Introduction and The Unknown
by Mari Gomez
When I first walked into a local CrossFit (CF) gym, my concept of working out was comprised of vague notions of weightlifting and push-ups. Someone had tried to show me the squat once and I seem to remember feeling rather incompetent, similar to the way I feel in most social situations. I was finishing my second year of graduate school and subsisting on a diet of cigarettes, tuna sandwiches, and potato chips. I was an unhealthy 100 pounds and could barely hold my own body weight, yet alone do a push-up. After almost two years of attending a local gym, the first of which was rather inconsistent and anxiety filled, I’ve changed my thinking about a lot of things regarding my my physical self.
Every week it seems like there’s a new article vehemently denouncing CF, accusing it of brainwashed participants or of a high injury risk. As a lay person in sports science and medicine, I cannot personally guarantee that CF is completely safe as far as long term effects. And yet none of the articles I've come across that have claimed the high injury argument have presented empirical data. Actually, as far as I know, there is no such data being collected from CrossFit affiliate gyms seeing as CF has no strict oversight over gyms that bear its name. (An interesting topic in its own right.)
One of these recent denouncing articles claimed there is a form of brainwashing occurring among the CF community. It's an interesting use of the word. It could be said that brainwashing goes on during presidential elections. It could be said about television, but it doesn't really examine anything, except to suggest every CrossFitter is sat on a chair with their eyelids clamped open, á la Clock Work Orange, while forced to watch videos of beautiful athletes with bulging muscles performing extraordinary feats of strength. And this doesn't happen.
CF has primarily spread as a workout philosophy, a shift in the fitness paradigm. Creator Greg Glassman has called CrossFit a fitness revolution because of its inclusion of hundreds and thousands of people. Political or revolutionary movements are usually a result of deeper trends, an idea, collective concerns or frustrations reaching a breaking point. And if indeed CF is a fitness “revolution” as has been suggested, then perhaps there is something underneath the surface, aspects of the sport that provide real meaning and value to the participants. Perhaps it’s a form of rebellion against a certain lifestyle. CF, after all, revolves around health and fitness and nutrition, three things not usually associated with U.S culture. CF has created a shift in people’s idea about the body’s potential and functionality.
In a talk by Greg Glassman in 2009, he articulated some of the thinking behind the sport. He believes fitness is a condition that lends itself “generally well to all physical activities.” Speaking to a group of soldiers and combat veterans, he explained that the nature of their experience in combat requires a kind of physical alertness. (This applies to law enforcement and similar professions.) This means that their training goals are more complex because of the chaotic nature of their physical requirements on the battle field or danger zones. So, in theory, a soldier cannot only train in strength because they must also be fast and have incredible endurance. So the soldier that must carry one hundred pounds of gear need not only be strong, but have stamina and speed because the circumstances are unpredictable and variable to change. This idea underlines what CF attempts to do for the average person: increase their physical capacity across a broad spectrum of demands. “We asked” Glassman writes in the CF Journal, “what physical skills and adaptations would most universally lend themselves to performance advantage.” The performance advantage not referring to an athletic competition, although that too, but initially, I think, it referred to performance in the real world.
The idea of the unknown circumstances are central to CF’s methodology. The CrossFit Journal states that the CF prescription is “constantly varied, high-intensity, functional movement.” The idea of “functional” movement suggests that it’ll serve a real, practical purpose. Variation, unpredictability, is at the very core of CF and perhaps part of what makes it so appealing; one walks into the gym without prior knowledge of the combination that awaits: it might be any combination of body weight exercises, weight lifting, Olympic lifts, and intense cardio. Whatever the workout is for that day will require a different set of skills and you must be prepared to tackle it.
The idea, the CF Journal continues, is to prepare a trainee “for any physical contingency-prepare them for the unknown but for the unknowable as well.” (What the exact difference between the unknown and the unknowable is, I’m not really sure, thinking about it makes my head hurt. It also reminds me of Donald Rumsfeld and that makes me somewhat uncomfortable. There are phrases in the article like: “CrossFit increases work capacity across broad time and modal domains,” which are, frankly, quite difficult to decipher.)
Nevertheless, the fundamental promise of CF, as I understand it, is an overall physical preparedness, what is often referred to as “the ready state”; the idea is that this kind of training prepares one's body for responding to real life scenarios in which your survival or immediate success is contingent upon your body's response and ability. This goes back to the combat scenarios Glassman discussed. In other words, your body's strength, agility, conditioning, or reflexes, your ability to pull your weight up efficiently, to run away from danger, to carry weight across distances, might actually be useful to you. While most American civilians will never encounter a life or death situation in which an overhead squat position is needed for survival, or while the typical American’s life is not constantly bombarded by threat, the idea is that training the body to respond, to be stronger, more resilient, accustomed to pain, able to withstand challenges, will mean higher chances of overall success. And that idea is rather appealing. Everyone wants to feel ready and able. There is a confidence that comes with feeling one is prepared for the unknown. There is a confidence, illusory or not, that becomes valuable in everyday life.
When Donald Rumsfeld gave his famous “unknown unknowns” talk, he was playing up the notion that there are threats out there that Americans cannot even conceive, yet alone comprehend. Therefore, all assumptions are justified and action must be taken in order to eliminate any and all possibilities. The government’s narrative suggested then, and continues to suggest, that there are constant threats to our security and one of the responses to that, as we've recently come to find out, was to eliminate the unknown by building a massive surveillance operation. That is, by studying everything and everybody, the NSA's logic suggested, it would eliminate any threat. Of course, it didn't. That 'threat' is still out there and it is elusive, emerging in different forms since the inception of the war.
