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I went undercover to find out why people do CrossFit
Why would anyone put themselves through CrossFit workouts? I tried to find out.
The first rule of CrossFit is that you have to talk about CrossFit.
When I described to my roommate what happens during a CrossFit session, I’d just come home at 6:30 in the morning, scarlet-faced and drenched in sweat, feeling like I had grown a second, reptilian skin. Since starting CrossFit four months ago, I generally don’t like to talk about it, because I don’t want to be branded one of “those people,” but I knew I wasn’t going to be able to take a shower without some explanation.
“Well, today our workout of the day was a 500-meter run, followed by 30 burpees, 20 deadlifts, and 10 squats,” I started.
She quickly interjected, “This early? That sounds awful.”
“I’m not finished,” I insisted. “We had to do that three times. And that was only a third of the daily workout.”
After a long, ponderous pause, she asked incredulously, “Wow, those people must really hate their bodies. Why would anyone ever do that to themselves?”
That’s a great question.
I joined a CrossFit gym four months ago as a way to investigate CrossFit culture from the inside; so much had been written about the practice from either sensationalist or defensive lenses, from those who were already so deeply invested in the program that objectivity can be difficult, that I thought the program could use an outsider’s perspective.
I’m 26, and I’m neither out of shape nor a potential extra in the ongoing 300 franchise. After years of only being intermittently active, I started training for the Chicago Marathon last year before an unexpected leg injury made it difficult to run; for a solid two months, I hobbled like James Caan in Misery.
Why I don’t do CrossFit
Because I could barely work up a jog without feeling the tension of future pain, I got a trainer to explore the sides of the gym I’d always been reticent to habituate, where guys who grunt to show you how intense their workouts are linger in front of the mirror to take a #gymselfie. Viewing physical fitness as a solitary activity, akin to a zen meditation; the extroversion of bro-exercise culture—the idea that working out was less important than making sure everyone knew you were working out—never appealed to me.
And as a gay man who has struggled with disordered eating for the greater part of my life (an affliction I like to call “a little bit of column A and a little bit of column B”), my biggest “workout goal” was developing healthy habits and a relationship with my body that didn’t entail entirely avoiding it in the mirror.
Having a trainer helped me to spot myself when it came to eating right and to develop good form when it came to self-expectations, but it didn’t help me understand the culture around me any better, what it means to be a member of the gang. This was a component I thought was important. There’s a common conception that joining a gym is like entering a cult, especially some of the more specialized programs, and I wondered what so many were getting out of the experience. Just what were we doing to ourselves, anyway? And what exactly were we buying into?
In his seminal 1995 essay, Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital, Robert Putnam describes what he later called the collapse of American community, how a decrease in social capital led to less buy-in from modern Americans in terms of civil society and civic engagement. Writing in the throes of the first Clinton term, Putnam uses the example of bowling to show that while the number of people who bowl has grown, there’s been a sharp decrease in bowling league memberships since the 1970s.
According to Putnam, this means that bowlers are less likely to be socially engaged or feel part of a community, a phenomenon that can be tied to larger civil dropout rates in the culture at large. Although Gallup polls suggest that 40 percent of Americans regularly attend church, that’s based only on reported figures; studies on actual attendance rates cut that number in half.
This isn’t because Americans are leaving religion, as Pew surveys indicate that only 16.1 percent of the population describe themselves as “atheist,” “agnostic,” or “unaffiliated.” It’s because our trust in public institutions is declining. According to Gallup and Christianity Today, Americans’ trust in organized religion has “reached an all-time low, with only 47 percent of Americans rating clergy highly on honesty and ethics.”
The polls are even worse for government, which recently scored its worst trust rating in Gallup’s history. Since 2002, that figure has been on a steep decline, down all the way to 19 percent from a high of 60 percent. If its any consolation to lawmakers, this was a cultural blip on the radar, inflated by wartime spirit; trust in government has been historically low, just never this bad.
What has long boggled critics’ minds about CrossFit (and other programs like it) is that the practice has become absurdly popular at a time when all other forms of social engagement are seemingly eroding (in favor of staying at home and watching Netflix). According to the Daily Beast’s William O’Connor, CrossFit has spread like an ebola virus of fitness, starting as one Santa Cruz-based gym in 2000 and growing to over 10,000 worldwide, powered in part by its popularity online, with 10 to 15 more springing up each day.
If you guesstimate that each of these gyms caters to 100 members at any given time, that means that we can’t get people to vote in midterm elections, but we can get a million people (and counting) to pay $200 a month to flagellate themselves every day.
That idea of experiencing a zen-like pain isn’t an exaggeration; it’s deeply embedded into the subconscious of the CrossFit philosophy. If CrossFit can be called a movement, its leader is Greg Glassman, a former gymnast who designed CrossFit in search of “That Feeling.” O’Connor describes it as “a nirvana state of gasping, near-vomiting exhaustion.” For marathon runners, that’s akin to your second wind, a point you might reach well into your 16th mile, when you’re so tired that you fall into a trance state, like highway hypnosis.
The doctrine that Glassman developed entails CrossFit’s now trademark mix of “gymnastics, Olympic powerlifting, [and] calisthenics,” one distilled into short, intense bursts of exercise like the WOD described above. First tested on firemen and first responders, the CrossFit regimen intends to prepare you for every possible situation. During my orientation, the young man giving me the CrossFit hard sell described feats like being able to lift heavy objects or save people from burning buildings. Usually we attribute such random acts of fitness to mothers whose children are trapped under a car, but for CrossFit, the miracle is an ideal.
