In the early days of CrossFit, the garage gym was the only option for many CrossFit athletes.

In 2002, tired of being kicked out of traditional facilities, CrossFit Founder Greg Glassman wrote a detailed guide for setting up a garage gym in the CrossFit Journal, with tips and advice for those who couldn’t find a nearby gym that allowed them to work out the way they wanted.

“You can build, rather inexpensively, a world-class strength and conditioning facility in your garage,” Glassman wrote 16 years ago.

He revisited the topic in 2005, about eight months after CrossFit reached 10 affiliates in fall 2004.

Much has changed since then. More than 14,000 CrossFit affiliates can now be found all over the world, but many people still take the grassroots approach in the garage. When the Open comes around every year, many solo garage athletes enter the fray, and they even have a special Leaderboard category that allows them to measure themselves against other garage heroes in their state, their region and the world.

Building the Gym

Matt Gerrelts, 29, started doing CrossFit in 2011, mostly working out in a globo gym. In 2012, Gerrelts moved back in with his parents in Waterloo, Iowa, as he prepared to enter medical school in Missouri. Short on both money and time, he decided to set up a gym in his parents’ garage.

“My dad helped me invest money in a bar and plates,” Gerrelts said. With his dad, he built a box, a squat rack and a pull-up bar out of pipes.

Before they built the squat rack, Gerrelts used ladders to hold the barbell and sawhorses as his bench-press rack.

“I just got really creative for a long time,” he said. “I’d kind of look around the garage and say, ‘OK, what can I do with this?’ and turn it into something to help me do whatever.”

Gerrelts competed in the Open for the first time in 2015. He dropped in at CrossFit Kilo, the affiliate near his parents’ house, for a few of those workouts, but completed many of them in his garage, including 15.4, an 8-minute AMRAP of ascending reps of handstand push-ups and power cleans. He remembers struggling to get the camera set up to record both his power cleans and his handstand push-ups for his video submission, and then the tape marking his handstand push-ups came off the wall mid-workout. But, like any DIY CrossFit athlete, he got it done.

When he’s away at medical school at A.T. Still University in Kirksville, Missouri, Gerrelts works out on the school’s basketball court.

“We have a club for people with CrossFit experience, and we have a few barbells and a really small rig,” he said.

It’s there that Gerrelts did all five Open workouts in 2017. Everything went well, except for the time he was filming his friend during 17.4, an AMRAP of 55 deadlifts, 55 wall-ball shots, a 55-calorie row and 55 handstand push-ups. The lights went out when his friend was on the rower.

“He did not score as well as he would have,” Gerrelts said dryly.

Over the years, Gerrelts has learned a few things about training for and competing in the Open as an unaffiliated athlete.

“Build as much as you can,” he said. “You can build a lot of the equipment, like a squat rack or a box. It takes time, and you have to have tools, but I borrowed tools and made things.”

When he’s training by himself, Gerrelts loves every-minute-on-the-minute (EMOM) workouts.

“It’s an awesome way of training if you train by yourself a lot, which I do. It helps you stay accountable for the clock a little more than (a workout) for time. In the EMOM you have to fit (the work) in the minute,” he said.

When the Open comes around, Gerrelts said the biggest challenge is figuring out how to set up his phone or tablet to record every movement and include the timer or clock. He said the best camera he’s used was his friend’s iPad Pro.

“He had some program on there that just automatically compressed the files, made a really quick upload, and it had a pretty wide angle,” he said. Gerrelts has also used a GoPro to film his Open workouts.

Another thing to consider is temperature.

“Garage-gym athletes might have the added challenge of colder weather in the Open if they don’t have a heated space,” Gerrelts said.

After several Midwestern winters of working out in subzero temps in an unheated garage, he said he still hasn’t found a glove that keeps his hands warm and makes gripping a barbell or pull-up bar easy.

Late February is usually not extremely cold in Iowa, but if there’s a cold snap, Gerrelts plans to make time for an extended warm-up to make sure his hands don’t go numb mid-workout.

Anyone Can Compete

With the appropriate equipment and a way to film each workout, the Open workouts can be done anywhere, and registering for the Open as a garage athlete is simple.

Sign in with your CrossFit ID (or create a new one), and when the form asks “Where do you work out?” just choose “I do not work out at a CrossFit affiliate.” Then enter your country, state and postal code (if applicable).

The standards vary from workout to workout, but all video submissions should be uncut and unedited. A clock or timer, with the running workout time clearly visible, should be in the frame throughout the entire workout, with all the movements clearly visible. More details about video standards can be found here.

Gerrelts has no thoughts of competing in CrossFit beyond the Open, but he enjoys throwing down every year.

“It’s a really cheap, easy way to put yourself out there and see what you are made of and compare yourself and track progress. It’s an all-around fun experience all the way through,” he said.