How Extreme Exercise Regime CrossFit Mirrors American Militarism
This article first appeared at The Weeklings.
America is its sports. That’s a strong claim, but try coming up with a more pervasive, more intrinsic lens through which we see ourselves. Politics? Religion? Check the stats and you’ll find that about 122 million of us voted in the last presidential election and about 129 million of us regularly attend church, but in 2009 the US Census Bureau reported that nearly 270 of the 313.9 million Americans participated in “sports activities.” That number includes everything from the little leaguers on the ball field to the huffers on the treadmills, with walking, unsurprisingly, as our number one sport. America is a sporting land. And that includes the land itself. Sure, we may officially reside in states and counties, cities and towns, but we live in athletic divisions, regions, and rivalries: home team and visitors, us vs. them. I’m in Ohio and on any given day I can probably tell you how our baseball and football teams are doing, even though I find both sports snoozers. Like pop hits or smog, sports is in the air. We breathe it in at the checkout counter, the water cooler, the bar. All the more so in an age with an Internet and interstates. There isn’t a great geographical or cultural difference between Cincinnati and Cleveland, but it sure as shit matters if you’re in Bengals or Browns Country. Map America, and the Mason-Dixon line looks quaint compared to the scrimmage line.
That includes the very language in which I’m writing this, our workaday American English. I hear my wife, whose sports know-how consists of having watched every season of Make It or Break It, saying to her boss, “We don’t want to bench our best players,” and I’m reminded that, as Americans, we speak in sports. Will you score? Will you win? Will you take a hit for the team? Sports—whether we’re talking about our love life or our daily grind—gives us one of the “metaphors we live by,” to quote the title of George Lakoff’s and Mark Johnson’s study about how we shape our experience through language. Cognitive linguists have shown that we make sense of our lives through metaphors: life is a journey; love is war; Syria’s use of chemical weapons is, in Obama’s words, “a game-changer.” In sports, Americans have a set of analogies, images, tropes, and conceits, through which we understand ourselves, even when those metaphors, like Obama’s, woefully distort the reality we’re trying to describe.
So, when a new sport emerges on the American scene, it may signal more than just our love of exercise fads, crazes, and novelties. (Thighmaster, anyone?) A new sport may show us how we, as a culture of sports, currently envision ourselves, especially because sports serves as a surrogate for so many aspects of our culture that I’ve just mentioned. Like religion, politics, region, and language, sports bring us into community and give us a sense of belonging. It’s an academic commonplace that sports, with its rituals, fetishes, seasons, and deep devotion, has increasingly fulfilled the role of religion, but it’s an eye-opener when you find a figure such as Nelson Mandela upholding sports as a means through which humanity can achieve its highest aspirations. At the Laureus World Sports Awards in 2000, Mandela saw the path to a brighter future, and it comes with a marching band:
Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire, it has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope, where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than governments in breaking down racial barriers. It laughs in the face of all types of discrimination.
And sure enough, sports can uphold a standard of justice that we often find lacking in our government and social institutions. The stopwatch doesn’t care about your race, class, or gender. The barbell isn’t impressed or daunted that you went to Yale or prison. “I think all of us are looking for that which does not admit of bullshit,” the novelist Harry Crews once said in an interview, and he found that in sports:
If you tell me you can bench press 450, hell, we’ll load up the bar and put you under it. Either you can do it or you can’t do it—you can’t bullshit. Ultimately, sports are just about as close to what one would call the truth as it is possible to get in this world.
The counterview to sports as a beacon of meritocratic equality and unbeclouded truth is that it’s a spillway for our worst public and private selves. Orwell, as you’d expect, saw sports as “bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence: in other words it is war minus the shooting.” And Chomsky sees sports as an opiate for the shirtless, face-painted, giant-foam-finger masses: “It’s a way of building up irrational attitudes of submission to authority and group cohesion behind leadership elements. In fact it’s training in irrational jingoism.” I don’t think you have to choose between sports as Big Brother and sports as American Eagle to agree with a less epistemologically grand version of Crew’s claim: sports can tell us the no-bullshit truth about ourselves, and a new sport might just have some new truth to reveal.
