I used to think the cult of climbing had a solid lock on weird dress, weird eating and weird training habits, but I’ve found a new cult that takes all of these phenotypes up a level. This cult’s members are easy to spot, especially while feeding in public: They bring large plastic troughs filled exclusively with foods that were supposedly available 10,000 years ago or more. That’s called eating “Caveman,” or the less gender-restrictive but still kind of bizarre “Paleo,” after the paleolithic period in which our digestive preferences were supposedly formed. You can also recognize these cult members by their T-shirts, which feature Gothic script and slogans such as “FORGING ELITE FITNESS,” “My warm-up is harder than your workout,” and the ever-popular “Warning: may not be suitable for the weak and pathetic.”
Every cult has a secret language, and this one is no different: If you hear someone talking with a straight face about how many “thrusters” they did last night, or how they “did Fran” or some other girl in under five minutes, then they’re probably a member.
How do I know all this? Because, though I refuse to buy a T-shirt, I have drunk the Kool-Aid and been assimilated into the CrossFit cult.
CrossFit is the crack of the competitive workout world (almost all workouts are timed and compared). Every night, the CrossFit website features a workout of the day—or “WOD”—which consists of a combination of “constantly varied functional movements executed at high intensity.” That basically means you do stuff like squats (same movement as getting off the toilet), dead lifts (like lifting a case of beer), and swinging around on pull-up bars. Some of the regular workouts are named after girls—Fran, Angie, etc.—and they’re all done with enough intensity that a clown named “Pukie” is depicted in the act on another popular T-shirt. Some disciples go so hard they basically clog their livers with dead muscle tissue; the near-death experience of “Rhabdo” is the result, and there’s a T-shirt for that too.
CrossFitters avoid regular fitness clubs—what they derisively call “Globogyms.” (T-shirt: “Machines are the enemy.”) Instead they train four to six times a week in garages, public parks and in high temples called “boxes.” A box looks a lot like a gym from 100 years ago—rings, open space to do push-ups and other body-weight exercises, ropes to climb, pull-up bars and a lean selection of dumbbells and bars. The only machines are rowing machines, which interestingly date back to the early 1900s (the gym on the Titantic had one). Plus there are buckets in case someone, yup, pukes.
CrossFit, like most religions, is free; the founder, Greg Glassman, calls it “open source.” Anyone can watch the hundreds of videos on the site, do the WOD, and otherwise get involved. Tithing is done through seminars, donations for the “good book”—the CrossFit Journal—and affiliation fees for the boxes. Working out at the boxes is relatively expensive, but that’s because there is a high student/instructor ratio compared to a cardio class. (Another shirt: “Cardio is for losers.”)
It may all sound fully twisted, but here’s the thing: It works. I’d put the average CrossFitter up against the average gym rat in any real-life physical situation and expect the guy or girl with the ugly T-shirt and knee-high white tube socks (worn to prevent shin rash) to win. My wife, Kim, got into CrossFit to fight off the physical effects of being a mom. My garage and driveway are now regularly full of outrageously strong women doing stuff that freaks the neighbors out.
As for me, I still believe in sports-specific training for specific sports, but I now love clean-and-jerking my loaded kayak onto the six-foot-plus roof rack of my truck because I know how. I can lift large logs and small children without fearing for my back. My knees feel better than they have in years, and I am FORGED and ELITE! Well, not really, but I feel that way occasionally after a workout while I’m making a sweat angel on the floor.
There are already schisms within CrossFit (Gym Jones is one breakaway cult), but I fully believe CrossFit-style training is going to take over the general fitness world. It’s only a matter of time.
You will be assimilated.
This essay first appeared in explore.