What Is the CrossFit Secret?

Research shows that community is what matters in CrossFit.

Posted Dec 07, 2018

One seldom sees men in group fitness classes. But there is one exception. In CrossFit classes, men equal or even outnumber women. What is the secret of its enduring popularity among both men and women? As CrossFit becomes global, many researchers—also CrossFitters themselves—have become interested in its social and psychological allure.

CrossFit, these researchers argue, positions itself as a rebel fitness form against standardized gym or group fitness classes through its exercise space and its workouts – a combination that then results in a tight-knit community. 

Like so many other group fitness forms, CrossFit is credited to a male inventor, Greg Glassman, currently the CEO of CrossFit Inc (Heywood, 2016). As such, CrossFit is currently a very successful part of the highly commercialized fitness industry. But it differs, in many ways, from ‘traditional gyms’ with their TV screens, treadmills, exercise cycles, and resistance training machines. Crockett and Butryn (2018) describe CrossFit gyms or boxes in the US as converted, old industrial warehouses. Whiteman-Sandland, Hawkins, and Clayton (2018) similarly find CrossFit boxes in the UK located in industrial estates. Dawson (2017) characterizes the Australian box as “a large shed-like container or warehouse” (p. 364). It seems, therefore, that boxes across the globe are remarkably similar.

Inside the box, there are some weight training and other functional equipment. Crockett and Butryn’s (2018) CrossFit box, for example, contained rings and climbing ropes, barbells and bumper plates, giant tires, and caged squat racks. CrossFit also uses outside spaces, unlike other group fitness classes.

In addition to fitness training, CrossFit has evolved into a competitive event with the CrossFit Games. It is, by no means, the only fitness form that has developed into a recognized sport. Dawson (2017) reminds readers that bodybuilding and sport-aerobics (or aerobic gymnastics) have also successfully turned fitness training into a competitive sport. She further suspects that an opportunity to compete is another attraction of CrossFit where fitness fanatics now have a possibility to turn into athletes. Heywood (2016), nevertheless, points out that “a large majority of CrossFitters never compete” (p. 128). Regardless of the individual CrossFitter’s goals, the CrossFit space facilitates a group fitness program with several unique features.

In a traditional gym, the group exercise room is often closed off from the rest of the space. The CrossFit box, however, is an entirely open space where everyone exercises together in a group. Crockett and Butryn (2018) characterized the actual program as “a group fitness program that incorporates a variety of weightlifting and gymnastic movements performed at a fast pace” (p. 98). 

As the CrossFit box is an open space, the exercisers are always visible to everyone. In addition, they all perform the same workout at the same time. Typically, Crockett and Butryn (2018) describe, the group, led by an instructor, goes through a warm-up, a weightlifting or gymnastics session, followed by the workout of the day (WOD) in an hour-long session. The WOD, many of which have been named, includes different exercises and can be a different length every day (e.g., 2 minutes to 45 minutes). Although the exercises are different, they are all to be performed at maximum intensity and effort (Crockett & Butryn, 2018). This is a significant departure from other group fitness modalities that typically include a slower paced warm-up, then gradually build up to higher intensity, and finish with a cool down. 

Heywood (2016) also notes that CrossFit training differs from typical sport training protocols that aim to maximize performance in a specialized event. In CrossFit competitions, the athletes only know the next day’s events the night before. CrossFit athletes, thus, “prepare in trying everything” (CrossFit Games Director Dave Castro cited in Heywood, 2016, p. 116). If, however, most CrossFitters are not there to train for competitions, what do they prepare for?

To improve fitness and health, states the CrossFit website. It further asserts that all the WODs are based on “functional movements” that “reflect the best aspects of gymnastics, weightlifting, running, rowing:” “the core movements of life.” Varying the WOD but not its intensity, the website indicates, leads “to dramatic gains in fitness” (https://www.crossfit.com/what-is-crossfit). Fitness, then, is defined as an ability to move the largest loads, the longest distances in the shortest time. Such training concentrates primarily on power. For CrossFitters, the ability to sustain power throughout one’s life—a sign of fitness—is the measure of health (Heywood, 2016). CrossFit, thus, emphasizes power, unlike other group fitness classes that typically focus on the health-related fitness components (cardiovascular fitness, muscle strength and endurance, flexibility). 

