Cultures of CrossFit: The Good, the Bad, and the Zombies

Renaissance CrossFitter

Renaissance CrossFitter who is equally ready for Zumba.

As promised, here is a discussion of CrossFit by Fitbabe and myself. To be clear, it is not a rant against CrossFit, and CrossFitters who assume as much, immediately responding to our arguments in a defensive way, might want to ask themselves these questions: Why am I so invested in this practice? What does it really mean to me and my identity? Does the CrossFit method encourage blind devotion and mechanical responses—both physical and emotional—in its hardcore followers? As a non-practitioner, I am more interested in broader questions; I primarily want to think about why CrossFit is suddenly so popular, especially in the United States. Fitbabe is the fitness expert at, and she will address  some of the physiological aspects of CrossFit. 

SONY DSCFirst of all, I should say that I love watching people perform CrossFit workouts, and have tried a few of the moves myself. Achieving good form while doing repetitions of shoulder push-presses and power snatches made me feel invincible. When I see a team of CrossFitters encouraging each other during their intensive sessions, doing kipping pull-up after kipping pull-up, I am impressed.

I want to go to there.  

I agree with you, FFG. CrossFit has some awesome advantages. I like its community aspect, which includes online and offline social support. I like its endorsement of healthy competition and a hard work ethic. All the same, CrossFit is not the right program for people who have pre-exisiting conditions that need special attention. I believe that CrossFit training is primarily suited for members of the military, or those working in fire and police departments. This segment of the population would absolutely thrive on CrossFit training, whereas a typical office worker might benefit more from other kinds of exercise.

I am glad that you mentioned the military, Fitbabe, for CrossFit is one of the programs used by soldiers and marines, among others who pursue total body fitness. CrossFit exercises (like rope climbing, tire flipping, and box jumping) combine weightlifting, gymnastic, and sprinting techniques in demanding routines designed to improve functional movements. The ideal CrossFitter is ready for any challenge, which is why the program is perfect for military personnel and emergency responders who need to be physically adaptable, strong, and flexible in order to tackle unknown situations.

That’s right FFG, and the CrossFit mantra endorses a particular understanding of fitness, which differs from that promoted by practitioners of yoga, bodybuilding, or even dance aerobics, to give a few examples. According to CrossFitters, a fit person will display the qualities of strength, power, speed, agility, balance, and cardiovascular endurance. Advocates will be judged on their performance of particular skills, and on whether or not they can lift weights according to specific criteria or run a 5 kilometre race and so forth. 

All types of exercise create some kind of group dynamic, distinguishing insiders from outsiders. Just the other day, I realized that I would have to buy lime green cargo pants feelin-it-zumba-cargo-capri-greenin order to join the Zumba girls who use up all the lockers every Monday night. Thankfully, I do NOT want to go to there. Group exercise produces a sense of shared identity through repetitive bodily movements and a potentially imaginary notion of common physical sensations. Yet the group dynamics of CrossFit are noteworthy because they resemble military training techniques so closely, including ones dating from the seventeenth century. And now, dear readers, are you ready for a thrilling lesson on military history? 

During the early modern period (c. 1450-1750), wealthy dukes, aristocrats, and popes as sexy as Jeremy Irons hired soldiers on a temporary basis, to kill enemies, looting and plundering the rural poor when deemed necessary. These mercenaries were supposed to be big and strong, but soliders did not join standing armies fitted out with uniforms or equipped with standardized weapons; nor did they receive methodical training in the art of war. Gradually, however, Renaissance forms of quasi-professional military education were developed, a statement that does not overlook the models of warfare created earlier by, among others, the Romans and Persians [so calm your nerves about my generalized narrative, 5113VG9XVNL__SL500_AA300_war-nerds]. One famous example is Exercise of Armes, a book published in 1607 by the Dutch engraver Jacob De Gheyn, which features step by step instructions about how to load and fire a musket. De Gheyn claimed that soldiers should perform each step in sequence, again and again, until the movements became embodied, and no longer required mental intervention. While his goals might seem strictly practical—shoot others before they have time to kill you—they were really geared toward other ends. The repetition of highly technical movements in group settings was meant to transform the soldiers’ bodies into efficiently obedient machines while creating a bond between the men. Although the rag-tag for-hire soldiers had very little in common, such group activities as cleaning and loading weapons, not to mention marching in formation, made them cohere and become more loyal to fellow members. This trained soldier was more likely to follow orders, succeed in battle, and extend the interests of his employers.  

