I was wet, muddy, cold, and slightly winded, slogging up and down the mountains of Sussex County, midway through a 10-mile Spartan obstacle course race. I was fantasizing about a hot shower and a cheeseburger.
I was also eavesdropping on the conversation going on behind me.
“I can’t believe you thought about doing that WOD yesterday. It was like the Filthy Fifty.”
“I was so surprised I got all nine bar muscle-ups in Wednesday’s workout. I hadn’t done those since the Open.”
The man and woman were talking about CrossFit, in CrossFit’s own unique language: A WOD is a “Workout of the Day,” “Filthy Fifty” is a notorious workout involving 50 repetitions each of 10 different movements, a bar muscle-up is going from a hanging position to supporting yourself on top of a pull-up bar, and the Open is a worldwide online CrossFit competition.
I was annoyed. Here we were, in the middle of what is supposed to be a brutal physical challenge, and all they could think to talk about was CrossFit.
But I was also a little jealous. Because deep down I knew that if I had not been running alone, I probably would have been talking about CrossFit too.
It is one of few stereotypes about the fitness phenomenon that both its lovers and its equally many haters can agree on: Crossfitters never stop talking about CrossFit. And it can be annoying.
Shortly before 7 a.m. on a recent Tuesday, I am lying on the floor, gasping for air, and not entirely certain that my legs still work.
So, fair warning: this is a story about CrossFit, written by someone who has definitely drunk the CrossFit Kool-Aid. And — full disclosure — I didn’t even want to write it. Because as much as it’s a fitness program, CrossFit is also an escape: an hour most days where the outside world is forgotten and the only concern is trying to be a little bit stronger than the day before. Writing about CrossFit, on the other hand, sounds an awful lot like work.
But if I’m going to be an enthusiastic member of a cult — and CrossFit is kind of like a cult — then maybe it’s a good idea to explain it to the people such as my parents, co-workers, and assorted non-Crossfitting friends who think that I and the people I work out with every day are nuts.
Shortly before 7 a.m. on a recent Tuesday, I am lying on the floor, gasping for air, and not entirely certain that my legs still work. No, I have not just awoken from a particularly gruesome nightmare by falling out of bed. I have just done “Karen” — a WOD consisting of 150 wallballs completed as fast as possible. The movement is simple: hold a medicine ball against your chest. Squat below parallel. Stand up and throw the ball up against a 9 or 10-foot target. Catch and repeat, 150 times. The workout is quick — a top athlete can finish it in under 5 minutes; a normal person in closer to 10. But it is decidedly not painless, and 7 minutes after hearing the starting call of “3, 2, 1, go!” I am feeling its full wrath.
Karen is one of a few dozen workouts — all with girls’ names — that serve as benchmarks in the CrossFit world: workouts that you test, record your score on, and retest a few months later to measure improvement.
The girls started with Fran: an innocent-looking couplet of thrusters (a front squat into a press overhead with a 95 or 65-pound barbell if you’re doing it “as prescribed”) and pullups. Do 21 of each, then 15 of each, then 9 of each, as fast as possible. The girls’ names make them easier to talk about — “Kelly” is less of a mouthful than “that workout with the running and box jumps and wallballs.” There are also less practical and less polite explanations for the names. CrossFit’s founder, Greg Glassman, has joked that “any workout that leaves you flat on your back, staring up at the sky, wondering what the hell happened, deserves a girl’s name.”
Fran is older than CrossFit itself. CrossFit Inc. was incorporated in 2000, but its founder, Glassman, was a teenage gymnast in California in the 1970s when he realized that weightlifting would make him stronger but did not provide the same cardiovascular punch as a gymnastics routine. In creating the workout now known as Fran by experimenting with combinations of weightlifting and gymnastics in his garage, he found a way to mix both skill sets to great effect.
