CrossFit Is Maybe A Cult, But Maybe That’s Not A Bad Thing?

Photographed by Geordy Pearson.
CrossFit, a high-intensity workout developed by Greg Glassman in the early 2000s, is both a punch line and a religion, depending on whom you ask. Far more polarizing than even the church of SoulCycle, CrossFit devotees live by WODs (workouts of the day) and believe wholeheartedly in the power and community of the box (a.k.a CrossFit gym) to energize and motivate you to become your "fittest" self. Detractors, on the other hand, often perceive some CrossFit folks' devotion as dangerously obsessive. We spoke to one CrossFit enthusiast (our deputy health and wellness editor Anna Maltby), and one critic (Landon Peoples, an editorial assistant who has trained in classical ballet). They shared their experiences and their thoughts on whether CrossFit is a helpful fitness community or a straight-up exercise cult.
Do you remember when you first heard about CrossFit?
Landon Peoples: "It's obviously huge in the gay community. I remember I first heard about it in a bar in Hell's Kitchen. Someone mentioned CrossFit and I asked, 'What's that?' and he was like, 'Well the first rule of CrossFit...' and it was very Fight Club-y like that, which I thought was weird. Then he told me all about it and tried to convince me to do it, and I didn't for a while. Then my best girlfriend started doing it, and she invited me. I did it a couple of times, and then, I died."

Anna Maltby:
"I don't know if I literally remember the first time I heard the word, but I remember having a kind of sense of 'this is what really tough people do — it's intense, it's only for people who are super strong or super in shape.' And then Elettra [Weidemann, Refinery29's contributing food editor] was doing a column in Self magazine, and she said she was doing CrossFit as part of her routine. She has a kind of similar body type to me; she's slim, and you wouldn't look at her and think, oh she must be a beast in the weight room, and I think that sparked something in me. I'd always been curious about it, but I didn't think it was something I could do."

What was your first class like?
AM: "I went to this really small CrossFit box, in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, about two years ago. It was right about the time I was thinking about trying it, and I walked past this gym, and they had a free trial class for beginners. In that first class it was me, two former football players, a guy who used to play baseball, this guy from the military, and this woman who was like, 'My name's Clarice, and I coach rugby.' They took us through a sample workout and, in CrossFit context, it was a really easy workout, but it floored me. It was overhead squats with just a plate, and maybe burpees. And I was sore for a week. But I was really into it."

"There's one box, I think it's called CrossFit Velocity, that opened in Williamsburg, and it was the same type of people. Lots of dads and moms, young parents, which was cool to see, because I come from a place where fitness is not a focus in any aspect, especially with young parents. I was really concerned because I hadn't stretched before, or warmed up, which I was expecting to be a crucial part of the class, because of the kind of workout it is, because it's so hard on your body. I remember just feeling really welcomed, because I spoke to some people before, and there was a range of people who hadn't been doing any workouts before that, and so they were just trying to get back in their fitness. Or it was people who had been athletes who were just trying a different type of workout. It was fun. It was really, really hard. It was not something I was used to, though I had taken high-intensity classes. It was more weight-lifting than I could have imagined."
What was the main difference you found between a CrossFit class and other high-intensity classes?
LP: "I felt a severe intimidation to not step out and take a break, as if it was just frowned upon. I've felt that in some other fitness classes I've taken, but in most classes, that's welcomed; if you stop, you know you're not going to get yelled at. I think CrossFit fosters this 'we're all in this together' mentality, which has its upsides and benefits, but it also promotes the idea that if you stop, you're bringing the team down, which is scary to some people, especially people who are just trying to get back into exercise."

"I think that brings up a really important point about CrossFit: That it really depends on the kind of gym you end up at. So, CrossFit Prospect Heights, I couldn't possibly say enough good things about those people. They have those hours and years and tons and tons of education in not just CrossFit but Olympic weight-lifting and mobility. The commitment to form is intense. They won't let you do anything with a barbell until you can do it with a PVC pipe. And so I think the vibe is just incredibly dependent on the place. There is an 'all in this together' mentality, but it kind of expresses itself in the opposite way that you just said. I've been in so many workouts of the day, because there's a huge range in age and ability, where 10 people finished within 12 minutes, but there's one person who's still finishing, because it's really hard. And then, people who just finished the hardest workout of their life will go and do the rest of the workout again with this person so they don't feel alone. People will do extra squats to support their teammate, and I think that's a really special thing."
How do you think it got this scary reputation?
AM: "It's definitely kind of a macho environment. And it's definitely a group fitness trend that's more male- than female-driven. The tagline of the CrossFit games is 'the fittest on earth.' That's definitely an intimidating vibe. But the thing that I love about CrossFit is that it's hell, but it's never going to be more than a 20-minute workout. The rest of the time, in my experience, is always stretching, mobility, rolling out. And I think about my gym, and it's so touchy-feely. I call it 'church.' It's kind of the cult mentality, but I've never been in a community as diverse and inclusive as my CrossFit gym."

: "I think every single point will go back to 'it depends on what gym you go to,' but I think the gym is already intimidating enough, so doing the legwork to figure out which one fits your personality... That's a lot. And some people, after they fall in love with it, it just changes who they are. Like my friend — we can't speak about other things; we don't have anything to talk about, really, because it has consumed her brain and way of living. It's all she posts on Facebook. It's all she does. And it does feel like this cult. Maybe it's just the gym that she goes to that's done that to her. It's kind of frightening to me. I stopped going because there's a chance I could have witnessed results faster than normal and gotten addicted to that."

"You were talking about beginners being overwhelmed and not having enough time. As a personal trainer, I had to study motivation and what keeps people going, and I think anything that's a barrier can be a real problem. It's really really hard to start exercising if you're not exercising. But, I will say the flip side of that is: The people I know who never worked out before, who were super unhealthy, discovered CrossFit. And I think because of the cult mentality, it has its ugly side of course, but it's such a motivator to feel like you're part of a community. And people keep going! It's one of the only exercise modalities that I know of that causes that kind of conversion, which I think is ultimately a super powerful thing."

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