New Gym CrossFit Homeward is Space for Hard Work and Play

Grand opening offers new space in Chapel Hill for CrossFit fans

Required disclosure: I am good friends with some of the coaches at this new gym and I was invited to free workouts for a week leading up to the grand opening. However, everything in this article is my opinion and I was not otherwise compensated for this post.

There's nothing quite like a high intensity workout to get your blood and endorphins flowing first thing in the morning, and now there's a new CrossFit gym in Chapel Hill for exactly that.

Assistant coach Paige Schildkamp takes a second to recover after an intense workout while others in the gym work on weights and cheer each other on.

CrossFit Homeward celebrated its grand opening on Saturday with good food, good friends, and good workouts. The new space is located in University Mall off South Estes Drive next to Southern Season in Chapel Hill.

Leading up to the grand opening I spent a week getting to know the gym, its community, and trying out some workouts. And what a workout! CrossFit is a fitness regimen based on "constantly varied functional movements performed at high intensity," so I left each workout sweaty and smiling. It's a good way to work your entire body from weightlifting to running to rowing to kettle bells and more. Workouts of the Day - or "WODs" as they're commonly called - incorporate several different movements and skills so that each one-hour coached workout class results in well-rounded fitness.

CrossFitters foam roll after a tough workout.

Workouts often begin with skill or coordination exercises.

Weightlifting is a big part of many CrossFit workouts.

My first workout was a Tuesday morning "endurance WOD" and I wondered if I were crazy jumping straight into an endurance session - but I had fitness from my half marathons, right?? I made it through the Tabata-style sprints without much trouble though by the end of the last repeat my legs and lungs were happily burning in the wintry morning air. Next were rowing and burpees - another familiar movement after years of training with my college best friends who were on the rowing team at UNC. Legs, back, shoulders, arms - these all strained against the erg. Following that was a "farmer's carry" - hauling heavy kettle bells a few laps around the parking lot to test grip strength and endurance. (I was happy about this because I've been working on my grip with climbing, until halfway through the carry the coach handed me heavier kettle bells because I wasn't working hard enough. Dang! Busted!)

Heavier?! Okay!

Natalie shows off her coordination in a skill warm-up.

Next up was slam balls, a movement based on lifting a weighted ball from a squat and pressing it overhead, only to slam it to the ground and start over again. Many CrossFit movements are oriented around an "explosive power" approach - explosive power in the sprints, explosive power on the erg, explosive power in the burpee, explosive power with the slam balls. We finished up the hour-long workout with ab exercises as the next class shouted encouragement before their warm-up.

Stretching is an important part of warm-up.

Using resistance bands can help stretch tight and sore muscles.

I was blissed out for a couple hours that morning after the workout because of all the endorphins and the positive energy from others at the gym, but Wednesday morning was another story. I woke up to all the delayed muscle soreness I knew was bound to hit me. "WHY WOULD YOU DO THIS TO ME?!" my muscles whined, but the sore spots were a spotlight on all my weaknesses - these were all the muscles neglected by my other activities, but they were forgotten no more!

A lot of people say the hardest thing is deciding to do CrossFit. No, the hardest thing is coming the second day.

"A lot of people say the hardest thing is deciding to do CrossFit," Hugh Simmons, a head coach at CrossFit Homeward and associate director of operations, said to me later. "No, the hardest thing is coming the second day. You're sore from day one and it's so hard to go and do it all again...On day two you wake up, sit up in bed and go, 'OOHH!' and then lay back down and think, 'This is my life now.' If you can get through day two then you can get through any CrossFit exercise."

Hugh Simmons demonstrates and gives instructions on the rowing machine before class members start the next round of exercises.

Ain't that the truth! Come Thursday my shoulder muscles screamed, "No no no!" but I had a date to work out with my friend Paige so I returned to the gym.

Paige Schildkamp is an assistant coach and the associate director of community engagement and outreach for CrossFit Homeward, and she chatted with me about some of the gym's programs in between rounds of skill movements and heavy front squats. She emphasized the depth and breadth of the coaching experience at the gym from powerlifting to barbell and Olympic lifting expertise to natural movement to massage therapy and fascial stretch therapy to Aikido classes. We chatted at length too about the various youth programs offered at CrossFit Homeward - something unique to the gyms in the area.

Eric Horlbeck teaches Aikido at CrossFit Homeward

CrossFit Homeward offers Fascial Stretch Therapy

Paige blew my mind when she pitched me this statistic: 56.8% of Tommy John surgeries from 2007 to 2011 were for athletes aged 15 to 19 years old. That's insane! CrossFit Homeward offers youth sports camps aimed for athletes as young as 4th grade to build muscle strength and stability without destroying the body with super repetitive movements (like pitching and pitching and only ever pitching).