That is the basic goal of CrossFit: general physical preparedness — not specialization. You won’t be the best weightlifter or gymnast or runner, but on average you’ll come out ahead. The program’s mantra is “constantly varied functional movements executed at high intensity” and its intent is to prepare participants for the unknown and unknowable. That pretty much means anything that life throws at you: from helping a friend move a heavy couch or being mobile enough to play with your grandkids to, in my case, scaling 10-foot walls, scrambling under barbed wire, and carrying buckets of rocks up mountains during Spartan races.
Glassman has distilled it to what he calls world-class fitness in 100 words:
“Eat meat and vegetables, nuts and seeds, some fruit, little starch and no sugar. Keep intake to levels that will support exercise, but not body fat. Practice and train major lifts: Deadlift, clean, squat, presses, clean & jerk, and snatch. Similarly, master the basics of gymnastics: pull-ups, dips, rope climb, push-ups, sit-ups, and presses to handstand, pirouettes, flips, splits, and holds. Bike, run, swim, row, etc., hard and fast. Five or six days per week mix these elements in as many combinations and patterns as creativity will allow. Routine is the enemy. Keep workouts short and intense. Regularly learn and play new sports.”
CrossFit’s website started posting a daily workout in 2001 with explanations of movements and a comments section where people could share and compare scores.
These are all things that people can — and do — work on alone in their basements and garages, or by making creative use of the equipment available at a traditional gym. In 2002 Glassman even wrote an article, “The Garage Gym,” detailing the essentials needed to transform a garage into a gym. (Glassman, who in CrossFit’s early days was banned from several traditional gyms for all of the grunting, panting, and barbell dropping his workouts provoked, simultaneously excoriated the traditional gym model as being “predicated on a low to minimum wage, skilless staff supervising hapless members.” The man is not known for mincing words.)
But the other aha moment that Glassman had — while working as a personal trainer in the mid-1990s — was that clients enjoyed a better workout environment, and he made more money, by training them in groups small enough that each athlete could get plenty of individual attention — rather than one-on-one. The shared suffering and shared satisfaction of completing a workout together transcends individual levels of fitness and forms the basis of the so-called CrossFit community.
This is where the affiliates come in. CrossFit is a private company based in Santa Cruz, California, and 100 percent owned by Glassman, now 60, who has no board of directors and brags that he has never had a business plan. CrossFit Inc. doesn’t operate gyms, but it licenses the CrossFit name to affiliates around the world. Would-be gym owners need a space, some equipment, and a coach with a CrossFit Level 1 certificate — a certification achieved by attending a two-day seminar on the CrossFit philosophy and how to safely and effectively train athletes in the movements involved (price: $1,000). Affiliates then pay a yearly fee to CrossFit (currently $3,000).
The first affiliate — or box, in the CrossFit lexicon — was opened in 2002 in Seattle, Washington. By 2005 there were 13. Today there are about 13,000 affiliates on six continents in spaces as small as a garage, as large as a football field, and everything in between. But they all operate in much the same way: offering daily classes, usually about an hour long, where everyone, together, completes that day’s WOD.
The membership at these boxes spans all ages and abilities. Part of CrossFit’s appeal — and part of why it is so effective — is that everything can be scaled. Weights can be reduced, movements can be modified, and workouts can be adjusted to what’s right for each athlete. The person who makes 135 pounds look light as a feather and the person not ready to move beyond the 15-pound practice barbell can do the same workout, scaled to what’s right for them, and both feel like they got a good challenge. And the first person to finish the workout sticks around — and keeps cheering — until the last person is done.
CrossFit can work for anyone as an exercise program, but much of the reason for its popularity is the growth of CrossFit as a competitive sport. In 2007 the first ever CrossFit Games was held — an all-comers competition at a family ranch in Aromas, California, with the mission of identifying the fittest man and woman on earth. There were three workouts that were announced on the spot — unknown and unknowable to the competitors until moments before they started them.
Since then the field of potential competitors has grown exponentially. Competition now starts with the CrossFit Open — an online competition open to anyone with an internet connection, a $20 registration fee, and access to some gym equipment. Every week for five weeks a workout is announced, and in the subsequent days thousands of people give it a go and submit their score, which becomes visible on the online leaderboard on the CrossFit Games website.
