CrossFit and its Culture

By Mari Gomez

Part of what makes CrossFit(CF) an interesting phenomenon to me is that it has come to cultivate an entire culture which has the capacity to go beyond providing people with an exercise regiment. The language of CrossFit has become one of positivity: community, achievement, potential, and perseverance. CF’s popularity then has created a group of people who identify as part of this community, sharing this common language, which, at its core, seems to have come to, and adhere to, several principles: persistence, diligence, curiosity, discipline. And because of this language and this platform for communicating it, CrossFit has created a group of people that feel united under these terms and has propagated this attitude towards working out that can be translatable to other aspects of life.

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This community can serve as a way to feel connected with a bigger whole, hooked into a collective purpose that is often lost in the vastness and complexity of the modern world (not to mention a country who is otherwise completely divided, politically disenfranchised, cynical, medicated, distracted, polarized, deceived by its government, etc). At the same time it serves an avenue towards self-improvement and fosters something that for lack of better terms I’ll refer to as the culture of ambition. I’ve come to theorize that CF causes a real shift in the way people begin to think not only about fitness, but about what they are capable of, about approaching challenges. I wonder whether it is something that just happens in the gym or whether it has started to roll over and actually create a group of people much more willing to challenge themselves and push themselves and extend beyond the limits they’d perceived before. CF has this strange ability to inspire people to reach further, to set goals, and I think that for a lot of people this can potentially be a habitual approach to their daily lives. Thus, CF’s so called cult-like qualities, which it is so often accused of possessing, are actually a kind of shared mentality (which people would argue is an attribute of a cult) amongst many of its members; it is a mentality created through the CrossFit model; the community gym dynamic, the philosophy of its approach, its adaptability to body types and experience, and its “measurability.”

CF requires a variety of skills and disciplines, which range from body weight movements, to weight lifting, to running and rowing. Much of the criticism of CF actually comes from the idea that it demands too much of its athletes and is therefore dangerous. This can be true, but the idea is that an athlete begins at their appropriate level and is then slowly trained, with proper supervision and encouragement, to improve. People begin in various levels of fitness and athletic experience and because of its availability for modification, there can be a clear path for a novice to follow. That is, a progression that will approximate and slowly build the strength/skill/stamina necessary to move up at the same time that it trains the athlete into understanding their own body and its mechanics. This kind of accessibility has led to the growth of a vastly ranging community, which goes anywhere from age 6 to 60. I think that the natural set up lends itself to encouraging people to continue with the program, to making new athletes see that they have the potential for what they might of thought was impossible.

In the late 1800’s, Edward Tylor, an anthropologist, wrote a simple definition: “Culture… is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.” CF as a movement seems to posses qualities of a complex whole which ties people together with similar beliefs towards fitness, and with a similar attitude towards working out, movement, and the body, but these beliefs have the power to slowly transcend and become a way of self transformation. 

One will often hear common phrases associated with CF: “Oh, It’s a community,” or “It’s not just a workout, It’s a lifestyle.” These phrases are used so much that they've trespassed into the realm of cliche, but like most cliches they've cheapened the truth from which they are sourced because these phrases say something about the kind of culture that CF has propagated.When trying to explain CF to somebody however, especially if using such phrases it’s not uncommon that the person on the receiving end of the conversation performs the traditional eye roll and deems you as just another person that has drank the proverbial Kool Aid, which means you are usually dismissed as some kind of conforming non-thinking exercise freak that has simply bought into the hype, has terrible form, and really just wants to show you their abs.

However, aside from all its controversies and risks, I think that on some level CF creates an atmosphere where everyday is dedicated to attempts at improvement and because this happens in a social setting, alongside many other athletes, it becomes a communal experience. And this generates an attitude in people, one that strives for satisfaction through tiny little achievements that add up over time. Each workout is seen as an opportunity to tackle something different, compete, and to do so with efficiency and grace. It offers a different experience, a varied form of self discovery.. Each workout, while a beast of its own, is also always a stepping stone towards the somewhat elusive goal of fitness. The value in this is that it reminds people of how a real fundamental lifestyle change must be made: with small increments over time, with dedication, with setbacks and struggles and frustrations and with the understanding that the learning process is ongoing. For those whose goals are losing weight or getting into shape most dieting plans or get fit programs tends to push the idea of quick results and little inconvenience. Usually people who had weight loss as an initial goal end up continuing the CF program because of something that happens in the process: the realization that losing weight is not enough, there is more exploration to be done. Learning the skills and getting stronger suddenly becomes all too appealing and, amazingly, doable partly because of CF’s ability to modify and adapt. This makes it easier to see the progression required to advance which encourages a proclivity to the achievement of goals . Even if the goal, (technically “fitness” as defined by CF) is somewhat nebulous. The process itself is what’s meaningful because it cultivates a mentality of reaching what seems unattainable by small attainable little steps.

