Inside a warehouse-style gym in Sacramento, a mid-20s woman of pure muscle hoists more than 100 pounds above her head and then sprints to the horizontal bars for pull-ups. Nearby, a newcomer does a tamer version of the same workout, relying on a thick elastic band to help him raise his chin above the bar.
This is CrossFit, a style of working out that has swept the nation and Sacramento in the past few years. The number of CrossFit gyms in the Sacramento region now stands at more than 25, up from one in 2006.
Bleeding hands and sore muscles are the norm but CrossFit, launched from Santa Cruz a dozen years ago, is being sold to the masses on the notion that they, too, can do things they never dreamed possible. Each day, participants perform an ever-changing but always grueling sequence of exercises dubbed the Workout of the Day, or WOD.
The intensity of their effort is offset by the fact that the WOD is short generally less than 20 minutes. Trainers offer modifications for those who are injured or not yet strong enough to complete the workout as prescribed.
"You will do things here that you never thought you could do, and people are cheering you on to reach your goal," said Christian Norgaard, owner of the American River CrossFit. "You're going to hurt, but it's fun when you're done."
Since founder Greg Glassman posted the first workout of the day (WOD) online for his Santa Cruz gym in 2000, the business has expanded to more than 3,600 global affiliates. Each affiliate pays licensing fees to the parent, CrossFit Inc.
CrossFit has also become a presence on sports television. Top athletes who qualified, including a team of six from Sacramento, are competing this weekend in a battle televised live on ESPN3 for the title "Fittest on Earth."
Norgaard and and his wife, Kathleen, have watched the continued development of the industry since they opened a "box," as CrossFit gyms are called, in their garage in April of 2008. The Norgaards have gone from business rookies to successful entrepreneurs in just four years.
"We never could have expected this," said Kathleen Norgaard, a mother of two and substitute teacher, who looked on as members overcame shaking arms on Tuesday to complete the WOD's 45 pull-ups.
In 2008, the Norgaards paid a couple thousand dollars for the required affiliate license and a Level One coaching certification. They bought liability insurance and created a website for their home-based gym.
They started out by selling $75 memberships to six soccer moms and fire cadets. Their client roster has since grown to 145 people between the ages of 21 and 63, who work out in a warehouse space off Arden Way that the Norgaards opened in March. Memberships now cost $140 a month.
"Everything we made, we reinvested to buy equipment," Kathleen Norgaard said, adding that they never took on debt. Like many CrossFit owners, the Norgaards did not have an extensive background in business or fitness, and relied on articles by Glassman and online CrossFit forums for guidance.
Each CrossFit gym has considerable autonomy. As an affiliate, the Norgaards pay $1,000 to Washington, D.C.-based CrossFit Inc. each year. They set their own membership prices, create their own workouts and decide on their own what equipment to buy.
Typically, a CrossFit gym includes rowing machines, lots of weights, bars for pull-ups, wooden boxes to jump on, balls to throw, sandbags to carry and maybe some sleds to pull.
"You don't need fancy stuff," Christian Norgaard said, pointing toward the sand-filled ammunition can boxes that served as the weights for the original classes in their garage.
No fancy equipment
While the workouts vary from gym to gym, there are some classic routines such as the Fran and the Murph that are considered must-do benchmarks for CrossFitters. Murph is named for Navy Lt. Michael Murphy who was killed in Afghanistan in 2005 and is one of 83 "Hero Workouts" that honors fallen soldiers.
The Norgaards now pay seven trainers to staff their gym. Its success has allowed Kathleen Norgaard to quit her full-time teaching position in order to raise their two kids.
Just a mile away, Jamie Llopis and his business partners this spring expanded from their initial location to open CrossFit Sacramento on Fulton Avenue. To raise the $75,000 needed for the new gym, Llopis sold 48 percent of the business to his trainers.
"We have no debt, we are in the black and we are expanding. Our story is not unique," Llopis said. It takes $7,500 a month in fees for Llopis to break even after paying salaries, rent and insurance costs. His box has 140 members and is adding five each week.
CrossFit isn't cheap. Monthly dues generally run around $150 or more. But the classes are small, and participants get lots of personal attention.
"You can't compare us to a traditional gym," Llopis said.
Llopis attributes the rapid spread of CrossFit to low overhead costs for warehouse space and minimal equipment, the community-oriented nature of the classes, and the power of Facebook, Twitter and Groupon.
"You could start a box for less than $25,000," he said, adding that a home gym could be started for $5,000 through avid shopping on Craigslist.
Last year, a group of Sacramento CrossFit boxes ran a Groupon special that sold 4,500 $29 coupons for 12 CrossFit classes. Llopis said the offer was a financial win for his gym. "We got paid $3,000 to gain new members and advertise," Llopis said, laughing.
For the Norgaards, who also participated in the Groupon offering, the coupon did not provide more permanent members, but the influx of cash enabled them to buy new equipment.
Drinks and clothes
This weekend is a highlight for avid CrossFitters. Llopis' son, Jessie, 17, is competing at the CrossFit Games in Carson. The Games began in 2007 with 70 athletes and $500 in prize money. This year, 55,000 participants began vying at qualifying rounds in March. Reebok, the sponsor, has supplied $1 million in prize money.
Gary Baron, 28, co-owns Rocklin CrossFit and is competing with the Rocklin Honey Badgers, who placed sixth in 2011. The games "are getting bigger and bigger and the competition is getting stiffer for the titles of World's Fittest Man and World's Fittest Woman as more people get involved," he said.
Growth in the CrossFit industry is occurring outside the box as well, with enthusiasts developing nutrition, clothing and equipment companies. A mini-fridge inside CrossFit Sacramento is stocked with the recently launched fitness beverage FitAid.
David Shanahan, the 21-year-old president of FitAid, has been doing CrossFit for eight years and owns the CrossFit Maxim gym near Santa Cruz. He said the CrossFit community prefers to grow from the inside, with products launched by people who are already involved.
"A lot of larger companies have tried to infiltrate the CrossFit market, but a lot of the industry growth is coming from within," said Shanahan, whose nutrition beverage is now sold in 120 CrossFit gyms across the nation.
Llopis said that the growth so far is only the beginning. Since the start of July, more than 50 new affiliates have opened boxes, according to the CrossFit website, including Josh Westberg's CrossFit Determination in Roseville, which opened July 2.
"Our athletes have to be ready for the unknown and the unknowable," Westberg said. "Coincidentally, that seems to be where our sport is going."