

Despite its rise in popularity and the ability to watch phenomenal CrossFit athletes on television, many people are still intimidated by the program. Friedt, Pietragallo and Schaub all encourage anyone interested to try it out. “This sport has universal scalability,” said Pietragallo. “You have to realize that those people on TV are in the top 1 percent of those doing CrossFit in the world. Anybody can do this if they modify the program appropriately.” CrossFit Pittsburgh, CrossFit Iron City and CrossFit TPA all offer free trial workouts for those who are interested.

According to these athletes, the benefits of CrossFit are many. “CrossFit makes each individual a healthier version of themselves,” said Schaub.

“My favorite part of CrossFit is the way I feel after a workout–sometimes I can’t believe what I’ve accomplished,” said Laurie Parnell. “CrossFit keeps me coming back because it’s fun, it’s varied and it’s based on exercises I use in everyday life.”

And the benefits are not just physical. All three coaches tout the CrossFit community as one of its best aspects. “This isn’t just a workout,” stated Friedt. “When people walk into the box, it changes them. Not only do they have a different perspective on exercise, but I have seen great friendships form which I haven’t seen in any of the other facilities I have worked in over the last 15 years.”

“This sport attracts some unusual acquaintanceships; you might see a retired schoolteacher team up with a head-shaved tattooed rock star motivating each other during a Saturday workout. It’s an awesome thing to witness,” added Pietragallo.

Sean Parnell couldn’t agree more. “At the end of the day, every box has weights and racks—but it’s the coaches and the people that keep me coming back. In CrossFit, unlike any other sport, you cheer harder for the person in last place than the person in first. It’s all about challenging yourself to be a better version of you.”

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