If you’ve heard of Crossfit, you most likely associate it with a bunch of fitness-crazed twenty- and thirty-somethings who drag themselves out of bed every morning to do a flurry of burpees, pull ups, and kettlebell swings.
So you may be shocked to discover there’s an equally fanatical group of local Crossfit practitioners who are 50 years older than these young whippersnappers. They’re called the Legends and they range in age from a frisky 71 to an ever-so-mature 87.
Make no mistake. None of these Legends are ready to live out their days in a rocking chair with a hand-knit afghan spread across their knees. No, these elder athletes would rather work their tails off three times a week in the Crossfit Globe-Cobre Valley gym on Pine Street in Globe. Most of them never miss a day.
I recently watched an entire workout and I’d pit any one of these septuagenarians and octogenarians against most run-of-the-mill mid-lifers pushing 50.
On the day I was there, the day’s workout was written on a large whiteboard mounted on the wall: 3 sets each of 28 jumping jacks, 28 squats, and—wait for it—3 sets of 3 handstands.
Picture this: Here were 12 older adults born during the Truman administration (or earlier!) fully inverted with their straight legs braced against the gym walls. Amazing.
One of these elder athletes is Sandy Brewer, who is about to turn 84. Before she started Crossfit three and a half years ago, she had balance and mobility issues and had been victim to a few falls. “I couldn’t bend down, and if I got down, I couldn’t get back up,” she told me.
After three or four months of working out with the Legends, she could already feel the difference. “I began to notice strength, especially in lifting and getting up off the floor. Reaching up into the cupboards. Overall, I was feeling better.”
Now, with over three years of Crossfit training under her belt, she doesn’t fall any more. Not only that, she can deadlift an astonishing 127 pounds. She’s crushing it.
At 87, Dick Lewis is a tall, strapping guy and the oldest member of the class. But he’s also one of the most motivated. Rather than parking in front of the gym, he gets in some extra steps before and after every workout by parking in a lot about a hundred yards away.
Even with COPD and few other physical limitations, Dick shows up for every class and always finishes every workout. “I’m usually last because I’m slower, but I do them all.”
What keeps him coming back for more? “I know that if I don’t do it, I’m going to deteriorate. I gotta stay on top,” he says.
Endurance, stamina, strength, flexibility, balance, mental toughness
Crossfit, by design, is scalable to an individual’s abilities, no matter their age or gender. Greg Glassman, the founder of Crossfit, is famous for saying, “Your grandmother could—and should—be working out with us.”
Yes, but might grandma be too intimidated to join a regular Crossfit class full of people half her age with a much higher fitness level? Probably.
That’s why Coach Greg Walker created the Legends, a class specifically designed for men and women over 70. He was convinced he could help the over-70 crowd recover their youthful mobility and become fitter than they ever thought possible. After all, at 74 himself, Greg was living proof of what an aging body was capable of.
So in 2018, he created a Crossfit class that was safe, non-intimidating, and welcoming, and called it the Legends.
He uses the same workouts as the regular classes, but scales them down to 60-70% of a regular workout to meet the abilities of the individual members of the class. “Crossfit is infinitely scalable,” he says, “so it doesn’t matter who you are or what kind of shape you’re in, you can do a workout. The methodology we use works.”
It took awhile for the new class to catch on. For the first year or so, there was only one student. Now the class is at capacity with seven women and five men, with more hopefuls on a waiting list.
MaryLou Ruesch was the inaugural student and continues Crossfit to this day. Now at 78, she tells me she can haul 50 pound bags of dog food or bird seed. “I couldn’t do any of those things before Crossfit,” she remembers.
Loss of balance is one of the most common afflictions as we get older, and everyone I spoke to said Crossfit has helped them become more stable on their feet.
“Balance is the most important thing for everybody,” Sandy Brewer told me. “I think improving balance is one of the biggest things about Crossfit.”
Dick Lewis says Crossfit has really built his endurance. A long ride on his ATV used to knock him out for an entire day. But now, after a two-hour nap, he’s ready to go again.
Crossfit has a positive effect on self esteem and confidence, too. This is a common thread I heard shared by every class member I spoke to. “I don’t worry about things like I used to. It’s nice to know that I can take care of myself,” MaryLou Ruesch says.
One of the best parts about the workouts is that they’re often intense but they’re also short, usually 10 to 15 minutes. Take a few minutes afterwards to catch your breath, and you feel like you could do it all over again.
Crossfit helps develop a mental toughness that carries through into challenges in everyday life. It fosters an “if-I-can-do-this, I-can-do-anything” kind of attitude.
Sandy Brewer definitely agrees. “I come in and look at the exercise for the day and think,‘No way, I can’t do that.’ I have to get into a mental state and work through it.”
And then she adds, laughing, “I keep telling myself it’s almost over and I can go home.”
A mutually supportive atmosphere
One of the best things about any Crossfit class is the camaraderie. Sure, there’s plenty of competition between class members. Coach Greg sees it every day. “They are competitive. They want to beat each other.“
In the end, though, it’s the friendly, playful kind of competition that helps keep everyone “honest” and striving to get a little bit better every day.
The Legends have evolved into a tight knit group. They genuinely like each other and support each other. When someone falters during a workout or needs a little extra push to get through it, everyone becomes a cheerleader to egg them on.
The day I was there, 87-year-old Dick Lewis was struggling through his last few squats in the workout. About seven members of the class rallied around him and did the last few squats with him to help get him to the finish line.
When Coach Greg saw this, he told me this camaraderie isn’t unique to the Legends. “I never tell them to do that. In every Crossfit gym I’ve ever seen, they do that. They will help that person along.”
Progress is the payoff
Greg Walker is more than just a coach for the Legends. At age 74, he’s one of their peers. Even though his personal fitness level is off the charts by comparison, he’s totally in touch with the group psyche of this over-70 crowd. He understands how they feel.
The big payoff for him is to see everyone in the class reach the potential they never knew their older bodies were capable of achieving. You can hear the passion well up in his throat when he describes the success stories.
“I have people who began this class who couldn’t get off the ground on their own,” he explains. “We showed them the technique and they got up the first day on their own.”
Now, everyone in the class has learned to run again, and everyone can hold a handstand against a wall. There couldn’t be a better example of this than Linda Wheeler. Before Crossfit, she had to crawl to a chair or couch to get herself off the floor. Now eight months later, I watched her complete 84 squats. She’s 82.
Greg says this is his most rewarding class in 15 years of coaching. “I go home and I’ve got goosebumps from seeing what these people are doing,” Greg tells me. “You see the changes everyday.”
Like any good coach, Greg is super adept at gauging the individual abilities of each member of the class and tailoring the workouts accordingly. “I will never ask anyone to do something I don’t think they can do safely,” he explains. “If you listen and try, you’ll succeed.”
Maybe the best testimony of the benefits of Legends Crossfit training comes from Dick Lewis, the oldest member of the class. “Greg never gives you something you can’t do. He works on your entire body, a different part of you at a time. And you recover quick. You feel good when you leave.”
Kim Stone was a horticulturist, writer, and editor of several publications for the University of Arizona at Boyce Thompson Arboretum over the better part of three decades. He is now happily self-absorbed in freelance writing, travel, and content marketing.