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Keeping Up with the Crossfitters

Is it a sport? Is it a cult? No - it's Crossfit, the latest fitness craze to have swept the world, and Egypt is no exemption. We speak to the founders of Engine38 to find out how the get-fit-quick scheme changes lives...

We pull up in front of a grassy lot in SODIC's Allegria where a group of people, comprised entirely of ridiculously buff men and enviably toned women are gathering, all of them decked out in Engine38 t-shirts and Reebok shoes in electric Popsicle shades. We’re here to meet with the founders of Crossfit Engine38 and discover a little more about the fitness trend that seems to have recently swept the nation.

Crossfit, a multidisciplinary exercise and fitness programme that started way back in the 70s, incorporates various elements such weightlifting, gymnastics and cardio. The exercise has recently experienced an explosion into cult-like status across the globe. Its reach in our country has extended far past just the fitness world to permeate the lives of people who, prior to joining the programme, couldn’t so much as complete a lap around a track without doubling over. “People who used to struggle to complete a 400-meter run, after a year at Crossfit, are running 21 KM half marathons,” Mourad Gaber, one of Engine38’s founders and head coach, tells us with a proud laugh.

In 2010, sportswear giant Reebok took notice of the growing global trend and got on board, sponsoring Crossfit programmes and providing them with specialised athletic-wear, including the neon training tops and breathable shorts and zig-zag soled trainers that the Engine38 crew don. The sport is essentially a grassroots-style one where gym owners and athletes, after receiving official certification, can innovate and improvise. Engine38 is one such gym; just one of the myriad worldwide but among the most prominent in Egypt.

“The whole idea basically started as a passion-driven project,” Mourad Gaber says simply. After trying it out with a friend, he “decided to take it to another level.” He gathered the four other founders - Kareem Yasser, Dalia Badrawi, Ahmed Abaza, and Mahmoud El Guindi - and got them on board. “And we took it from there. After a year we are a hundred plus athletes, we’re certified coaches, we’re certified kids' coaches, and as we speak right now, we were the fourth highest ranking box in Africa in terms of athletes participating in last year’s Crossfit Open.”

The guys behind Engine38 talk about the sport with a near deity-like worship. More than one trend has swept through our nation, most of them revolving around food. But the most recent breakout star of a trend, Crossfit, has broken the mould, making people obsess over exercise. And with a demographic that ranges from children aged four to grandmothers – “It’s really impressive when you see athletes above the age of 50 doing their pull ups, running their 10Ks and setting an example for everyone,” Gaber tells us – it seems it won't be going away soon.

Perhaps it is because we personally steer clear from exercise with a vengeance, but at this point in the conversation, after watching the crew jump, push, pull and lift their way through a session, we still can’t quite fathom what is all the fuss is about. How have they managed to convert so many believers, command such a devoted following, without luring them with sugar? “Crossfit is an addiction,” Mourad says. “It’s a life changing experience and not in the cliché kind of way, but it really changes how you look and how you feel – you literally turn into another person; you become stronger, faster, healthier.”

Dalia Badrawi tells us it extends past mere exercise and physical fitness: “The quality of your life, with everything that you do, regardless of exercise, is just better. My mood and energy levels have vastly improved, and that impacts the people around you, like a positive chain reaction.”  

Essentially, the sport works every part of your body, honing a variety of skills and muscles. “Basically Crossfit is the bigger umbrella of fitness and that’s what differentiates it from any type of fitness programme or exercising programme,” Kareem Yasser explains. “The definition of Crossfit is constantly varied, high intensity functional movements. Every time the workout is different than the last.” As opposed to the kind of movements you do in the gym, these "functional movements” are ones that you use in your everyday life. “We have a saying that we don’t use machines, we build them,” Kareem adds.

