You can call him Coach. Countless others do, and while Greg Glassman hasn't coached a sports team in the traditional sense, in the 1980s he bore an uncanny resemblance to Liberty Island when he began promoting a new fitness ideology, one open to the oft-injured, the old, the rotund, the gymless, to everyone. Better known as CrossFit, it is for all intents and purposes the house that Greg built. As for the teeming masses who were tired of low-intensity, dead-end workouts? They followed.
'They' refers to the virtual community of CrossFitters that has exploded into existence in a matter of years. The popularity of CrossFit owes as much of its success to the Internet as to its charismatic owner's vision. Glassman's methodology can best be summed up as the quest for "the quintessential athlete, equal parts gymnast, Olympic weightlifter and sprinter." "Just as a carpenter uses more than just a hammer, CrossFit uses all of the tools at its disposal," said Mike Liberatore, one of the owners and trainers of CrossFit Providence, a West End gym that specializes in the cross-disciplinary exercise regimen.* Liberatore spoke with the Independent from a spartan space lined with gymnast's rings, rowing machines, barbells and medicine balls. The Stairmasters and TVs that mainstream gyms provide their clientele were refreshingly nowhere to be seen. The environs certainly suggested that this was a place not suited to those looking for easy workouts.
CrossFitters train under the assumption that someday, somewhere they will be called upon to swim three miles, slay a crocodile while breaststroking, survive scorching heat for days and fight a band of terrorists, all while sprinting towards some invisible finish line. Rather than bemoan this improbable sequence of events, CrossFit demands its athletes train hard and quickly for such a calamity, often with little to no rest between exercises.
Shockingly, especially in light of how difficult these workouts can be, Glassman argues that anyone can do them. People's fitness, he says, differs "by degree, not in kind." The exercises can always be scaled back and tailored to any person, be he an Olympic athlete or an accountant.
Small wonder, then, that police precincts, firefighters and armed forces personnel have turned to CrossFit as a sort of Zen and the Art of Body Maintenance. On CrossFit.com, the nexus of the CrossFit universe, you will find such impossibly sculpted individuals as Major M. of the 82nd Airborne, who states, "You guys are too great--I'm almost convinced the government needs to classify your concept so as not to allow our enemies to know about it!" Jingoism aside, Major M. shares a commonly held belief in the CrossFit universe: one doesn't just sculpt the body when undertaking the regimen. The will and the discipline come along for the ride as well.
Do Try This At Home?
It might come as a shock that such a high-intensity workout can be done with little traditional gym equipment. In fact, two of the most famous CrossFit WODs (Workouts of the Day), "Barbara" and "Angie," require a mere pull-up bar.** The CrossFit vanguard prides itself on brash self-sufficiency, a kind of devil-may-make-do attitude. Don't have a barbell with 45lb weights? Use an abandoned tractor tire, or even one end of a heavy sofa to do deadlifts. The subtle and the faint-hearted need not apply.
This DIY mentality extends to almost every aspect of the CrossFit culture. Hundreds upon hundreds of CrossFit-related websites proliferate on the Internet, with devotees, trainers and neophytes posting workout tips, exercise demos and even workout times. That's right: CrossFit might just be the first exercise phenomenon to embrace the Deleuzian concept of deterritorialized power. That is, to live fully means undoing what has already been established.*** What better way to do this than by posting your time of 8:15 for "Angie," online for all the world to see and fear?
The Internet does, however, dehumanize the spectacle of CrossFit. While the demonstrations a prospective CrossFitter encounters might be able to convey certain exercises online, said viewer is forever barred from truly interacting with, and learning from, his digital teacher. The effect is a picture of individual suffering that compounds the isolation of surfing the web alone, to say nothing of the incomplete lesson in heavy weightlifting these videos give.
What, then, is a CrossFitter to do? Must he abandon his hopes of dislodging Mr. 8:15 from the CrossFit firmament? Not necessarily. Almost every state, believe it or not, contains at least one CrossFit gym, Rhode Island included. That's right, a gym devoted entirely to the kick-ass-and-take-breaths-later mentality so central to CrossFit. One woman who currently has a Gold's Gym membership wandered into CrossFit Providence during the information session and asked, "I just don't want to be bored." Joshua Bird, one of the trainers, said with understatement and a smile, "You won't be."
