CrossFit. For some the word conjures up visions of guys with man-buns doing an impossible gymnastic feat over and over again on a set of rings, or a girl in a sports bra who is THICC in all the right (or perhaps wrong) places blasting out heavy Olympic lifts in rapid succession. To many it’s a weird and masochistic form of exercising with a cultish following whose adherents refuse to shut up about it.
“A CrossFitter, a vegan, and an atheist walk into a bar. I know because they told me when they walked in.” H/T Dr. Fronkensteen
Stereotypes exist for a reason and far be it from me to defend how some CrossFitters act (much less what they choose to post on social media). That being said, I myself am an adherent to this weird libertarian workout cult and can say that, while I will not claim it is the end-all-be-all form of exercise, it does offer something that most conventional gyms and exercise programs do not.
Part I: A short and incomplete history
CrossFit methodology was developed in the early 2000’s by self-proclaimed “Rabid Libertarian” Greg Glassman. Appropriately for a libertarian, his physical appearance resembles a construction worker on the tail end of a three day bender rather than the founder of an internationally successful fitness movement.
Glassman was a gymnast in high-school who sought to get stronger than the competition by incorporating barbell lifting into his training regimen. He quickly realized that while training specialization might make his friends and competitors better in one particular activity, it often came at the expense of skill or strength in another and that when competing in varied activities and competitions he was often far better equipped than those who focused solely on their event or sport.
Fast forward to 2000 and he’s codified his “jack-of-all-trades” approach into the term known as “CrossFit” and is poised to unleash a fitness phenomenon on the world, complete with head bands, compression socks, copious amounts of loose chalk and pretentious FB posts. The fancy description of the goal of CrossFit goes something like this:
“greater work capacity across broad time and modal domains”
“Adherents train to enhance 10 key physical qualities: cardiovascular/respiratory endurance, stamina, strength, flexibility, power, speed, coordination, agility, balance and accuracy.”
Put more simply, the goal is to be “fit.” Strong? Yes. Endurance? You bet. Flexible? Yup. Fast? Uh-huh….. You get the idea.
Unlike many other popular forms of exercising CrossFit eschews specializing in one particular area and seeks to train an individual in all dimensions of fitness simultaneously. An avid marathon runner may have incredible cardiovascular/respiratory endurance but this often comes at the expense of muscular strength. A body builder may be incredibly strong but they are rarely flexible or possess the stamina for prolonged energy expenditure, and so on.
While this may have been a revelation in the fitness world circa 2000, it was by no means a “new” idea. In fact, 20th century fitness was founded on this approach. The CrossFit brand may be relatively new, the methodology however bears a striking resemblance to Georges Hébert’s “Natural Method” of the early 20th Century.
“A (Natural Method) session is composed of exercises belonging to the ten fundamental groups: walking, running, jumping, quadrupedal movement, climbing, equilibrium (balancing), throwing, lifting, defending and swimming.”
While their definitions of the dimensions of fitness do not perfectly align, their similarity is undeniable. The underlying belief is the same: being all-around fit makes you better equipped not only for survival, but life in general.
The 1970s gave us two trends that would turn the idea of what fitness is on its ear. The running boom and Arnold Schwarzenegger. These two divergent phenomena pushed people away from pursuing fitness itself as a goal and toward physical specialization. New marathons, half-marathons, 10Ks and 5Ks began to pop up across the country, not as a spectacle for the super athlete to compete in, but as something for the average person to aspire to do; participation levels spiked as never before. Soon you had a sizable portion of the population pursuing running only (or at least endurance sports only) and neglecting strength training almost entirely under the false assumption that it makes you “bulky” and “slow.”
One the other end of the spectrum you have Arnold Schwarzenegger, a physical specimen the likes of which the world has never seen. His muscles had muscles. His physique made Michelangelo’s David look like a pajama boy and his popularity redefined the international conception of what it meant to be “strong.” So begins the “gym rat” phenomenon of [mostly] men pumping themselves up in the gym, trying to look like Arnold, moving away from some of the old-fashioned barbell power lifting movements in favor or isolating muscle groups with exercises like curls, flys, bench press, military press, leg extensions, etc. The gym rats were almost as disdainful of cardio/endurance training as the marathoners were of strength training; “it makes you skinny” and “it kills muscle.” “Cardio” if done at all, was confined to a separate workout to be done one or two days a week for most gym rats.
Thus over the last forty years we see the average person faced with a false dichotomy; pursue endurance specialization or strength specialization, when in fact both approaches neglect at least half of what being “fit” is all about.
Fast forward back to the mid-2000s and enter Greg Glassman. New guy peddling an old idea. For the average person, “fitness” is the goal of exercise. Your average person does not exercise to compete in a specialized sport but to have a healthy and functional body. As A Leap at the Wheel put it in GlibFit 2.0, Son of Glibfit:
Fitness is the process of picking things up and putting them down, using excess energy in your diet to improve your heart, lungs, and muscles.
I would add that training your muscles and your heart and lungs need not be, and perhaps should not be, mutually exclusive; fitness is your body’s ability to perform work and that work must be done at the pace that the situation and environment demand.
Will your average person ever “need” to run 26.2 miles? Is there any point to being able to bench 400 lbs beyond being able to claim you can bench 400 lbs? Neither goal is a bad thing in and of itself, yet, hitting a certain run time or weight on a particular lift is often an arbitrary standard to judge one’s fitness. For the average person who is not a competitive athlete training for a specific event, the better standard may be to ask yourself:
Can I lift the heavy object off a child?
Can I climb out the window of a burning building, hang from the ledge and drop to the ground?
Can I pull myself back in that window if need be?
Can I sprint a half-mile down the road to get help?
If I’m in a situation where I need to defend myself or others with my body do I have the stamina to keep fighting for several minutes after the initial assault?
CrossFit came about to supply a demand in the fitness market for those who prioritize function over form and utility over aesthetic. It’s not the only way, much less the perfect way, it’s just a really good, and increasingly available way, to achieve physical utility. While a person’s individual physiology certainly plays no small part, committed CrossFitters often end up with a body type that resembles someone whom works hard outdoors for a living. For those of us attached to keyboards and chairs all day, that’s not a bad thing.
Some of you are asking by now “So what the hell is it exactly? What makes it so libertarian?” Good questions that will be answered in Part 2. Please let me reiterate this disclaimer; I do not claim CrossFit is the perfect form of exercise. While I believe in the methodology, its execution often falls victim to human nature and I intend to distinguish between good and bad trends within CrossFit in Part 3.
For now let me close by saying that its appeal, for me, is rooted in the libertarian virtue of self-reliance. Sure it’s nice to look good naked and know that I’m doing something good for my body, but below that at the core it’s about capitalizing on the body I’ve been given.
In a world that is increasingly dismissive and hostile to the idea of self-reliance, I sleep better at night knowing I am physically able to come to the aid of a family member or neighbor in a time of crisis. It’s about being confident that I’m at least somewhat prepared physically to respond to the unforeseen. The best analogy I can come up with: it’s akin to owning a firearm or a tool; my body does me little good if it’s neglected and rusty.