Location: Tucked in a back alley a few blocks walk east of tube stop Southwark, CrossFit Central London contends for the title of oldest CrossFit box within London city limits.
Co-owners Clare and Brian Sharp, two of the kindest and most welcoming box owners I’ve encountered, first began practicing CrossFit out of their garage in 2005. Brian, then deeply involved with karate, originally came across posts on the emerging CrossFit message board, “It was like a light bulb went off. I couldn’t come up with a good reason not to do constantly varied, high intensity, functional training,” he recalled. His first attempts were no great success. “I think Filthy Fifty took me an hour and ten minutes,” he chuckled.
Clare has surmounted her own set of obstacles. Diagnosed with cancer in 2005, treatment forced her to scale workouts while she was ill. Unable to log regular, continuous training, she feels her fitness has suffered, “I want to be the best. I want to be a great example for our members as the “box owner” but I have to be realistic about what I can achieve.” She’s aiming to stay healthy for the current 12 week cycle in prep for sergeant testing next month. No doubt, her positive attitude and perseverance serves as great inspiration for the Central London athletes. “I have to keep doing what I can,” she smiles.
The good-natured couple carved out almost an hour and a half for me on a frantic Friday evening that coincided with London 2012′s Opening Ceremonies. They cracked jokes and offered me beers as Brian frequently poked his head out of their office to hurl insults and encouragement in equal doses to the athletes streaming in and out.
“Are you wearing that weight vest?!” Brian called to an elite athlete preparing to tackle a particularly tough WOD.
Hearing the assent, he roars, “You’re hardcore!”
“Mostly,” he adds to me with a wink, “because that thing smells.”
The Sharps and a team of 10 high-energy trainers hustle 350 members (75% men, 25% women) in and out of their doors each month. CrossFit Central London officially opened in 2009 and hosts the CF Level 1 seminars in the city. Their box also boasts an impressive number of Level 1 certified members—making for an increasingly knowledgable and competitive athlete base.
Naama schooling the newbies.
Newcomers to CrossFit Central London have a choice: complete their foundational course in one weekend (6 hours on Saturday & Sunday) or spread it out over two weeks. After that, they move into “Elements” spanning the next 8 weeks, learning and practicing the foundational movements to perfection before graduating to WOD classes.
Short in stature but huge on energy, Israeli-born Naama Chezar leads most of the introductory classes at CrossFit Central London. At just 4’11, Chezar’s undeniable presence in the box commands the attention of a trainer twice her size. I observed her coaching style at two different boxes in London.
“What’s my ONE rule?” she barks at her class of 12 beginners before going over the basics of a deadlift.
“Lumbar curve?” someone shouts from the back.
“No,” Chezar chastises. “Who remembers?”
She bends down to pick up the bar but her eyes remained fixed on the crowd. “I want you to deadlift every f*cking thing you pick up outside of here,” she instructs. “What’s the point of deadlifting in class if you’re not going to use it in the real world?”
She pauses for just a moment and then orders, “Now get to work!”
Chezar’s special brand of tough love endears her to students. “I love seeing them develop confidence and get stronger. I love coming into the box and seeing them in regular WOD class, doing prescribed weight and succeeding. I think to myself, ‘those are my babies!’”
Clare and Brian are so confident in their product that they offer a special deal to beginners: if a new member commits to showing up 3x/week, working hard and cleaning up their diet for the first three months—and they don’t see results or aren’t satisfied—they’ll issue a full refund.
“Not once,” Brian answers when I ask if anyone has claimed the refund yet. “You know, there’s no magic bullet. But if they come in, commit to the hard work, and stick with it, they’ll see results.”
Olympic lifting, endurance, karate, and yoga classes are also offered at CrossFit Central London.
WOD (July 27th, 4 PM):
Crazies attempting the Firebreather WOD.
For time, lift 3,000 kg ground-to-overhead: do 5 burpees together every time you switch with your partner.
(Roughly 50 clean and jerks at 80 lbs)
50 KB russian twists
100 abmat sit-ups
50 strict toes-to-bar
For a spectator event, nothing beats checking out the the best (and craziest) athletes braving a weekly “Firebreathers” WOD (time cap: 36 minutes).
Fran (21-15-9: thrusters/pull-ups)
400m run+rope climb
Elizabeth (21-15-9: cleans/ring-dips)
400m run+rope climb
Diane (21-15-9: deadlifts/handstand push-ups)
That’s right, you read that correctly, three ‘girls’ in one workout(!) Guests are welcome to come, cheer on the athletes, and “fundraise” by donating 2 pounds for a large beer–a great idea that creates a raucous celebratory atmosphere perfect for these crazy WODs.
New CFCL members get an introduction to paleo and clean eating in their foundational courses and find online support in their Facebook paleo recipe group. Two members have even started their own paleo blog, London Paleo.
Brian and Clare estimate all of their members are aware of paleo eating, “We encourage sensibility with nutrition. When you’re surrounded by these people who are eating a certain way, training a certain way, and getting the results you want, it’s only a matter of time before they understand what they need to do.”
“Listen,” Brian explains. “Zone works. But paleo is just so much easier. We see such great results [with paleo], we don’t feel the need to get into all the little details of zone.”
From a personal perspective, London was an incredibly easy city to find affordable, delicious, and quick paleo meals. Two “chain” restaurants in particular, Pret a Manger and Pod, carried a wide array of paleo-friendly salads, smoothies and snacks.
In January of 2012, CrossFit Central London had 160 members. Now, in the wake of unprecedented growth they have a waiting list full of new potential members, an expansion in the works, and a community of 350 committed athletes. Clare is convinced that the boom comes by way of referral, “80-90% of our new members have a friend that does CrossFit.”
“It’s such a friendly community,” she adds. “We sponsor social events like ‘barbells and brunch,’ where we WOD and then head to our favorite cafe across the street. We gather for a Christmas meal every year at that same place,” she says. “We convinced them to open just for us in the evening and we closed that place down last year!”
Brian chimes in with a grin, “I reckon we went through 17 bottles of tequila that night.”
Like any great box, CrossFit Central London combines a supportive social community with the hard work that creates transformation. “The best bit,” Brian admits, “Is seeing the newbies blossom. Seeing them transform from fat and broken to healthy and happy. That’s why we do what we do.”
“You know what?” he says, gesturing out the door at the bustling box. “I can’t imagine a better place to come to work everyday, or a better group of people to work with.”