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”?