She bent forward, her sinewy body forming an inverted V as she gripped the barbell, then paused. Her head snapped up, eyes wide, then lift, lift, push to raise 198 pounds over her head for a few seconds. Then she did it again. And again.

"Ah, well, it was OK," she said afterward, marking her scores on the white board at CrossFit St. Paul, the fitness center where she works out. "I just started training this week -- that means I'll be here more than three times a week -- so I guess I am where I should be. But I'll be doing better soon, closer to 215 pounds. I won't feel so rusty."

Deborah Cordner Carson, 32, didn't set out to become one of the "fittest women in America" at the annual CrossFit Games in California this summer. She had "just average athletic fitness" after college until she wandered into a CrossFit gym three years ago.

Now she is part of a fast-growing movement of people drawn to high-intensity workouts with names like P90X, Insanity, Spartacus and TurboFire as well as CrossFit -- extreme fitness programs that, despite controversy over their safety, have attracted the likes of vice presidential nominee Rep. Paul Ryan, singer Sheryl Crow and First Lady Michelle Obama.

The promise of those programs -- some only on DVDs sold in late-night infomercials -- is that you can quickly shed pounds, add muscle and build endurance through fast, hard and brief workouts that shatter previous barriers to fitness.

It also promises that you can start anywhere -- kid or grandparent, male or female, fit, super-fit or badly out of shape -- and scale the workout to your abilities with a strong upward trajectory.

A sign of the multibillion-dollar industry's meteoric rise: In three years, CrossFit has grown from three to 24 franchise fitness centers in Minnesota, and other programs like the YMCA and Life Time Fitness are adding similar programs to meet increased demand.

"We've always had some workouts that are more intense, but this goes up to a new level," said Sean Levesque, group fitness manager for all 21 Twin Cities YMCAs. "People like the self-competitive nature of pushing themselves hard, and they like quick results."

Overcoming adversity

In July, Cordner Carson came in 13th among women at the four-day national CrossFit Games in California.

She also won the "Spirit of the Games" award for strong competition despite living for 10 years with lymphedema in her left leg, which causes significant swelling, and overcoming her fear of a one-mile ocean swim she couldn't face a year earlier, knocking her out of the 2011 competition.

"CrossFit pushes you up against your physical limits every day, and you discover you really can go farther," said Cordner Carson. The former St. Louis Park high school gymnastics and track star now lives in Minneapolis with her husband, Patrick, another CrossFit enthusiast.

"But it's also really a mental thing -- like, you have to really believe," she said. "So I'm pushing physically and mentally to get those last few seconds off my time that separate me from being on the winning podium next year."

A common element in CrossFit and many similar programs is a "tabata" routine. After warming up, the athlete goes all-out for eight 20-second intervals of push-ups, for instance, separated by 10 seconds of rest. Then on to pull-ups, squats, sit-ups and other exercises. The exertion is so intense that some participants throw up, or even pass out.

"For some guys, throwing up is kind of a badge of honor. It shows you're going all out," said Stephanie Cantu, a coach at CrossFit Minneapolis who is getting a doctorate in psychology at the University of Minnesota. "I've come close."

Although extreme-fitness programs can lead to injuries for inexperienced or poorly coached clients, new research is softening some of the criticism, said Mark Blegen, head of the Department of Nutrition and Exercise Sciences at St. Catherine University in St. Paul.

"If you'd asked me six months ago about CrossFit and other programs like that, I'd have said, Stay away," he said. "But there's new research saying high-intensity training can be beneficial, pretty much the same results as normal training but at greater intensity in less time -- if you do it safely."

It's critical, however, that clients be fit enough to embark on extreme fitness programs or start slowly enough that they don't damage their bodies, and get coaching from trainers qualified in more than just one program, said Paul Mellick, an exercise physiologist in the Department of Health and Human Performance at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul.

"What's important is that people exercise regularly. If you're starting out, you might be better off going to a fitness center with a range of programs to find what works best for you -- then try the CrossFit or whatever," he suggested.

Metaphor for life?

"I'm really in the best shape of my life," said Alex Roberts, 40, chef and owner of Restaurant Alma in Minneapolis. "I've always been active -- hockey, and I got a black belt in kung fu when I was 21. I could do things then I can't do right now, but overall, I'm in better shape now."

Drawn to CrossFit early last year, he works out in the same class as Cordner Carson three days a week. He likes the mix of abilities in class, where more experienced athletes coach him, and he helps newcomers. His children, ages 5 and 6, often attend a class that teaches kids to be active.

"CrossFit's goal is to help you be ready for anything, be prepared for the unexpected," he said. "That's physical, but it's really about everything -- kind of a metaphor for life."

'Insanity' in the church

Sherri McHenry watched as 17 members of her pickup Fitness612 Club sweated up a storm with an Insanity routine of punches, push-ups, squats, twists and other power moves in the basement of St. James Episcopal Church in south Minneapolis.

Advertised through fliers and Internet Meetup and Facebook sites, her free class meets weekly with DVDs she provides. Most are produced by Beachbody, the California company that sells "Insanity," "Brazil Butt Lift," "Hip Hop Abs" and many others, including the P90X program that attracted Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis.

"I love it, and it's an inexpensive way to introduce this kind of workout to others who want to really get fit or look better," McHenry said. Some become her clients and buy Beachbody programs or products through her or her business partner, personal trainer Lois Tiedemann Koffi. "We sell the programs, but most people in our groups don't [buy them]. Mainly this is our way to give back to the neighborhood."

The programs aren't cheap. The smallest P90X version sells for $120. Membership at CrossFit St. Paul depends on use, including $160 a month for three classes a week. The YMCA charges $150 to join and $63 a month for adults, with extra fees for a few classes.

No end to fitness

With gathering momentum, CrossFit training soon will dominate Cordner Carson's life as she prepares for next year's area, regional and national CrossFit Games.

"I don't know how much longer I want to compete at this level," she said, the sweat drying from her sculpted muscles after a workout. "The games are the ultimate competitive end of CrossFit. Pretty soon I'll be working out daily, then sometimes twice a day. It kind of takes over everything."

But her CrossFit workouts won't end when she stops competing, Cordner Carson said.

"Really, I'm competing with myself," she said. "I've found my niche, probably my fitness style for life."

Warren Wolfe • 612-673-7253