Unlike other group fitness modalities, a CrossFitter’s performance is clearly measurable in each workout session. Each CrossFit WOD comes with prescribed standards, the ‘Rx benchmarks.’ Crockett and Butryn (2018) explain that these strict criteria dictate the type of movements exercisers should produce (e.g., a full squat instead of a partial squat) and the amount of weight that the exercisers should lift. The Rx benchmarks are determined by each WOD’s designer. 

When exercisers successfully satisfy the predetermined standards, they have completed the workout “‘as prescribed’ or ‘as Rxed’” (Crockett & Butryn, p. 104). The Rx benchmarks and each CrossFitter’s performance are typically recorded on a whiteboard displayed prominently in the box. The exercisers who are not able to perform the prescribed standards, record the modifications they had to make to their performance. 

For many CrossFitters, nevertheless, the possibility to quantify their performance increases their motivation to train harder. Witnessing one’s performance numerically on the whiteboard can help beat one’s personal best and to constantly strive toward higher achievement. For example, CrossFitters in Crockett and Butryn’s (2018) box felt that the Rxs on the whiteboard “provided a recurring goal that could be achieved daily and measured precisely over time” (p. 104). As such, Crockett and Butryn claim, CrossFit departs from the aesthetic emphasis of many group fitness forms as well bodybuilding. In addition, the clearly measurable performance is not possible in the “globogyms” (Crockett & Butryn, 2018, p. 104) where exercisers, according to CrossFitters, are left without aims and clear indicators of progress.

Dawson (2017) notes, however, that the focus on measurable outcomes (time, number of repetitions, amount of weight) has not eradicated surveillance that is typical in many traditional gyms and group fitness classes. The whiteboard now assumes the task of visibly monitoring an individual exerciser’s performance similar to the way the mirror (CrossFit boxes have no mirrors) does in other group exercise classes. It is an open invitation to comparisons between exercisers. 

Crockett and Butryn (2018) further assign the Rxs as artificial and arbitrary set points that, nevertheless, allow immediate comparisons between the CrossFitter’s previous score, their classmates’ scores, and everyone’s score in a specific class, gym, or region. These comparisons create a competitive atmosphere where the “incentive to achieve…is obsessively reinforced” (p. 104).  As one male participant in their study explained: “You are only as good as your last workout” (p. 104).

The open layout further encourages comparisons between the CrossFitters and supports collective surveillance spurred by competitive energy. At the same time, Crockett and Butryn (2018) observe, cheating is rare when the members continually, but subtly, monitor each other’s performance. The fear of social embarrassment if found to be cheating, is strong in this closely monitored space. 

Together the competitive ethos to achieve along with an emphasis on power creates an atmosphere of hard physical labor that the CrossFitters, often in constant agony, aim to complete. Sharing the grueling experience of extreme physical effort, Dawson (2017) detects, is one of the main attractions for many CrossFitters. The collective experiences of pain and exhaustion further endorse CrossFit as a tight community. In addition, cheering others to push through the workout is welcomed and expected (Dawson, 2017).

Who, then, can be a CrossFitter, ask Crockett and Butryn. Who longs for this type of community? In their US study, Crockett and Butryn (2018) find that while ethnically and racially diverse, their box was populated by exercisers in well-educated and well-paid careers. Like Heywood (2016), they note that the expense of CrossFit ($200/month) stands somewhat in contrast to the simple appearance of the box. Heywood adds, however, that a typical CrossFitter makes more than 100K/year. CrossFit, thus, attracts wealthy clientele. According to Crockett and Butryn, CrossFit allows for “the sampling of hard labor— pushing, pulling, and lifting heavy awkward objects— by a clientele who largely avoided physical labor outside of the gym” (p. 102). 

