CrossFit Workouts are Rarely Routine

Jan 13, 2009 by Stars and Stripes

Jennifer H. Svan

RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany -- Capt. Richard Soto, 36, sits hunched over on the rowing machine at the Northside Fitness Center.

His Wednesday afternoon workout is done but he's not moving.

How was it, he's asked.

"It was horrible," the Air Force psychologist utters between long breaths, his face flush and sweaty. "My butt and my thighs, everything's just burning. That's why I can't get off the seat."

It wasn't just the furious 500-meter row for time that made standing seem momentarily impossible. Nor was it the 25 pull-ups gritted through before the row.

It was an entire sequence -- repeated twice -- of rowing, pull-ups, 53-pound kettle bell swings, 65-pound overhead squats and jumping push-ups curiously called "burpees" that did it.

Soto is part of CrossFit Ramstein, a tight group of airmen, spouses, civilians and teenagers pushing their bodies past once unfamiliar pain thresholds.

Since its launch in May 2008, the private, nonprofit club has attracted a core following of about 30 members, ranging in age from 15 to 43.

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Tech. Sgt. Brian Bowen is the brains and muscle of the organization, founding it after receiving certification as a CrossFit trainer. An athlete most of his adult life, Bowen was bored with conventional power lifting and running.

"It just wasn't working for me," he said. "I wasn't seeing the results I was hoping for."

In 2006 a buddy back from an Iraq deployment introduced him to CrossFit. After one workout, "I was on the ground for 45 minutes," he said. "I thought, ‘OK, this is challenging.' I pretty much never looked back."

Three years later, following the CrossFit routine of three days on, one day off, Bowen has dropped his Air Force physical training 1.5-mile run time from 10:45 to 9:23 -- with less running and less time in the gym.

Former gymnast Greg Glassman founded CrossFit in the 1970s, designing workouts that blend Olympic-style weightlifting, gymnastics and traditional cardiovascular activities such as running, rowing and swimming.

In recent years the program has gained a following at U.S. military bases from Afghanistan to Okinawa, with the Marine Corps even adopting CrossFit into its fitness program, according to Bowen.

Bowen says CrossFit workouts are varied and intense, training the body to "move large loads long distances fast."

Workouts average about 20 minutes and don't repeat often.

But they often incorporate the unconventional. On New Year's Day, CrossFit Ramstein members met at Bowen's off-base house to flip huge tractor tires and then jump over them; climb ropes, run a mile, swing kettle bells and dip on Olympic-style gymnastic rings.

"It's always changing. It keeps your body guessing," Bowen said.

Air Force spouse Christina Merafuentes, 36, joined CrossFit Ramstein in September and admits she initially doubted whether she could do it, even after 11 years of teaching aerobics.

"It looked pretty intimidating, especially for a female," she said. "But it was exciting and it was something different."

Military Fitness Equipment

She started out barely being able to do a barbell squat with 75 pounds to now squatting 115 pounds. But she's probably most proud that she can do a full-body push-up for the first time in her life.

CrossFit can be tailored to anyone, says Bowen, noting his 62-year-old grandmother recently joined a CrossFit club in the States.

Those wanting to join CrossFit Ramstein must first go through a four-hour fundamentals class offered monthly, where they're taught basic movements such as air squats -- squats without weights. Participants don't receive a medical screening but are required to disclose any physical disabilities or health problems, Bowen said. He and CrossFit certified trainer Master Sgt. Jason Lydon, an Air Force pararescueman, ensure athletes can consistently perform an exercise with proper technique before adding weight, Bowen said.

No one, he added, has suffered any serious injuries with CrossFit Ramstein.

Tech. Sgt. James Johnson, 31, enjoys the camaraderie of CrossFit, on display last week at Ramstein, where more than 20 athletes spotted each other and yelled words of encouragement to those gutting out their last pull-up or final seconds on the rowing machine.

"You want to finish because other people want to see you finish," Johnson said.

Exercises ‘not for the faint of heart'

CrossFit Ramstein members have differing opinions on what's the hardest CrossFit workout. Lexie Routt, 15, a Ramstein High School student who joined the program with her father, Col. Bill Routt, calls "the Murph" tough. It consists of running a mile, followed by 100 pull-ups, 200 push-ups, and 300 squats. That's not all. Another mile run finishes it off.

CrossFit Ramstein founder Tech. Sgt. Brian Bowen said many of the group's workouts are taken daily from the CrossFit Web site at Many have unique names such as "the Filthy 50," which Tech. Sgt. James Johnson says is the hardest. Going for time, athletes do 50 repetitions of the following exercises: 24-inch box jumps, jumping pull-ups, kettle bell swings, walking lunges, knees-to-elbows, 45-pound push press, back extensions, 20-pound medicine ball wall shots, burpees, and double unders.

CrossFit Ramstein also designs some of its own workouts. Next week the group goes to the pool for the first time, Bowen said, for a 25-meter swim, followed poolside by 25 squats, 25 push-ups, 25 sit-ups and 25 burpees ("a push-up from hell," describes one CrossFit Ramstein member).

"We'll do five rounds of that," Bowen said of the entire sequence. Needless to say, CrossFit's "not for the faint of heart" he added.

To learn more about CrossFit Ramstein or to join, go to its Web site at, or e-mail the group at:

There's no cost to join or for membership.