Thursday, July 23, 2015

The Cult(ure) of Crossfit

Click this link to read the previous entry. Click this link to jump ahead to the next post in this series.

There is a joke about Crossfitters that the only thing they talk about is Crossfit. One of the most common of the dozens of variations of this joke claims that Crossfit is Fight Club in reverse: The first rule of Crossfit is that you always talk about Crossfit. The fact that I’m blogging on this topic may be further evidence of the truthfulness underlying this joke.

Much has been said about the “cultish” aspects of Crossfit. It has its own insider language full of terms like WOD, AMRAP, EMOM, Rx, and so on. It seems to do a good job of changing people who do it regularly. People talk about it incessantly.

With beginning regular exercise a year ago at Crossfit Chapel Hill came not only new levels of physical activity, but also exposure to a community and culture that was new to me. In a previous post I talked about how I have spent my adult life mostly surrounded by “church people, minister colleagues, academics, social justice activists, and liberal do-gooder types.” Going to Crossfit meant immersing myself in a culture outside of what I was familiar with.

In some ways the culture of Crossfit Chapel Hill is not all that different from the culture of Chapel Hill, a predominantly liberal university town that prides itself on being North Carolina’s “pat of butter in a sea of grits.” Indeed, one of the coaches frequently wears an NPR T-shirt to the gym and several members workout in T-shirts showing their support for marriage equality in North Carolina.

When I say that the culture of Crossfit Chapel Hill was new to me I am not making a point about political differences, educational differences, or socioeconomic differences. Instead, what is different is a cultural understanding of how the physical self relates to the whole self as well as an understanding of the role of physical activity in life. That is what I am going to explore over the next several blog posts, but first let me say a little bit about the sport of Crossfit itself.

In his Crossfit memoir, Embrace the Suck, author Stephen Madden writes about taking up Crossfit during a kind of a fitness mid-life crisis in his mid-forties. He describes the philosophy of Crossfit this way,

What Crossfit was trying to achieve [was] to prepare us all for whatever life asked of us. I’m pretty sure [this was] meant… in the physical sense. That if we were walking down the street and saw flames leaping from the windows of the top floor of a building, we’d be able to sprint up the fire escape, kick down the door, drag the obese man who had been overcome by the smoke to the door, throw him over our shoulders, and carry him to safety on the sidewalk. Or cradle one twin baby in each arm while descending to the cellar laundry room. Or do one power snatch every minute on the minute for forty-five minutes.

Crossfit, writes Madden, is “based on principles of constantly varied functional movements done at high intensity.” What this looks like in practice is workouts that feature calisthenics (pushups, sit-ups, pull-ups, burpees, squats, jumping rope, etc.), weightlifting (clean and jerk, snatch, overhead and bench press, deadlift, etc.), and gymnastics (handstands, exercises involving rings, etc.) in an endless variety of combinations and permutations.

At the heart of all of this is a critique of contemporary American culture and the ways a typical American lifestyle leads to diminished physical abilities. For example, the way we sit reduces our capacity to squat and weakens a chain of muscles that allows us to do important stuff. Or, too much typing on a computer leads to internal rotation of our shoulders and compromises our strength. Through doing these exercises, there’s an awareness of regaining strength and mobility that our dominant lifestyle compromises. The future benefits of this form of fitness is that our bodies may remain functional longer prolonging our ability to live independently as we age. In the present, at least for me, there is a greater awareness of my own body, how my muscles and groups of muscles fire, and the way in which my body occupies and moves through space. There is also a greater sense of agency over my own body. This is essentially what I mean when I talk about “embodied” living. That’s a topic I’ll continue to explore over the next several posts.

But first, a quick story. It was the evening of a Crossfit social at a popular bar on Franklin Street. As the evening grew later, someone decided that it would be fun to see if they could press another member of the gym. The next thing you know, people are taking turns lying stiffly across a pair of barstools while others take turn putting their hands underneath them and pressing them fully overhead. (For the record, I declined to participate in this as either the lifter or the lifted.) Yes, this is another example of the annoying stuff that Crossfitters do, besides talking about Crossfit incessantly. But, as one member of the gym push pressed another, I could not help but admit that this was a culture that was new to me.