SEOUL, April 2 (Yonhap) -- Buying a gym membership and never making it to the gym is quite the common occurrence. In fact, over 67 percent of people with regular gym memberships never use them, according to Club Manager Central, a management software tool used by fitness clubs worldwide. But that trend may be changing with the rising popularity of a new type of gym: "CrossFit."
Rather than the standard rows of treadmills, elliptical machines and weights, CrossFit gyms feature an open, wide space for team-based exercises that are focused on varied, high-intensity and functional movements.
"Most people who get the opportunity to try something new like CrossFit will leave the traditional gym," says 33-year-old Cody Hunter, CEO of Reebok CrossFit Sentinel gyms in Seoul, "even if it's twice the price because the amount of value you get from being around people who want the same things as you do is priceless."
CrossFit is a fitness company that began in 2000 in the United States. Founder Greg Glassman created an exercise program that includes movements such as sprinting, rowing, jumping rope, climbing rope, flipping tires, weightlifting, and many bodyweight exercises. Over 4,000 gyms in the U.S. use CrossFit programming, as do fire departments, law enforcement agencies and military organizations. Gyms who want the CrossFit name must pay an affiliation fee of US$1,000 a year.
"The reason for its quick growth is because we're doing it to change lives," Hunter explains. "We do it to make people better, healthier, and we do it a really different way, so people enjoy our product."
Aside from group classes, some athletes, like the ones pictured, train individually to compete in the CrossFit Games which determine the "fittest on earth." The first-place male and female are awarded US$250,000. (Photos courtesy of Elysabeth Ratto)
CrossFit was first introduced to Korea between 2006 and 2007. It had a slow start compared to its massive growth overseas, but today, the number of CrossFit gyms and memberships has grown exponentially.
According to Hunter, the reason more and more people are trying CrossFit is because jumping on a treadmill for 20 minutes while listening to music is an outdated and ineffective way to exercise. People need accountability and a group of people to encourage them, which is why community is such an important concept in CrossFit gyms.
Reebok CrossFit Sentinel, which was one of the first CrossFit gyms to open in Seoul, features two types of classes: CrossFit and Bootcamp. Unlimited membership costs 260,000 won (US$234) per month or 2.49 million won for 12 months. Each class has two coaches and no more than 15 to 20 people. Typically, the class will go through a warm-up, a skill development segment, the high-intensity "WOD," or workout of the day, and a period of individual or group stretching. If members haven't been showing up to class, coaches will give them a call to check on them.
"The biggest appeal for me was the community," says 26-year-old Jason Bongiovanni, who began CrossFit just over a year ago. "The workouts are intense and you need to have people teach you certain movements, but the biggest thing is the support you get."
For Bongiovanni, even though the WOD is between him and the clock, the competitive nature between individuals helps push him farther than he could ever do on his own.
"And once the best athletes have finished the workout, it's not uncommon to see them turn around and cheer on those who haven't finished yet. It's competitive, but it's also unifying," he adds.
When CrossFit first came to Seoul, it was mostly popular among foreigners only. But over the last couple of years, more and more Korean natives have enrolled, causing a major spike in CrossFit memberships. In fact, Reebok CrossFit Sentinel's newest location, "Downtown" near Myeong-dong, has 300 memberships with the majority of them being Korean businessmen and women.
"At first, I think Koreans were weirded out by the high-fives and team dynamics because the businessmen are professional and not necessarily used to it," says Hunter. "They might be a CEO of a company, who's standing next to their junior, so it can be a little different for them. But once you loosen them up, they love it."
While the traditional gyms are known for advertising impossible six-pack abs and bulging biceps, CrossFit swears that those results are guaranteed as long as participants eat well and consistently do the workouts. Many CrossFit gyms also feature juice bars and nutritional plans that members can follow to establish a healthier lifestyle.
"CrossFit gets you in shape in a time-effective manner," Bongiovanni says. "As you see the results happen physically, it just inspires you to keep going. Movements that were once impossible are now part of your normal workouts, and you find that you're a lot stronger than you think you are."
Cody Hunter owns Reebok CrossFit Sentinel, with four locations in Hannam-dong ("One"), Daechi-dong ("Uptown"), Euljiro 2-ga ("Downtown") and Gwanganri Beach in Busan ("Beachside").
Despite its ever-increasing popularity, Hunter believes that a lot can still be done.
"You think about Seoul, with over 20 million people, and there's maybe 20 official gyms, so in terms of scale, there's so much more room to grow," he says.
In fact, one opportunity for growth is by implementing it into Seoul's educational system. Brett Roberts, 26, from Prince Edward Island, Canada, runs CrossFit Kids, an after-school program to teach students about fitness and nutrition, in Seoul. A typical class, which lasts between 45 minutes to an hour, consists of a warm-up activity, a lesson on nutrition, and a skill-based exercise like handstands or wheelbarrow walks.
"Kids learn early on that sports are good for you, but once they finish high school, they need to understand that exercise is something they need to do for the rest of their life," says Roberts.
Currently, international schools like Seoul Foreign School and Yongsan International School have implemented CrossFit Kids into their programs. As the program continues to grow, Brett hopes to get into the Korean schools by December 2013.
"In Korea, appearance is important, but it's done in the wrong way. It's about looking skinny, but not necessarily being healthy," explains Brett. "So we want to take that and educate them on how it's ok to want to look good, but it's far more important to be healthy, not just skinny."