In 2016 324,000 people, ages 14 to 83, signed up for the Open. Through regional competitions the field is whittled down to 40 men, 40 women, and 40 teams to compete at the CrossFit Games. Separate qualifiers are held for teenage and masters competitors.
Those competitions are broadcast online and on ESPN, and elite competitors score endorsement deals and have huge followings on social media. All of which brings new people into CrossFit. And for the most part those are the people CrossFit is about. Not the tiny percentage considered “elite,” but the average joes who just want to be healthy and fit.
Count me solidly among the average joes. No one has ever accused me of being athletic. Growing up in Princeton, I dabbled — unsuccessfully — in gymnastics in elementary and middle school. Starting in seventh grade I followed in my mother’s footsteps and took up running — a sport that required more manageable levels of strength, coordination, and flexibility. I was a middle-of-the-pack cross country and track runner for four years at Princeton High School.
That was pretty much it for me and competitive athletics. I had other priorities — starting with an acceptance letter from Princeton University — and no illusions about my ability to compete on its nationally recognized cross country team. For four years of college and several years beyond that, I more or less didn’t exercise. I was, at best, an on-again, off-again recreational runner, entering the occasional local 5K if a friend dragged me along. My arms resembled twigs; a six-pack, as far as I knew, was a quantity of beer.
If CrossFit is a cult, it sure isn’t a secret one. People who do it love to talk about it, and their stories of fitness and friendship are the sport’s best testimonials.
CrossFit Nassau opened in 2011 on Nassau Street — at the site of the former Wild Oats and Olive May grocery stores — while my soon-to-be-fiance and I were living, conveniently, also on Nassau Street. We didn’t know much about CrossFit, but we did know that he wanted to lose some weight, and we gave its website a half-hearted glance. Our wedding came and went; CrossFit was forgotten.
It wasn’t until the fall of 2013, two months after our wedding, when a friend from college — who was by that time a graduate student at the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab — enticed us to try CrossFit through a LivingSocial deal that offered a discount on a trial month of membership. The two of us were pretty solid proof that you do not need to be in shape to start CrossFit.
The gym has since relocated from Nassau Street — the building had long been slated for demolition and has since been rebuilt as high-end offices and apartments — and is now on the northbound side of Route 1 in Monmouth Junction. But the spaces share a key characteristic: no one would believe they had walked into a standard gym. No fancy locker rooms or showers, no shiny treadmills, ellipticals, or Smith machines for squatting, no mirrors, no TVs playing reality shows on loop.
The rubber-padded floors are mostly open. Along the walls are barbells and weight plates; platforms for Olympic lifting; kettlebells and dumbbells; rowing machines and bikes; rigs for pullups and squats; and a collection of bands, foam rollers, and other mobility tools. A traditional gym might have a rack of bright white towels for cleaning off cardio equipment; we have some wipes and a mop for wiping up “sweat angels” — the affectionate name for the body-shaped puddle left behind from lying on the ground at the end of a workout.
Our first class — the on-ramp program that all new members go through to learn the basics of weightlifting and other movements used in CrossFit — was on Halloween, 2013. I remember two things about it. First, we did literally hundreds of squats, and my legs — which I thought were relatively strong from my running days — could barely carry me up the stairs for the next week. This, it turns out, is a common rude awakening for new crossfitters who thought they were in shape from previous athletic endeavors.
Second, the coach that night, whom we had just met for the first time in a gym where we were not yet full-fledged members, invited us to the informal Halloween party going on at the gym after class. What’s more, people hung out there before and after class. These weren’t anonymous fellow gym members who make every attempt to avoid eye contact with the person on the next treadmill over. It seemed everyone — from high school and college-age members to members pushing retirement age — was friends.
We skipped the party — we were not yet fully initiated into the cult — but we did come back the next day, and the day after, and after a few more sessions started attending regular classes four to five days a week.
