My life as of late has been mostly devoted to school (reading—largely about working out), writing, working out, and teaching fitness. What’s been on my mind as I’ve been thinking more and more about what my thesis might be all about next year has been whether or not I’m prepared to go into a year of critically analyzing something I have come to really appreciate: CrossFit. My plan is to do just that—to critically analyze representations of the (fit) female body in CrossFit to explore the ways in which it might offer a site of control and oppression—or offer empowerment and liberation. A lot of the motivation behind this is that I think my personal experience with the sport has been largely empowering but the experiences I’ve had with the media don’t match up. Anyways, enough rambling aside—part of what I’ve been doing is keeping my eye on CrossFit media lately and seeing where I might want to go with things.
If you watch the news, you’ve probably seen a fair share of celebrations and bashing when it comes to CrossFit. This week, especially, there’s been a lot of talk following the injury of a CrossFit coach during a competition that left him paralyzed. My thoughts on this are that any sport comes with injury, this was a freak accident where I don’t think the blame lies with CrossFit, and that the way in which people use this as a way to bash the sport without giving it a chance or really trying to understand it is pathetic. A telltale sign in my books that you’re a close-minded jerk not worth my time is being unwilling to listen to the opposite side of an argument or to entertain the possibility that you could be wrong, as is making sweeping generalizations about anything to do with health or fitness.
I keep this around as a reminder to keep an open mind.
So with all the Debbie downers out there talking about why CrossFit is killing us, I thought I’d contribute to the other side of the coin: here are six reasons why I think CrossFit is a gift to individuals, the fitness industry, and our world alike.
1. CrossFit takes a lot of training techniques and disciplines and packages them into one. Plenty of adults take up CrossFit. How many of them, otherwise, do you think would give a freestanding handstand a shot? It’s not just gymnastics that CrossFit exposes people to—rowing, Olympic lifting, powerlifting, etc. also come with the territory. Given that the vast majority of people struggle to make exercise a habit, I think this kind of exposure is a good thing and the trickle down effects—making sports like Olympic lifting and powerlifting more accessible to the average individual—can only be a good thing.
2. CrossFit is changing “fitness”. For lots of former athletes, CrossFit is a perfect fit: there’s competition, there’s striving for excellence, there’s camaraderie. People see your name on a board every day—or they don’t and they call you out for it. CrossFit is fun the way practicing for a sport is fun–you have a goal and things to work towards and people to work towards those things with. Also, the kind of community possible in a CrossFit gym was never the norm before. Now that CrossFit is getting so popular, I think that people will start to realize that they can get this kind of quality from a gym and just might start demanding it outside of just the CrossFit box. In this way, CrossFit is helping the fitness industry and challenging big box gyms and smaller facilities alike to up the ante in terms of the services they provide.
my “ante” reference required this vid be included in this post 😉
3. CrossFit forces you to be fit in more than one way and in a variety of skills—10 of them to be exact: cardiovascular/respiratory endurance, stamina, strength, flexibility, power, coordination, agility, balance, and accuracy. The idea is to be good at any task imaginable, which requires that you not specialize in one (CrossFit’s “specialty is not specializing”). While that means that for the specialized athlete, CrossFit might not be the perfect program, that doesn’t mean that athletes (endurance athletes notably) who take up sports in the pursuit of better health and fitness can’t benefit from incorporating plenty of the elements that inform CrossFit.
4. CrossFit forces you to leave your comfort zone. You might find yourself striving towards what sometimes seems like stupid heavy weights or pie in the sky goals for how quickly you move through a set of thrusters and pullups, for instance. But for some people—and women especially, I think—seeing that a prescribed workout is, for instance 5 rounds for max reps of bodyweight bench presses and pull-ups (Lynne) can inspire a holy shit moment. Long gone are the pink dumbbells, along with the notion that girls and strong don’t go together. As you get fitter, you go faster or heavier so the intensity keeps building and the challenge doesn’t disappear–uncomfortable is built into CrossFit.
5. CrossFit invites you to question conventional (training, medicine, and nutrition advice). I’m not saying that we should live in paranoia or buy into all of the conspiracy theories out there, but I think a healthy dose of skepticism—the kind inspired by being part of a community that questions just about everything when it comes to training—can be eye opening.
Think about the debates in the popular media and on the interwebs over the pregnant CrossFitter last year: whether or not you buy into the notion that this woman was endangering her unborn child and should be in the pool doing aquaerobics with all the cautious moms to be out there or if you think she should snatch until her water breaks, the dialogue challenged us to think into the recommendations and what we think is “okay” or “normal” for pregnant women when it comes to exercise. Until the 1990s, there wasn’t much research regarding safe exercise during pregnancy—the female body, especially the pregnant female body, was simply considered pathological. The fact that it was just recently that pregnant women were “allowed” to exercise, albeit within a set of guidelines where they were still seen as risky exercisers, probably has something to do with the appalled reactions of the people who thought the pregnant CrossFitter was in the wrong. It’s only by pushing the limit and being willing to engage in debates about what makes something acceptable that we’ll make progress—so props to everyone who waged in on the conversation.
6. CrossFit emphasizes performance over aesthetics. At the simplest level, I think of the absence of mirrors in most CrossFit boxes as a testament towards a shifted focus on what your body can do instead of how it looks while it’s doing it. Yes, there are some issues with some of the “Women of Crossfit” type things that I see floating around—empowering language alongside the same old unrealistic images, for instance—but as I’ve thought about it more and more, I’ve realized that the reason that the empowering language about what a gal’s body can do is so often accompanied by images of lean and mean women is because the women at the highest level of the sport just look that way. Whether they have those bodies and are good at CrossFit as a result or whether they do a lot of CrossFit and their bodies wind up looking that way is something you can debate about as much as you want to, but like I said: the notion of thinking of your body in terms of what it can do and doing things that challenge you for the sake of doing them instead of thinking of your body as a project to be perfected and using exercise as a way to shape it to fit a feminine ideal is a big and powerful shift. Even if some women come into CrossFit hoping to look like Christmas Abbott or Andrea Ager (these are the women I hear my friends ogling over most often), if their leaving behind inactivity or working out on a hamster wheel trying to change the shapes of their bodies and the switch takes them to CrossFit, they’ll be fitter for it.
On a personal level, if I look at some of the girls kicking my ass in terms of weight lifted or performance on WODs, appearances don’t tell the whole story. There are women who look just like me who can lift twice as much as me and there are girls who look as fit as a fiddle who are terribly out of shape in some of the domains CrossFit forces you to test out. At the end of the day, it comes down to what your body can do—not how it looks while you do it—and for that, I think CrossFit offers up a site of potential empowerment. Sure, striving for an Rx on your workout might be reaching for a tough ideal, but I buy into the fact that if we work hard enough we can improve and move closer to that performance goal and feel good along the way far more than I buy into the notion that training ourselves towards an unrealistic aesthetic ideal could be.
If my reasons didn’t convince you, maybe this last bit of CrossFit love will…
If you’ve made it through my word vomit, I’d love to hear your thoughts:
What do you think of CrossFit? Is it the worst thing to happen to fitness? The best?