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.
It’s the school’s 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.
Schools around the Chicago area have adopted CrossFit to stir student interest at a time of rising youth obesity, and some say it’s reaching children left cold by traditional gym classes.
“I think it’s a great way to teach kids lifelong fitness, especially those kids who aren’t interested in hockey or soccer or basketball,” said teacher Tracy Haraf of Alsip’s Stony Creek Elementary, which devotes half of its PE days to CrossFit exercises. “They think it’s tough, but I think they have a lot of fun doing it.”
But some 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.
Yet gym teachers like Waukegan’s 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 CrossFit’s inherent flexibility.
Moisio 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 — 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.
“That’s the great thing, because something like running the mile, the worst kid is always last,” Moisio said. “Everybody knows who’s last; that’s a terrible feeling for a kid. Now, the last person is the best, and no one knows who dropped out in round three because they’re too worried about trying to get their own butt around the (track).”
CrossFit 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 military.
It also makes a priority of recording a participant’s results and observing how they change over time — a practice that aligns perfectly with evermore data-driven school curricula.
“(Administrators) love that data,” Moisio said. “I can give these guys enough data to choke on about student growth.”
Waukegan 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 training sessions.
Since 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.
“I 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.”
The 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.
That’s the part that concerns observers like Dr. Craig Finlayson, an orthopedic surgeon at Lurie Children’s 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.
“You’ve 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 — might not be the best idea.”
Moisio said Waukegan has had just one injury over the years — a boy pinched his finger in a squat rack while setting down his barbell — 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.
Teacher Mark Rebora said the Olympic-style weightlifting for which CrossFit is known isn’t suitable for a general PE class.
“Some of those lifts, let’s be honest — that’s dangerous,” he said.
CrossFit officials dispute that their program is more hazardous than other fitness routines. They’ve 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 unsafe.
A judge last month agreed that the injury statistic was false — the researchers said they got the information from the owner of the gym where the study was done, though he disputes that — but offered no ruling about whether the researchers knew they were publishing faulty data.
The target of the lawsuit, the National Strength and Conditioning Association, published the article in its journal. The association — which, like CrossFit, certifies trainers for a fee — has countersued for defamation, saying CrossFit published false statements about it on a company blog. Both suits are ongoing.
CrossFit spokesman Russell Berger said the program’s weightlifting exercises mimic natural movements, and that anyone can learn to do them safely.
“CrossFit 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 that’s coming from, is misplaced.”
Libertyville High School gym teacher Joyce Amann said she drills her students extensively before letting them lift — they spent a recent class session using PVC pipe to practice hoisting a barbell from the floor to their shoulders — and even then, she prioritizes high repetitions over heavy weight.
“They know they can’t move on unless they’ve 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, it’s just because I’m seeing something I’m not liking. As soon as you’ve mastered it you can go up.”
After the power clean drill, the class moved on to the WOD — 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.
When it 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.
“We’re really good to each other; we encourage each other during workouts,” said junior Kate Roleck, 16. “It feels like you’re dying sometimes, but then once you’re done it just feels really good. You have a lot of energy and feel really accomplished if you do something that difficult.”