Some perspective: prior to starting CrossFit, my husband had belonged to New York Sports Club for several years, paying about $90 per month. After some effort he disentangled himself from that membership contract having actually gone to the gym maybe 10 times. That is fewer than the number of CrossFit classes we attended in our first month.
What’s more, three years later I’m still going pretty much every day. My husband goes three or four times a week, less frequently than he would were he not recovering from a broken ankle (see sidebar). When we travel, we drop in at other CrossFit boxes, or we do hotel WODs — workouts with mainly bodyweight movements that are easily completed in a hotel room or with the limited equipment available in a hotel gym. And no, we have never signed a contract and could quit at a moment’s notice.
Not that CrossFit is cheap. It isn’t. A membership can cost up to $180 per month. At some gyms it’s well over $200 — the price you pay for one-on-one interactions with a trained coach in a small group setting rather than a teenager manning the front desk. But while the price tag is one motivator, it’s not what gets people out of bed before the sun is up to hit the gym, nor is it what convinces people to head straight to the gym rather than straight to the couch after a long day at work.
That is where the community comes in. The workouts are effective — it only takes a day or two to realize that — but you don’t have to do a single squat to witness the community in action. And — while I’m biased toward my home gym — this is true at any gym you might visit, as a full-time member or a one-time guest.
When my family heads to Long Beach Island for a week each summer, my husband and I drop in a few days at the box in nearby Manahawkin. Its space and membership are much smaller, but the experience is similar. The coach remembers us from one summer to the next even though we spend no more than three or four days there. And on the whiteboard there this summer, along with workouts and scores, was an invitation to a barbecue at the coach’s house that weekend.
That’s the CrossFit normal, the existence of that type of camaraderie and friendship outside of the gym. It doesn’t seem weird to have CrossFit friends and other friends, and it’s not always easy to mix them because the non-Crossfitter ends up as a sad third wheel to a conversation that inevitably comes around to CrossFit.
My CrossFit normal is the so-called “morning crew,” the couple dozen people who regularly show up for the classes at 5, 6, and 7 a.m. on weekday mornings. There are the “noonies” — mostly people who work close enough to the gym that they can spend their lunch hour there. And there’s the night crew who attend the 5, 6, and 7 p.m. classes.
For example, if I see a California license plate in the parking lot I know that Ellia Miller is there. She moved across the country this summer to start graduate school in neuroscience at Princeton and sought out a CrossFit home in New Jersey.
Like many people, she discovered CrossFit through her involvement in the military, whose relationship with CrossFit goes back to the sport’s earliest days. For one, CrossFit-style workouts were adaptable to the limited equipment available in remote military outposts. And its mantra of preparing for the “unknown and unknowable” applied directly to situations a soldier might encounter.
Miller was nowhere near any Middle Eastern hotspots, but she was part of the ROTC at the University of California-Davis and was introduced through the strength and conditioning program there to the basics of CrossFit.
As wars were waged and more and more of the people fighting those wars were preparing for them in part through CrossFit, it was inevitable that Crossfitters would be among those killed in action. In 2005 CrossFit began creating WODs to honor both military members as well as law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty. These “Hero” WODs often have elements that reflect the person’s birthday or the date they were killed and might include the person’s favorite movements.
Among the first of these was “Murph,” named for Lt. Michael Murphy, who was killed in Afghanistan in June, 2005. The workout consists of a one-mile run, followed by 100 pull-ups, 200 push-ups, 300 air squats, and then another one-mile run, all completed, if possible, while wearing body armor or a 20-pound weighted vest. It’s now a tradition for CrossFit boxes around the U.S. to do Murph every Memorial Day.
Most athletes approach Murph with respect for the man they’re honoring and more than a little trepidation. It takes the average athlete 45 to 50 minutes to complete — much longer than typical 5 to 20-minute duration of most WODs. And for most athletes, once a year is enough.
But Mike Gallardo is not most people. So this Memorial Day he did three different variations on Murph. If you see Mike in the morning, you probably also see Romeo, his dog, watching obediently in the open gym area as Mike attacks heavy weights and whatever devious workout — or workouts — he has planned for that day.