In this case, the sport is CrossFit, “the sport of fitness™.” You’ve probably heard of it, either from some guy yakking about it at the office or through one of those lifestyle segments on the news where it sporadically pops up. The typical take is that CrossFit is a cult or that it makes you vomit. (The yacker will demonstrate his cultish investment in CrossFit by detailing his retch-inducing workout.) CrossFit invites these views. Like yoga or golf, it tends to spread from a form of exercise into a way of life. It’s loosely linked to a particular diet (paleo); it has signature clothes (high socks, a liberal use of athletic tape, a preponderance of booty shorts for women and tattoos for the men) as well as its own terms, often for things that English is already equipped to handle: a gym is a “box,” a workout is a “wod” or “workout of the day,” a recommended standard for a given exercise is the physician’s “Rx.” And people who do it flood Twitter, Facebook, and other social media sites with videos, comments, recipes, advice, and general chitchat. All of these aspects, along with the fact that CrossFitters tend to love, not just do or like, but love CrossFit, give outsiders the impression that CrossFit is a cult.
That and the vomit. Every CrossFitter has their favorite story of workout obliteration, often involving a bucket. And just about every CrossFit workout ends with a group of people writhing on the floor in a slather of their collective sweat. Witnessing this scene from the outside, you’d be perfectly right in asking why anyone would do it. My wife and I certainly did. We were introduced to CrossFit one summer evening about a year ago. We’d invited colleagues over for dinner. Robert is an historian of 17th century English theology and a displaced Southerner. Jill is a Renaissance scholar, who shares Robert’s sense of Southern decorum, but fuses it with the sincerity and openness of her Midwestern upbringing. They’re both around my age, forty-something, and self-described conservatives, though Robert is quick to make wickedly wry observations that’d make you think he wasn’t the father of two well-raised daughters, and Jill obviously loves it. In short, they’re our very adult and very admirable friends. So when we saw the giant scabs running along Robert’s shins, we were concerned.
“Ah,” said Robert, glancing at wounds obviously delivered by a runaway jigsaw or the jaws of a Rottweiler, “that’s from the rope.”
“Have you guys ever heard of CrossFit?” asked Jill with a beamy smile. “It’s this crazy exercise we’re doing!”
That’s when we noticed Jill, in a sleeveless blouse, had shoulders and biceps that appeared freshly chiseled. I blurted some remark about her “guns,” Jill insisted I not call her arms “guns,” and my wife and I proceeded to drill them for details. They were reticent, but we eventually pried from them stories about skin-frying rope climbs and punishing push-ups, about Jill’s inability to lift her arms after a workout and write lecture notes on the chalkboard, about a gym behind barbwire in an industrial warehouse and its stentorian coach and residing genius, a tiny ex-gymnast with a blonde pony tail and the stamina of a Navy SEAL. We also heard about vomit. Robert vomits in workouts at least once a month. (Down, he informs me, from an initial bi-monthly basis.) He pushes himself like a man possessed, even when guys half his age are bent over and wheezing, until his only option is a sprint through the rear exit and a secluded spot in the gravel by the fence. After our conversation that night, my wife and I worried that our very adult and very admirable friends had gone slightly insane.
Then we tried it. Here I’m going to spare you my own beginning-CrossFit story, another genre among CrossFitters, and instead tell the story of CrossFit’s beginning. Its very origin is splashed in vomit. (For the record, I did not vomit. I merely suffered the chills, the sweats, and the shakes, simultaneously. Vomiting wuld have been a relief.) It’s also very American. CrossFit begins with a guy in his garage, tinkering around and inventing something revolutionary. Think Thomas Edison, think Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. In 1971, Greg Glassman was a seventeen-year-old gymnast who specialized in the rings. He was searching for a way to stay in shape during the off-season and started experimenting with different exercises in a home gym that he and his father had set up in the garage. He needed a workout that would match the physical intensity of a two-minute ring routine, something, as Glassman later said, “that would leave you sitting on your ass, gasping for air.” He mixed up different lifts and bodyweight exercises until he hit on a combination, almost at random, that would become CrossFit’s ur-workout. He called it “Fran.” It’s much easier and more informative for you to take two minutes and watch it than for me to describe it. This clip also gives you a look into a typical “box.”
