3 Reasons Why CrossFit is so Hot Right Now

by Adam Park

You can tell a lot about a person by how they do their pull-ups these days. Indeed, the CrossFit pull-up is as divisive an issue as politics. But take it or leave it, CrossFit is everywhere. With a network of over 11,000 affiliated gyms, more than 100,000 accredited trainers, the CrossFit Games on ESPN, Reebok, Rogue, and Progenex partnerships, the CrossFit Journal, seminars and certification programs specializing in child training, kettlebells, gymnastics, football, Olympic weightlifting, and hand-to-hand combat, CrossFit has an undeniably substantial presence in the American physical culture scene right now. So, what’s with all these box jumps, high socks, caveman diets, and talk of “constantly varied, high-intensity, functional movement”? What allows this new fitness regime to boldly entitle certain worthy few, the “Fittest on Earth”? Why do people pay over $200 a month for memberships? Well …

1) Numbers. CrossFit likes quantification. And so do Americans. As sports historian Allan Guttman claimed, “modern sports are characterized by the almost inevitable tendency to transform every athletic feat into one that can be quantified and measured.” CrossFit nails this. Furthermore, metrics make CrossFit seem simultaneously more sporty and more scientific. Numbers are what allow CrossFit competitors to compete against each other (and themselves vis-à-vis past performances). Perhaps most importantly, though, numbers are how CrossFit makes a “science” out of “fitness.” And what is fitness in CrossFit terms? According to the CrossFit website, CrossFit creator, Greg Glassman, “was the first person in history to define fitness in a meaningful, measureable way,” which is “increased work capacity across broad time and modal domains.” Scientific language like this peppers the CrossFit website and CrossFit literature. E.g. CrossFit “is the first fitness organization to provide precise and quantifiable definitions of fitness and health”; its results and methods “are observable, measurable, and repeatable”; “CrossFit is an evidence-based fitness program”; CrossFit derives “both relative and absolute metrics at every workout”; and “the data has important value well beyond motivation”; Etc. There’s even an equation, Greg Glassman’s equation, to be precise. “CVFM @ HI + Communal Environment = Health”—meaning, constantly varied functional movements performed at high intensity in a communal environment leads to health and fitness. CrossFit has very successfully tapped into the language and culture of a thoroughgoing “empiricism” in American fitness trends. CrossFit reports to have turned fitness into a quantifiable sport. Many Americans are impressed.

2) Utility. CrossFit claims to be more generally useful, more broadly applicable to human health, athleticism, and, well … life. “This is the stuff of surviving fights and fires,” Glassman claims. CrossFit readily deploys a language of functionality and pragmatism—a language that Americans evidently like to use. It is premised upon a critique of previous decades of muscle science and culture (of the Venice Beach variety). “Typical workouts,” Glassman asserts, consisted of “isolation movements.” In contrast, CrossFit seeks “to train for contingency” by using “creative and continuously varied compositions.” Usefulness, then, is derived from cultivating the broadest range of bodily motions. “There are movements that mimic motor recruitment patterns that are found in everyday life, Glassman tells us, “others are somewhat unique to the gym.” CrossFit has critically replaced muscle “isolation” with muscle “confusion.” Moreover, the “functional movements” of CrossFit “are the core movements of life, found everywhere, and built naturally into our DNA.” CrossFit best mimes human kinetics, so it goes. CrossFit is an extension of millions of years of human evolution. CrossFit is nature. And so, “CrossFit is many things,” the website nebulously tells us; its “specialty is not specializing.” “Reality,” whatever that might be, is the new metric by which to judge the efficacy of a fitness system. Through its claims of functionality, CrossFit has constructed and defined a reality that many Americans are happy to live within. CrossFit is “belief in fitness,” Glassman notes, designed to prepare participants for the “unknown and the unknowable.”

