ó The most popular PE class at Waukegan High School takes
place in a basement field house that has the ambience of a
dungeon. Sweating is assured. Vomiting is not unusual.
the schoolís version of CrossFit, the intense and trendy
exercise regimen that has exploded in popularity over the last
16 years, spawning thousands of gyms, more than 1 million
devotees and a professional competition broadcast on ESPN.
around the Chicago area have adopted CrossFit to stir student
interest at a time of rising youth obesity, and some say itís
reaching children left cold by traditional gym classes.
think itís a great way to teach kids lifelong fitness,
especially those kids who arenít interested in hockey or
soccer or basketball," said teacher Tracy Haraf of Alsipís
Stony Creek Elementary, which devotes half of its PE days to
CrossFit exercises. "They think itís tough, but I think
they have a lot of fun doing it."
doctors and researchers advise caution, saying the
weightlifting-oriented workouts can lead to injuries,
particularly when performed by the inexperienced. CrossFit
Inc., the company that certifies trainers and licenses gyms,
has fired back at that assessment, and the controversy is
playing out in a pair of vitriolic lawsuits.
teachers like Waukeganís Greg Moisio, whose two-campus
school has about 650 kids taking CrossFit each day, say the
risk of injury can be curbed with proper supervision and
CrossFitís inherent flexibility.
pointed to a workout called "Death by Burpees,"
where every 1 minute and 20 seconds, students run a lap and
perform an escalating number of burpees ó a movement
involving a squat, a pushup and a leap with hands held above
the head. The challenge is to keep going as long as you can.
the great thing, because something like running the mile, the
worst kid is always last," Moisio said. "Everybody
knows whoís last; thatís a terrible feeling for a kid.
Now, the last person is the best, and no one knows who dropped
out in round three because theyíre too worried about trying
to get their own butt around the (track)."
bills itself as a pathway to all-around fitness, including
strength, flexibility and endurance. It combines weightlifting
with calisthenics and cardio work to create high-intensity
workouts, often named for fallen members of the American
makes a priority of recording a participantís results and
observing how they change over time ó a practice that aligns
perfectly with evermore data-driven school curricula.
love that data," Moisio said. "I can give these guys
enough data to choke on about student growth."
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appears to be the local pioneer for PE CrossFit. Moisio
incorporated some of the exercises in 2008, then became a
full-fledged CrossFit provider in 2010 after taking two
then, the demand has grown so much that CrossFit classes are
held every period (the school still offers conventional PE
too). Senior Alexus Wiltz, 18, said the conditioning has
improved her performance on the basketball court.
noticed I was faster, I paid more attention on the court, my
defending was better," she said after a recent class.
"It just really helped me."
workout she and her classmates performed that day was
relatively simple, using kettlebells, box jumps and burpees,
but Moisio said the class also includes weightlifting
exercises such as squats and deadlifts.
the part that concerns observers like Dr. Craig Finlayson, an
orthopedic surgeon at Lurie Childrenís Hospital of Chicago.
While strength training is fine for kids, he said, heavy
weights can be trouble for teens who might hurt themselves by
trying to do too much or using poor form.
got some kids who are not fully developed," Finlayson
said. "Put them in a competitive environment, doing
exercises that may or may not lead to injury ó might not be
the best idea."
said Waukegan has had just one injury over the years ó a boy
pinched his finger in a squat rack while setting down his
barbell ó but other schools that incorporate the program are
leery of heavy iron. Glenbrook North runs a "CrossFit
Challenge" for its PE students once a year, putting them
through a series of mostly calisthenic exercises such as
pushups, situps and box jumps; the only weights they use are
light dumbbells for curls and shoulder presses.
Mark Rebora said the Olympic-style weightlifting for which
CrossFit is known isnít suitable for a general PE class.
of those lifts, letís be honest ó thatís
dangerous," he said.
officials dispute that their program is more hazardous than
other fitness routines. Theyíve gone so far as to sue over a
2013 research article that found 16 percent of a CrossFit
group stopped participating because of overuse or injury,
claiming the statistic was fabricated to portray CrossFit as
last month agreed that the injury statistic was false ó the
researchers said they got the information from the owner of
the gym where the study was done, though he disputes that ó
but offered no ruling about whether the researchers knew they
were publishing faulty data.
target of the lawsuit, the National Strength and Conditioning
Association, published the article in its journal. The
association ó which, like CrossFit, certifies trainers for a
fee ó has countersued for defamation, saying CrossFit
published false statements about it on a company blog. Both
suits are ongoing.
spokesman Russell Berger said the programís weightlifting
exercises mimic natural movements, and that anyone can learn
to do them safely.
is not dangerous," he said. "Kids drinking Coca-Cola
and sitting on the couch is dangerous. We have a nation that
is suffering severely from chronic disease as a result of poor
diet and poor exercise regimens. Any concern about injury in
regard to CrossFit, while I appreciate where thatís coming
from, is misplaced."
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High School gym teacher Joyce Amann said she drills her
students extensively before letting them lift ó they spent a
recent class session using PVC pipe to practice hoisting a
barbell from the floor to their shoulders ó and even then,
she prioritizes high repetitions over heavy weight.
know they canít move on unless theyíve perfected (their
form)," she said. "We teach them to check the ego at
the door. If I tell you that you have to go down in weight, itís
just because Iím seeing something Iím not liking. As soon
as youíve mastered it you can go up."
the power clean drill, the class moved on to the WOD ó
CrossFit-speak for "workout of the day." It lasted
only 12 minutes but was a study in exertion: a rowing machine
sprint followed by burpees, box jumps, kettle bell swings,
situps and dips.
was over, many of the students were drenched, breathless and
sprawled on the gym floor. Some offered each other weary
high-fives, a sign of the camaraderie CrossFit adherents say
is at the heart of the program.
really good to each other; we encourage each other during
workouts," said junior Kate Roleck, 16. "It feels
like youíre dying sometimes, but then once youíre done it
just feels really good. You have a lot of energy and feel
really accomplished if you do something that difficult."