The perks of a CrossFit gym membership read more like a curse. The poor souls at the info sessions who embarked on their first WOD were subjected to what initially must have seemed like good feedback on form and positive reinforcement. Five minutes, 25 pull-ups, 50 push-ups and 75 squats later, those shouts of encouragement began to sound like the sick cries of sadists. Each new "c'mon" had to it a horrible significance: the trainers' enthusiasm seemed to increase proportionally to the amount of suffering in the rookies' eyes.**** If these trainers only knew how hard it was to do another squat and how easy it was to say c'mon instead. In fact, they do. Had their charges not been so clueless, they would have done the WOD with them, commiting themselves to Liberatore's sunny philosophy: "Everybody works to his intensity." The goal of course is not to make the CrossFitter feel like an actor in a Punch and Judy. Rather, the constant exhortations, along with the fear of added exercise, promote discipline in more ways than one. With someone looking over your shoulder, you are much more likely to do the workouts without stopping and with the proper form.
CrossFit Is Not Afraid of You And It Will Beat Your Ass
Of course these gyms are not exactly cheap. In some instances, CrossFit gym membership might cost twice as much as the average gym enrollment. Advocates for these gyms, unsurprisingly, insist that the added costs are well worth it. "At commericial gyms, you're not getting quality. For them, it's cost prohibitive to hire strength coaches to work with individuals and teach them form," Liberatore told the Independent. Their trainers have been certified to teach the principles, exercises, dieting and movements specific to CrossFit. Interestingly enough, CrossFit operates under a variation of software coding availability known as open sourcing philosophy. Applied to the domain of CrossFit, open sourcing offers the knowledge and distribution of CrossFit-related information to anyone interested in acquiring it. Hence the ubiquitous demos, the WODs and the general accessibility that is unheard of in the rest of the fitness world, where exercise and dieting products are bought and sold in a multibillion dollar industry that banks on the sweaty panic of the unfit and disconsolate.
The significance of open sourcing for the growth of CrossFit is twofold. Since Glassman has allowed practical access to his regimen, one might think he can no longer claim his teachings are gospel. Not so. By creating certification seminars that give CrossFitters the opportunity to become trainers in their own right and open their own gyms across the country, Glassman has effectively made himself the Typhoid Mary of CrossFit, the arbiter of a long and increasingly complex chain of power players in a fitness model of ever-increasing popularity. The other perk of Glassman's open source is that criticism of his certification policies, and of CrossFit in general, cannot be attributed singularly to him. For those (and there are more than a few dissenting opinions) who question how a CrossFit trainer can master every concept of CrossFit in a one-day session are prevented from pointing their criticisms at any specific person or entity because all of the information has been disseminated.
Perhaps, though, such deflections of criticism are endemic of the greater infrastructure of CrossFit. Priding itself as the opposition party to mainstream gym culture, CrossFit operates in a way akin to punk music. The DIY associations are obvious, but the more subtle implication is that CrossFit practitioners regard themselves as the only alternative, far beyond petty bourgeois concepts of what's right and wrong.
This rugged individualism might seem harmless, like, say, reading an Ayn Rand novel, but you would be wrong on both counts. Dead wrong, it seems in some instances. Several overzealous CrossFitters merely assumed, after an especially trying workout, that the grinding pain in their muscles was fitting reward for their efforts. A couple hours and a trip to the emergency room later, they learned the pain had been caused by the breakdown of their skeletal muscle into its component parts, which then travelled through the bloodstream to their kidneys. The myoglobin in these muscle remnants then lead to kidney failure. The condition is better known in medical circles as rhabdomyolysis, and before CrossFit, was only regularly diagnosed in earthquake and landslide victims due to the extreme trauma these natural disasters place on the body. Entertain this thought for a second. Instead of waiting on top of a fault line for The Big One to cause such a malady, one can create one's own personal Armageddon thanks to Glassman.