I think that something similar is happening in CrossFit, which uses repetitive technical motions to produce strong group bonding at the potential expense of individualism. But why is this particular form of “arming the body” alongside others so appealing right now? CrossFit is hardly new, and yet the number of gyms officially affiliated with its methods has grown from 18 in 2005 to almost 1,700 in 2010, mostly in the United States. What gives? Well, I have a few ideas, and none of them has to do with progressive understandings of fitness or physiology.  

Mind if I interrupt your historical musings at this point, Professor Useless from the University of Who Cares? [Aside: Fitbabe is invoking the name awarded to me by a “fan” after my competition in June; see the post called “Gender Police”]. I want to expand on your allusion to the lack of specificity in CrossFit methods. When a professional trainer designs a safe and progressive program, it should be based on the client’s particular goals, as well as his or her current fitness level, personal injuries, and commitment.

Remember me?

Remember me?

In contrast, many CrossFit gurus contend that any athlete can train for general fitness. In my opinion, this position is impossible because of the law of Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands (SAID). The body only adapts to specific stimuli, and these adaptations do not carry over into a fictitious realm of “general fitness.” For example, you can’t train like a marathon runner and expect to squat 500lbs like a powerlifter. Similarly, it is not possible to train like a powerlifter, and then break a world record while running a marathon. Both training styles are very specific to the intended purpose, and they don’t cross over to the other activity by training with general fitness adaptations.

You are on to something Fitbabe. I think this emphasis on “general readiness” in CrossFit is an important part of its current appeal, and can be partly explained with reference to the latest economic crisis. Many people now struggle to find and/or retain jobs in a marketplace flooded with uncertainty about investments, mortgage rates, pensions, and banking security. Young and old alike are told to retool multiple times, change careers every 7 years, and thus be continually up for new challenges. These days, the successful person is supposed to be flexible, adaptable, eager to learn new skills and use new technologies. This person is multi-skilled, always multi-tasking, and constantly on the move. Yet in reality, most of us have little control over markets, and don’t really comprehend or trust the systems of government and management that shape the world in which we live. At least we can control our bodies, right? We can transform them into highly tuned fighting and survival machines. Here I should admit that I am expanding on an idea suggested to me by the fabulous artist Heather Cassils (, who recently gave an invited talk about her work at the University of Alberta. There she noted the increasing popularity of a military aesthetic, including within fitness culture.

Now I am not referring to the manifest intentions of everyday CrossFitters here. People don’t think “I find solace in CrossFit in response to stressful economic demands.” Most consumers of CrossFit (and other popular forms of fitness) take what they need from the practice, making it meaningful on a personal level, and using it for their own ends. This “poaching” of dominant cultural models does not negate my broader argument, for none of us simply shapes and expresses our “unique” identities as we see fit, in utter isolation. How else to explain the fact that 1 out of every 4 people under the age of 40 has pretty much the same tattoo sleeve? 

Back to the matter at hand. Where do I want to be when everything goes to shit, when the market collapses, the Iranians drop the bomb, the pandemic comes a callin’? Why, in my local CrossFit box of course. For those guys are ready, willing, and able.  s-ZOMBIE-COMMERCIAL-NORWAY-large300

They can even survive the inevitable zombie apocalypse, a theme on which 2DO will elaborate next week. While marathon runners are having their intestines devoured by the brain-dead, and powerlifters are trapped inside rusting cars, CrossFitters will be patrolling their armed community, eating meat, nuts, and berries to avoid the metabolic derangement caused by starch and sugar. Who will be laughing and writing fancy critical essays, then, bitches?

