The other day, Time and Gawker posted stories about a gym in Queens, New York, that has begun offering CrossFit classes for preschoolers. Why am I not surprised, I thought cynically as I clicked on the link. Kids grow up too fast: First homework in kindergarten, and now gym workouts for toddlers. I do CrossFit twice a week to cross train for ultra running, and I still think this is weird.
Born in public parks and dingy garages a decade ago, CrossFit has become a runaway fitness craze, using old-school, high-intensity exercises like sit-ups, pushups, pull-ups, and squats—as well as muscleman standards like jerks and cleans—to improve strength, speed, endurance, and agility. Go to any of the more than 7,000 licensed CrossFit gyms in the country and chances are you’ll see people throwing around some serious weights.
So when Gantry CrossFit, in Long Island City, announced it would start teaching squats and overhead presses to three-year-olds for upwards of $140 a month, the screaming headline was, "What business do toddlers and their rubbery little bodies have hanging around the weight room"
But then I started digging and discovered that Gantry CrossFit, in Long Island City, isn’t even close to being the first gym to try to sell functional fitness to the preschool crowd. Since 2004, CrossFit Kids, an affiliate of CrossFit, has been designing workouts for kids ages three to 18. Founder Jeff Martin began teaching preschoolers a decade ago, and now teaches 120 children at his gym in San Diego.
“I have kids who have been CrossFitting for ten years, since they were five,” he says, “and they’re amazing athletes.” There are 1,200 CrossFit Kids programs around the world, and 1,500 gym teachers using CrossFit in their PE classes. He estimates that 350 gyms in the U.S. offer toddler-specific CrossFit classes.
Typically, sessions for three-to-five year olds are short—15-20 minutes long, max—and start with an instructor using a whiteboard to describe the day's activities, followed by "skill work," such as how to properly use your body to pick something off the floor. Toddler WODs (workout of the day) feature three to five minutes of running through hula hoops, doing squats, practicing lifting like a gorilla, and overhead presses. Unlike adult and older kids' classes, toddler athletes aren't expected to tally their reps. Says Martin, "Some of them can't even count yet!"
"Generally people try to sensationalize it," says Martin. "They look at the CrossFit Games and think that's what we're doing. We never use weights with little kids, and it'd be so inappropriate if we did. At no point should you ever tell a child to move faster or lift heavier. Kids come with their own intensity. Everything we do is about training kids to move well, so they get a pairing of fitness and fun and create lifelong good habits."
No question, it's essential to get kids moving. According to the CDC, children need 60 minutes of moderate exercise every day, yet only a third actually get this. But do three-year-olds really need to learn to squat and do burpees? And why shell out $140 a month to send your preschooler to the gym when he could do the same activities outside, in the fresh air, for free? And while you're at it, teach your little one that, with a little creativity, the natural world makes the best gym?
"CrossFit Kids lends itself very well to outside play," insists Martin. "I've seen our kids go turn hikes into workouts—doing box jumps off boulders and burpees in the dirt. It really transcends the gym." For parents who don't want or have the resources to enroll their kids in a CrossFit class, he says, CrossFit Kids posts free WODs and exercises online for parents and kids to try on their own, at home or in the park.
It's not as though children aren't being shoehorned into other sports at a very young age. In some communities, if you're not willing to commit to competitive ice hockey, swimming, gymnastics, or soccer by the time you're five, you've already fallen behind. In fact, Martin goes so far as to argue that CrossFit is a crucial antidote to the culture of competitive sports. By teaching kids how to move properly, he explains, it helps build healthier all-around athletes who are less prone to injury.
"Overwhelmingly what we see are kids as young as four pushed into a single sport," says Martin. "Young children are not functionally capable of training at this level year round. They get hurt. We're not trying to create gym athletes. We want to create kids who know how to move well and have fun doing it. I have four or five girls, ages five to seven, who are on the all-star soccer team. They see soccer as work and CrossFit as fun."
Functional fitness is essential for people of all ages, whether or not you're an athlete, and many children lack, or skip over entirely, basic developmental skills, like catching, running, jumping, catching. The Canadian nonprofit Active for Life, which promotes physical literacy as a way of helping kids move with confidence and competence in a range of sports and activities, lists more than 50 activities you can do to help toddlers as young as one start mastering these fundamental physical skills. The games are designed to be fun; don't require special equipment, an instructor, or class fees; and can be played at home, in the park, on the trails, and even the backcountry.
Last week I put on my sneakers to go for a trail run. My five-year-old daughter, Pippa, saw me and begged to come. It was the first time she seemed genuinely interested in joining me, so I happily bagged my training, and we hiked up the peak instead. On the way up, we must have stopped half a dozen times so she could scramble up boulders, climb trees, jump off logs, and run. She didn't need a gym or a CrossFit class to teach her this. She's a kid. It just came naturally.
Kids need opportunities to get outside and move, and they need role models for being active and making healthy choices. They're copycats by nature. But do they need CrossFit? As much as CrossFit has helped me become a stronger, faster runner, it's tough to wrap my brain around bringing my three-year-old daughter, Maisy, to the gym for a kiddy WOD. She and Pippa are both athletic, game, and adventurous, and it's never been my nature to hold them back: Maisy learned to ride a pedal bike a couple weeks ago, and she was swimming when she was two. I'd much rather see them learn to love outdoor sports that they can play their whole lives.
Maybe there will come a day when my girls will want to get stronger for skiing, running, or mountain biking. If CrossFit can help them become healthier, more complete athletes, then I'm won't stand in their way. But that's still a long way off, I hope. Until then, they'll be doing their functional fitness in the park and on the trails.
Childhood is fleeting. I say, let them play outside.