Here at disinformation we’re always alert to weird cults, whether of the suicide variety (Heaven’s Gate) or the brainwashing/cash-draining variety (Scientology). We’ve been following a new cult that’s sweeping America – CrossFit – although we’re not sure that it’s in any way insidious.
Recently I caught up with JC Herz, who’s penned the definitive book on CrossFit, Learning to Breathe Fire: The Rise of CrossFit and the Primal Future of Fitness, to answer some questions:
JC, I discovered CrossFit myself a few years ago when I looked up “what is fitness.” For those who don’t know can you briefly describe what CrossFit it and how it addresses my original search question?
The CrossFit catechism is: “Constantly varied functional movement executed at high intensity across broad time and modal domains.” Which is technical jargon for: Move your whole body (not single muscles in isolation) and heavy weight, lots of different ways, going flat-out for anywhere between four minutes and half an hour. CrossFit is a mash-up of sprinting bodyweight movements (running, jumping on boxes, burpees), gymnastic movements (pull-ups, handstand push-ups, rope climbs), and weighted movements (Olympic lifts, power lifts, weight carries, sled pushes). All of the movements can be modified and scaled down for beginners. For instance, a jumping pull-up can be substituted for a regular pull-up. Box jumps can be scaled down to step-ups. The point is to learn how to move efficiently and well, then get out of your comfort zone. It should feel difficult and deeply uncomfortable, but doable. Miserable, but not painful. That “embrace the suck” mentality, and the group bonding that goes with it, is the most polarizing aspect of CrossFit – it fires up adherents and riles critics. But for better or worse, it’s also what achieves dramatic results.
Part of it is the results: people do drop weight and get stronger, dramatically so. The measurable progress is a motivator. The “band of brothers” tribal dynamic is powerful – the experience of doing something difficult and uncomfortable with a group of people (think Outward Bound three times a week). For women, the most powerful thing about CrossFit, the thing that gets them proselytizing, is a shift in focus from aesthetics to function. There aren’t any mirrors in a CrossFit box. It’s not about the cosmetic appearance of hips, buns and thighs. There’s none of that weird gym-class voyeurism of comparing your body to other people’s bodies. It’s all about: doing push-ups on knees and then being able to do them on your toes. Or getting a pull-up, or deadlifting your body weight. For women, it’s an incredible joy and relief to celebrate what their bodies can do instead of obsessing over the scale or tape measure.
It does seem that CrossFit participants prefer to not only work out but also socialize with other CrossFitters, talk all the time about CrossFit, follow a special diet, and other behavior that could easily describe a religion … or a cult. Is there a cult of CrossFit?
It is a little cult-y in the sense that people who do it want to talk about it all the time (the first rule of CrossFit: always talk about CrossFit) and hang out with other people who do it. In that way, it’s similar to parenthood – it’s a transformative experience that launches you into hyper-communication mode about this amazing new chapter in your life, in a way that’s annoying to friends and co-workers who haven’t gotten on that same bus. The training bit actually isn’t as annoying as the diet bit – CrossFitters are invariably drawn into Paleo/Primal nutrition, and with that comes a rejection of the high-glycemic processed foods that everyone else considers normal and yummy, combined with a sense of superiority about rejecting those foods. It’s scientifically valid – there are good biochemical reasons not to eat ice-cream and bread. But that doesn’t make talking about it less annoying to people who still eat ice-cream and bread.
Conversations about exercise and diet hit raw nerves, even around the water cooler. Everyone takes that stuff personally. On a macro level, we’re living in an increasingly stratified society. News headlines and political campaigns focus on income, but the divergence in health is even more dramatic. There are 29 million diabetics in the US (7 million of those don’t know they’re diabetics), and 86 million pre-diabetics (http://www.cdc.gov/features/diabetesfactsheet/). Chronic disease accounts for 65% of American health costs. So you have this group of CrossFitters, the “physiological 1%,” who are reacting to the majority around them. Their fellow CrossFitters are fit, and outside that circle people getting more and more obese. CrossFitters proselytize because the cultural tectonics are pulling fit-and-healthy people apart from millions of people with chronic diseases who’ll end up in motorized wheelchairs. It is absolutely evangelical (“Cast your gaze away from free pizza night at Planet Fitness, bruthah! Step into the light!”), because CrossFitters don’t want to see people they love cast into the slow hell of chronic disease.
Although CrossFit was started by Greg Glassman, he’s not necessarily the star. In a recent Men’s Fitness magazine article Kelly Starrett was likened to Michael Jackson in terms of his celebrity status. Is he the face of CrossFit or are there others?
If there’s a “face” of CrossFit right now, it’s probably Rich Froning, the four-time CrossFit Games champion. Camille Leblanc-Bazinet, this year’s female champion, will get a lot of exposure because in addition to being a world class athlete she’s beautiful. And of course, Dave Castro, the Games director and MC, is a prominent figure. But CrossFit is a highly decentralized phenomenon – most people associate CrossFit with their local box and the coaches they see every other day. It’s not about celebrity.
Is there a dark side to CrossFit? Anyone who googles the term is going to find criticism, some pretty severe, concerning its safety, for instance.
Every sport has an injury rate – for people who are interested in the injury rates of various sports, there’s a good paper here: http://www.exra.org/Epidem1.htm. It contains a quantitative analysis of injury rates in different sports. CrossFit’s injury rate is about 3 injuries per thousand hours of training (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24276294). That’s higher than college cross-country or swimming, but lower than, lacrosse, field hockey or basketball. CrossFit’s injury rate is significantly lower than college soccer or youth taekwondo (more than 20 injuries per thousand athlete exposures). And yet, we continue to watch our sons and daughters do taekwondo and feel good about it, even though the injury rate of youth taekwondo is eight times higher than CrossFit.
“Severe” is a relative term. Compared to the injury rate for elliptical machines, Zumba classes, and Nautilus circuits, CrossFit’s injury rate is high. But compared to contact sports like rugby, basketball and wrestling, it’s low, and compared to high-contact sports like football and ice hockey it’s even lower. Whether people get worked up about CrossFit’s injury rate depends on whether they’re comparing it to gym-based fitness activities or to sports. CrossFitters consider their training in the context of sport, as a risk to manage with good coaching and technique. Critics view it as a fanatical alternative to cardio hip-hop classes. It’s a false debate, with two sides talking (very loudly) past each other.
Lastly, what’s the connection between tech and CrossFit? I started going to the CrossFit box in NYC almost as an extension of being involved in the tech start up world, and it seemed as though there is an unusually high correlation.
Techies love data. CrossFitters love data (hence the CrossFit mantra: measurable, observable, repeatable). Both techies and CrossFitters love to geek out on analysis. It’s possible to geek out, to a really embarrassing degree, about CrossFit workouts and benchmarks, especially when discussing CrossFit competition. It turns into a fitness version of Magic the Gathering (“I play the card of Lightning-Fast Butterfly Pull-ups!” “I counter with the Deadlift of Fury!”)