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About feministfiguregirl

I am a 51-year-old professor named Lianne McTavish who receives as much satisfaction from working out at the gym as from publishing my academic research. About eight years ago, I decided to combine my two primary identities (scholar/gym rat) to create "Feminist Figure Girl," a fictional character who both analyzes and participates in bodybuilding. I competed in my first figure show in June of 2011, and then wrote a book inspired by the process, published by SUNY Press in February 2015. In this blog I will write about and consider my ongoing research on the body, while regularly making fun of myself. I recommend that you start reading my first post from August 2010 (available on the home page), instead of backwards from the most recent one, in order to get the full FFG effect.

18 thoughts on “Cultures of CrossFit: The Good, the Bad, and the Zombies

  1. I didn’t know about the 17th century military history parallels, very interesting! I remember starting to hear about “functional training” right around the time the movie 300 came out, and the “CrossFit” brand a year or two later, right as the economy started to tank. I work out at a CF gym, and I know that (at least in the US) there’s a tradition of doing certain grueling workouts in memory of members of the military who died in Iraq and Afghanistan. Group training as a form of public grief about the ongoing horrors of war.

    What do you think about the current swell of interest in “paleo/primal” things? It seems like there is a lot of cultural pressure at my gym to adopt this whole fantasy urban hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Go to the box wearing your Rogue Fitness/Lululemon/Reebok CrossFit gear, do your WOD, then go out to the Paleo Diner for a gluten-free hot dog with your pals afterward.

    • That is a great question about the current paleo-fad. Marissa. One idea immediately comes to my mind is that this desire for a return to “the primitive” is ultimately fueled by the renewal of neo-Darwinian beliefs in the survival of the fittest. Those who draw social parallels with Darwin’s arguments—in a way that was never endorsed by Darwin himself and that is indeed based on mistaken understandings of his work—insist that people who are naturally strong will naturally survive, whereas the weaker members of society will be poor, mentally ill, and unproductive. In other words, perhaps a new sense of brutality, one hoping to find “evolutionary” support, is in the works?

      I am wondering if this question about the paleo-primitive diet and lifestyle is one that RenMan can best answer?

  2. What about the rate of injury in xfit? I have had very fit friends who join up, get seriously injured and have to drop out. Is this fairly common across the board with fitness programs or is there a higher incidence with xfit?

    Would love to hear thoughts on paleo/primal diet. Is this what FFG does?

    • I too have heard about the high rates of injury caused by CrossFit programs, perhaps those performed by beginners who did not receive a full fitness assessment as Fitbabe recommends in her Ask A Trainer “Should I Try CrossFit?” post. Can anyone else comment on CrossFit injuries?

      I am intrigued by the primal/paleo diet but have never followed it strictly myself. I currently eat fairly clean, including lots of chicken (some is baking in my oven right now), but likely consume more carbs than would be approved of by the dedicated caveperson.

  3. I’d say at least part of the reason for the high incidence of injury in Crossfit is something that’s been referenced in this post–the emphasis among the Crossfit culture on “functional” fitness and being “generally” prepared for “anything.” I use multiple quoted terms here because I believe there’s a deep misunderstanding within the Crossfit realm regarding what those terms mean and how they should be thought of in training. To try to be brief with this comment, Crossfitters attempt to be prepared and “functional” for random events by doing randomized training. The body does not respond to randomized training. It responds to the shifts that can be found within PERIODIZED training, but if you don’t work on cleans for a month and then do them and expect to have improved in them without any consistent work in either cleans or maximal strength work, you probably will NOT improve on them. And by probably I mean won’t. Crossfit doesn’t acknowledge how the body builds strength. Crossfit advocates working out till you puke/are experiencing crazy DOMS the next day. DOMS simply means your body was not conditioned to do what you asked of it–nothing more, nothing less. If I train and am not sore the next day, I consider my body to be adapting to my training and therefore ready to handle (hmmm..a familiar-sounding phrase) what I will be asking of it in increasing intensity and/or volume in the future.

    Frankly, at this point, I ignore Crossfit. I’m serious about my training (I am a competitive powerlifter) and I’m working to be the BEST at something. Crossfit, to me, appears to be an embrace of mediocrity.

