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Legendary CrossFit: History & top workouts from the former SEAL who inspired the movement

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Former Navy SEAL Dave Werner, owner of Level 4 CrossFit Seattle, the first CrossFit affiliate to open more than10 years ago (Jon R. Anderson/Staff)

Former Navy SEAL Dave Werner, owner of Level 4 CrossFit Seattle, the first CrossFit affiliate to open more than10 years ago (Jon R. Anderson/Staff)

CrossFit legend Dave Werner remembers that first grueling workout well.

It was early 2003, and the former SEAL had made a pilgrimage to Santa Cruz, Calif., where a former gymnast-turned-fitness guru named Greg Glassman was running a new gym called CrossFit.

“At the time, it was just this little local gym with a local guy who put his ideas up on the Web,” Werner says. “The first morning we were there, Greg grabbed his early-morning workout crew and took us all out to the local high school track.”

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Glassman told everyone to do a 400-meter sprint, then 21 kettlebell swings, then 12 pullups. As fast as they could. And then do it all two more times.

“It kicked all of our butts,” Werner says. The first person finished in 11 minutes. Werner, still recovering from a back injury that ended his military career, was the slowest at just over 19 minutes.

“We all said, ‘Wow, that was a good one. We’ve got to remember that one.’” A few weeks later, Glassman christened the workout Helen.

“It was the first time he’d named a Workout of the Day,” Werner says. “Soon, the whole named-workout-thing was off and running.”

It wasn’t long before Werner opened CrossFit North out of his Seattle garage, becoming the first CrossFit affiliate.

“I actually came up with the idea of starting affiliates,” Werner says.

Werner suggested modeling it after a martial arts studio “where someone gets a black belt and now they’re empowered to go out and teach the system.”

The Girls

A decade later, Glassman’s legion of fitness ninjas are grinding it out in more than 7,000 CrossFit gyms — including military “boxes” from the Pentagon to Kandahar — and more than 35,000 accredited trainers.

Now called Level 4 CrossFit Seattle, Werner’s garage box has grown to a 10,000-square-foot waterfront warehouse. With nine coaches, the first affiliate on the planet is also one of the largest, with more than 500 Puget Sound CrossFitters calling it home.

Meanwhile, Helen has become part of the CrossFit’s DNA.

“The idea was that we needed some tests we could come back to every now and then and check our progress,” Werner says. In the years since, Helen was joined by 20 more workouts — Fran, Chelsea, Angie and Eva among them — all affectionately known as “The Girls” and all serving as benchmarks to measure improvement.

Glassman liked the way the National Weather Service named storms, so he adopted the same style.

While most of The Girls are randomly selected names, a few are inspired by real people. Eva, for example, is named after Olympic skier Eva Twardokens, Werner says.

Another set of WODs, however, is named after real people.

The Heroes

June 28, 2005, was a particularly bad day for the special operations community.

That’s when four Navy SEALs were ambushed during Operation Red Wings in the mountains of northeastern Afghanistan. A rescue helicopter full of reinforcements was shot down. In the end, 19 SEALs and Army aviators were killed.

“Several of those guys were avid CrossFitters,” Werner says.

One of them was Petty Officer 1st Class Jeffrey S. Taylor, “J.T.” to his friends.

One week later, a WOD named J.T. appeared on the CrossFit website, a three-set blaster of handstand pushups, ring dips and pushups.

Among the first of more than 200 comments following the WOD that day, one CrossFitter wrote: “I served with J.T., and I can say that he was a true PT animal. He would’ve been proud to have a CrossFit WOD named after him.”

Soon, another memorial WOD for one of the Red Wings fallen appeared. And then another. Out of death, the Hero WODs were born.

There are now dozens of Hero WODs. Although most are named for troops killed in action, The Heroes grew to include fallen first responders who died in the line of duty.

Misconceptions

Don’t underestimate The Girls or The Heroes, Werner warns. Many athletes need months or years of training to do them as written.

“It’s one of the most common misconceptions,” Werner says. “These workouts are written to challenge really good athletes, accomplished athletes who have already put in years of development. For everybody else, they’re best seen as a goal.”

Mastery of proper form for each exercise is a must before even considering nailing down a good time or trying to outperform a buddy. Often that means scaling the workout down, either by doing fewer reps or modifying the specific exercises — or just taking it slowly.

Of course, that goes for the regular WODs as well. Too often, he says, military people in particular treat the WODs like competitions.

“When competitions come up — whether it’s combat, events or actual competitions — on those days, you do whatever it takes. You get through it as fast and hard as possible,” Werner says. “But that’s not training.

“You can be competitive in your training, as well, but you have to stretch your perspective out. It needs to be a long-term perspective,” he says. “I’m going to compete with this guy, I’m going to beat him, even if it takes me six months or a year. I’m going to get stronger, move better and be able to do more work consistently. But maybe I’m going to slow down today because that’s what it’s going to take to get me there.”

Now, Werner can knock out Helen in under nine minutes.

“But that took a while. And that’s OK. That’s real progress. Long-term change is what we’re after here. And that’s how to keep it safe,” he says.

Werner’s favorite workouts

As a former Navy SEAL, and a CrossFit coach for more than a decade, Werner has amassed an encyclopedia of fitness knowledge.

Ask him about his favorite workouts, and he always comes back to The Girls.

“My favorite workout overall is Chelsea. It’s just 30 minutes of grinding. You have to put your head down and work, but there’s a rhythm to it, as well,” Werner says. “It reminds me of being back in the SEALs. I crank AC/DC and do Chelsea, and it just feels like going home.”

His two other favorites — Diane and Christine — are also drawn from The Girls.

They’re all butt-kickers, he says. Most people will need to scale them down before doing the full versions.

“If you take just these three workouts, you’re covering an enormous range of athletic ability. If you get good at just these three, you’re going to be good at just about anything you try. Someone who is good at Chelsea can go run a 5K at the drop of a hat. They may not win it, but they’re going to be OK.”

Jon R. Anderson is a staff writer for OFFduty. Contact him at jona@militarytimes.com.

Jon Anderson

Jon Anderson is a writer for OFFduty. Reach him at jona@militarytimes.com.