Over decades, as an athlete and then as a trainer, Glassman would work through and refine what he discovered in “Fran.” He’s an empiricist, with the practical sensibility of an engineer that he inherited from his father. He’s interested in what works. He’s also an iconoclast, a self-described “radical libertarian,” which may explain why, when he and his then-wife, Lauren Glassman, started CrossFit, Inc. in 2000, Glassman launched not only a fitness company, but also a challenge to America’s general idea of fitness. It’s an idea that, as Glassman points out, really isn’t one. “What is fitness?” he asked in an article that appeared in The CrossFit Journal in 2002. Despite all the attention, time, and money America devotes to fitness, Glassman couldn’t find a solid definition. Dictionaries weren’t much help. (The OED defines it as “[t]he quality or state of being fit or suitable; the quality of being fitted, qualified, or competent. spec. the quality or state of being physically fit.”) Is it your body mass index? Your aerobic capacity? Your bone density or flexibility? Is it how fast you can run a mile? Neither the authorities, such as the National Strength and Conditioning Association, nor the Internet offered Glassman “a workable, reasonable definition of fitness.”[ii]
Glassman found this imprecision troubling. How can an exercise program make you fitter if it can’t define, much less measure your fitness? Ignorance or, worse, bad faith seemed to haunt America’s views of fitness. And Glassman certainly wasn’t willing to accept the claim made by Outside Magazine in 1997 that then-six-time-winner of the Iron Man Triathlon, Mark Allen, was “the fittest man on earth.” The man, Glassman concedes, has exceptional endurance and stamina, but in regard to “strength, power, speed, and coordination” a decathlete such as Simon Poelman would “crush” him. Just how well would a triathlete do if he not only had to run, swim and bike, but also sprint, shot put, hurdle, broad jump, and throw a javelin? And how about heavy snatching against an Olympic power lifter, Mr. Iron Man, or running an obstacle course against a U.S. Ranger? How fit ya feeling now?
Into this lexicographical and conceptual morass, Glassman launched his definition of fitness, one that “the sport of fitness” aims to achieve: “work capacity across broad time and modal domains.” It’s deceptively simple. In essence, being fit in Glassman’s terms means being able to do a lot of different things for a lot of different lengths of time. Not only a 40-meter sprit or a 26.2-mile run to the finish line, but also pull-ups and rowing, tire flips and dead lifts, sandbag carries and kettle-bell swings, ring rows and rope climbs and broad jumps. And you should be able to do these exercises in different combinations, from a lightning strike like “Fran” to a workout lasting thirty minutes or an hour. “Constantly varied, high intensity, functional movement” is another definition Glassman uses. You get fit by always switching up (i.e. crossing) the exercises you do. In practice, this approach means that one day you might alternate sets of overhead squats with half-mile runs, but the next day you’re doing twelve nonstop minutes of sit-ups, ring dips, and handstand pushups. “Routine is the enemy,” writes Glassman. Mix it up, shake it up, throw it up. Your body and mind never quite know what’s coming, so you have to adapt and do the unexpected, and through that process you get fit.[iii]
So you can forget those circles of exercise hell, where you’re watching your time or calories tick away so you can get off the elliptical machine and out of the gym. A CrossFit workout is an experience: a heart-pumping, adrenaline-fueled challenge, where afterwards you feel as though you’ve accomplished something, something you initially weren’t sure you could do. When I first see the day’s workout, I have this “Oh fuck” feeling. I get dry-mouthed and jittery. As we go through the warm up, the feeling of expectation grows. My wife obsessively chalks her hands. Jill goes to some deep place, where it looks like she’s staring at you from within a giant aquarium. Robert props open the rear door. And then the music pounds, and the timer counts down, and you’re in it: boom, and by “boom” I mean a nearly Jungian journey, where what begins manageably, even optimistically, soon becomes a nightmarish descent into the bodily underworld, in which your reptilian brain is blurting, Pain—can’t—hurt—can’t—stop—can’t—pain— And your inner Little Engine that Could is chugging back: Pick up that fucking barbell! Are you crying?! Stop crying and get back on the bar! And somehow you do and somehow you finish and somehow you come out on the other side feeling transformed, mostly for the better, though with an acute awareness that Darth Vader is your father.