  4. Injury rates seem to be higher at some gyms than others, which probably relates to the training of coaches. Some of them only have a CrossFit Level One certification, which you can do over a weekend, and by itself, I don’t think it’s adequate education to be teaching people things like the Olympic lifts and planning programming. The better boxes have coaches with much more extensive education, and they tend to have more planned and structured programming (which then becomes not-quite-CrossFit because it’s not really randomized). Also, you get people who are caught up in the warrior mentality and think they need to be ultra-tough and push through everything, so they’re less likely to sit the hell down when they experience warning signals from their bodies.

    I found when I was doing it that I was not recovering enough between workouts unless I either went less often or didn’t go flat-out on every workout. I also found that I had to sacrifice either lifting performance or WOD performance–it’s hard to set a PR on a lift and then kill at something like Grace on the same day. Being a fairly competitive personality probably didn’t help me there, either. I find that now that I’m working a powerlifting type program with planned accessory lifts, I’m actually recovering better even with working out more often because I include things like deloads and I don’t try to go flat out every time, both of which were missing from the CrossFit culture.

    I can credit CF with helping me get into lifting and learning not to fear the barbells, though. I think for some women that it can be intimidating to just walk into the weight room without some sort of support system, and I found that the group model in CF created a built-in support community that helped me become more confident in the gym as well as giving me a range of skills I didn’t have before I joined. I didn’t know how to deadlift, let alone how to swing a kettlebell or do cleans. I’d like to see more environments where women (or hell, any untrained person) can pick up those skills but perhaps without some of the other stuff that goes with the CF model.

    As for paleo/primal diets, I have been doing that for a couple of years now and have a lot of opinions on the culture surrounding them and the relationships between the paleo/primal community and other social movements including the locavore scene, libertarianism, and alternative health practices. But this comment is already ridiculously long.

      • Well, thanks for giving me something to distract me from the paper I should be writing (looking guiltily at the stack of journal articles on my desk). I have only half-organized my thoughts on this, but paleo/primal is rich with elements that spark my sociological imagination.

        I think there’s a significant tension between two groups within the paleo/primal scene that reflects some of the same culture war elements seen in larger North American (and in particular US) culture. I think it’s magnified in some ways in the community because there are two relatively polarized groups involved.

        Paleo followers tend to have one major attitude in common, which is a kind of anti-authoritarian, questioning approach to things with a strong tendency toward libertarian/anarchist sympathies. This works itself out in strange ways in practice, where followers tend to question “conventional wisdom” as relayed by government nutrition guidelines, public health authorities, and mainstream gurus such as Dr. Oz, while they turn around and love to cite obscure medical studies and quote the major players in the paleo scene (Mark Sisson, Robb Wolf, Lorne Cordain, and so on) and sometimes alternative health promoters such as Joseph Mercola.

        This tendency reflects the pattern seen most in one of the two major factions, the right-wing libertarian crew who tend to love Ron Paul and many of whom came to paleo through internet figures such as Lew Rockwell, a notable primal lifestyle advocate as well as a popular libertarian blogger. Many paleo followers in this category are also involved in the prepper scene, homeschool their kids, argue against gun control, want to ban the Fed, and so on. They reflect a longing for a non-existent idealized past that looks to some subsets of evolutionary psychology and other mythologized histories to justify a highly conservative, patriarchal world view where men are manly hunters and warriors who spread their seed and women are content to fulfil their evolutionary purpose as mothers, gatherers, and keepers of the hearth.

        The other faction has roots in the organic food and back-to-the-land movements on the left. Many of them embrace paleo/primal’s opposition to CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) and industrial farming, which connects both to animal rights sensitivities and a distrust of industrialization and corporatization. In this group you will often find people who have read Lierre Keith’s The Vegetarian Myth and loved it as well as people who really like Michael Pollan. Many former vegetarians and vegans as well as feminist, LGBT, and environmentalist paleo followers tend to fall into this group. They see paleo/primal as a reconnection to a different history than that embraced by the first group, and they may talk about matriarchal pre-historic cultures, tribal communities, free-range children, and attachment parenting. They are often socialist leaning toward some flavour of anarchist in their political views.

