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Catching on to CrossFit

James Wozniak can do 55 pull-ups in a row, clean and jerk almost 300 pounds and dead lift almost 500 pounds.

Not bad for a 5-foot-6, 160-pound guy from Cheektowaga.

At least once a week, he works out with Kristin Sutton, a post-doctoral researcher at the Hauptman-Woodward Medical Research Institute who started a fitness program five years ago to lose weight for her wedding, and morphed into CrossFit two years ago to recover from a knee injury.

“I started exercising to lose weight and tone up,” said Sutton, 30, of Amherst. “Now, it’s to be the best version of myself.”

Wozniak and Sutton are among hundreds of Western New Yorkers who have latched onto the CrossFit movement, an international approach to fitness taught exclusively in a half-dozen gyms in the region, and part of a larger training regimen in several others.

“CrossFit is a strength and conditioning program that combines Olympic weightlifting, power lifting, running, rowing, jumping rope – essentially anything fitness-related,” said Wozniak, a painter who works as a part-time coach at CrossFit 716 in North Tonawanda and is considered one of the top 100 CrossFit athletes in the world.

The exercise method has its critics, who claim CrossFit boosts risk for injury because of its intensity. But some of its local backers – and a prominent sports medicine specialist – say it has its place for those looking to boost strength and flexibility, and shed pounds, if it’s done properly.

“The two biggest things to understand are, No. 1, let your ego go, and two, everything can be scaled,” said Dr. Dennis Lesniak, who with his wife, Jennifer, opened CrossFit 716 two years ago to complement their chiropractic and nutrition business.

FOLLOWERS touts its top athletes as “the fittest on Earth,” recommends workouts for each day on its website and hosts a rigorous international competition. (The finals took place last weekend; learn more at

At CrossFit 716, those who participate in classes range in age from 5 into their 70s. Two types of people tend to come into the Lesniak gym: one is very athletic, fairly competitive and expects to excel; the other is relatively new to exercise, and tentative.

Both types do a similar exercise program – one built on a series of fitness moves designed to be done properly and at full speed; for example, doing as many rounds as possible in 10 minutes of 10 pushups, 10 pull-ups and a dead lift.

“They’re doing the same workout, with modifications,” Dennis Lesniak said. “We can go heavier, include greater or lesser range of motion, can do things faster or more repetitions. We talk about mechanics first, consistency of those mechanics and adding intensity later. It’s going to be hard but it’s going to be manageable. Our only expectation is effort.”


“On the whole, CrossFit can be a very effective training program. The key is being able to do it safely,” said Dr. Jason Matuszak, a sports medicine specialist with Excelsior Orthopaedics in Amherst.

Proper form is vital, Matuszak said, as is a proper mindset from the start. “Always start slow and build slowly,” he said. “Don’t start with the most intensive programs right away.”

Lesniak stresses sound mechanics, incremental conditioning and adding intensity to workouts as the three main ingredients to effective training, but said healthful sleep, proper eating and adequate recovery time between workouts also are key.

“If you sleep less than six hours a day for three straight days,” he said, “you have the decision-making abilities of a person who is inebriated.”


In the CrossFit 716 group fitness room, paneled walls, lifting racks and a black, rubberized floor give way to six sets of Olympic rings and two ropes that spill from the ceiling. Medicine balls, kettlebells, resistance bands, Atlas stones and Airdyne bikes line a smaller room beside it. Free weights – most of them heavy – can be found throughout.

During training, two kinds of music spill from Pandora or Spotify through the speakers here, Dennis Lesniak said: “loud and fast.”

CrossFit workouts are timed events that test the limits of strength and determination, and change often, deliberately, to promote muscle confusion – the best way to build strength and tone a variety of body parts.

Speed comes into the equation, especially at the end of 3- or 6-minute fitness routines, because CrossFit Games reward those who can do a routine the fastest, with the greatest number of repetitions.

“The squat is the foundational movement, so everything builds off the squat,” said Wozniak, who finished eighth in the Northeastern regional games in May. Those new to CrossFit might start with a series of “air squats,” using no weight. Weight can be added as proficiency improves. Clean and jerk, bench presses, rowing, rope climbing and dead lifts also are staples of the format, which stresses functional movement. “You’ll always be lifting something off the floor,” said Wozniak, “whether it be a bag of dog food or your child, so it’s important to know how to move and pick something up well from the floor.”


CrossFit routines can build muscle quickly and effectively, but also come with risks, Matuszak said.

“If you’re a young and healthy individual who has not had any trouble participating in athletic activities or doesn’t have any underlying medical conditions, you can start an exercise program without consulting with your doc,” he said, “but if you have a medical problem – a previous injury, perhaps an under-rehabilitated injury, or have any questions about it – then it makes sense to get in and see somebody.”

“Excessive training programs” like CrossFit engender debate in the sports medicine community, Matuszak said, because of injuries that can result. “Exercising to the point of muscle failure, or inability to push yourself any further – to the point of exhaustion – has some risks associated with it,” he said.

Stress fractures, muscle or tendon tears, and “general strains and aches and pains” can result from poor exercise form and muscle overuse, Matuszak said. In extreme cases, he said, kidney failure can result because proteins broken down during workouts can clog these filtering organs. Compartment syndrome – in which your muscles expand too quickly in their casings – can choke off nerves and the blood supply, and lead to serious health issues.

“You can work out when you’re fatigued and you can be sore,” Matuszak said, “but when you’re working out with one of these types of programs and feel a squeezing type of pain in your muscle compartments, that’s a sign that you need to stop.”


Because CrossFit remains relatively new, “it’s up to gym owners to program the workouts with the knowledge base that they have,” Wozniak said. That means training can vary.

Look at the backgrounds and certifications of the coaches, Lesniak said. Ask yourself: What exercises do I like? Do this trainer’s goals match mine? Is the gym conveniently located? He said all CrossFit gyms in the region will give you a free trial, which should give you a sense of the trainers, workouts and costs, as well as those you’ll work out with going forward.

“This is completely different than going through an exercise circuit or going through a group class or going to a regular gym,” Lesniak said. “It’s almost like group coaching,” which means that who you work out with is another key.


On the Web: See CrossFit in action at

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