ChicagoXT: Mountain Athletics Review

ChicagoXT stands for Chicago Cross-Training. This review marks the second of hopefully several reviews of local spinning studios or fitness classes around Chicago. All opinions are my own, and unless otherwise indicated, these reviews are based off of classes I have, on my own accord, selected and paid for (or got lucky and received a free pass available to the general public). If you have a class you’d like to suggest, please let me know!

Have you heard of November Project? The crazy people that meet in the dead of winter to

1st Time: I’m the lunge master in pink.

workout in local parks and swear a lot? Last year, they paired up with North Face to create a sister program of sorts called Mountain Athletics (I’ll refer to them as MA), which offers free group exercise opportunities in various cities. (In addition to Chicago, there are chapters in Boston, New York, San Francisco, and DC). While November Project meets in the mornings (something I wasn’t able to accommodate with my work commute), MA  meet on Tuesday and Thursday nights in local parks, and utilize the surroundings to create an hour-long strength and fitness experience (e.g. running park stairs, or using benches for tricep dips). The evening workouts worked with my schedule, and the ability to hand off my strength training to someone else was really appealing, so I went last year around the time they started the program. It was HARD (because I’m weak) and I liked it, but I was really focused on getting back into marathon training, and I wasn’t sure how to fit being unable to squat due to muscle soreness into my training schedule, so I never got back. At the time, they weren’t sure how long the program would run, and I hadn’t heard much about it over the winter, so I assumed it had been a temporary program. I was wrong!


T and I registered on their website for the Thursday night class, and showed up not really knowing what to expect (him less so than me, having never attended a session). It had poured the night before, but the sun had come out, and we were blessed with 65* temps and sunshine for the workout. As people began gathering, everyone was super friendly, introducing themselves to us, and everyone dumped their bags and water bottles and bikes in a pile in the middle of the grass. We started with a quick introduction and mentioned any particular goal we were training for (some people were training for tri season, some for Chicago marathon, and most just there for general health and fitness), and got right into the warm-up. Several sets of squats, push-ups, burpees, sit ups, and lunge stretches — unfortunately, the grass wasn’t nearly as dry as we’d hoped, and everyone’s immediate response upon sitting down for the first set of push-ups was a collective OMG Ughhhhheewwwww. Everyone’s butt and back were soaked, but it was fun to laugh about how nasty it felt to be wearing what felt like a fully-loaded diaper.

We met at Mary Bartelme Park, named after Illinois’s 1st female judge, in Chicago’s West Loop.

Not gonna lie – the warm-up nearly killed us. My burpees are more like floppies. Turns out when you do absolutely no strength work ever, you’re not going to magically be strong like your brain imagines yourself to be. Our next set went into some plyometrics (jump squats), as well as more burpees, more push-ups, and tricep dips using a nearby stone wall. T and I both had to shorten our reps and didn’t complete all of the sets to avoid certain death, but I think we both did around 75% of the superset. The group had been focused on strength for the past 6 weeks or so, and last night was kind of the final culmination of that work. We were woefully under-prepared for that kind of workout, but no one gave anyone grief for modifying the workout to fit their specific needs or abilities. The group leader was very encouraging, and only asked they we do what we could, and not to take it easy on ourselves. What that meant was up to us. We followed that up with a core circuit – various planks, flutterkicks, and an easy, jogged lap to keep our legs moving. A young girl (maybe 8?) was at the park with her dad watching us, and actually joined in for the last 15 minutes of our workout. She was super sassy and kind of kicked my butt, so that’s not embarrassing or anything. I was a little nervous about doing the side planks with my shoulder issue from earlier this year, but it turns out that I have absolutely minimal core strength (oops), so I spent a lot of time resting on my stomach or side instead of holding myself up in the air. Next time, I’ll probably ask what I can sub out the planks with to avoid aggravating anything unnecessarily. It’s also really hard to plank on the side of a wet, grassy berm, so there’s that.


Consider Mountain Athletics for the:

  1. Variety: The type of workout varies throughout the year, with loose focus on different kinds of goals (endurance events like road races, strength goals like rock climbing, etc). That said, the workouts build a general and valuable set of skills – strength, endurance, flexibility – that are pretty broadly applicable, regardless of your sport of choice. Despite realizing very quickly what neglecting your strength work feels like, T and I both got a great workout, and the types of exercises and circuits we learn here can get stored in our fitness vaults for future use in our training.
  2. Cost: It’s free. Zero dollars. Actually, they just introduced a new incentive program that nets you free North Face gear for every 10 sessions you attend, so they’re actually paying you for your attendance. I’m nothing if not extrinsically motivated…
  3. Support/Community: There’s a good amount of camaraderie, which can make suffering a little more tolerable. I tend to get a bit anxious jumping into new situations, especially if I’m riding solo, so taking the plunge and attending a session was difficult for me mentally, but I’m really glad I did it.
  4. Nostalgia: It’s really cool to feel a bit like a kid, getting dirty and sweaty, and using the great green spaces in this city to get stronger.
  5. Vanity: They take photos throughout the workout, so if you’re only #InItForTheInsta or whatever, you’ll probably get some badass photos out of it (or photos of you driving the struggle bus, in my case).

Give this pause if you:

  1. Like riding solo. People will talk to you. Sometimes the exercises require pairing up with strangers. There might be hugs or high fives. If any of that makes you dry heave, this probably isn’t for you. (But maybe give it a try – you never know!)
  2. Wear make-up at the gym. We were soaked and a little muddy from laying in the wet grass. This group meets rain or shine (excluding extreme situations – or, in some cases, despite extreme situations), and meet throughout the winter. If you wear Lululemon on the reg, it’ll get dirty. If you hate being cold or wet or laying in a field of dandelion seed puffs makes your face swell up, this won’t be your favorite thing.
  3. Are limited by injury. This is a situational thing. If you’re really limited by an injury or cast or something that keeps you from doing full body-weight exercises, consider whether there are viable substitutes you could do. These guys aren’t going to make you feel bad, and can suggest different things if you’re coming off of a surgery or injury, but if you’re basically relegated to non-impact or low-weight activity, this may not make the most sense until you’re 100%.

Overall, the group was really fun, the leaders really relaxed and supportive (we got regular high-fives and encouragement from the leader, as well as our fellow fitness enthusiasts). I’ll definitely be making this a regular thing now that I’m not in the thick of mileage. Come see my sad burpees in person at the next one!

Have you checked out November Project or Mountain Athletics?


Add yours →

  1. I didn’t realize they met at Mary B Park! That’s convenient for me. Yay.


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