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CrossFit creator Greg Glassman (who is still somewhat of an anomaly in my book) was always big on the idea of measuring fitness. He called CF a “quantifiable approach to a finally well defined notion of what fitness is.” So the CF system claims to offer a new definition of fitness and a way to measure one’s proximity or trajectory in a tangible manner. In most CF gyms you will find a white board where the workout of the day is written. I’ve often thought about the function of this white board and how such a simple thing can help alter a person’s experience at the gym. The board not only holds the workout of the day, but also the names of athletes who perform the workout and their times of completion. This serves several functions, both practical and symbolic. First, it gives a very specific and measurable table of data for an athlete to measure their performance in comparison to others at the gym, as well as providing data for comparison with ones own past times. So it serves as a kind of record keeping. In addition to that it encourages a very natural form of competition. Most people, upon seeing their names next to others, will want to match the numbers, will want to do better. More importantly, I think, the board suggests that everyone’s time and effort is equally as important and meaningful because everyone on that board is usually on different stages of this journey towards fitness. At the end of a work day, when the board is filled with dozens of names and workout times, it’s a strange representation of this shared experience. It’s far more effective than if people walked in and out without keeping their time or knowing the time of their fellow athletes. As I understand it most gyms work similarly. When a person is finished with their workout, they yell out “Time!” When I first started I felt awkward doing that; I felt a embarrassed about my time being written on the board along side people who were far more advanced or I wondered what the purpose was of contributing my time. Slowly I realized that while my times were usually not great, that I could begin to measure my progress based on the others and that my name amongst that list of athletes was a silent form of encouragement. If not, some strange reminder that I participated: I was there and I finished.

I walked into CF wanting to get stronger and with a desire to quite smoking cigarettes. I achieved the latter almost immediately, and the former is a goal that turned out to be much more complex than I anticipated. I’ve gotten stronger sure, but what happens is one becomes hooked on the process and total satisfaction is always just on the horizon, which means one simply continues on the path to performing better. There is never a set stopping point and this is how it slowly seeps in to part of your everyday life, this is how it becomes lifestyle. It becomes a constant part of the equation and I find this utterly fascinating. I am often surprised at the lifestyle changes I’ve made, or how I’ve adapted to making a workout an important part of my life. I’ve often surprised myself when realizing that a small increase in a lift means something. What it means, I’m not entirely sure, but as I’ve discussed in previous posts, it begins to take on some meaning, some transformative power. Whether that is a good or a bad thing, I don’t know. I suppose it would depend on how one looks at it. I am “in it,” I am part of this mentality that has taken hold of many others across the nation.

No goal in life ever comes easy, but the CF mentality, it is one I kind of identify with. I have never been naturally good at anything and everything I’ve tried to do has taken considerable amount of effort for what is usually a mediocre outcome. CF encourages the understanding of how to work yourself up. And this usually requires a long term commitment, which are usually much more effective in making positive life changes. Any real accomplishment is usually a result of a thousand small steps taken in that direction. I try to explain this concept to my students who believe that spending one really intense hour before the deadline on their paper will teach them how to write, when really writing, or education in general, is a long term commitment, a journey with different levels and phases. (I am amazed at students who really believe they “work well under pressure.” I don’t know how many times I hear that from students and I always shake my head at them and say: What other ways have you worked? How would you know you wouldn’t work better without pressure, taking your time to consider things, to learn the small steps along the way?) One is never finished, so to speak, the work is perpetual, ongoing, and eventually it becomes part of your daily life. It becomes a habit of constantly wanting to be better and to maintain that essential curiosity that keeps fueling you to try again and again. It works similarly with CF, which teaches practice and training as a long term endeavor, rather than the promise of immediate results which, in anything, are usually short lived.

