The CrossFit Cult: An Inside Look at What’s in the Kool-Aid

By Sarah Gold

The buzz around CrossFit is growing at a fast pace in the health and fitness world. From magazine editors to health and fitness bloggers, runners, and bikers alike, it seems like everywhere I turn, fitness enthusiasts are either jumping on the bandwagon or criticizing it heavily. From the descriptions of the workouts, the exercises and the equipment used, it sounds much like the plyometric (explosive exercises) and strength workouts that I dreaded before every new gymnastics season growing up. Why would anyone choose to do this willingly? Yet, I was intrigued by their ‘no egos and no mirrors’ philosophy and the back-to-the-basics approach and thought it was about time to see what all the excitement (or cult-like following) is about.

If you’re not familiar with CrossFit, it’s a strength and conditioning program founded by former gymnast Greg Glassman in the 1970’s, though it didn’t become mainstream until just a few years ago. Although many of the moves are used to train military, police forces, and Olympic athletes, the workout is designed to be broad and adaptable by a variety of fitness levels. The program is meant to improve ten core competencies: cardiovascular fitness, stamina, strength, flexibility, power, speed, coordination, agility, balance, and accuracy. CrossFit coaches lead each group workout, which encompasses a warm-up, a strength portion, and the workout of the day, affectionately known by CrossFitters as the “WOD.” The coaches develop the WOD, thus it will vary from one affiliate to another on any given day, but is always based in the core CrossFit movements. Each CrossFit affiliate should have the same equipment, and most importantly, the WOD wall. This wall not only serves as a place for the coaches to showcase the daily workout, but also as a form of motivation for each participant. After a member completes the WOD, his or her time to completion is posted on the wall for all to see.

The CrossFit movement has been at the center of much controversy both for its connection with the Paleo diet and the belief that the workout is actually quite dangerous. The Paleo connection comes from CrossFitters’ belief that this diet, which you can read about next month in the March issue of the Sprout, will lead to better athletic performance. Although, there is little scientific evidence that this is true. CrossFit also promotes The Zone diet, though this has not received as much attention from CrossFit critics. As far as safety goes, the coaches put a heavy focus on form and safety when completing the exercises. Given the competitive design of this workout, it’s easy to imagine how injuries can occur when one’s ego or pride takes over.

After a quick online search for affiliates in the Boston area, I came across the newly opened Reebok CrossFit in Back Bay. I couldn’t imagine where in Back Bay, one of the most built up and crowded areas of Boston, could house a large warehouse-like space, typical of the CrossFit gyms. The next day I ventured down to St. James St. and wandered into a large corporate building. Clearly looking lost (and out of place in my gym clothes) the guard directed me down the hall. When I arrived, I was transported back to my high-school gymnastics days, with a little bit of gym class thrown in there too. Rowing machines lined one wall, while rows of gymnastics rings and pull-up bars lined the other. The center of the room was filled with CrossFitters doing push-ups on the wide-open rubber-mat floor. In the corner, I found kettle balls, medicine balls, and rubber weights for the squatting bars.   

This is not your typical Back Bay gym. When I arrived, Michael Cahill, co-owner, greeted me with a friendly smile and eagerly set me up for my first class. The coaches were equally approachable, and excited to work with anyone who walked in the door. They are fit, yet in a motivational, not intimidating manner. Although well dressed, they are not there to put on the fashion show that you find at some of the other Back Bay establishments. No mirrors, and definitely no egos.

That’s not to say the Reebok CrossFit Back Bay is without attractive amenities for the downtown worker. To add to the convenience of the location, they provide showers and a towel, making it easy for members to get in a workout before work or during lunch. Their partnership with Reebok also brings added benefits for members including free lectures with Reebok athletes, trainers, and nutritionists. In addition, the facility’s close proximity to the Boston Common will allow for some outdoor workouts in the summer months. Their goal is to build a community. The owners and coaches want to know everyone that walks through their door.

The sample workout began with a warm-up of jumping jacks, a variety of running techniques such as high knees, squats, planks, and a few other plyometric-type exercises. We moved immediately into the WOD, which included rowing 500-yards, 40 squats, 30 sit-ups, 20 CrossFit style pushups, and 10 pull-ups or ring rows. The coaches demonstrated modifications for varying abilities, immediately dispelling the myth that CrossFit is only for the extremely fit athlete. The idea is that every member should be doing the same warm-up, strength workout, and WOD, but each individual can use different weights, or complete a variation of an exercise depending on fitness level. Prior to the timed WOD, we practiced several repetitions of each exercise and were given feedback on form as well as ways to improve power or speed from the coaches. Once we had mastered the moves, the timed WOD began. As we pushed through the circuit, the coaches cheered us on and corrected form as needed. When I thought I couldn’t continue, they motivated me to keep going. Having such a small student to coach ratio was both a blessing and a curse.

This workout was invigorating and humbling at the same time. I’m a spin instructor and a long-distance runner, and I regularly lift weights at the gym. I consider myself a fit person. Yet, I cannot remember the last time I’ve felt this worn out after an hour-long workout, let alone a 7-minute circuit. Those 7 minutes made me yearn for a 10-mile run. I was pushed harder than I would ever push myself. It gave me a feeling of accomplishment, and although torturous, it somehow left me wanting more.

Since this was only a taste of the real thing, Michael invited me back for a full hour-long class a few days later. I couldn’t help but take him up on it; I was already hooked. As I write this article four days after the full class, the jello-like feeling in my legs has nearly subsided. This is not a workout for someone who doesn’t find some pleasure or feeling of accomplishment in sore muscles. If you’re looking for a new way to challenge yourself, or better yet, have someone else push you through the workout, I recommend trying CrossFit. I also urge you not to push yourself beyond reasonable limits and try not to lift too much weight in the beginning, as it’s very easy to get hurt during one of these workouts if you let your ego get the best of you.

Check out CrossFit’s website to find an affiliate in your area; there are several in Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville. Don’t forget to ask about student discounts; many locations offer up to 20% off monthly memberships for students.

Will I be back for more? Absolutely.

*Photos by author

Sarah is a second year student completing a dual degree in Nutrition Communication and the Didactic Program in Dietetics. Through her writing Sarah hopes to share her passion for nutrition, good food and exercise.  Sarah enjoys running, teaching spin, and testing out new recipes to share with friends and family! Read more from Sarah at www.foodandfitnessfriend.com

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