And you don’t do it alone. CrossFit’s workouts create a common experience for people who don’t otherwise have that much in common. Along with Jill and Robert, my wife and I workout with pizza-place owners, a bar tender, stay-at-home moms, information technologists, a production manager, teachers, graduate and undergraduate students, an eighty-year-old retiree, a high-school freshman, a physician, a cop, a medical technician, a football coach, a marine, an accountant, a construction worker, college administrators, and a twelve-year-old tween and her BBF. Critics see this diversity as evidence of CrossFit’s cultish nature. What else but a cult could draw so many different people together? Those of us who are a part of it refer to it, rightly, I think, as a community. And it’s one that’s grown. In 2005, there were thirteen CrossFit “affiliates.” Now there are over 5,500, from Rarotonga Island to India, though well over two-thirds of them are in America. For scale, that’s a little less than the number of Domino’s Pizzas in America and a little more than the number of Little Caesar’s. Compared to CrossFit, Planet Fitness, with its 600-odd franchises, looks like a small moon.
CrossFit has also grown from a participant to spectator sport. Each year it holds the CrossFit Games, an annual competition to find the fittest man and woman on earth. This year 145,000 of us competed in the first stage of the Games, which is an open event that takes place over five weeks. (I was in 55,980 place before getting disqualified because I supposedly didn’t (though I did) report my score on time; otherwise, I probably would have broken into the top 54,000.) Another 24,000 fans showed up to watch the championships that happened from July 22nd to 28th, and ESPN 2 and 3 broadcast those events live. I’ll be curious to see the ratings. The Games deserves its own essay, in part because—as you might have experienced if you watched Jason Kaplan do “Fran”—CrossFit isn’t that fun to watch. It’s a guy lifting a barbell over and over, then doing pull-ups over and over. What’s worse is that the better the athlete, the less fun they are to watch, because they make it look so easy and so reduce the agony that’s so central to the experience. Rich Froning, the three-time Games champion, often looks like a cyborg, churning out nearly impossible feats of strength with a steely lack of expression. Watching the Games doesn’t offer the spectatorial buzz of a downhill slalom or a prize fight.[iv]
The challenge currently facing CrossFit, Inc. is how to package itself for prime time. How do you take an intensely internal and communal experience and showcase it as a flashy spectator sport with individual winners and losers? To put it in more commercial terms, how do you publically promote CrossFit to new audiences and draw more customers into the gyms when the very elements that make your sport so compelling don’t lend themselves to media coverage and are in many ways antithetical to it? CrossFit has its own media team, and what they’ve produced, both for the Games and in the constant feed of articles and videos that comes from “CrossFit HQ,” reveals quite a bit about our larger, celebrity-driven, winning-obsessed, corporate-funded sports culture. CrossFit, as an activity and a community and a sport and a corporation and a grass-roots movement, isn’t an easy fit for an ESPN mold, and the way it’s getting shoved in there says a lot about both CrossFit and the mold. Just how do you trot a hydra in front of a camera?
