On day three of CrossFit fundamentals, Christina Russo missed class. Russo is a fitness instructor herself, a yoga teacher trying a four-week introductory class, but didn’t expect the immediate response: a text from a fellow intro student asking if she was okay, then a worried Facebook message from another about her injured elbow. Russo may have only poked a toe in the world of kettlebells and dead lifts, but there’s no such thing as a little bit of CrossFit.
Developed in a Santa Cruz gym in the 1990s, CrossFit became the fitness craze of the new millennium when the very first affiliate opened in a residential garage in Seattle in 2000. Today there are more than 7,000 boxes, or gyms, in the U.S., with thousands more as far afield as Saudi Arabia and Deep Freeze CrossFit of McMurdo Station, Antarctica.
But the fast rise of the cross-training system, which mixes and matches cardio, strength, and lifting moves in hour-long sessions, has led many to call it simply a cult. Even Google autocompletes the query “Is CrossFit…” with “…a cult.”
Spinning, yoga, and Pilates have also been labeled cults. Why? Part of it is the rapid adoption of a new fitness routine; one minute your beer belly has guilted you into signing up for a free week at a new gym, and the next you’re rearranging work hours around workout hours. Stats and milestones stir competitive streaks; CrossFit tracks reps and weights, while FlyWheel South Lake Union ranks real-time pedaling stats on a Torque Board during class.
Of course, there’s only so long you can chase the next gold ring—or personal record. After a few years of CrossFit at multiple boxes, software engineer Jeremy Fried started to question why he was doing it at all. “For me it turned into strong for the sake of being strong. Do I really need to squat 400 pounds? Is that really helpful for me?” He’s since moved on to skill-based workouts like jiu jitsu.
Or maybe it’s the proselytizing; unlike businesses that attract new customers through advertising or media coverage, gyms primarily operate through word of mouth. We hear “You have to try spinning!” with the same fervor usually reserved for kale or camping. CrossFit boxes are all independent of the national organization and often informally endorse diets like Paleo and the Zone. When Fried was a devotee of CrossFit Eastside, it wasn’t uncommon for someone to throw steaks on the shared grill during the noon workout.
Every workout has its insider jargon—the toughest CrossFit workouts have female names like Fran—and rituals. Krav Maga Seattle classes start with students lining up for a debrief, and many yoga classes end with a naplike savasana. Every group has its quirks; At CrossFit Belltown, members display the chunks of dried hand calluses on the wall, mounting them on pins like a Victorian naturalist might mount a butterfly. The trophy treatment began when proud students came to her with their bits of discarded skin as proof of their intensity, remembers owner and trainer Nadia Shatila. “It was like a cat bringing a dead mouse to its owner,” she says, laughing.
But what is a cult but an extreme religion? Harvard Divinity Students interviewed CrossFitters and SoulCycle enthusiasts when they were looking for spiritual communities outside of actual churches. In their report, “How We Gather,” they write: “The two most striking things about CrossFitters are their evangelical enthusiasm and the way they hold one another to account.… Strikingly, spaces traditionally meant for exercise have become the locations of shared, transformative experience.”
Transformations come in all shapes; Christina Russo was taken aback when missing a single CrossFit class led to a flurry of messages from other students. But she admits that she liked being kept accountable; she completed the intro month and now hopes to combine two workouts by teaching yoga to her fellow CrossFitters.