Before enrolling in CrossFit, I met up with a friend who had recently pulled out of the AA program to discuss his experiences, and during our discussions, he argued that one of the most disconcerting aspects of the Alcoholics Anonymous lifestyle is defining that ideal. The AA’s “New Man” wasn’t just defined by not drinking but by leading an almost devout, abstinent lifestyle, one he felt was largely defined by the program’s religious basis. In order to buy into AA’s version of sobriety, he had to become someone he wasn’t.
Who is CrossFit’s “New Man?” For starters, the CrossFit man doesn’t drink—or drinks sparingly. Alcohol is said to slow down the system, like dairy, grains, and other foods not espoused by the Paleo diet. Also known as the “Caveman diet,” the basis of the diet is that “if our ancestors didn’t eat it, we shouldn’t either.”
I was given this piece of information by Tony, a bespectacled Italian guy with an accent that suggested Woody Allen by way of King of Queens. The Paleo diet isn’t mandatory, but it’s so strongly recommended that CrossFit gyms hold a Paleo challenge to get members on board with the diet. Like most everything at CrossFit, the program asks you to buy in on your own through the power of suggestion. You don’t have to lift a 70-pound kettlebell, but when you’re competing against everyone around you, it can be hard to say no.
The appeal of a cult is in the act of saying yes—to a new you, a new body, a new god, a new community, or a new life—but the most important lesson you need to learn, should you plan to do CrossFit, is the art of saying no. Each workout allows you “modifiers” to adjust the routine to your own body or exhaustion level. If you feel yourself wearing down, you can ease the pain of another set of pullups by adding a workout band for stability or grabbing a lighter kettlebell. I can stop the pain before it happens just by speaking up.
That doesn’t mean that people always exercise that option, and as such, CrossFit has gained a reputation for injuries, the medical industry’s new best friend. A month ago I injured my arm doing a heavier deadlift than I was ready for, and I could barely move my arm for a week, making it difficult to sleep or write (which I do for a living). When I saw a massage therapist get rid of the persistent ache, which felt like having a golf ball wedged in my arm, we revisited that question kicked off my inquiry: Why would I do this to myself?
Growing up, I was never really a joiner (outside of academic clubs or volunteering programs), and I didn’t share the same interest in Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection as my mother, a Catholic who treated Nazareth’s favorite son like a member of the family. (When I was small, Jesus even got a birthday cake on Christmas.) In high school, I rebelled by becoming a Baptist, which being 15 and vaguely angry about something or other, I hoped would upset my mother. This obviously didn’t work, as she was happy I found a religion—any religion.
I kept going to my Baptist church for three years, despite not even believing in God; this was partially because many of my friends went and partially because I was searching for “That Feeling.” For many, it was seeking a higher power, but for me, it was the act of being a part of something greater than myself, even if I knew it was just a sales pitch.
For its members, CrossFit stands in for a daily mass, and at my gym, the service is presided over by a couple with a pair of Christian names (we’ll call them Mary and Joseph), both of whom I describe as “evangelical blond.” As a couple, they look more like the type of folks who might show up at your door holding a copy of the New Testament, rather than people responsible for your personal and emotional fitness. When you sign onto a boot camp-style program, you expect Full Metal Jacket’s R. Lee Ermey, not the Bradys.
Call it “drinking the Kool-Aid,” but there’s something deeply intimate about sharing your sweat and your pain with a room full of relative strangers that breeds communal bonding, which is largely why CrossFit is thought to attract Painiacs. They’re people who live for the burn, the Dauntless faction types who are career thrill-seekers. But more than that, CrossFit pulls in just about everyone, from jocks with sports injuries to girls who want to lose a couple pounds and people who have never worked out before. It turns out that everyone’s equally susceptible to the pleasures of being in a cult.
But here’s the thing about buying in, whether it’s a CrossFit gym or a bowling league: You’re always bowling alone, whether you’re stopping by the local lanes to grab a beer after a long day of work or proving yourself the biggest kingpin of your tri-state area. It’s a lot easier to demonize the cult than to take a look at your own behavior, taking ownership and responsibility for being whatever kind of man or woman you want. The only person staring down that lane is you.
Whenever someone had asked me about CrossFit, I would always lead with its downsides: the high risk of injury, the fetishizing of pain, and a diet that sounds vaguely horrifying. Tony informed me that going on the Paleo diet helped some tennis player I’ve never heard of step up his game; after years of trying to get to the next level, he switched to the Paleo diet and became the number-one tennis player in the world. It sounded just like the kind of riches-to-riches story I would expect to hear from someone who’s only here to sell me a product, ready to make me into a New Man.
Working with Mary, a trainer who is patient about my limits and infinitely willing to let me modify, I’ve gotten so good at saying no and asserting my boundaries that I didn’t realize how much the program was getting under my skin. A month ago, my best friend died from an enlarged heart—just four weeks before I was set to finally finish graduate school. Between her many funerals (because the dead don’t just die once) and graduation, I was so wrapped up in the rest of my life that I decided to put CrossFit off until I could regain my focus. One thing at time.
This morning, I went back to my gym for the first time in what felt like weeks, and Mary asked us to start off with a 500-meter run around the block. As we ran, I fell into place in fourth, finding a pace that felt comfortable. When I started working out, I always thought I had stay ahead, but I felt at home in the middle of the pack. (I call it “giving myself permission to lose.”) As I felt the morning mist, my thoughts fell away as I stared at the runners in front of me, all of whom were chasing that feeling, even if they didn’t know it.
In that line, bowing alone didn’t feel so lonely.
Nico Lang is an essayist, movie critic, and reporter who specializes in the intersection of politics and LGBTQ issues. His work has been featured in Rolling Stone, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, Jezebel, Esquire, and BuzzFeed, among other notable publications.