You’ve heard of Crossfit. Maybe it’s worth it?

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Grace, Fran, The Filthy Fifty. Muscle up, WOD, Box. Fight Gone Bad, Rx’d, CFT. Do you speak this language? The preceding list is Greek to some, scripture to others. It is the language of Crossfit, one of the many extreme fitness programs gaining widespread acceptance in the United States, and one of the most popular. Grace, Fran, The Filthy Fifty, and Fight Gone Bad are names for Workouts Of the Day, or WODs, that happen several times a day at over 6,000 Boxes (Crossfit gyms) around the country. If you want to know what the other terms mean, take a Crossfit class, I dare you.

This glossary immediately betrays two pillars of Crossfit, 1) To deliver its participants varied daily workouts that push them to extreme physical limits and, 2) To create an immersive culture whereby participants (or, ‘athletes,’ in Crossfit parlance) feel they are joining not just a gym, but a community.

The community is real, Crossfit could almost qualify as a social media phenomenon as well as a disrupter of traditional fitness. Athletes interact with their local box often online, posting work-out times, announcements, trash-talk – even engagement photos and plans for bbqs and potluck dinners.

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(No, it’s not a prison camp, it’s Crossfit)

Is Crossfit a religion?

Regular meet-ups in a sacred place, a coded language reserved for the initiated, announcements, and potluck dinners? Remind you of anything? I agree with you, diligent reader, it sounds a lot like church. To many – well to most, as the term ‘Casual Crossfitter’ is oxymoronic at best – Crossfit fills a void that church on Sunday may have filled for our predecessors. Standing in an empty box, one can smell the sweat, feel the energy of personal victories and failures emanating from the stacked weights. The experience can leave a person with a nagging suspicion that if they had only listened closer, they would’ve heard the screams and labored breath echoing from the bare walls, the tearing of skin as it’s transferred from body to rope, and the applause of athletes crowded around one of their own, struggling to finish that last sprint, a final rep. The box is sacrosanct because it is treated as such, baptizing visitors and regulars alike in the belief that the world beyond is separate but unequal, and that what goes on inside couldn’t be more important.

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(note: not an actual Crossfit class)

The religious analogy goes one step further – the Crossfit ethos contains its own dietary restrictions. Crossfit encourages its athletes to follow the ‘Paleo’ diet, sometimes referred to as the ‘caveman diet,’ after the Paleo idea that human beings should be emulating the dietary habits of our Paleolithic-era ancestors. Whether the diet is effective and/or healthy is a subject of debate, but ask many Crossfit athletes their secret to fitness and the response will be, “Eat Paleo. Just Show Up” (for the WODs).

Many Crossfit affiliates include a day of Paleo diet instruction during ‘Foundations’ – a series of classes, normally spread over about a month, that new athletes are required to attend before they can attend regular WODs.

That I say many and not all betrays another characteristic of Crossfit: while Crossfit coaches must study curriculum from the national headquarters in order to become certified, what goes on at a particular box in terms of the structure of the foundations course and the daily workouts are not regulated by the any official entity. This has been the root of one of the most common Crossfit criticisms: the program does not prioritize using proper weight-lifting form. Crossfit WODs commonly include Olympic lifts where improper form could lead to serious injury, so while any coach or box not prioritizing proper from should be avoided entirely, but given Crossfit’s corporate structure, it is more a case of caveat emptor than a legitimate criticism of the entire program.

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(A Crossfitter performs a snatch, an Olympic lift, while fellow athletes cheer him on)

How safe is it, really?

There seems to be little use in criticizing how people spend their time and money if it is healthy and legal. Crossfit is certainly a legal pastime, but whether or not it is entirely healthy is a matter of debate. A study published in Current Sports Medicine Reports notes that programs like Crossfit seem to reject some long held beliefs regarding safe physical training, “…repeatedly performing maximal timed exercise repetitions without adequate rest intervals between sets fails to adhere to appropriate and safe training guidelines.” Dr. Michael Bergeron goes on to note that this lack of recovery time, “…can readily prompt earlier fatigue, additional oxidative stress, […] and unsafe movement execution leading to acute injury, especially with multijoint exercises.” All this said, other studies have shown that injury rate of Crossfit is precisely on par with other athletic activities such as running and weight lifting.

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So here we’ve got an exercise program that, while extreme, is shown to get you in better shape, can provide a real sense of community to its members and hasn’t been shown to be any more dangerous than most athletic activity. So why all the hubbub?

Heather Havrilesky, writing for The New York Times in October, opines that the our fascination with extreme fitness programs like Crossfit is reflective of a collective obsession with the extreme, and goes on to suggest that the culture of Crossfit is particularly focused on preparing its athletes for the most extreme situation imaginable – the end of days. “You’re preparing for an unforeseen natural disaster,” she writes of Crossfit, “or a burning building, or Armageddon.” Ms. Havrilesky cites a sentence from the Crossfit website, “We have sought to build a program that will best prepare trainees for any physical contingency — not only for the unknown, but for the unknowable.” Certainly Armageddon falls under the category of, ‘any physical contingency’ but the idea that the culture of Crossfit is preoccupied with preparing for the extreme and unfathomable is perhaps a little extreme in itself.

Extreme fitness is certainly the trend, and by that fact alone deserves to be examined. But it seems peculiar that, in a world and culture ever more conscious of healthy living, the popularity of programs designed to make us healthier is confusing to anyone. Why are programs like Crossfit so popular? Because they’re new, they’re different, and they seem to work well. It’s really that simple.

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