He also came to CrossFit, indirectly, through the military. It was after he left the Army that he started CrossFit to recover, both physically and mentally. Gallardo was deployed to Iraq in 2006, and in 2007 his truck hit an IED. His left leg was amputated below the knee and he now wears a prosthetic — though, from watching him do most CrossFit movements, you might not realize that he is among CrossFit’s growing community of “adaptive” athletes.
The gym has also counted among its members a paraplegic, one who is deaf, and several pregnant women, who in some cases have been able to complete increasingly modified versions of workouts until within days or hours of going into labor. After the baby is born, a higher-end traditional gym may offer some form of childcare. But I’d venture to guess that at none of those gyms will a coach play with the cranky baby while watching mom work out.
That coach, many days, is Justin Doran, who is also the gym’s manager. He leads a coaching staff of about 10 men and women, each with different backgrounds, some with full-time jobs outside of the gym, and all of whom bring a unique style to their classes.
Justin came to CrossFit the way a lot of people did, especially in its early days: by searching the Internet for workout ideas. Now 32, he says “I became aware of CrossFit and when I was about 25 I finally convinced myself to give it a shot. I was immediately hooked.”
Growing up he had been active but not a standout athlete in any one sport. “Although I was gifted physically, I picked up skills slower than my peers and by the time team sports started to get competitive, I was a step behind everyone else,” he says. “I got really out of shape and stopped seeing myself as an athlete.”
Things changed after high school when he signed up at Princeton Academy of Martial Arts. “I was given step by step instruction on how to move properly and I loved this,” he says. “I spent two years immersing myself in movement and it completely rekindled my love of fitness.”
In CrossFit, he again found something that allowed him to go at his own pace and focus on form. After a year of training in CrossFit, he became a coach, and after a year of coaching he became convinced it was his calling. “I moved around to a few gyms, learning as much as I could along the way. Eventually I was asked to manage CrossFit Nassau. I didn’t specifically intend on staying at CF Nassau forever,” he says, but — sounding a familiar refrain — “the members have become like a second family to me, and it’s hard to see myself anywhere else.”
“We have a very committed community at CrossFit Nassau and the culture that we’ve created resonates with me deeply,” he says. “I think the same could be said about most of the members at the gym. We all identify with what CrossFit Nassau represents. We value hard work, supporting each other, and pursuing things that take us out of our comfort zone.”
“At its core, though, I think people are drawn to CrossFit Nassau for the same reason people are drawn to any community. They believe in what we are doing and they want to be surrounded by friends who feel the same way.”
That pretty much sums up why I get out of bed most mornings: fitness and friends. And if we’re talking about friends who embody CrossFit Nassau’s ideals, Keri Mandell might come up first. If I see her at the gym in the morning, chances are she has already completed a long run, swim, or bike ride. The learning consultant-turned-fitness professional is infectiously enthusiastic — and brings that to her long list of athletic endeavors, including CrossFit coach. Her current goals include running the world’s six major marathons (she most recently checked Berlin off the list) and completing a half-ironman triathlon. (For those keeping score at home that’s a 1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike ride, and 13.1-mile run.)
And for those who might argue that CrossFit is at odds with the relaxing, meditative ethos of the other fitness trend du jour — yoga — Keri will quickly tell you that the two are mutually beneficial, and plenty of people do both. She is also a yoga teacher who is opening her own studio, Empower Yoga, in Ewing. (See her blog and Empower’s website.)
And if we’re talking about everyday life at CrossFit Nassau, it’s hard to miss Morgan Robinson. She may be the world’s only CrossFit devotee who is also an expert on mid-19th century Zanzibar. The two are actually related: she started CrossFit when seeking out both new friends and a place to work out while at Oxford University, doing research at the colonial archives there. She’s in the gym every morning, usually for several hours — a break from working on her dissertation at Princeton.