        In my experience, the community tends to skew toward white, fairly affluent middle-class people who can afford to buy grass-fed meats and shop at their local farmers markets and who have the leisure time to cook and maybe raise some backyard chickens, although there are certainly people in the scene who are lower income and one can manage to eat a paleo diet cheaply if one is willing to eat more off-cuts and organ meats, cook bone broths from scratch, and so on (but this tends to come with a trade-off of time, so poor people working two or three jobs are definitely underrepresented).

      • Thanks Owly. I hope others will respond and expand on your comment. I have been hearing a lot about Michael Pollan and have been considering reading and blogging about his work (and that of others) in order to consider the current status of meat. I know that this topic is huge.

        I also like your comments about invented heritage. I have to say that as a highly trained historian, and someone who has worked extensively in archives and is very up to date with the latest scholarship on early modern Europe and the wider world, I find that much pop psych is sheer invention, creating or relying on narrative histories of “humanity.” Sweeping stories about the rise and/or fall of man are easily fabricated, and so far I am finding popular discussions of evolutionary psychology to be especially filled with fantasy.

    • i had a similar experience with CF. i wanted to learn to lift, and i liked the support, encouragement, and comraderie of the CF group at my gym. initially i also liked the idea of the cross-functional WODs, which seemed like a good way to superset and get a lot out of a short time, but the timed nature and high numbers of repetitive movements makes it really difficult to focus enough on form and avoid injury. after only about a year, i ended up making a shoulder tendon very angry, and it eventually tore and required rotator cuff surgery. and this was with an instructor who is actually quite knowledgeable and makes a concerted effort to help folks with their form and modify exercises as required. what i’d really like to find is a CF-like group that focused more on lifting, didn’t have timed WODs, and eliminated super-high reps!

  5. Hi FFG and Fitbabe:

    I love this blog and all of your snarky, yet thoughtful, commentary.

    I am a late bloomer when it comes to athletics and exercise. Until I turned 41, you would have had to pay me to go to a gym and engage in any kind of solitary or group routine on a regular basis. As my forties began to impinge on me, existential angst started looking very material. In a fit of what was perhaps mortal terror at my own physical decline, I began going to the gym. I did not enjoy the activity, but I did enjoy my growing level of fitness, strength and endurance. Two years later I still go to the gym. I still do not particularly enjoy the activity, but I like being strong. I like being fit. I love that I am a body that can do these really cool things. Plus I am thin and fit, which is just one of my huge cultural advantages.

    I don’t think I would continue to go to the gym if I hadn’t discovered how much I love to run. Now I am an obsessed runner. I have found my way, at mid life, into a sport that is RIFE with injuries. (Are there comparisons of injury levels between activities?) So far, I’m OK. I work my core. I work on knee strength… all the things that will make me a better runner and hopefully keep me from getting injured. Yet every single person I know who runs on a regular basis has been injured, sometimes seriously… and most of them still run. They continue to run because they love it. It is blissful, joyful, mind-blowing ecstatic activity. It is also physically demanding and mentally exhausting. Maybe this sort of training for a particular activity or sport makes your point, but I wonder if Crossfit folks, and others who love to exercise, have a similar sense of joyful physical abandon.

    That kind of playfulness and excitement is hard to reconnect with for many adults. We knew how to play ourselves sick when we were kids, but now we are busy and tired adults. To find any kind of activity which brings individual and collective joy on the regular is, in my opinion, what keeps so many people from “exercising.”

    So much about exercise just seems like complete drudgery. Aside from running, I have a very limited workout routine and it seems to work pretty well. At some point I’ll work more closely with a trainer on my fitness goals, but often when I watch a trainer working with someone… I feel this surge of sympathy for the tutored person as s/he is taken through innumerable exercises. Maybe I am projecting my own sense of despair, but it seems like what is often presented is a mind-numbing repetition of difficult (or easy) exercises that one can cross off on their workout sheet as completed. And perhaps that person will find a level of fitness. What they don’t often find is a group of people who will be with them at every workout to cheer them on.