In fact, one of CrossFit’s most fascinating aspects doesn’t show up in the Games: the ethos that inspires CrossFit is one found in law enforcement and the military. You see this connection in everything from the number of men and women in military service who do CrossFit to the no-frills nature of the gyms themselves. “Boxes” tend to be gritty, garage-like spaces, without mirrors, juice bars, towel service, etc. Then there’s the way in which CrossFit athletes workout together as a unit. Glassman has repeatedly quoted Special Forces Captain Michael Perry on how CrossFit revealed to him the nature of the comradeship that Perry experienced in the Green Berets. He described it as “agony coupled with laughter,” and that’s often the vibe in the gym. Of course, the workouts themselves have an obvious likeness to boot camp. And, some of them are designated as “Hero Wods,” workouts that take their name from firefighters, cops and those in the military who had a connection to CrossFit and died in service. “Murph,” for example, is in recognition of Navy Lieutenant Michael P. Murphy, who was killed in Afghanistan on June 28th, 2005, and subsequently received the Congressional Medal of Honor. In a remote area of the Konar Province, Murphy exposed himself to overwhelming enemy fire so he could transmit his team’s location and radio for support. “Murph” is a mile run, followed by 100 pull-ups, 200 push-ups, and 300 squats, then another mile run. There are over fifty of these hero wods, and they’re all brutal. During “Murph,” you’re also supposed to wear body armor or a 20-pound weighted vest.
When I started CrossFit, I was troubled by the hero wods. The prospect of doing pull-ups and push-ups to honor a dead American soldier struck me as suspect, if not morally bizarre. I got the idea: the intensity of the workout is meant as a sign of respect, and the small sacrifice you undergo in the workout is meant to venerate the ultimate sacrifice paid by the honoree. As our coach once put it, “During this workout, think about the fact that you’re not dead.” I got it and still I found doing a workout a strange way to memorialize a soldier. Then again, I recognize that ours is a death-phobic culture and that our public rituals for reckoning with our dead, especially those who die in service to us, are insufficient. Is a funeral or a flag or a posthumous medal enough? Is a national day of mourning or a monument enough? I can understand how we might need new ways to memorialize our soldiers. But can you honor someone through suffering and sweat, as we do through stillness and silence? I don’t know. I do know that most days, except in the headlines, I don’t have to face that we’re a country at war, but that once or twice a month, when I do a hero wod, I learn about a soldier who’s died in it. Usually, his or her death didn’t make the national news, and that may have been five or ten years ago. I’m asked to recognize these men and women, to acknowledge their service and those they’re survived by. And I’m keenly aware that someone who might have been working out next to me has died so I can have, among other things, the luxury experience of working out. Then it seems to me that what’s morally suspect is me. On my birthday this year, I requested our gym do “Murph.”
This military ethos runs to the core of CrossFit, shaping its very vision of fitness. In the same article where Glassman defines what it means to be fit, he grounds CrossFit’s approach to fitness in those who already exemplify it: “We are but sharing the methods of a program whose legitimacy has been established through the testimony of athletes, soldiers, cops, and others whose lives or livelihoods depend on fitness.” The standard invoked here isn’t so much about staying in shape as staying alive. Take, for example, the way in we should understand the muscle-up, a movement in which you begin by hanging from rings, pull yourself up through them, as you would in a pull-up, then drive yourself up, as you would in a dip, so that you end with your arms locked out, suspended in the air.[v] Master the muscle-up, says Glassman, and –
You’ll be able to surmount any object on which you can get a finger hold—if you can touch it you can get up on it. The value here for survival, police, fire fighter, and military use is impossible to overstate.
This need to be combat ready, to survive, also informs CrossFit’s foundational idea, the need to “cross” the kinds of exercise you do. “Our specialty,” writes Glassman, “is not specializing. Combat, survival, many sports, and life reward this kind of fitness and, on average, punish the specialist.”
In this sense, CrossFit’s revolutionary vision does have a history. As long as there’s been political philosophy, there have been ideas about how to train soldiers for war. Socrates sounds something like a CrossFitter in Plato’s Republic when he discusses the needs of soldiers, making a distinction between “warrior athletes” and “ordinary athletes.” He’s mainly concerned about diet, but he uses food to speak about their training more generally. The problem, he claims, is that ordinary athletes are crippled by their monotonous training routines. They’re “liable to most dangerous illnesses if they depart, in ever so slight a degree, from their customary regimen.” Ordinary athletes can’t deviate, can’t adapt. And that’s exactly what soldiers need to do. For Socrates, warrior athletes should be “like wakeful dogs,” ready
to see and hear with the utmost keenness; amid the many changes of water and also of food, of summer heat and winter cold, which they will have to endure when on a campaign, they must not be liable to break down in health.
