Someone said it to me again the other day, and it got me thinking. CrossFit isn't the only fitness movement with its zealots, but it's definitely one of the only ones that has been around this long (14 years and counting is a little long to be dismissed as a "fad," methinks) and is still exponentially gaining momentum, both in membership and social influence. Something is at work here, and its got pros and cons like anything else.
Below are my thoughts on what causes this "cult" mentality, how it helps members, and how it can hurt us, too.
Based on my exactly zero years of psychological and sociological training, I've surmised that CrossFit is effectively the perfect storm of cult-mentality formation. Let's break this down real quick: we take a group of people. Give them a large, appealing goal ("better health," "six-pack abs," and/or "spending lots of time with people who have six-pack abs" depending on your priorities). This goal requires significant personal commitments of both time (total weekly hours) and money (months/years of membership dues, clothing, equipment, etc.).
There's a trial-by-fire element--exertion, fatigue, pain, determination, repetition--which in and of itself is enough to create a shared bonding experience. But then we get into the fact that this all necessitates lifestyle changes for most people (scheduled WOD time, dietary changes, shifting interests and hobby focus) and comes with its own weird in-jokes and jargon (hang snatch thruster chest to bar muscle up Fran Annie Grace Murph Paleo/IIFIYM/Zone...) and now we're talking not just about binding our little group together, but making them seem like strange outsiders to anyone not familiar with this weird "WOD" ritual they put themselves through every day. Which means that there is now an "us" and "them" dynamic. Which then feeds on itself--the more you get into it, the more you socialize with your fellow cultists (a pretty nice perk, since most of them are kind of awesome people), and the more you seem like a strange, alien clique to everyone else. Hmm.
Why It's a Good Thing:
I'm not one to sugar-coat this: getting in shape is f*cking difficult. I started my own journey much later than I wish I had, when I was in college--and now after six years of "exercising" (four if you only count from when I started doing anything remotely effective or intelligent), it's still a daily struggle. Anyone who tells you that you can go from wildly out of shape to "get ripped quick" with minimal effort and/or without making any sacrifices to your indulgences is a goddamn liar and you should absolutely not give them money for whatever bullshit they're peddling. This. Is. Work. There is no finish line--no magic number of pushups or jumping jacks you can do to just "poof!" yourself into lifelong health. You have to get up, every day, and just Keep Earning It. (Do you see what I did there?! Zing!)
I firmly believe that anyone willing to try is completely capable of attaining their goals, but you have to settle in for a long haul. Your brain will find ways to justify avoiding the work. Depending on your starting point, your body will actively fight your efforts. There are days, even now, even as the owner of a bloody fitness company, where I still hear a little, tired voice in the back of my head saying "to hell with it. Let's just go home and be fat." In light of all of that, it would be stupid not to stack the deck any way you could.
And you know what's a really excellent motivator? Freakin' cult status. Peer pressure. Mob mentality. Band of barbell brothers, man. It's the "gym buddy" system taken to eleven. Surrounding yourself with people who want what you want, who want you to get what you want, and who want to help and encourage and motivate you as much as possible? That's the nuclear option of personal motivation. There will be days when your own willpower falters. When your determination breaks down. But it's pretty unlikely that it'll happen to your whole community at once. Being able to lean on the group hive-mind when you need that extra kick in the pants can be the difference between changing a lifelong habit or giving up on another New Year's resolution. Invaluable.
CrossFit is more expensive than a "regular" gym (a steal compared to a lot of other options, including personal training, but I digress). But you know what CrossFitters do? They show up. Regularly. And I am not talking about the Fronings and the Chans and the Thorisdottirs. I'm talking about the other 99% of the CrossFit cult--the laywers and the copy editors and the doctors and the baristas and the students and the housewives and the engineers and the designers. The young kids, the middle age couples, and the most BAMF little old ladies you'll ever meet. They show up. They work their asses off. The first thing they do when they go on vacation is find a local Box to drop in on. They go home tired, they wake up sore, and then they show up again and can't wait to tell their friends about it.
This is a point I don't feel I can make often enough: it is inadequate to judge any fitness philosophy solely by its most elite athletes. In my mind, it's the average folks, quietly PRing in the corner and dramatically improving their physical quality of life, that are the true metric of its effectiveness. And CrossFit, through its methodology and its (in)famous "cult" mentality, is unquestionably good at making this happen.
Where the "Cult" Can Go Wrong:
Hey, do you know what people hate? Being preached at. Maybe I'm being presumptuous, but I'm betting most of you don't pause and give the tinfoil hat-wearing doomsday prophet down in the mall parking lot a sympathetic ear.
There is a natural, tribal feedback loop between the various lifting/exercising groups of the world that concerns me greatly. Having a self-sustaining, self-motivating community is great, but when it comes at the expense of alienating everyone left standing outside, it becomes a problem.
I'm not telling you not to share your passion with your friends, even the non-CrossFitting infidels. But keep it classy; as a group, we can be kind of overbearing. If someone expresses interest or curiosity, chat away. But we're kind of out of line when we start telling folks that they SHOULD be doing what we're doing (yes, you have to bite your tongue when your friend says they're going to get fit via elliptical or ab-blaster or prancercise or whatever. Be nice).
I don't particularly like it when "traditional" lifters or runners or whoever-the-hell start bashing on CrossFit for the sake of "our team good your team bad" chest-thumping, fueled by a blatant lack of even a fundamental knowledge of the other side's practices. There was a particularly bad article making the rounds this week, but I refuse to give traffic to stupidity, so instead here's a great write-up by Christian Thibaudeau over on T-Nation, and another over on Lift Big Eat Big brilliantly titled "You Don't Like CrossFit? Get Over It." Give those a read and rejoice that sanity and constructive dialogue between thinking adults with different backgrounds is still present in the world.
So let's apply a little basic empathy here and not do that same chest-thumping crap to anybody else. Don't walk into Gold's and start giving out unsolicited lifting pointers or metcon programming. Don't constantly tell your swim-team friend how much better they'd be if they'd sign up for an onramp because then they'd see! They'd all see! Just...just chill, a bit.
Closing: Thoughtful Application of Wheaton's Law
I've not found that hostile tribalism for it's own sake is very helpful to anybody. I mentioned it in the pullup video, and I'll reiterate here: I'm on Team Fitness. That's not the same thing as being on Team CrossFit. Or Team Strongman, or Team Zumba, or Team P90-X, or Team Cross-country, or Team Paleo, or Team IIFYM, or any other little health & fitness tribe.
It is not our job to recruit (and furthermore, the harder you try to do that, the less effective it is). The only score that matters in the end is NOT the number of folks we can convince of our own chosen "right" answer. What matters is that folks find a way to improve their health, not how they choose to do it.
So I would like to encourage everybody--cultist or not--to lead by example. Find your route to better health. Learn all you can about your peers and the methods they've chosen (Warcry is here to help). Focus on empowering beginners to learn and try new things, not indoctrinating them into your preferred "right way to be fit."
And as always, Keep Earning It.