Author: Alyson Kaufman
My friend Madilynn has a boyfriend who got into CrossFit a few years ago. When she first met him, he was more likely to be described as nerdy than athletic. Now, it’s hard to imagine him as anything but. Madilynn isn’t fond of her boyfriend’s hobby. She refers to it as an “obsession” and a “cult.” I’ve never tried it and decided to learn what the fuss was about.
To better understand this sport I went to Elie Zeitlin, founder of CrossFit Coney Island. He talked to me about discovering CrossFit, becoming a leader, and the philosophy that captivates so many of his clients.
Elie, 31, has been a self-described athlete since childhood, but an injury resulting from poor guidance left him unable to workout for almost a year. “Before I ever even knew what CrossFit was, I was lifting like an idiot,” he explains. “I didn’t have anyone to train me. Resources on how to lift were much worse ten, fifteen years ago.”
At the time, Elie’s fitness goals led him to a harmful combination of working out as hard as he could while eating as little as possible—a notion that is usually more common amongst women. “I just wanted to be pound-for-pound the strongest guy I knew, which was a weird goal,” he says.
Elie started noticing back pain after lifting a couch with incorrect form, but the severity of his injury didn’t appear until a few days later, when he sneezed. “Apparently it’s very common for a sneeze to throw a back out and that’s exactly what happened,” he says. “I sneezed and I thought someone hit me in my back with a crowbar. That’s how bad it hurt.” Elie ended up in the hospital for a week with a severely herniated disk, and three weeks later, his left leg became paralyzed.
After six months of rehab, Elie decided to check out a local gym, anxious to get back into shape. “I [went] in there and I [saw] four, five guys doing this really intense workout that looked so freaking cool and challenging… it happened to be all these lifts that I really loved to do, and also the exact lifts that, with my back injury, I could do… it was like a love-at-first-sight thing.”
Elie asked the men in the gym what they were doing and they told him it was CrossFit—specifically, a workout called Hero Wods, which are intended to be performed with intense effort in honor of our fallen soldiers. The men at the gym were certified personal trainers and elite CrossFit athletes, and months later, after the pain from his injuries began to subside, they became Elie’s fitness mentors. “It opened my eyes to how little I knew and how much more I wanted to research [the right ways of lifting,]” says Elie. “Because I realized, ‘Whoa, what I thought was right, wasn’t.’”
Elie realized that he didn’t have to wait all those months to start working out again. “If you do CrossFit smart and you have a smart coach who’s patient, they will accommodate your injuries.” Elie explains. “CrossFit has a really bad reputation of injuring people, but the truth is if it’s done correctly, with smart coaching, it can even be a rehab for injuries and not make them worse.”
Elie’s mentors eventually left to pursue their respective fitness careers, and so Elie took over as leader of the CrossFit crew at that gym. “I started programming for a couple of people and then I realized after a while, ‘Wow, a lot of people are liking what I’m doing!” Elie was working as a behavior therapist at a school for children with autism, but was craving a career with more room to grow. So after years of saving his money, he finally opened CrossFit Coney Island in August of 2014.
Elie was inspired to start his business in part because of his sister, whose newfound confidence embodied the profound benefits his coaching could offer. “She was doing something called the Overhead Squat, and she was going for like one rep, max. She did it and she was like ‘Whoa, that was so hard, that was so heavy!’ And I was watching it and I told her, ‘That was really not that heavy… you barely pushed yourself.’ I was like, ‘I bet you a hundred bucks that you can do that again, that same weight, for three times instead of just one.’… And she did; and the smile on her face when she was done was priceless.”
After getting into CrossFit herself, Elie’s sister said that she was no longer afraid to speak up in business meetings, where she would normally feel shy and afraid of her boss’ response. Elie was thrilled.
“I was like, ‘Wow, this is a beautiful thing that is bigger than someone’s bench-press or back squat,” he says. “It’s empowerment. It’s a little bit of liberation. It’s the idea that women can break out of this self-consciousness [where they think] they need to be skinnier, they’re worried about their body image, and they can appreciate their body for what it really is, which can be a machine! Your body can be this beautiful strong thing that does incredible movement. And when I saw that, I was like, ‘I need to open a gym. I want to spread this to, well, part of Brooklyn.’”
According to Elie, CrossFit focuses on exercises that will not only improve one’s physical appearance, but also provide functional strength for daily movement. “A bicep curl is not as handy as, let’s say, a pull-up, which is a similar movement but would make you much more athletic,” he explains. “The bicep curl wouldn’t help a mother carry her groceries as much as maybe a dead-lift would. I can help anyone from a grandmother to an elite athlete improve the quality of life.”
Like most CrossFit coaches, Elie creates a new program for every single class. He stresses the importance of keeping his clients on their toes, excited to do something new with the guidance of an instructor.
“The way my gym works is we break it up into two or three parts: we do a little warm-up together, we have a little fun, we break the ice, we joke around with each other. The second part would be like a strengthening portion. So for example, my gym is about to start a squat strength cycle where it will follow a classic linear progression that anyone who wanted to get a stronger squat would follow. So every week we’re just going to go up a little bit in weight, and this and that. Then, for the second half of class we do what’s called a Metcon, which is short for Metabolic Conditioning, and that’s going to add in a little intensity. We’ll start like running and we’ll just speed up the workout with a time element. So I’ll say, ‘I wanna see who can finish three rounds of this exercise the fastest.’ So we’re going to do, let’s say, five pull-ups, ten push-ups, and fifteen squats, [and I’ll say,] ‘Who can do that five rounds the fastest? On your mark, get set, go.’ Or ‘I’m going to set the timer for twenty minutes, and I want to see how many rounds of that you can do in twenty minutes.”
Elie admits that the class can get a bit competitive but sees it ultimately as a positive. “It’s the only place I’ve ever seen where competitors are actually cheering for each other at the same time and I think that’s the magic potion of CrossFit.”
You don’t have to already be fit to join CrossFit. In fact, Elie’s gym hosts everyone from seniors who just want to be moderately fit to a man who dead lifts over 600 pounds. Although everyone in the class follows the same routine, people at different levels will use a different amount of weight and perform a different number of reps. There are people who will try CrossFit and decide that it’s too much for them to bear but Elie thinks its more to do with attitude than muscle strength. “I would say that 100 percent of the time it’s a mental intimidation,” he says. “It’s usually not a physical thing, because I can give you a broomstick and you can lift that over your head. If you can just move a little, that’s all I need. I’m going to get you to move a little bit more.”
He continues, “As you get better you realize that you’re stronger than you think, you have more energy than you think, and you can push yourself harder than you ever thought. And then that little voice in your head that says, ‘You know, you’re getting tired, you should stop,’ you find the inner power to tell it, ‘Shut up, I’m fine.’”