The trainers study and impart knowledge with each of them taking a sphere of expertise and studying the hell out of it, attending workshops and reading like librarians. Basically, they know their stuff. Crossfit’s training focuses on three primary spheres; weightlifting, gymnastics, and monostructual movements (AKA cardio). “It’s more of a complete type of fitness; a Crossfitter is ready to do whatever his body commands." Instead of turning out buff looking guys who are too stiff to run, or girls with toned physiques who can’t lift a five-pound weight, it transforms you into a more well-rounded athlete, capable of nailing different athletic categories. “It’s an inclusive sport,” Mourad explains, “it prepares you for the unknown and the unknowable.”

And unlike many sports, the guys and girls train together. “I guess we never actually thought of it like that – we just think of it as a sport as opposed to ‘men can do this and women can’t’,” Dalia explains. “I actually find it more fun [when women work out with men] because you challenge yourself more – you always want to prove to yourself that you can do what they’re doing!” And having witnessed their workout firsthand, we can tell you the girls at Engine38 kick an equal amount of ass to that of their male counterparts (slim girls deadlifting weights that seem heavier than their body mass is not an image we’re accustomed to).

Crossfit also allows you see results quickly, largely due to the constant variance in their workouts. “When it comes to general fitness, routine is the enemy,” Kareem explains, elaborating upon the need to not let your body and brain reach a stalemate, which essentially saturates your neurological responses. “You have to constantly shake the system with new challenges, whether it’s the distance or speed or whatever, so your brain never adapts – that’s where the constant benefit kicks in.”

And though Crossfit seems to be a challenge of Herculean proportions, the founders insist is it a sport accessible even to the unfit, unhealthy, I-haven’t-put-on-trainers-for-nine-years variety of humans. “Literally, anyone can start it,” Dalia says confidently. The trainers start you out slowly, with a foundation programme where you learn how to perform the basic skills safely and efficiently.

“You don’t get like, a crazy-intense workout when you’re a newcomer,” Kareem tells us with a laugh. “It’s gradual – we introduce it bit by bit. And the workout is scalable so even when you’re plugged into the class, you can still scale down everything – that’s how different levels train together.”

Their enthusiasm about Crossfit and its myriad life benefits is contagious, and their outlook seems to reflect one shared by many as of late. In recent years, there appears to have been somewhat of a paradigm shift when it comes to physique, with the focus shifting from I want to be thin to I want to be fit, and Crossfit fits squarely into this mentality. “Being fit…it’s not only a superficial thing,” Mourad offers, in explanation of the phenomenon, “When you’re fit you look good and you can express that into real life – you can play with your kids, play a soccer match... It affects and reflects day-to-day.”

And evidently Crossfit is something of a miracle worker, changing your instinctual outlook. “You’re not necessarily that person and you don’t know if you’re that person until you’re exposed to that type of sport,” Kareem tells us. Instead of simply wanting to land the body of an Abercrombie & Fitch model, you want to achieve your next personal best. “All of a sudden, you still want to look better but your language will turn into, I want to get my first pull up, I want to load that bar heavier, I want finish my 400 metres faster,” Mourad explains, “You always want to push – Crossfit builds character.”

We might be slightly lacking in that singular drive department. After all, one can come up with endless excuses not to work up a sweat, most of them legitimate, what with work, friends, house care, children, and just general life getting in the way. “We have a very flexible schedule,” Mourad counters. “And when someone wants something, they can always fit in one hour - if you can fit in an hour of Candy Crush a day, you can definitely fit in an hour of Crossfit!” he laughs.

“Once you get hooked, you make it one of your daily priorities,” Badrawi explains. This coming from a woman who has two children, is eight months pregnant with her third, and still finds time to do her Crossfit sessions. We are in awe. She laughs. “I don’t push myself while pregnant,” she explains, but she has definitely felt the difference between pregnancies with or without Crossfit continuation; “I have way more energy, I feel better all around, and I know it’s going to help with the delivery and with the recovery."

Watching them, we are overcpme with guilt and shame over our sluggish and gluttonous lifestyle. “Your character in sports is your character in life," Mourad says. It may just be time for us to sign up...

Find out more about Crossfit Engine38 on their official Facebook page here.

Get your hands on Reebok Crossfit gear from Go Sport Egypt.


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