But in addition CrossFit Homeward has a separate training program specifically for girls in 7th to 10th grades. The "She is Fierce" program provides a safe space for girls to grow as young athletes and focus on body positivity and strength building. I have been through those vulnerable years of being a teenage girl who would never be the Hollywood size double zero and I have seen talented girl athletes drop out of sports because of social pressures (and I've even been one of those girls who dropped out of sports temporarily for that same reason!), and so I know how essential programs like this can be for girls. A safe space to grow, to be affirmed, and to feel strong is critical in those years, and every youth program at CrossFit Homeward - from the youth sports camps to the "She is Fierce" program - includes special events like anti-bullying seminars, small class ratios, and access to one-on-one mentoring.

But a program like "She Is Fierce" isn't surprising in a gym with strong female leadership. There's Donna Benjamin, the owner and director of the gym who is warm and welcoming, as well as several women coaches like Paige Schildkamp and Natalie Parks, a powerlifting enthusiast and StrongFirst Girya (aka kettle bells) instructor whose quick smile and enthusiasm pair well with her "Come With Me If You Want To Lift" tank. In addition every CrossFit Homeward coach has extensive experience with scaling workouts to fit every athlete's need - "Everyone has different goals and everyone's goals are worth pursuing," Paige said, "whether that means coming to CrossFit for fitness, for competition, or for community."

Owner Donna Benjamin and Coach Ashley Bishop

CrossFit Homeward offers depth and breadth in its coaching staff expertise and workout programming

CrossFit Homeward Coach Natalie Parks and her "Come with me if you want to lift" tank

CrossFit Homeward assistant coach Paige Schildkamp grimaces on the bar

Everyone has different goals and everyone’s goals are worth pursuing, whether that means coming to CrossFit for fitness, for competition, or for community.

And indeed, community is an integral part of any CrossFit gym because when it's that second day and your body feels like you can't even get out of bed it's important to have that community to support and encourage you.

"[Before CrossFit] I hated working out," Paige said. "Hugh had been trying to get me to go for a solid six months and I was like, 'heck no, you're a crazy person.' It wasn't until Hugh did his first competition and I went to be supportive. There were three other girls on his team and they kept saying, 'You should try it! You should try it!' - and I finally did and my first WOD was FRAN!!" ('Fran' by the way is a standard named workout known to be particularly grueling.) "But I kept coming back," Paige continued, "because of the community and the people kept asking me when I would come back."

[Before CrossFit] I hated working out. Hugh had been trying to get me to go for a solid six months and I was like, ‘heck no, you’re a crazy person.’ It wasn’t until Hugh did his first competition and I went to be supportive. There were three other girls on his team and they kept saying, ‘You should try it! You should try it!’ - and I finally did and my first WOD was FRAN!! But I kept coming back because of the community and the people kept asking me when I would come back.

This was three years ago and now Paige says, "I actually like working out. I'd keep working out now by myself if I had to, but I would really miss the community."

This is the transformative power of CrossFit and community - that a group can change an individual from a scrawny wisp of a thing who claimed she was "allergic to working out" (Paige totally used to say this in college!) to a strong leader and coach with shoulder muscles to die for. It can take a woman stuck in the "suburban shuffle" of walking and running to a "breathing fire" head coach and gym owner. It's a fast track to being badass, and it can take a range of talents to put together a unique and diverse program in a place where people want to come for their workouts and stay for the camaraderie - to stay for the next workout, to cheer on the next class, to play with a new movement, or to have fun together but still foster the competitive spirit.

It's a tall order to ask for a supportive, fun, but competitive atmosphere, but it's something I saw already in place and growing at CrossFit Homeward - from the individuals who stuck around before and after their workouts to socialize and cheer on their friends to the extra time coaches and clients took to play with new movements and try new things in a supportive and fun setting to the good-natured competition of setting a new gym benchmark.

Paige getting guidance on a new movement on the rings and cracking up at her first attempt

CrossFit Homeward emphasizes a supportive community that encourages fun and athletic growth and success

I watched Paige, Hugh, Natalie, and others at the Saturday Grand Opening event as they monkeyed around on the bars exploring a shoulder strength and stability movement called the "Ape Swing." Their work was really best described as play - a group of people trying out something new, laughing at themselves and the complexity of the movement, and guiding each other through the learning experience. All of this went on alongside a small group of athletes working to set benchmark goals with the most double unders - 361! It was impressive to watch - to the heaviest dead lift weight to the most number of snatches in three minutes: all proof that with a community of good friends even hard competitive work can become play.

The whole gym stopped to watch as Henry Foote set a benchmark in the number of double unders in a row

The look of concentration of someone who is 300+ double unders into their streak


CrossFit Homeward is located in Chapel Hill in University Mall. Their workout schedule is available online at Anyone interested in visiting the gym and trying a workout can attend the weekly community WODs on Saturday or contact 

Special thanks to Donna, Paige, Hugh, Mitchell, Danny, and all the other coaches and athletes at CrossFit Homeward for welcoming me for a week!

For more information check out CrossFit Homeward:


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