And yes, I admit to people, there is what could be interpreted as an obsessive nature about CF, the tendency for participants to constantly talk about it, or even the occasional asshole who works out with arrogance and superiority. Yes, CF can also have aspects that are superficial, malleable, easily manipulated by corporate interests or profit driven, or it can be easily co-opted by hype, defined by fashion, cheapened by negligence, and CF the brand can even be suspect in its business practices. Sure, aspects of this culture are like everything else: accompanied by superficial characteristics that are inevitable when dealing with a potentially profitable enterprise. While the business model of CF allows for stylistic freedom from gym to gym, it’s a known fact that opening up a CF gym doesn’t require deep knowledge or experience, but (like running for public office) could be done with large amounts of money to invest, a quick weekend seminar, and just enough knowledge or verbal skills to get by without clients suspecting.

I’m unsure about the value of memes, if they hold any at all, but somehow it seems they can be at least some reflection of the conversation, as much as social media can. There are countless CF memes out there, which include a mixture of pride, inside jokes, references to workouts, and a kind of playful exclusivity. Most of the memes are simply inspirational type, or half-clever play on words that reference a specific CF movement or sentiment towards burpees or pull-ups; One I remember seeing says: "I do more cleaning at the gym than I do at home," with a picture of a woman performing a Clean, that is the Olympic lift. Something like this is interesting because it plays with the language that CrossFitters use everyday and it makes that language another form of communication a form of embracing this identity. (There are actually a few memes I've come across that make me roll my eyes. Or like the strange series of Ryan Gosling memes where he says some kind of ridiculous CF related comment. I like to think it’s one Gosling obsessed person creating all these. Even in this, I think there is an ability for CFers to make fun of themselves in a positive light.)

In any case, the culture I'm referring to goes far beyond all that, but into the cultivation of this particular ambitious outlook, attitude, or perspective. If simply the fact that CF teaches this persistence and 'perform at your potential mentality,' it will have some spill over impact and encourage people that are willing to sacrifice for their goals, willing to take risks, and willing to do the work necessary in order to get where they want to go.

There was a commercial that aired during this recent World Cup. It showed images of professional soccer players playing games in stadiums full of screaming spectators and compared it with images of young kids playing soccer in empty fields, dirt patches, neighborhood parks. The voice of a majestic-like narrator speaks poetically about how it doesn't matter if its ten people watching or ten to the power of ten. He says, “The game that matters the most is the one you are playing in.” I don’t know how I feel about that sentiment, though in the context of a World Cup advertisement, it is brilliant; in the context of an advertisement cheating me into feeling emotion, it is also brilliant. ( I am easily moved with most commercials. World Cup commercials this year were especially effective, but World Cup time is an emotional time. This is one of the reasons I don’t watch television: it’s simply too emotionally taxing.) This World Cup commercial is particularly special because it conjures up several interesting ideas. One, is the recognition that while there are hundreds of “games” being played, the one that really matters, the one that is truly real, should be the one you are playing, even if the stakes don’t go beyond a moment of joy with your friends or a fleeting sense of accomplishment, a high five, the fastest time on the board, or a good rep count. However, the World Cup advertisement is also somewhat deceiving. If all of these “games” are people’s lives, then my life is equal to everyone else’s life and we are all essential, important, and in-expendable in order for the greater game to continue. It suggests that I matter, that whatever small achievement I’m reaching for is comparable to the achievement of great athletes who reach levels of income I can't even conceive of. and a level of grace that a regular person can never match. The advertisement suggests that I am essential to the game, when really the game is a force of its own and most of the time, it’s rigged. The game is mostly overseen by a few powerful heads, sitting back exchanging bets, but it’s a nice idea to think of one's little accomplishments as essential to the outcome and as important as everyone else.

I think about this because I often have a difficult time reconciling my impotence as a citizen of the world. It’s difficult to asses how your existence is contributing to the betterment of things if contributing to anything at all. Posting a "Fuck Israel" image on Facebook might give me some instant gratification, but it has no real impact (I mean unless there is data being collected regarding FB conversations, which is pretty much a given) Perhaps Terrence Mckenna was right when he argued that culture was not our friend and that instead of freeing us, it was limiting, often times blinding. Yet, I feel like CF is somehow a way for me to feel that I am working towards something all the time and it makes me feel like I’m connected to something bigger, to this greater game being played, and it provides the feeling, illusory or not, that my participation in that game is essential, that it matters, that I may just contribute a good pass or assist, and that its a representation of something more than just a time on a board, but a kind of physical and mental strength that extends far beyond that. Perhaps that then, is the great illusion. I haven't quite figured it out. 

Mari(a) Gomez

Mari GomezComment