The King of CrossFit NYC

In discovering CrossFit, everyone has their own story. Some find WODs on the Internet and start doing them in their backyards. Others, like Josh Newman, the co-founder of CrossFit NYC “The Black Box,” discover CrossFit as a way to cross-trian for MMA. Little did he know that 10 years later he’d be discussing his own successful Box.

In 2004 Newman found himself living in New York City and about to experience his first WOD. He figured since he was on his way to the gym, why not give this particular WOD a try. It consisted of 400 meters of walking lunges. “It didn’t look like it was going to be enough to actually be a workout,” he said. “I was kind of interested, but dubious.”

He figured he was going to the gym any way, so he’d stop at the park to perform the 400 meters of walking lunges as a warm up. “About 100 meters in, [I realized]: maybe this isn’t going to end as well as I thought,” laughed Newman. “By the end of the 400, I definitely didn’t make it to the gym. The next day I missed my subway stop, as I was unable to stand up from the seat of the subway. I had to wait for the lady next to me to get up so that I could kind of glide along the seat and pull myself up by the rail at the end of the seat.”

At that point, Newman found himself hooked on CrossFit. “I thought I was in really good shape going into that experience, and got my ass handed to me,” he said. “From then on I was like, ‘I guess I should be doing this instead.’”

When asked how many lunges Newman did to basically burn out his legs, he responded with: “Well, I’m 5’6”, so I can get a whole lot of lunges in 400 meters,” he laughed. “We joke in the Box all the time — some days you’re the dog and other days you’re the hydrant. There are definitely some workouts, like if something comes up with 30-inch box jumps, at 5’6” I can basically see barely over the top of it. That’s real high to me, and we have some members that that’s still ankle high to them.”

After Newman was able to get off the subway, he found himself spending the rest of the summer practicing CrossFit in the park with some friends. However, as much fun as CrossFit outdoors can be, New York City isn’t a location conducive to outdoor workouts all year — unless you enjoy exercising in a parka.

“I started doing it on my own at a globo gym in Hell’s Kitchen in New York where I was living,” explained Newman. “Then after a couple of months had passed, Keith Wittenstein, who is now on the HQ level-one circuit full time, posted a comment to saying, ‘Hey, anybody in New York doing this CrossFit thing? If so, we should get together and do a workout.’ There were maybe three or four of us that said ‘Yes, I am doing this CrossFit thing.’ And so, it was really like the three or four people in all of New York that had heard of CrossFit.

“We got together in Central Park and did a workout, and we, in a misery- loves-company sort of way, had a lot of fun. We started meeting up once a month, just working out Sunday mornings in the park. At one point, Nicole Carroll, who runs all of certifications and training for HQ now — her family is from Long Island and she was back visiting them — she was like our guest coach for one of our early workouts. That was the first time we ever realized that we had no idea what we were doing, and our form was terrible on a whole lot of stuff.”

Newman and the rest of the group began to grow in ability and in number with the workouts in the park. But, as mentioned, working out in a parka wasn’t their ideal scenario.

“We found a gym where we could pay them $5 a head to rent their space once a week, twice a week, and come in and do our indoor workouts,” explained Newman. “We were there for a couple of months and we were just too loud and crazy to fit into that environment. So, we got kicked out.”

The group found another gym where they could also pay $5 a head and do the same workouts. However, this time it started to truly affect the gym’s business. “We would unintentionally steal training clients, as people would come in to work with us unable to do a pull up, and six months later [be] banging out a set of 10 to 15,” said Newman. “At the same time, the guy next to us with the personal trainer would go down one notch on the lat-pull down machine, and be like, ‘Can I join you guys instead?’ We would say, ‘Sure,’ and they would come work with us and the trainers would go complain to the managers, and we got kicked out of another gym.”

It was practically impossible for Newman and his friends to find a suitable place to exercise in the CrossFit method. “All in, I think we actually got kicked out of six gyms over the course of about two years,” said Newman. “At this point … it wasn’t a business, it was a club, and we were doing these workouts on our own throughout the week. Once or twice a week we’d get together and do the workouts together, because it was more fun and we could go head-to-head.

“After getting kicked out of that many gyms, I just got sick of trying to find another globo gym that I could convince to let us pay $5 a head to let us use. So, we eventually said we were going to find a teeny little space of our own, about 1,000 square feet on top of a bean factory in the Garment District.”

The rent was pretty cheap, but still no one was getting paid. However, they realized quickly that if they started seeing club dues, that with 30 people, they could actually break even on rent. “I remember at that point not even being certain that there were 30 people in all of New York City who would ever want to do CrossFit,” said Newman. “We were still like, this is kind of this crazy thing we are doing on the edge, but over the course of that first year we got a little space and [more and] more people started showing up. We went from 20 to about 100 members over the course of that first year.”

The first year was 2007, and they were beginning to see some opportunity in the growth of CrossFit. It was shifting from being just a workout with some friends, to an actual business model. “That was the point where I said, ‘Holy crap, this could be a thing,’ and we needed to start paying our Coaches and start running this like a real business,” explained Newman.

