It’s not every day you walk into a gym to see a bunch of grandfathers, aged 62 to 72, doing snatches. The men squat down to the floor, grab barbells with giant black plates and fling them high overhead. “Old people rule here!” says Roy Heine, 62, a San Juan Capistrano solar-energy firm owner. Welcome to Eternity CrossFit of San Juan Capistrano—where old folks go to get younger.
CrossFit, a high-intensity training phenomenon with more than 13,000 licensed gyms around the world, has no age restrictions. Many CrossFit “boxes,” as they are known, have a few older members. But Eternity is different. At any morning workout, more than half the class might be 60 or older.
Heine is a mountain biker who came to Eternity four years ago with two problems: chronic back pain that made it hurt to tie his shoes and age-related sarcopenia—deteriorating muscle mass and a withering physique. When his back pain disappeared after six months of CrossFit, and he got “fitter than I was in my early 20s, when I was a collegiate wrestler,” Heine spread the word: “Go see Gary.”
Gary Villegas is a 38-year-old trainer from Venezuela who opened his box in 2011. “I didn’t name it Eternity for any reason other than I liked the name, and didn’t choose the 50-plus demographic—it just worked out that way,” he says. “There’s no secret to training old guys. Since they can’t hear, are losing their eyesight, and can’t pay attention, I just treat them like teenagers.
“Joking aside,” Villegas continues, “they get what men and women of all ages get here: good movements, done consistently. And it’s working. They got fitter and healthier—and I got a reputation.”
Villegas sees his clients’ needs the same as those of Olympic athletes. “They need to pick up a bag of garden soil or dog food, just the same as an Olympic weightlifter has to do a deadlift,” he says. “It’s the same mechanics. The goal with the elderly is not to turn them into crazy athletes—but to make them more functional and delay the (weakening) process. Slow it down with fitness.”
Mechanics is everything to Villegas and his staff, who methodically recite detailed instructions for every exercise in every class, from complicated ones like the snatch to basic ones like pullups and pushups. “Butt out. Chest vertical. Eyes forward. Hands overhead, arms locked,” he barked at me one morning, as I learned how to correctly do an unweighted wall squat, a simple exercise I realized I’ve been doing wrong for years. This attention to detail makes workouts more effective, safer, and instills a sense of accomplishment; it hasn’t gone unnoticed. Several times a year, Villegas travels the world to instruct other CrossFit instructors at certifications.
Villegas started with one older client, who’s still with him after 12 years. San Clemente resident Frank Wilson, 72, is a retired owner of a marketing agency and the oldest guy at Eternity. He met Villegas at 24 Hour Fitness. After five years, he followed the trainer to his CrossFit box.
“Gary’s very knowledgeable, works at your level, and emphasizes balancing out your body, which is the secret to fitness,” says Wilson, a longtime runner who previously never strength trained. “I had no upper body before this.
It’s total BS that runners don’t need an upper body or (only) need to work their legs.”
Wilson ran the Carlsbad Marathon in January, his first in 10 years. “I used to be so wasted after a marathon that I couldn’t walk for a week afterward. But now, just a couple days later, I can walk fine and my muscles don’t hurt,” he says. “That’s because two days a week of CrossFit (in addition to five days of running, two days of swimming, plus yoga and tai chi) has built up the muscles around my joints and given me more range of motion. I can squat down to my heels and come up—a real accomplishment for everyone.”
Numerous studies show that lifting weights and cardio activities performed at high intensity can build muscle mass and increase aerobic capacity in exercisers of all ages.
Success stories like Wilson’s attracted relative youngsters like the now-bulked-up Heine, who was looking for motivation to strength train regularly and got swept up in Eternity’s social aspect. “I got a charge out of the competitive spirit and the adventure,” he says. “It felt like a wrestling match.”
Showing up at the gym at 5:30 every morning to read the paper, stretch, and do the workout of the day, the former wrestler persuaded Villegas to stage an annual “Neanderthal Games,” a one-day Olympics that attracts competitive CrossFitters who are 60 or older from around the country.
One of Villegas’ proudest success stories is a San Clemente resident, 66-year-old Tom Gatsios, who couldn’t do a snatch, muscle-up, or handstand pushup when he walked into Eternity three years ago. Within 18 months, he could do all of them many times over as well as deadlifting double his weight and doing an astounding 28 kipping pullups.
“And the best thing about it? Beyond being very functionally fit at this advanced age, I’m still learning!” Gatsios says. “Olympic lifts, double-under jump-roping, snatches, overhead squats. It’s very difficult to master all this technique—and it makes you feel great! CrossFit throws new things at you.
“I’m impressed by these old guys and the sense of family we have here,” he adds. “We do crazy things—rope climbing to the ceiling, pushing sleds—but Gary takes cares of us. A good coach notices when you’re going too hard and lifting too much. He does a real good job with older people—protecting us from ourselves.”
Unknowingly, these clients have given something to Villegas—a marketing tool. “The last six months, I got a flood of younger people and women joining the gym,” he says. “I think the older guys make them feel comfortable.”
Michelle Proctor, a 42-year-old mom in Laguna Niguel, joined Eternity CrossFit a year ago. “When I first saw the old guys, my reaction was surprise. Frank reminds me of my grandfather! Then I was impressed and motivated by all the heavy weight they were lifting and beating some of the younger people. When I’m doing things I’ve never even thought about doing before, they’ll see I need a boost and say, ‘Come on! If I can do it, you can too.’ And I do!”
“I’ve learned a lot about work ethic from them,” agrees Kellie Wunsch of Aliso Viejo, who switched to Eternity from other CrossFit gyms more than a year ago because she liked the vibe there. “If they can do it at their age, why can’t I? I’m 51, but I’m a young chick compared to them.”