Close-knit, comforting and conversational are words not usually synonymous with exercise, but Jon Conant stresses inspiration and teamwork over competition at his Gloucester gym, CrossFit Cape Ann, where he is the head coach and co-owner.
“My coaching style is very relaxed in comparison to the perception of most CrossFit coaches as being militaristic," Conant said. "That’s not my personality because I am self-motivated, but I am always around to encourage and help people pace themselves."
What started out as a 1,000 square-foot room in Gloucester's inner harbor eventually evolved into a versatile 3,600 square-foot space on Sargent Street, equipped with ceiling-suspended rings, rowing machines, assault bikes and pull-up racks.
Artwork around the gym and stickers at the front desk were designed and drawn by his wife and CFCA co-owner Karen Conant, who does graphic design for a living.
Conant says he grew up an endurance athlete, running and skiing cross country while playing typical youth sports such as soccer, baseball and basketball along the way.
As he attended Colorado College, he became more interested in climbing and trail-running and started taking notice of partner-centric, rotational workouts. The methodology of those intrigued him and drove him to open his own gym.
“When I found CrossFit, it filled this niche that I was looking for at the time – more of a motivating and competitive environment," Conant said. "I ended up working at one later on, but I knew I wanted to start this one the whole time."
CrossFit Cape Ann has been open for eight years, and at a certain point following the birth of his first child, Conant noted a shift in the way he wanted the gym to be run.
“I think I’ve evolved a lot," he said. "When we started, we had a young, ‘go-go-go’ kind of environment that was way more competitive than it is now. As I matured, I realized that wasn’t my ideal workspace. It can be conducive to injuries as people would ignore their limits."
Conant deems the gym more of a lifestyle affiliate, explaining that what the media portrays for CrossFit is not what goes on in most gyms on a day-to-day basis.
Competitions seen on TV feature professional athletes with incredible work capacities. Conant understands that most who attend his workouts are people with families, jobs and maybe only an hour per day to exercise.
To start each workout, Conant has everyone perform their warm-up exercises of choice for about 10 to 15 minutes. He then details the workout for the day, encouraging questions if there is confusion, on a chalkboard spanning almost an entire wall.
“We want to make our gym as inclusive as possible," he said. "If it’s intimidating, people won’t feel comfortable asking for help, and that’s not the goal. We find out what’s appropriate for you today and build on that."
Age does not limit participation by any means as Conant asserts that some of his oldest members are the most uplifting of all.
“I’ve seen people 60 to 70 years old come in regularly, three times a week, and it’s super inspiring. They understand their limits and do what they can do. Seeing someone work towards their first pull-up is awesome,” he said.
His favorite workouts involve strength circuits, which are more casual with focus on technique, and the equipment he uses varies (kettlebells, barbells, dumbbells and sandbags). He prefers these to classic CrossFit workouts where the goal is to complete exercises as fast as possible.
“It’s nice to slow the pace down and focus on quality movements," Conant said. "I enjoy coaching those sessions the most because you can interact much more."
When asked if he could predict another stage of evolution for himself and the gym, Conant stressed one word: sustainability.
“Eventually, you realize that you can’t push your body all the time and need recovery to get stronger. I want to bring in more aspects of nutrition and life coaching because those are huge pieces of exercising properly. That’s where real health lies,” he said.
This holistic approach, as Conant called it, to CrossFit will help people become more intuitive and in-tune with how to treat their bodies, coupling exercise with relaxation for the most beneficial gym experience possible.