by Chris Shugart T-Nation
Here’s what you need to know…
• Even with its questionable programming, often under-trained coaches and loudmouthed leader, CrossFit has greatly improved the field of fitness.
• CrossFit has helped grow every aspect of the fitness industry, from training equipment and gym ownership to workout apparel and book sales. That’s good for all of us who love training.
• Women, once turned off by images of steroidal female bodybuilders, are now embracing free-weight training in droves, largely thanks to CrossFit.
• The CrossFit Games is fun to watch, and because of that, CrossFit, despite its flaws, is here to stay.
I Invented CrossFit
Around the year 1995, I came up with the idea of CrossFit. I just forgot to name it and build a brand around it. Every Sunday I’d meet my training partners at Chuck’s house. Chuck had a big garage and all sorts of dangerous toys for us to play with. We had farmer’s walk implements made out of old railroad tracks, tires to drag, sandbags, med balls, kettlebells before kettlebells were really a “thing”, and a slew of old Olympic lifting gear.
The idea was this: we’d randomly come up with a workout of the day with the main focus being on conditioning, plus we’d do all those uncommon lifts we couldn’t do in our weekday commercial gyms. We’d do some type of Olympic lift, immediately go for a farmer’s walk, then do bodyweight squats and take a run around Chuck’s back field. Sometimes we’d compete and do this against the clock for time. I even published some articles about this stuff in the late 90s.
CrossFit wasn’t founded until the year 2000. So, Mr. Glassman, where’s my Reebok money? Where’s my 50% cut of all that cash you make printing reams of certifications? Can I at least hang out with Rich Froning? Because he seems like a standup guy.
No, I’m kidding. Greg Glassman deserves all the credit. He took a bunch of training ideas that had been around for decades, combined them into one modality, established the defining principles, hurled a few lawsuits and threats when needed, and worked hard until CrossFit blew up. Good for him. He tapped into his gymnastics background, renamed circuit training, and made it his own. That takes a lot of smarts, a little luck, and a single-minded sense of purpose that only the very determined and/or the bug-**** crazy possess.
But as a “co-inventor” of CrossFit (along with Dan John, Herschel Walker, my 7th grade football coach, the Muscle Beach crowd in the 1930’s, and dozens of others), I’ve been able to follow its development closer than most people. I wrote the first article about it for T Nation in 2008. I’ve actually traded a phone call or two with Glassman, and I work with several coaches who’ve been on the inside of CrossFit, at least before they removed themselves from its inner workings (often fleeing in disgust if truth be told.) So what’s the verdict on CrossFit? Well, as painful as it is to say, CrossFit is pretty awesome.
Thank God for CrossFit
It’s easy to bash CrossFit. The dubious programming and exercise order of the WODs, the butterfly kipping pull-up abortion, the sometimes under-trained “coaches”, the sloppy form, the fact that Glassman has very, very strong opinions about how to perform certain lifts even though he’s not able to do them himself and (some have surmised) has never actually done them… Yeah, all that is low hanging fruit. And past T Nation articles have covered these drawbacks in depth. But the truth is that CrossFit has done us all a world of good. And thank God for it.
Newbies Keep the Market Alive
Back in college I worked at a knife store. Being an aficionado of high quality edged weaponry, I complained to my boss about the “knife newbies” who’d come into the store only interested in the cheap movie-knife replicas, like knockoff Rambo bowies. Ray took me aside and explained to me that those crappy knives were the best thing that ever happened to the knife business. They attracted new people and brought them into the store for the first time. “Sell them what they want,” he told me. “Later, we’ll introduce them to the really good stuff. Let those junky replica knives bring them through the door and we’ll teach them about quality blades when they’re ready.”
Do you see the analogy here? CrossFit has pulled people into fitness and hardcore lifting that would’ve otherwise never walked through that door. Some people were never turned on by bodybuilding and, since they weren’t competitive athletes, they weren’t drawn to performance training either. CrossFit filled a void: lose fat, build some muscle, and look and feel more athletic… no shaving your ass and standing on stage required. No spending hours and hours a week preparing for marathons, one of the few challenging sports widely available to weekend warriors.