CrossFit NYC stayed in its first location for about a year and half before Newman and his partners felt their first growing pains. “We badly outgrew that space and had to go into a new space to make room for all the new members,” explained Newman. “We moved in 2008 and again in 2009 because we kept outgrowing spaces.”

The location that CrossFit NYC took on in 2009 was about 5,000 to 5,500 square feet, which sustained the Box and its members for almost two years. However, in 2011 the Box and its members again outgrew the location and it was decided to open another 10,000-square-foot gym on 28th street.

However, being a Box in New York City has its need for continual evolution. Therefore, when CrossFit NYC decided to open the 28th Street location, it continued to see so much growth that it also kept the 26th Street location and simply added another floor. This gave the Box two locations about a block apart. The 26th Street location, by adding a floor, gave it about 10,000 square feet, plus the additional 10,000 square feet at 28th Street.

Time doesn’t stand still however, and neither does the growing member number for CrossFit NYC, which now boasts the highest numbers in the world with more than 2,000 members. Since opening two separate locations, they have decided to move entirely from the 26th Street location and add three more floors to the 28th Street location, which will bring the Box to about 40,000 square feet of space.  However, growth continued to persist and in early 2014, CrossFit NYC officially opened a second Box on the Upper West side, making two CrossFit NYC locations in New York City.

CrossFit NYC was the first CrossFit Box to open on the East Coast, and one of the first actual Boxes to open in the U.S. Times certainly have changed, according to Newman. “From the very beginning there was very much a community kind of feeling,” he explained. “When we started, it was early enough on that there was a weekly conference call where Greg Glassman, and all of the owners of the eight or 12 Boxes that existed in the world, would all get on the phone together once a week to talk through things. For example, we were the first people to purchase bumper plates on the East Coast. We had to figure out how we could get the freight shipping figured out for this truck full of bumper plates, and how you got them from Texas, which was the only place you could buy bumpers at the time. The guys on the call were really helpful and would be like, ‘These are the guys you buy them from,’ or we would toss around ideas.”

Now that CrossFit Affiliates have grown in size, those weekly conversations are no more. However, the industry has a lot more to lean on in terms of purchasing and growing power. The days of building rigs from scratch and learning how to design your own parallettes are long gone. “[Rogue] was the best thing that ever happened to us,” said Newman. “We would buy equipment from a whole lot of different vendors, and a lot of the brands sounded to us like they should be American well-made … and we destroyed so much equipment in the early years. The foam would be ripping off of benches, the J-hooks on the squat racks would be bending, [on] the early bumper plates the collar would be popping out of the rubber, and I think just visiting a globo gym the equipment is sitting around and used somewhat, but isn’t used a lot, all the time, all day. For better or worse, our members come all the time, all week long. They all are using the equipment, so we were destroying stuff.”

Newman reached his breaking point on a glute-ham machine that continually broke. “We just gave up on the glute-ham machine because we basically wrecked every glute-ham machine that you could buy, and then we ended up getting one from Rogue and we still have one of those original Rogue ones,” said Newman. “Now it’s a running joke that if Rogue started making toilet paper we’d just switch to using that — we don’t even know why, but it would be better.”

Much has changed in the seven years that CrossFit NYC has been open. Not only does the Box not have to worry about where they will exercise next, or how they will build their equipment, but they also have one of the fastest-growing memberships in the world — something that has been developed from the culture inside the walls.

The culture begins with Coaches, and CrossFit NYC has an extremely low turnover margin in its Coaches. “We pay our Coaches hourly to go teach actual classes for us, and if they do private training on top of that, they keep 100 percent,” said Newman. “We were able to do that because we weren’t trying to maximize our own revenue early on, but that led very quickly to our Coaches being able to make much more money with us than they would with any other gym, where they’d be kicking back a substantial amount of their private revenue to the gym.”

Newman buys into the concept that if you pay people better you get better people. “I feel really great about the coaching staff that we’ve been able to put together,” he said.

By now CrossFit NYC has about two dozen full-time Coaches, who Newman believes are some of the top in the industry. “We are getting what we pay for because we were willing to come in and say we wanted a model that lets our Coaches make good money here, rather than ‘What’s the fastest way for me to make some money,’” explained Newman.

By having well-educated top-of-the-line instructors, Newman has been able to avoid selling apparel or supplements, and strictly focus on developing a great CrossFit Box. His belief is that the Coaches are the brand. With comprehensive knowledge on nutrition, supplements and gear, they are able to coach members through the entire gauntlet of becoming a healthy CrossFit NYC member.

“We are very much a group of New Yorkers and a cross section of New Yorkers,” said Newman. “By trying to keep the price low, we have a really interesting cross section of what New York is. We have Broadway actors, we have school teachers, we have cops and firefighters, we have investment bankers and over-paid attorneys, all in the WOD together, working out together. The thing I am most happy about our community is that New York is a big city, but it kind of exists as a bunch of separate cities that are kind of overlaid on top of each other.

“Because we are such an even cross section … it brings together different parts of New York in a way that doesn’t happen, in as far as I’ve seen, pretty much anywhere else in the city.”

Tyler is a former editor of Box Pro Magazine.