Above video: A clip from HBO’s “Eastbound & Down” season 1 that summarizes my feelings about competitive exercising like CrossFit, feelings admittedly rooted in my own insecurities and weakling status. I own that.
Earlier this year, during a CrossFit competition called the “OC Throwdown” – a pre-cursor to the CrossFit Games – Kevin Ogar attempted an Olympic lift that would, within seconds, render him a paraplegic. One of the top athletes in the sport, Ogar, a former rugby player and CrossFit coach in Denver, was surely no stranger to the highly technical maneuver, but his slight move backwards caused him to drop the bar, 240 pounds in total weight, and sever his upper spine. The video of Ogar’s injury is disturbing, to say the least. Striking still is his reluctance to blame CrossFit for it.
If you pay any mind to workout trends like I do (albeit as an easily-bored, obligated exerciser), you have heard of CrossFit and have at least one friend who cannot stop singing its praises in terms and zeal that border on fanatical: they’re in in the best shape of their lives, they’re healthier than ever before, bad karma erased, the list goes on. The CrossFit movement is emboldened by its 10,000 worldwide affiliates (gyms in laymen’s terms; “boxes” in CrossFit parlance) and its acolytes, over 200,000 of whom signed up to compete in the CrossFit Games Open, the worldwide qualifier for the ESPN 2-broadcasted CrossFit Games.
Above video: Highlights from the 2014 Reebok CrossFit Games broadcast on ESPN 2 where men and women competed to be the Fittest on Earth.
CrossFit, at its core as an exercise philosophy, involves (very) high-intensity interval training in a compressed time frame. What it boils down to – with variations – is doing as many rounds as possible of set exercises dubbed “WODs” or “workouts of the day” usually with minimal rest. There are Twitterfeeds devoted to posting WODs or take your pick from a variety posted on the CrossFit website. Pick your pull-up poison; it’s all in the name of achieving elite fitness.
“What is ‘elite fitness’?” you might be wondering. That depends on who you ask. While some have set out standards for being elitely fit, a sort of one-workout-to-rule-them-all, more generally, “elite fitness” seems to be an umbrella term for achieving the ability to complete the rigorous exercise regimens once only familiar to Navy SEALs and members of law enforcement and the military, populations with which CrossFit is immensely popular. Celebs have jumped on the WODwagon, too.
“Forging elite fitness” (CrossFit’s motto) is also big business. CrossFit founder Greg Glassman is not what you would call a traditional businessman, but he might be a marketing genius. Operating on a unique model built on a network of, more or less, independent entrepreneurs who essentially buy into the CrossFit brand, the company pulls in around $100 million in revenue. It’s generated mostly from licensing fees and seminars that could turn anyone – even me! – into a Level 1 Certified CrossFit trainer for a $1,000 flat fee.
In theory, after I complete my Level 1 certification, which includes a multiple choice test and completing a rigorous WOD called the Fran (okay, so maybe I can’t be a CrossFit gym owner), I could open my own “box” – a purposely generic term since it can be customized to the owner’s liking under the CrossFit brand. Box owners pay a $3,000 annual licensing fee, although early owners have been grandfathered in at rates as low as $500.
To the marketing genius end, not only has Glassman founded an entire workout methodology/philosophy/lifestyle and created a lexicon around it (WODs, boxes), he’s co-opted some of the less-than-flattering buzz around CrossFit into the brand. There’s “Uncle Pukie” alternately known as “Pukie the Clown,” a vomiting clown mascot speaking to CrossFit-induced vomiting that’s made puke buckets box staples. A 2005 New York Times article detailed one new CrossFitter who landed in the ER after his inaugural workout with a debilitating condition known as rhabdomyolysis where muscle breaks down and causes kidney damage. Uncle Rhabdo, a fatigued clown hooked up to a dialysis machine, was Uncle Pukie’s corporate mascot cousin for awhile.
It’s all very fascinating how CrossFit has turned puke and the rapid breakdown of muscle tissue into tongue-in-cheek marketing tools. Indeed, Glassman himself has acknowledged that CrossFit “can kill you.” But it’s precisely that weed-out-the-weak branding that has made me hesitant and, admittedly, intimidated about ever stepping into a box.
Then there are the CrossFit-related injuries which have drawn criticism from various fitness professionals and doctors mostly because of inconsistent and unregulated programs that push participants to levels of physical activity for which they are unprepared. But before I get a deluge of hate-mail, let me be clear: certainly, correlation does not imply causation. One study cited the CrossFit-related injury rate at three per thousand hours of exercise, similar to rates in gymnastics and Olympic lifting. Every sport has its inherent risks. Living has inherent risks.
But the CrossFit brand is bolstered by such vocal practitioners that I often wonder what they’re preaching about. The word “cult” has been thrown around, but I find that way too charged – “community” seems more appropriate. Furthermore, members of said community continue to promote it even when assuming those risks don’t work out in their favor: Ogar is now confined to a wheelchair and no longer competes but continues to train other CrossFit athletes.
One of my favorite scenes from HBO’s “Eastbound & Down” season 1 is of a conversation between generously-mulleted Kenny Powers (Danny McBride) and his boss (Andrew Daly), a smug school principal bragging about training for an upcoming triathlon, to which Powers responds, “I play real sports, not try to be the best at exercising.” Chuckle, chuckle. It’s a clip I like to shove in my marathon-running, triathlete friends‘ faces mostly out of insecurity because I know I could/would never elect to do what they do. I would probably give up halfway through mile one.
Competitive exercising just isn’t my bag, so then by extension, I have assumed that neither is CrossFit. But then again, if I were to try sell someone on surfing knowing full well there are sharks in the ocean and rocks and – most dangerous of all – other surfers while singing the sport’s praises, I would probably sound like some evangelist; I would probably sound like a dedicated CrossFitter.