When one area of fitness does well, other segments of the industry do well too. CrossFit created new consumers of gym apparel, sports supplements, and workout equipment. Jobs were created, not because the government passed some backhanded bill, but because the demand occurred organically.
Coaches from narrower fields, like pure barbell strength training, Olympic lifting, gymnastics, and mobility, were suddenly filling up their seminar schedules and selling more books. Physical therapists, chiropractors, orthopedic surgeons, and soft tissue specialists saw a rise in business. That’s partly due to the fact that thousands of new people were exercising hard. And yes, it’s also partly due to the fact that more people were hurting themselves with questionable WODS and competitions.
Savvy equipment makers created new products to sell to the 9,000-plus new “boxes” cropping up all over the world. T-shirt makers threw the words “WOD” and “snatch” onto their shirts and sold out. The Olympic lifting shoe market, once less profitable than the hacky-sack shoe market, was suddenly having to ramp up production. Barbell makers profited. Kinesiology tape makers prospered. Owners of commercial warehouse spaces were filling their leases. The gymnastics market boomed as practically overnight everyday fitness enthusiasts wanted a set of rings in their garage. Thousands of people began to push their bodies to the limit and realized they needed a better diet and better supplements to fuel their performance and recovery.
Just as those Crocodile Dundee knife replicas grew the knife business, CrossFit was growing every part of the fitness industry. And if you like to train, this is good, even if you don’t do CrossFit. You have more choices now, better products competing for your dollar, and maybe even your standard commercial gym – feeling the hurt of losing members to CrossFit boxes – added lifting platforms, heavier kettlebells, pull-up bars, good rowing machines, and better med balls. Gyms got better because they had to get better. Competition, customer service, and capitalism… for the win.
Hardcore Mass Appeal
CrossFit boxes weren’t “gym gyms” either. These weren’t ridiculous group fitness classes full of bad Columbian dancing and faux martial arts. Compared to that pablum, CrossFit was hardcore-looking stuff. It pulled the housewives out of Zumba and Combat Yoga because of the simple fact that it didn’t look so house-wifey. It put barbells into the soft hands of people who hadn’t touched one since high school. It was brutally hard, but still looked fun, and it still incorporated the best elements of group fitness by creating a sense of community and compliance.
Also, CrossFit brought many retired high school and college athletes back into fitness. CrossFit is competitive, and though timing every workout or shooting for more reps or load for time has its drawbacks, it also has a very wide appeal, especially to former athletes. It gave them a new “sport” where they could compare themselves to others and set PRs. Humans will, after all, compete in anything (see competitive cheerleading and lawnmower racing), and CrossFit tapped into this natural instinct in a way that reached out to athletes, couch potatoes, and weekend warriors. North America is less fat because of it.
Let’s rephrase that. Weight training works. Metabolic conditioning works. Olympic lifting works. Training hard works. Cleaning up your ****ty diet works. These things have always worked and CrossFit uses them all and provides an atmosphere that pushes you to push yourself. And a lot of people need that.
In the early days of CrossFit, the joke was that CrossFit makes women hot and men small. The first part of that statement is definitely true, not because CrossFit is magically effective for female physiology, but because it gave women “permission” to lift hard and heavy, something that bodybuilding largely failed to do.
Sure, bodybuilding for women has always been around, but steroid usage and images of man-faced females did a lot of damage. This is where all the myths originated, like “lifting makes women big and manly.” It didn’t matter how hard we on the hypertrophy side of fitness tried to dispel these myths. One image of Kim Chizevsky from the 1990s dissuaded more women from hitting the iron than we could have ever hoped to convince otherwise, though we sure tried. Where bodybuilding, Olympic lifting, and powerlifting failed to recruit women, CrossFit succeeded. In fact, it kicked our asses.