The researchers further discovered that the community is very important for CrossFitters, many of whom socialize with their ‘CrossFit family’ outside of the box. Dawson (2018), as well as Crockett and Butryn (2018), heard some describe CrossFit as a cult that supports lasting relationships outside of the box. Such community, the CrossFitters claim, is not available in a traditional gym. Then why do the wealthy, well-educated CrossFitters need a close-knit community akin to a cult?

Dawson (2017), reluctant to call CrossFit as a cult, explained that it operates as a place to re-invent one’s self. For the community of hard working CrossFitters, mainly wealthy people “whose everyday work does not include physical labor” (Crockett & Butryn, 2018, p.), physical exhaustion experienced together with similar others offers an opportunity to achieve clearly defined and tangible goals. If in their work lives, CrossFitters are high achievers, in the context of CrossFit, they have a further chance to strive for clearly measurable physical excellence. In this community, they can improve themselves in a physical quest not possible elsewhere in their lives. Heywood (2016) adds that CrossFit’s emphasis on having fun with a different workout every day and the “back-to-the-playground mentality” (jump roping, rope climbing, box jumping and monkey bars swinging) satisfied a need to play in the context of demanding work lives of the CrossFit clientele.

Creating a new improved identity requires several additional lifestyle changes including a healthy diet. Dawson (2017) concludes that “those who enter the box actively and consciously construct their CrossFit identity" recognize "that it is a better version of themselves” (p. 370). The most visible sign of the new identity is the striated and thin male or female CrossFitter body.

Despite the possibility for self-improvement, the researchers also observe several contradictions produced by the quest for measurable increases in physical power in a competitive group environment.

Crockett and Butryn (2018) report clear internal hierarchies created based on the competitive environment and the performance standards. In the box, hypermasculine displays of strength and speed are more likely to results in social acceptance and quicker incorporation into the community. In this community, superior physical performance provides the status for both women and men. 

The CrossFit code of behavior is also strongly endorsed. As Heywood (2016) explains: “anyone who isn’t interactive with or supportive of fellow box members is reprimanded or shunned” (p. 121). The strict adherence to the code can create “an atmosphere of group bonding, a sense of ‘us’ against the world,” she continues, but also excludes any difference. Dawson (2017) similarly believes that the CrossFitters align themselves so closely with the values of their CrossFit institution that they have become to regard them as the extension of their own beliefs. In her view, while CrossFit positions itself as a rebellion against mainstream fitness, it endorses a close regulation of behavior by the exercisers themselves, their coach/instructors, and their peers.

Heywood (2016) explains further that the individual in CrossFit is “paramount, but is held to a standardized set of expectations, which is to be able to become proficient at a wide range of physical modalities and follow a particular diet and lifestyle” (p. 121). She concludes that CrossFit is a physical practice deployed in service of the larger norm of the ‘libertarian method’ of fitness where individuals are solely responsible for their performance that is, nevertheless, strictly defined and controlled by CrossFit. 

CrossFit is not for everybody, Dawson (2017) concludes. While avid CrossFitters can zealously follow their practice, “those who have found fault with some aspects of CrossFit…have very quickly been brought back into line or expelled from CrossFit’s inner circle” (p. 372). The community feeling, she warns, can also disguise peer pressure and discourage alternative voices. The CrossFit community continues to grow as more exercisers are attracted by its intense, measurable WODS, its simple space, and its community. But those who do not find CrossFit to be their way of life, also continue to have other, less competitive and less regulated modalities that align with other beliefs and methods of fitness.

References

Crockett, M. C., & Butryn, T. (2018). Chasing Rx: A Spatial Ethnography of the CrossFit Gym.Sociology of Sport Journal, 35, 98-107 

Dawson, M. (2017). CrossFit: Fitness cult or reinventive institution? International Review for the Sociology of Sport, Vol. 52(3) 361–379.

Heywood, L. (2016). “We’re in This Together:’ Neoliberalism and the disruption of the coach/athlete hierarchy in CrossFit. Sports Coaching Review, 5:1, 116-129.

Whiteman-Sandland, J., Hawkins, J., & Clayton, D. (2018). The role of social capital and community belongingness for exercise adherence: An exploratory study of the CrossFit gym model. Journal of Health Psychology, 23(12), 1545–1556.

More Posts