    I don’t do Crossfit and I won’t because I don’t think it will make me a better runner. I run though, because it fills me with happiness, joy, accomplishment, and mental toughness… And I will continue to run, despite risk and injury, as long and as far as I can because of the almost numinous quality it brings to my life. Crossfit and its ilk might be rooted in military tradition. It might trade on our desire to align with strength and protection in groups. It may lead to repetitive and stress injuries. Does it encourage group-think at the expense of individualism? What precisely does that mean in this context? Does it mean they will do the exercises in the heavily proscribed manner and never expand their fitness mindset? It might. It also might primarily attract those who are already happy to hand it all over to any expert.

    My uninformed opinion is that anyone who engages in ongoing physical activity past a certain level of intensity probably has some control issues (me, for example) whether they are weightlifters or marathon runners or Crossfit fanatics. Heck, it feels great when you have some mastery over your physical self and it is recognized by others within your group as well as the larger culture. . But for many, I think the success of Crossfit is that it’s fun. And I bet people do it and continue to do it because they are having fun with a group – all in the process of arming their bodies. I guess this is just a long-winded way of saying that I agree with your analysis, but I wonder if the aspect of fun is serious enough to include in the equation.

    • I won’t speak for Fitbabe (but hope she resonds to your thoughtful comments as well), but I can relate to finding irrational bliss in physical exertion. When I lift weights at the gym, or go as hard as I can in spin class (usually with my tension maxed), I am 100% there, in the moment, as a physical being. It is practically an orgasmic experience for me, as my usual workout partner, PDDs, can (unfortunately) attest. For me, working out is never a burden and it is not about control; to a large degree it is about the opposite of control. Although I always tend to focus on what I am doing, and find joy in it (whether I am writing, teaching, eating, talking to friends, meeting new people, drinking coffee, or walking outside), this blissed-out state is particularly easy to achieve at the gym.

      • Why is it relaxing to lift heavy things? Because when you are lifting them you have to pay attention to now instead of all the other anxious bullshit. Word!

    • Susan….thanks for the great response,your observation comparing the way you feel about running as being similiar to those who have found love in the Crossfit community! If running is the only type of physical exercise you will do, then you must find a way to do it injury free, which is a challenge if you absolutely must run daily. It sounds like you are incorporating core work and strength training…which will allow you to reduce injuries. I have a love hate relationship with running…it feels euphoric and gives me a great deal of stress relief, however, it hurts my back and makes me feel soooo hungry for carbs. I tend to put on body fat when I overdo cardio…so lifting weights is where I will focus my efforts…but you are talking to a woman who LOVES EXERCISE….everyday… PERIOD. Here’s to finding your fitness passion!!!

  6. I would completely agree with the previous comment. I have had about 15 personal training sessions with CrossFit in Vancouver and found that it was an extremely helpful introduction to lifting and using weights in general, and definitely made me more comfortable in the gym, while also making me realize that I don’t really need the gym to work out effectively (ha). I have to credit CrossFit with introducing me to Deadlift and Pull-ups, which have certainly changed how I work out.

    I was also introduced to the other unavoidable elements that come along with CrossFIt: the Paleo diet, those glove/toe shoe things that everyone there seems to where, Elevate Me Bars, Lululemon, and drinking thick green liquid out of Mason jars. I understand the ideas behind these movements/products, and I know why they are all good for modern humans, but they are without a doubt an extremely expensive way to fashion an identity.

    These carefully crafted CrossFit identities are simply really, really expensive (the classes, the shoes, the bars, the drinks, the Omega 3 pills…), and, as a below-the-poverty-line graduate student in Vancouver, something that is not maintainable for me at all. The CrossFit location itself bespeaks some sort of austere, Soviet-like training garage, where it seems everyone is equal and present on account of their love of fitness and movement. However, most everyone also seems to lead quite financially comfortable lives, and are certainly NOT students or young people in general.

    I guess what I’m saying is that I learned a lot from my sessions there, am unable to afford to go back, and am unfortunately working through negative reactions to such things as the Paleo diet, things which I believe are interesting and valuable in themselves, but perhaps in Vancouver have become too much a part of a wealthy fitness clique, one that I myself am unable to be a part of.

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