“CrossFit Mirrors American Militarism,” on Salon. A Response.

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Some kids doing CrossFit. They could be playing video games, a culture that might be a better fit for the “CrossFit Mirrors American Miltarism” premise.

If you have some time to burn, read this piece that was recently published on Salon.com, written by Eric Lemay. It’s sort of an analysis of CrossFit, with the author involving the likes of Plato, Aristotle, Noam Chomsky and George Orwell. As the title suggests, his premise is that the popularity of CrossFit is a reflection of how American culture has embraced militarism.

In building his argument that “CrossFit Mirrors American Militarism,” he uses sentences like this:

Cognitive linguists have shown that we make sense of our lives through metaphors: life is a journey; love is war; Syria’s use of chemical weapons is, in Obama’s words, “a game-changer.”  In sports, Americans have a set of analogies, images, tropes, and conceits, through which we understand ourselves, even when those metaphors, like Obama’s, woefully distort the reality we’re trying to describe.

And:

The counterview to sports as a beacon of meritocratic equality and unbeclouded truth is that it’s a spillway for our worst public and private selves.  Orwell, as you’d expect, saw sports as “bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence: in other words it is war minus the shooting.”  And Chomsky sees sports as an opiate for the shirtless, face-painted, giant-foam-finger masses: “It’s a way of building up irrational attitudes of submission to authority and group cohesion behind leadership elements.  In fact it’s training in irrational jingoism.”

I’m not sure how ‘unbeclouded’ that statement is, but I usually have no problem with someone trying out CrossFit and not liking it and wanting to write about why they didn’t like it. But I feel compelled to respond to Lemay’s piece. It skews the true value of CrossFit in a way that might dissuade some who before reading the story may have earnestly been thinking about joining a CrossFit gym, and may have really benefited from joining a box, but decides not to because of Lemay’s disparaging description.

Here’s my response in short. As to Lemay’s notion that CrossFit is some new strain of a culture becoming militaristic, I would like to quote CrossFt Elysium coach Paul Estrada about what CrossFit is or isn’t when a debate like this gets heated up. He reminds people that, “It’s just exercise.”

I could leave it right there because those three words pretty much say it. But I’m like Lemay, so if you’re interested, here’s my long form response.

The great gang at CrossFit Elysium.
CrossFit Elysium.

First of all, CrossFit isn’t as violent a form of training that he attempts to establish. Despite the narrative of Pukie the Clown and some of the storytelling and imagery one can dig up from the internet, most of the people doing CrossFit these days are not vomiting all over the gym. CrossFit is not Hell Week in the Navy SEALs. There’s an 86-year-old woman who is an active member of CrossFit Santa Cruz Central. She’s incredibly fit and energetic for an 86-year-old, but she’s not going to make it very far in BUDS. So if this piece was the first and only look a reader has into CrossFit, that reader would almost have to imagine a gym where instead of buckets of chalk there are buckets of vomit; that what CrossFitters do on a daily basis is work out until they puke. He writes:

Every CrossFitter has their favorite story of workout obliteration, often involving a bucket. 

Well, I don’t.  I’m a CrossFitter, and I’ve worked out at more than 20 CrossFit gyms now over the past two years. I’m aware of the CrossFit “Pukie the Clown” ethos but think it’s exaggerated.  Although I have definitely pushed myself in workouts,  I can report the following:

1. I’ve never thrown up during or after a CrossFit workout.

2. I’ve never come close to throwing up doing CrossFit.*

2. I’ve never seen anyone throw up.

I’m sure some  have thrown up from CrossFit workouts, just as one of my teammates back in high school did after running his first 800 meter track race of the season. The “Pukie the Clown” CrossFit mascot is more of a joke than anything but as legend has it, the first execution of Fran was accompanied by puking. But those who have puked from CrossFit are not breaking an barriers when it comes to exercise. I have a few memories from my grade-school sports years of kids throwing up after a basketball practice or hot-weather football practice. The occasional site of a teenage kid throwing up during practice is something I imagine most kids in sports have seen.  But as of yet I haven’t seen it in a CrossFit box. Lemay, who apparently belongs to a CrossFit box, is exaggerating, perhaps to try and build toward his militarism argument.

Lemay portrays CrossFit founder Greg Glassman on being hellbent in making people throw up so they’ll be ready for the end of the world. This is not an accurate portrayal of Glassman or the official CrossFit presentation of the model delivered in their level 1 cert. Rather, Glassman is hellbent on a program that is effective and clearly defined. Watch all the Glassman lectures and go to a level one cert (I’ve done both) and I doubt you’ll come to that conclusion. (One of the topics brought up at the seminar was, ‘How do I get my kids to like healthier foods?’)  What I observed is this: CrossFit is a general strength and conditioning program for all-comers, designed to increase health, wellness and quality of life. Glassman says as much in his lectures. It’s what you find at most CrossFit boxes. Is there an additional value for first-responders? Yes. In that a high-state of general physical fitness is a good thing to have when all hell breaks loose and you have to be ready to carry a human being on your shoulder out of a burning building.