Of course, this is an extreme example, and both Liberatore and Bird were quick to dismiss such freak accidents as the gaffes of egoists who just "wanted to throw up weight," without any consideration of technique. Yet there's no denying that some CrossFitters' emphasis on results over form can lead to both short- and long-term injury, if done brashly. That's why Liberatore and Bird insist their charges learn correct form before "upping the intensity." They stress consistency over intensity. "One of the big problems," they said, "is ego, especially in young men." They are adamant that when done properly, CrossFit has an extremely low incidence of injury, that it's safer than regular cardio and weightlifting, and they have the medical studies to prove it, they told me.
In many ways, CrossFit is a phenomenon of contradictions. A regimen that advocates self-reliance and discipline has fostered a large and warm community that some see as a second family. "All CrossFit gyms have the same feel, anyone of them in America," Bird said. It stresses athletic elitism: "we preach excellence," Mike Liberatore said after an info session, yet has been published on the Internet for the masses. Perhaps this complexity has helped attract followers. There's no denying the freak-show appeal of gawking at the jpegs of 8-packs and biceps on CrossFit websites.
Rubbernecking alone, though, does not explain the continued growth of and fascination with CrossFit. Pardon the understatement, but CrossFit is neither easy nor particularly fun. Yet "it is a return to fitness, real fitness [that] mimics the functional, real movement in sport," Liberatore said. The bottom line might just be that people have been looking for results, and the traditional aerobics-cum-weightlifting regimen has not worked for them. CrossFit, for all of its seeming inconsistencies, does not mince words. It is all about the result, the end product, and if you have to put yourself through a hell of near hyperventilation to do so, then so be it.
While this talk of the ends justifying the means paints CrossFit as a cold, inhumane enterprise, in many ways it is anything but. "Adults treat it as their playtime, a very intense playtime, but fun nonetheless. We had a guy in here the other day, he'd never done a handstand in his life and with our help he did one for the first time. He was beaming for the rest of the class," Liberatore said with a grin of his own. The sheer variety of exercises, the fact that one can always find something new and challenging to try, ensures the CrossFitter that his muscles will never become complacent, and more important, that the CrossFitter himself never grows bored with the monotony that most exercises typify.
For those individuals who cannot work out alone (you can spot them by how much faster they run around the track when there's someone else in the lanes with them), most CrossFit gyms offer classes. Instead of tackling these behemoth WODs by themselves, people come together to kick their own asses with other like-minded men and women. The common denominator is pain, and that shared agony goes a long way to building a sense of community.
If CrossFit is to become anything greater than a loose confederation of Internet trollers and the uber-ripped, it must embrace this notion of community. CrossFitters might relish the Byronic image they've crafted for themselves, but going it alone does nothing to promote the fitness model. If anything, it just cements the idea that that guy over there tossing a medicine ball against the wall until he passes out needs more than just medical attention.
For its own benefit, CrossFit needs to play nice with others. The future of the CrossFit movement will revolve around the efforts of trainers and practitioners of the regimen to involve themselves in the real community (you know, the one that doesn't end with .com). While the Internet is a great tool for educating people about CrossFit, it is neither proactive nor hands-on. There need to be more live demonstrations of these workouts. Instead of expecting people to sniff out a CrossFit gym, trainers should go to high schools and colleges. The emphasis should be on interactivity as opposed to lecturing. Involving the subjects of their demonstration will make them much more likely to try it out for a second time.
That's where trainers like CrossFit Providence's Liberatore and Bird can use their relationship to the Providence neighborhood to spread awareness of CrossFit. Both played rugby in the city, and they have already shared their training principles with current and former members of Providence rugby clubs and local crew squads. They are looking to tap into the exploding popularity of mixed martial arts by providing their services to amateur fighters. Instead of recoiling from the thought of having to suss out potential CrossFitters, these trainers have embraced the challenge and are very excited to introduce more and more sports teams in Rhode Island to the brave new world of CrossFit. Indeed, they are already looking to move from their 3,000 square foot gym in West End Providence to a place roughly twice its size. Though they insist that "the basic cores of CrossFit don't have to prove anything, [that] the results speak for themselves," they would do well to remember what happened to the Electric Car--a great idea with even greater results doesn't always survive, especially when it tries to shake up the existing state of things.
The Deadlift is part of MIGUEL MORALES B'10's DNA.