3) Bodies. From its love of numbers, its concern for utility, a certain kind of body is reportedly created by CrossFit. (Just take a look-see at this video, published in the CrossFit Journal.) A CrossFit body is a useful body, forged by the scientific CrossFit method, and, of course, it is beautiful. “CrossFit athletes are now rejecting previous definitions of beauty and putting forth their own, a definition researched and confirmed in every workout and every rep,” one CrossFit article reports. It goes on, “CrossFit presents a new aesthetic based on function, performance and confidence.” A CrossFit body, so it goes, is neither the body of a body builder, nor is it the body of an atrophied and underfed Abercrombie and Fitch model. “Strong is the new skinny” shirts abound among CrossFit adherents. Couched as a mean between extremes, CrossFit seizes upon already present criticisms of disproportionate girth and excessive gaunt. CrossFit bodies are evidently useful and healthy, and consequently beautiful. And so, forget about your “Blue Steel”; the real question becomes, can you pass the “CrossFit butt test”?

6 thoughts on “3 Reasons Why CrossFit is so Hot Right Now

  1. Great stuff, as always, Adam. I’m curious where you stand on the CrossFit craze, and if you think the claims of people like Glassman are true. I noticed a hint of tongue-in-cheek humor throughout your post.
    Also, it might be helpful to know when was CrossFit invented? As a former cross country and track runner, my workouts in college were very scientific and quantifiable. We kept logs and competed against ourselves in both workouts and races. I imagine the same is true for competitive weight lifters, etc. This makes me wonder if CrossFit is really that cutting edge and radical, or is it, instead, just a symbol of the “sportification” of exercise. This second option seems likely given the rising popularity in America of competition and statistics, especially with things like Fantasy Sports and Sabermetrics.
    Conversely, maybe CrossFit and its network of gyms and competitions are just a new way to promote and sustain an “active lifestyle.” Sports competition ends for most Americans after high school or college, unlike Europe and other places, we don’t have a strong club system where older “athletes” can train and compete for fun and fitness. There seems to be some parallels between some of the ideas you present about CrossFit and things like Arthur Lydiard’s Jogging Club, etc.
    Lots of fun things to think about! Thanks for sharing!

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  2. Thanks, Andrew. Since its online presence in 2003, CrossFit has expressed an affiliation for numbers and records. But this is certainly nothing new; it is as you mentioned, a means by which “exercise” can be turned into a “sport.” The numbers make it so.

    I am not a CrossFitter (but I do own a kettlebell and a sandbag). I think, however, that CrossFit is both fun and hard. And I think a lot of other people think that too. Apropos, if this post would have been titled “5 Reasons Why …” (as was the original plan), the other two reasons I think are important to understanding CrossFit are play and pain.

    Play. When it comes to making a workout “fun,” I think CrossFit gets it right for a lot of folks. And it does this by consciously cultivating spontaneity, variety, and simplicity, while eschewing routine, monotony, and more elaborate fitness technologies. Simply put, I think CrossFit successfully taps into a cultural nostalgia for recess on the playground.

    Pain. In terms of an emotionology that sets this social sphere apart from others, pain is huge. Namely, the shared experience thereof. True, we’ve been listening to the mantra of “no pain, no gain” for quite some time now; and talk of aches and injuries have echoed in locker rooms for decades. But when it comes to an open, collective courtship of the experience, CrossFit seems to thrive on it. See, for instance, “Pukey the Clown,” or “Rhabdo” t-shirts. SInce, we are told, “the communal aspect of CrossFit is a key component of why it’s so effective,” pain–not points, not times, not a shared language, not a similar choice of clothing, not a common socioeconomic status–is the experiential centerpiece. Disparity of completion times and snatch weights aside. Simply put, pain is the tie that binds, young and old, male and female.

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  4. I must start by stating what will be more than clear by the end of this comment, and that is that I am completely against the whole Crossfit movement. The biggest question I would ask anyone taking part in Crossfit is if it is such a great new breakthrough in fitness and is able to transform the novice lifter into an extreme athlete, why don’t professional athletes do it? I have been working out for almost 20 years, hitting the weights the old fashioned way; focused on form, controlling the weight, and making it work for me. I am more than aware that each time I lift a dumbbell I am at risk of never being able to do so again; I have very little respect for those that don’t respect that risk. Hitting the gym is all about getting the most out of one’s body while doing the least amount of damage to it. Crossfitters are all about doing more than the next guy/gal does. The entire thing is a fad that I cant wait to pass, and moreover a rip off. For as much as one will pay in a year he or she can afford to open a Crossfit gym of his or her own. Are you a fan of the Crossfit revolution? Do you feel that the benefit outweighs the costs both physically and financially?

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