Indeed, CrossFit does emphasize intensity. For a reason: High-dose exercise produces the greatest results with the least amount of time. Competitive distance runners know this: Hard sessions of 6 x 800 meter runs at 5k race pace with 2 minutes of recovery between each rep is a hard session that will help vault you to another level of performance in a way that tons of slow jogging will never do.

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As I’ve written about quite frequently, CrossFit has been an effective gateway not just for former high school athletes to regain or retain health and athleticism, I meet a lot of committed CrossFitters that had never been in an organized sport in their lives. They’d never really been in any sort of good shape. And then there are those remarkable CrossFitters that are coming from the realm of obesity and even morbid obesity. At Amity CrossFit, where I currently train, there’s a really nice guy that has to scale about every workout, but CrossFit may have saved his life: he was pushing 400 pounds, in his 40s, and he’s lost at least a fourth of that and I’m sure that his biomarkers have retreated from the heart-attack red zone.

So to my point: CrossFit is a good thing. It’s not the only thing—Just about any sort of exercise is a good thing for America considering the obesity epidemic that continues to spiral and infect our population—but the combination of a community structure, exercise and nutrition is a powerful package.  It works.

And CrossFit has gone global by the way, which doesn’t jibe with the article’s title. Lemay even mentions this: “Now there are over 5,500 [CrossFit gyms], from Rarotonga Island to India.”  Europe, South America, Down Under and more. And China should get in on the act, too: recent reports say that nearly half a billion Chinese are showing signs of being pre-diabetic.

Lemay put a lot of work into a story re-published on Salon.com, no doubt getting a lot of attention. He finishes his argument with this, a thought that came to him after watching some CrossFit kids doing pull-ups:

At that moment, I think I’m about as far from global conflict as you can get, that I’m part of a tight-knit community where people feel welcomed, supported, and challenged.  And then I see the flag, hanging on the gym wall, and I realize that the observations I’ve been making don’t clash, that a strong sense of community and a martial ethos go hand in hand, and that one thing the emergence of CrossFit may very well show us is America’s ongoing transformation from a culture of sports to a culture of war.

I think it’s an odd conclusion, but I’m glad to hear about some kids having some fun getting exercise.

As far as American culture goes, CrossFit is on the right side of the equation. This past weekend, while in the Chicago area, I was in a Walgreens and saw a new product section: Diabetes Care. Diabetes is so rampant that it has it’s own section, just like lipstick. Obesity and type-2 diabetes come hand-in-hand, of course, and you can just feel how huge the pharmaceutical/medical-industry-complex is going to get and how many billions of dollars are going to be made off of Americans being sick. Despite Chomsky’s view of sports, I imagine if he were to look at the numbers and the facts, he too would support a social policy that encouraged the likes of a community-supported-health-and-fitness program like CrossFit. A company that, by the way, has developed exercise programs for kids intertwined with SAT preparation. A company that has built a school in Kenya. A company that has supported infant-drowning prevention awareness.

CrossFit as a mirror of American militarism? Lemay writes:

When I started CrossFit, I was troubled by the hero wods.  The prospect of doing pull-ups and push-ups to honor a dead American soldier struck me as suspect, if not morally bizarre. 

Indeed, CrossFit does honor fallen soldiers. As well as firefighters, police and other first-responders. What this mirrors is a creed: To those who made the ultimate sacrifice while serving the public, we will not forget you. And CrossFit communities are known for offering direct support to first-responder families. The CrossFit community has come, for example, to the aid of the families of fallen Arizona firefighters. But you’ll see that it’s not just first-responders that CrossFit gyms rally for. At CrossFit Elysium in San Diego, my box when I lived there, they recently held a fundraiser for the sister of one of the gym’s members, who is in a fight with cancer.

Lemay doesn’t convince me of his premise (obviously). Do we have a militaristic culture in general? More than a decade of war might speak to that question more than whatever it is CrossFit is or isn’t.  As far as a cultural zeitgeist, it has seemed to me that CrossFit is, in this very high-tech age, a place where people from all walks of life can come together, get fit, and be there for one another, and do it in a place that is attractively back-to-basics and void of the typical marketing noise that drenches most commercial gyms. That’s what I’ve seen, anyway.

* I don’t sing and dance my way out the door either, but I don’t throw up.

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In Inside the Box, veteran journalist and marathoner T.J. Murphy goes all in to expose the gritty, high-intensity sport of CrossFit®. From staggering newcomer to evangelist, Murphy finds out how it feels, why it’s so popular, and whether CrossFit can fix his broken body.

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