The imagery and social media presence of CrossFit did what traditional resistance training could not. At the very least, it helped shift the tide. (Figure and bikini divisions of physique contests played a role here too.) CrossFit girls – women who lift weights, do metcon, and train aggressively, largely without using steroids and other drugs – are sexy. They aren’t posing and flexing, they’re performing, and generally looking damn good doing it, at least at the higher levels. Women who would never call themselves bodybuilders, or even Figure athletes, wanted to look like the prototypically memed CrossFit girl: lean, tough, super fit, athletic and with enough muscle to look very “toned” in the words of the general public, without looking “manly.” It wasn’t okay to be a bodybuilder in many women’s mind, but it was more than okay to be an athlete. Annie Thorisdottir, two-time CrossFit Games winner, was featured in Vogue magazine. A strong woman in an anorexic fashion mag? Game, set, and match.
Again, God bless CrossFit. Women in droves are lifting weights, squatting, deadlifting, climbing ropes, sweating, and building beautiful bodies. In an increasingly unfit world of sloppy cows and praying-mantis legs, CrossFit helped redefine sexy and gave women the green light to do what they should have been doing all along to look their best. Your wife or girlfriend, once content with lifting pink dumbbells and running on a treadmill, took one look at Camille LeBlanc-Bazinet and magically became interested in setting PRs, building thick, muscular legs, and learning to clean and jerk. Maybe she even bought a pair of bootie shorts. Thank you, CrossFit.
The Sport of Fitness
We know the jokes and we’ve heard the criticisms. Who competes to be the world’s best exerciser? And why does one paunchy old fart get to decide what parameters define “fittest on earth”? Fair enough, but I love how the CrossFit Games has evolved. And you secretly do too.
Here’s a bunch of very good athletes competing in all the things most of us probably do: lifting, sprinting, climbing, running, even biking and swimming. It’s exciting to watch. It’s easy to get drawn into a competition that contains all the elements most of us do on a daily basis. As the other old joke goes, CrossFit would be pretty cool if it wasn’t for all the CrossFitters.
At the very least, watching the women compete is inspiring and yes, titillating. And the top men are slowly erasing previous criticisms of CrossFit: they’re big, strong, and powerful, and many top CrossFit athletes could easily step onto a bodybuilding stage and do very well. Make fun of CrossFit all you want, but you’d be lying if you said you didn’t admire the physique of Jason Khalipa.
Do the guys in the CrossFit Games truly reflect the results of standard CrossFit programming? Not really, but do they inspire people to lift hard and diversify their training? Are they incredible athletes you want to see compete? You bet. As a bonus, the Open, Regionals, and CrossFit Games take place during baseball season, which means you can watch people compete on ESPN without dying of catatonic boredom.
CrossFit Is Here to Stay
After 14 official years, CrossFit is still rising. Its champions are becoming stars in their own rights, getting big-name endorsement contracts, book deals, and gracing the covers of magazines. Will it level off? Sure. Will CrossFit survive the eminent heart attack of Greg Glassman or its first public performance enhancing drug scandal? Probably. It survived Glassman’s ex-wife’s lawyers, after all. It may not always be the attention-getter it is today, but like World’s Strongest Man, Ironman triathlons, and the Olympia, it’ll always be around. For the greater good of fitness, I’m glad.
In 2014, nearly 210,000 people signed up for the CrossFit Games Open – an event that only began in 2011 – almost six times as many that signed up for the Boston Marathon. On March 26th, people paid $20 a pop for one of the 4,000 seats at Kezar Pavillion in San Francisco to watch other people exercise. It was workout 14.5 of the Open and featured five CrossFit Games champs going head to head. Now, really think about that a moment. That is a powerful testament to the newly minted sport of fitness, and if I have to start the slow clap I gladly will.
CrossFit has its faults. Many of these problems will, I believe, be ironed out over time, just as the UFC had to do before becoming a multi-billion dollar business and powerful influence on fitness and sport. Do I want to join a CrossFit box and enter the next Open? No. But do I respect what CrossFit has done for a field I’m very passionate about? You bet your bootie shorts. Overall, it’s great to see the rise CrossFit. After all, I invented it.