What I Learned After a Year of CrossFit
I joined CrossFit in August 2014 following a visit to my 11-year-old daughter during her first summer at sleep-away camp. I realized, the hard way, that I was no longer the center of my daughter’s universe, so I decided that I needed to invest energy in building my own social life. So I joined CrossFit; I’d heard it was as much a social community as a fitness one.
I threw myself in headlong, attending classes five to six days per week for the past 12 months. My goal was to understand why CrossFit has become a cultural phenomenon.
It’s been an interesting year — here’s what I have learned.
The CrossFit workout is humbling, to put it mildly. Prior to joining CrossFit, I had regarded myself as relatively athletic. I had run half marathons. I had taken thousands of indoor cycling classes. I had been lifting weights for years. But somehow none of these previous workouts translated into making me a competent CrossFitter. Olympic weight-lifting is incredibly challenging, pull-ups are shockingly difficult, and burpees never cease to be exhausting. One year later I am still floored by the intensity of the workouts, but I have found exhilaration in the quest to complete difficult challenges.
In fact, I have found true delight in learning the technique of Olympic weight-lifting. In my life, many things have become routine: Grilling chicken, paying bills, and hiding my children’s junk at the bottom of the trash bag so that they won’t know that I’ve thrown it away are all activities that I can do with minimal mental energy. Given that I am someone who delights in routine, I have been happily surprised to learn that I experience childlike joy in learning something new. I love struggling with the nuanced technique of a Power Clean. And I am obsessed with perfecting my Overhead Squat. Do I suffer from the delusion that I am training for the CrossFit Games? Of course not. Even after one full year of CrossFit I have still not graduated from the 15-pound “training” bar to the 35-pound “women’s” bar. But despite my limited progress, practicing Olympic weight-lifting reminds me of hitting tennis balls against my parents’ garage door when I was little, and it makes me happy.
The most important and intense feature of CrossFit, however, is not the workout — it’s the community. Prior to joining CrossFit, I read about this element of the workout but it was hard to understand until I experienced it for myself. Because CrossFit workouts are very technique-driven, there are no casual CrossFit members. In order to reap the benefits of the workouts, one must continually practice their skills. Because of this, CrossFit demands full commitment from its members. Most members pick a workout time and attend that class several times per week. In my case, I committed to the 6 a.m. class and therefore had the opportunity to see the same 20 or so individuals every morning. We talked about the workouts but also learned about one another’s families, careers and upcoming vacations. We congratulated one another on career advances and new babies. And we came together to help each other grieve when one of us lost a family member.
Over the course of a year, I began to see the 6 a.m. class not as a group of exercisers but as a family — a sometimes-dysfunctional family, but a family nonetheless. Within each CrossFit class, there are unwritten rules, sibling rivalries, unspoken power dynamics, and a fierce sense of belonging.
In her book, Learning to Breathe Fire: The Rise of CrossFit and the Primal Future of Fitness, author J.C. Herz likens CrossFitters to “wild creatures, a pack of beautiful animals.” And therein lies the beauty of CrossFit: Though the range of abilities among individual athletes varies significantly, there is a strong sense of protectiveness within the pack. While elite athletes are congratulated for their feats, the group’s energy is more often devoted to protecting and encouraging its weakest members. Much in the way a pack of animals moves across the African desert in search of water, CrossFitters instinctively circle and encourage their weaker members during a challenge in order to protect them from the urge to quit moving. And having personally been the weakest member of the pack for quite a few months, I can attest to the power of having received such genuine support and encouragement.
But all of this begs the question: If the CrossFit community is unequivocally positive, why does it draw such criticism?
The truth is that there’s a less-than-attractive side to CrossFit, and I’ve seen that part of it, too. Because CrossFit fosters a deeply social community, there is a strong pull for members to engage in what I can only describe as “high school behaviors”: bona fide mean girls who pretend to not know your name, even though you’ve met them countless times. Sexual trysts among members — some that have actually caused divorces — that fuel hours of gossip. Cliquey inside jokes aimed at excluding newer or less popular members.
While most days these dynamics amuse me, there have been times when the toxic intensity of the social dynamics eclipses the athletic intensity of the workout in a way that makes me yearn for the peace and quiet of my headphones and a treadmill. And that’s really a shame. But overall I believe that the high school dynamics found at CrossFit are no different than the immature behavior found in any large social group. And they certainly don’t overshadow all the good things and people I’ve found as a result of my CrossFit experience.
By joining CrossFit, I have met dozens of interesting, intelligent and funny individuals that I now consider friends. I see these people five to six days per week (far more frequently than I see any of my other friends) and they appear to accept me for who I am at 5:45 in the morning, which is a tall order. When my now 12-year-old daughter left for sleep-away camp this summer, I was steadier on my feet. I had discovered a hobby that I enjoyed, but, more importantly, I had found a place to which I belonged.
Lauren Napolitano, Psy.D., is a licensed psychologist on staff at Bryn Mawr Hospital and in private practice in Bryn Mawr, PA. To learn more about her practice, go here. And to read more of Lauren’s posts for Be Well Philly, head over here.