Crossfit: Forging elite fitness… for whom?

About a month ago, Weetabix over at Elastic Waist posted about Crossfit, a fitness program based around the completion of daily workouts designed with the explicit goal of wiping out elite athletes. I went to the site, checked it out a bit, watched a whole bunch of videos, and decided to give it a shot. I’ve been doing a very, very scaled down version, mind you, but still following the general concept of constantly varied functional movements. It’s been a lot of fun so far, and I’m feeling good, although I wouldn’t say I’m 100% convinced yet.

I was a bit skeptical of the concept at first – especially before I found the scaled down versions! It didn’t help that almost all of the people in the videos looked a bit like (sweaty, exhausted) magazine covers. There were lots of shirtless men with bulging muscles and women with small hips and breasts, and both sexes had washboard abs. I don’t mean to say that I mind watching videos of people that look that way, but it was and to some degree still is somewhat intimidating. In fact, it took until this video (wmv,mov), which was posted a few days ago, to see a Crossfitter who looks like me (she comes up about 15 seconds after the audio of “3-2-1-GO!”, running, in a black v-neck sleeveless shirt). “Where are all the fatties?” I wondered. And I still do wonder, but now that I’ve seen that the program can be scaled to fit pretty much any level of fitness, I’m willing to let that go.

What made me willing to give the program a shot was watching videos of the founder, Greg Glassman. I firmly believe that any topic can be fascinating, given the right teacher, and Glassman (or “Coach”, as he’s more generally called on the Crossfit page) is a great teacher. Like any good teacher, he loves nothing more than to share his knowledge. And like any good teacher, he knows what he’s talking about! Or at least, he’s convincing enough to make you think he does. I don’t know enough about the topic to verify what he says, except through my own experiences so far.

And so far, they’ve been really positive. I’ve always been the type who can do something forever without really getting it, but if it’s explained to me in a more theoretical way, it will almost always click immediately. So when I watched lectures about how it’s the muscles in the back of your body, not your arms, that do most of lifting, or about how running is really controlled falling, movements that I’d been doing all my life suddenly became a totally different experience. My posture is improving, just from the realization that I wasn’t using my spine to support myself. My biking endurance doubled from thinking about the motion of pedaling differently. It’s those sorts of things that are really Crossfit’s big draw for me – because I get the sense that Coach sees the human body like I do, as an incredibly complex organism that we are constantly learning new things about, and that that knowledge can be used to improve our experience of this life. The first video I linked above really captures that spirit, as does an anecdote related by marc on this page:

Got a lot of strange looks when I carried my homemade wall-ball into the local city gym. One of the Personal Trainers asked me what I was training for, I said “fatherhood.”

The main concern I had as I began the program, and one that still is troubling for me, is the question of equipment and facilities. Crossfit talks about how its equipment needs are minimal – a place to do pullups and an Olympic weight set are the only crucial elements. Which is fine, unless like me you have neither. I’ve been able to come up with some substitutions that work for me, especially given my current fitness level. I can use doorways or playground equipment for pull-ups, and I don’t need a weight set until I’ve got the form for many of the movements down well enough to avoid injuring myself. But at some point, my progress will depend on being able to come up with the cash to get access to heavy objects to lift, whether by buying them or purchasing a gym membership. As I’m currently unemployed, I’m not sure how that will work.

This latter concern ties into the other fact that struck me in all of the videos I’ve seen so far: the people represented are overwhelmingly white. In fact, with the exception of a few of the female trainers who are in many videos, I could count on one hand the number of people of color I remember seeing in the videos. That concerns me, and I think it should concern the founders of Crossfit too, because it speaks volumes about the accessibility of the program to people who live on a limited income or work jobs that do not give them leisure time for extra physical activity. This is a problem inherent to all recreational fitness, and I don’t mean to imply that it isn’t. But I’m concerned by it. How does Crossfit answer those who don’t have a spare dollar to allow them access to weights? Who don’t have safe streets to run on? Who don’t have a playground nearby or a place to put a pullup bar in their apartments?

Crossfit bills itself as “Forging elite fitness”. And I’m inclined to agree that it is successful at its goal. But is this a goal that can only be pursued by those who have money and time to spare? Is elite fitness only for the elite in society?

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3 Comments »

  1. Leslie Ap said

    Gretchen,

    I read your post on CF today. I can only vouch for out affiliate (CF HEL, Portland, OR) but I have never felt objectified there. I hardly look at the main page, especially the comments, due to the whole objectification of women issue in the past. Hiding behind the computer brings forward an ugly side of lots of CFers. At HEL, they at least don’t let on if they are checking you out. I feel safe and comfortable there, while busting my butt and scaling my wods. If CF is something you enjoy and want to continue, I hope you’ll give a local community a chance. Either way, I liked what you said. Good luck.

  2. Gretchen said

    Thanks Leslie. It’s nice to know I’m not the only one who sees it that way. It can get a little discouraging sometimes when I feel like I am.

    I probably will make it out to an affiliate at some point; if my experience reading the BrandX forums is any example, affiliates are less of a breeding ground for those sorts of public comments because people can be held accountable in a smaller, less anonymous environment. But it still is a concern for me, and something I’ll be keeping an eye out for if I do decide to visit an affiliate in the future.

  3. […] Uncategorized ·Tagged Body image, CrossFit, Exercise, Feminism, Fitness, Personal, Sexism In my last post, I talked about some of the concerns I had with the overall way CrossFit works, particularly the […]

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