CrossFit gives military recruits high-stakes workout

Joey Sanchez wastes no time reminding the seven young men standing in his Kennewick gym early on a recent morning what they're about to experience.

"If you've talked to some of the other recruits, we do some work here," said Sanchez, co-owner of RSA CrossFit.

About an hour later, the seven men -- all recruits who have qualified for the Air Force's special forces training program -- are exhausted, some panting and gasping, after about 20 minutes of nonstop running, pull-ups and other exercises.

"It feels awesome," said Justin Odman, 19, of Yakima, as he worked to catch his breath. "A kick in the a-- for sure."

It's difficult enough to qualify for the Air Force's special forces program, but graduating from it is another feat, requiring extraordinary mental and physical discipline, recruiters said.

That's why Mid-Columbia recruiters have started bringing their recruits to Sanchez, saying crossfit training is known for providing versatile fitness, and preparing recruits for at least half of the rigor of military training.

"When you struggle with the mental aspect and the fitness, you can't handle it," said Master Sgt. Matthew Hendry, the Air Force's head regional recruiter.

Highly trained, skilled

Members of Air Force special forces serve a number of purposes. Pararescuers recover injured troops and other personnel. Combat controllers are deployed as air traffic controllers in hostile or enemy territory. Weather and special tactics units conduct missions on the ground.

Those duties require highly trained personnel, mentally and physically, which is why Sanchez had three recruits approach him before they left for their formal training.

Sanchez, 30, has competed at state and regional crossfit competitions, in addition to being a trainer and a security officer at Energy Northwest. He hasn't served in the military but his brother, Chris Sanchez, is stationed in Germany with the Army and was his inspiration to work with recruits in pre-paring for their military training.

The former Richland High School athlete also knows about overcoming adversity. He battled a rare form of cancer in his joints when he was 15. He said his health declined after high school as he became less active. He discovered crossfit in 2009. His first workout was a humbling experience.

"I had 40-year-old moms lapping me," he said.

Sanchez trained one recruit at a gym where he previously worked. After opening RSA CrossFit with co-owner Tyson Para last fall, he trained two more specifically to prepare them the Air Force special forces.

Crossfit training is described as a core strength-conditioning program, but Sanchez also described it as "muscle confusion," forcing your body to develop well-rounded fitness.

A typical workout involves a variety of intense aerobic and anaerobic exercises, including running, push-ups, pull-ups and weight-lifting. Everything is timed and being able to beat your past times or that of others is a key motivator for participants.

Some weight-lifting gear is used, but it's minimal, as evidenced by how bare RSA's gym in a storefront off Gage Boulevard is compared to a standard gym facility. A participant's own body weight is the primary tool of resistance for a workout and exercises focus on natural movement.

"We're not doing curls," Sanchez said. "What's a curl going to do for you?"

Getting recruits ready

Of Sanchez's past three special forces clients, one currently is serving, while another was medically discharged and another dropped out after five weeks.

Still, it's not a bad success rate considering the one active service member was one of three recruits to graduate out of a class of 126.

And that's what led recruiters to start bringing their recruits to Sanchez. The gym is two months into a contract with the Mid-Columbia regional recruiters' office, which is about a block from the gym.

Hendry said he's seen dramatic fitness improvements from participating recruits and noted that Sanchez's past clients easily passed the special forces qualification test after training, even if they weren't particularly fit beforehand.

Crossfit training bestows another benefit to recruits too: leanness. Because there isn't a disproportionate focus on aerobic workouts such as running, or strength workouts like weight-lifting, participants are strong but compact.

"The big, big guys struggle because they're carrying a lot of weight," Hendry said.

The fitness requirements to get into the special forces program are tough. Recruits must complete a 500-meter surface swim, 1.5-mile run, 10 deadhang pull-ups, 65 sit-ups and 65 push-ups in the space of 51 minutes, breaks included.

Hendry said 75 percent of those who try to qualify for the program fail.

"Most of those standards double to graduate (the program)," Hendry said.

'It hurt really bad'

Jess White still remembers how he felt after his first workout at RSA Crossfit.

The Kennewick High School senior already was already in good shape. He participates in football and track at his school. But this didn't necessarily prepare him.

"It hurt really bad. I couldn't walk for a day," he said.

Sanchez and others said people should be exhausted following a crossfit workout. A typical workout usually is about 30 to 45 minutes, including warm-up time, but the fast pace and the push to perform at their threshold throughout makes even those who are incredibly fit struggle afterward to catch their breath.

The stakes are higher for the special forces workouts. They take up to an hour and a half and Sanchez makes them more challenging.

"My job here is to simulate some of the conditions they'll see (in military training)," he said.

On this recent Saturday, Sanchez and Para introduce the recruits to the "nasty mile," a grueling workout designed by Para that includes a series of four 400-meter runs, along with sets of pull-ups, weights and other exercises. Because crossfit focuses on completion of exercises, thick rubber bands were knotted around each pull-up bar so recruits could complete their workout.

Hendry told recruits that there was only so much they could prepare themselves before heading off to training, which is designed to physically and mentally tear them down in preparation for their duties. There isn't much the recruits can do to prepare themselves mentally, but that will be the only worry they will have if they already are in top physical shape, Hendry said.

Workout intensity

Once the last recruit has knocked out his last pull-up, Sanchez announces his time and it's written on a white board. Many of them were already looking taxed as they began the second leg of the four-part workout. Now most of them are just trying to breathe and cool their bodies down.

The recruits see the value in the crossfit workout. Colton Burleson, 18, of Prosser, said the structure and pace of the workout makes him push himself harder physically. It's a perspective shared by Odman and Nick St. John, a 17-year-old soon-to-be senior at Ellensburg High School.

"I've done crossfit before but this is a step up," Odman said.

Sanchez said the intensity of workouts is why it makes people who stick with it so fit. However, that intensity also drives a lot of people away.

"Sometimes people don't come back because they don't like feeling that way," he said.

But these recruits aren't here to just get in shape. They know their military training will be strenuous and they want to be as prepared as they can be, even if that means doing something that can be downright unpleasant.

"If I wasn't going to boot camp and didn't need to be here, I wouldn't be here," Colton said.