The typical American civilian's life, however, is not constantly under threat or danger on a day to day basis. What is it about the idea of preparation that has attracted a large number of people in the U.S? Perhaps, on a subconscious level, this new found concept of fitness is a way for people to initiate change and prepare for an unknown they've been convinced is out there.Perhaps this rhetoric constructed thinking of imminent destruction, which has propelled people to prepare themselves, or to feel that they do indeed need to be prepared. The culture has perhaps finally realized that the system is meant to make us unhealthy and dependent. That most American's lives are so banal that we must create our own preparation to keep us mentally and physically vigilant. Or, is it as simple as providing a purpose for exercising, other than aesthetics?
If I substitute the word exercise for training it suggests that what I am doing is purposeful. It can be useful to think of fitness as a means to an end and that end not being simply a “good looking” body, but a useful one, a ready one, a strong one. Who knows really, how I would react in a moment of intense peril. Perhaps my body would freeze just the same. Perhaps all the running and jumping and physical endurance I’ve sustained will abandon me in a split second. But what happens, say when your dog gets bit by something and you’re out on the desert a mile or two from your car and in dyer need veterinary assistance? You would have to carry your 55 pound dog to your car as quickly as possible and what if the last time you ran a mile was on January 2nd of last year inside a gym, on a treadmill? Or what if your car breaks down in the middle of nowhere and you must walk a long road in the heat to the nearest station?I think that the idea of training was fundamental to the appeal of CF. Its reminded people of how important and essential training the body can be, even if the unknown is illusory, or non existent, or unlikely. Or, even if the unknown, in a typical American’s life, might not go beyond, say, chasing your dog down the street, changing a flat tire, or your job which might require physical stamina or strength in some degree or other.
Glassman’s idea of the unknown is related to his definition of fitness; he argues that fitness is a condition in which your body is ready for a variety of physical demands. The unknown is a reason to train, a reason to be fit. On its initial article on fitness, The CrossFit Journal defines what fitness means within the CrossFit paradigm. It breaks it down into three standard categories: the first one is comprised of the "ten physical skills widely recognized by exercise physiologists." These are:
Cardiovascular endurance, stamina, strength, flexibility, power, speed, coordination, agility, balance, and accuracy.
The second standard is based on the performance of athletic tasks, the combination and use of the above mentioned physical skills. The third standard is on the energy systems that drive all human action. In the article, CrossFit draws a distinction between training and practice. Training, they claim, in endurance, strength, stamina, and flexibility creates an "organic change in the body." Improvements in coordination, agility, balance, and accuracy come about through practice. Hence, combined together, training and practice can theoretically change your physicality and create measurable shifts in your physiological characteristics. It seems to me that these organic changes are accompanied by a psychological aspect: what appears to be a sense of personal growth, self discovery, and physical presence.
The word "training" is important because really what you're training for, as I see it, is simply your physical engagement with the world and your relationship with your own physical self. Since I’ve started CF, I’ve become more aware of my physical self quite literally as a vehicle for energy and movement. I’ve learned various skills and movements that have made me stronger and more efficient. I’ve become more acquainted with what my body needs to feel better. This, in and of itself, is highly valuable in a society that doesn’t always require the average person to be “fit” or to use their body for much; it is quite possible in this country to survive without requiring much of your physical self. Many exercise programs and dieting pills are marketed with ideas of looking beautiful or having rock solid abs. With CrossFit, there is a sense of purpose to those abs because the focus is more about what your body can do, about what it has the potential to do when faced with the unknown, rather than how it looks.
The U.S is not exactly the healthiest country in the world in many respects. So much of the official narrative is really built on lies. Edward Snowden certainly reminded everyone of it. If someone of a lower middle class or below wants to be healthy they have to try really really hard. To reject Monsanto's grip on what we eat, it takes considerable amount of effort. Because it’s easy to follow the status quo, to eat what’s readily available, to wait until you get sick or hurt or injured and then be faced with a medical bill that will sweep your house away, because it’s easy to believe what you are told, not to discover your own body. Because it’s easy to live a life that doesn’t require your body to become stronger and resilient and because it’s easy to believe that we are a “free” country and that we have choices and that we choose to live this way. I think the fact the CF lifestyle, which forces people to be very conscious of their food, their bodies’ needs, their health, their strength and conditioning, in some ways rebels against that and that is an indication that the participants are not brainwashed, but rather engaged in a national conversation of change and preparing, one might suggest, for the unknown.
.Even when we are connected with the outside world to such mind boggling degrees, this immediacy, this physical awakening, seems necessary. The feeling of being prepared for the unknown is particularly enticing in a world that can be overwhelming with routine or physical banality.
When I first started writing, I thought I’d be able to write an analysis of CrossFit that would, in some sense, respond to the many circulating articles that put CF down and accuse its followers of being brainwashed or of mindless conformity. I wanted to discover why I kept returning to CF training and how it had become such a big part of my life. I wanted to explore CF’s popularity in the backdrop of the current times in this country. I couldn't do it all at once, so instead, I divided it into a multiple part series.