In early December we plotted, with Ellia Miller, a pre-Christmas workout extravaganza. Many gyms at this time of year will program “The 12 Days of Christmas”: 12 movements done in the style of the Christmas carol — 1 repetition of the first movement, then 2 of the second and 1 of the first, then 3, 2, 1, etc. Ellia, stealing an idea from her previous gym, proposed turning it into the “12 Girls of Christmas.” We hoped it wouldn’t take longer than the 3.5 hours the gym is officially open on Saturday mornings.
Admittedly this sounded a little nuts, even to me. But “a little nuts” is a far cry from how I might have viewed that workout plan three years ago as a total beginner. “Impossible” or “in my dreams” might have been closer. Most if not all of the workouts involved movements I couldn’t do or weights I couldn’t lift. CrossFit works: it’s made me and the people around me every day fitter. But there is always room for improvement, so we’ll keep coming back, day after day, trying to get better.
But are we a cult? Kind of. We speak in code-like abbreviations and acronyms, and to varying extents allow CrossFit to infiltrate our thinking on what to eat, when to sleep, and even where to go on vacation. (Will the hotel have a decent gym? Or will there be a nearby box to try?) We do some strange things, like celebrating birthdays with “birthday burpees” — one for every year old you are, with participation expected from the whole class.
Is it an obsession? For some people, certainly. And do people think we’re strange? Well, yes, but plenty of people who have observed Crossfitters with a mix of what’s-the-point and never-in-a-million-years have tried it out and realized that not only does it work, it’s also pretty fun.
But we’re not a very secretive cult — quite the opposite — and we’re always open to new members. As I may have mentioned, Crossfitters tend never to shut up about CrossFit.
There are several places to try CrossFit in the greater Princeton area. Many will offer a free teaser class to potential new members.
CrossFit Nassau, 4260 Route 1, Suite 6, Monmouth Junction. 609-285-3377.
CrossFit Ex Novo, 743 Alexander Road #11, West Windsor. 609-853-0571.
CrossFit Hamilton, 2101 East State Street, Hamilton. 609-915-8516.
CrossFit Jungle Gym, 4 Crossroads Drive, Suite 110, Hamilton. 609-245-8043.
Pennington CrossFit, 55 Route 31 South, Pennington. 609-847-7560.
‘But everyone gets injured doing CrossFit!’
CrossFit is criticized by some who say that the prescription to do exercises as fast as possible or with the heaviest weight possible encourages poor technique and is a ripe environment for injuries and overexertion. (It may not help that CrossFit Inc. uses as a cartoon image of a vomiting clown known as “Pukie” as a mascot). Of course you can get injured — the same way you could playing any other sport, walking down the stairs, or tripping over a crack in the sidewalk. But a good coach will keep athletes from using weights that are too heavy or from attempting more complex movements before they can demonstrate good technique on simpler skills.
CrossFit Inc.’s legal team — which devotes considerable resources to defending the CrossFit brand — has been engaged in a battle with the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA), which certifies some athletic trainers, but not CrossFit’s coaches and courses. (They are accredited by a different organization, the American National Standards Institute.)
In 2013 the NSCA published a study that claimed 16 percent of participants in a CrossFit-based training program failed to complete the program due to injuries and concluded that while CrossFit was effective at making subjects fitter, it came with an unusually high risk of injury. Were this true, it would be cause for concern. But as it turned out, the data were fabricated. Of participants who dropped out, only two were from injury, and neither injury occurred as part of the study. In September, 2016, a federal district court made several rulings in CrossFit’s favor and denied the NSCA’s motion to dismiss the suit.
So my Crossfitting husband’s broken ankle referenced in the main story was unrelated to CrossFit. Ironically, the people at the rock climbing gym where it happened had made fun of him for doing CrossFit — doesn’t everyone get injured? No, but an unexpected 12-foot fall from a bouldering wall will do the trick. And even on one leg, he could still do CrossFit. Six days after leaving the hospital he was in our basement, bench pressing with his bad leg up on a chair.