Training for warrior athletes should prepare them to confront a range of challenges. It should hone them for the unexpected and the unknown. “Routine,” writes Glassman, “is the enemy,” not least of all because you can’t predict how and when the enemy will come at you. Seen in this light, CrossFitters look more like amateur “wakeful dogs” or would-be commandos than athletes: men and women who train the way you might if you were at Quantico, preparing for combat in the field.
CrossFit’s military ethos leads me back to my opening question. What does a new sport tell us about America’s culture of sports? It’s not lost on me that the rise of CrossFit coincides with the War on Terror, and that neither of them have a foreseeable end. Almost twelve years of war can’t help but transform us as a people, not only in obvious ways, such as whom we elect and how we travel, but also in ways that might surprise us. In the rise, for example, of gated communities, gun sales (2012 was a record year), and those “survivor” narratives that litter reality TV shows, disaster films, cancer testimonies, and sermons about the end of days. Who among us, we obsessively ask, will survive? I see something similar in the excessive self-disclosure we do on Facebook, Twitter, and other 2.0 sites, which often look as though we’re more than willing to turn over the privacy we’ve been losing since the Homeland Security Act first passed. And now I hear myself sounding like Orwell or Chomsky, spotting dystopia in every tweet, and I don’t like that. Still, I don’t think it’s overblown to claim that, as the citizens of a country involved in an ongoing global war, we’ve changed—are changing—because of it, perhaps in ways as seemingly tangential as how and why we workout.
Coincidence, I’m aware, is not causation. The rise of one thing alongside another might be a matter of chance. I’m reminded of this fact whenever I watch the final minutes of the “Gym Rats” class at our box, in which a gaggle of kids shriek and laugh as they scramble over big green mats, dangle from ropes, and draw squiggles, hearts, and turtles on the floor in pastel chalk. There are Robert’s and Jill’s daughters, trying to do pull-ups with their beany arms and grinning like goofs when they succeed. At that moment, I think I’m about as far from global conflict as you can get, that I’m part of a tight-knit community where people feel welcomed, supported, and challenged. And then I see the flag, hanging on the gym wall, and I realize that the observations I’ve been making don’t clash, that a strong sense of community and a martial ethos go hand in hand, and that one thing the emergence of CrossFit may very well show us is America’s ongoing transformation from a culture of sports to a culture of war.
[i] Most of these quotations are taken from the promotion materials that CrossFit, Inc.has released. The company regularly puts out an impressive number of videos; it also has a podcast and an online magazine called the CrossFit Journal, which offers everything from nutrition and training tips to inspirational narratives and political profiles. As CrossFit’s primal scene, “Fran” has inspired its own media flourish. See, forexample, “The Story of Fran by Greg Glassman”
CrossFit’s “Ode to Fran,” as well as the dozens of other videos of people doing “Fran” on YouTube.
[ii] In 2002 Glassman had only a fledgling Wikipedia to use as a resource. Accessing it today, you can readily find fitness defined as “a general concept defined in many ways by differing scientists.”
[iii] In the same article, Glassman describes this idea through an image: “Picture a hopper loaded with an infinite number of physical challenges, where no selective mechanism is operative, and being asked to perform feats randomly drawn from the hopper.” I find this idea intriguing, so I built a virtual hopper that generates random CrossFit workouts. Every eight hours at “The Fron Bot” spits out a nearly impossible challenge for the most famous CrossFit athlete, Rich Froning (Twitter:https://twitter.com/TheFronDown; Facebook:https://www.facebook.com/fron.down.5). As far as I know, Froning has not attempted any of these workouts.
[iv] Unless you do CrossFit. Then it’s riveting television, primarily because you knowhow grueling it is to do something like “Fran” and so you watch the relative ease of these athletes with awe. I’ve calculated that I’d be competitive at the Games in the Masters category of 55-59 year-old women.
[v] The muscle-up is the brass ring for CrossFitters. It can take a year or more of plugging away to get them, and muscle-up attempts—especially when friends are goingafter them for the first time—are some of the most nail-biting moments in the gym. There’s no joy for a CrossFitter like getting it: