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They’ve found redemption in their willingness to get primal.J.C. Herz
Somewhere in the suburbs of Los Angeles in the San Fernando Valley, Greg Glassman, a young athlete and gymnastics enthusiast was looking for a new way to improve his performance on the rings. One afternoon, after completing a particularly explosive set of barbell thrusters and pull-ups, he found himself doubled over, retching on the floor of his father’s garage. Years later, Glassman’s brand of maximalist training would crystalise on the floors of his Santa Cruz gym where as a personal trainer, he invented unsual routines that paved the way for the high-intensity functional method of CrossFit training.
Since then, CrossFit has grown into a multi-billion dollar franchise boasting 6,775 CrossFit locations across the globe with talk of an upcoming expansion to 10,000 studios. The sport is centred around the WOD, or ‘Workout of the Day’, a blend of relentless circuits that combines strength training with cardio endurance, primal hunter-gather movements with austere intensity.
Beyond CrossFit’s image of steel cut torsos and agile bodies, its ethos is underpinned by the simple belief in the cathartic and moralising virtues of competition and physical penance. Needless to say, it appeals to certain personality types that excel under intense pressure- perfectionists, first-responders, veterans, even middle-aged housewives and teens. Watching as CrossFitters trickle in for a session, journalist J.C. Herz observes, “I can’t help but believe that the path out of physiological purgatory lies in the footsteps of the people who are sprinting past my car. They’ve found redemption in their willingness to get primal.”
“People want to experience a moment of triumph,” remarks Herz, “they also want a sense of mastery and achievement. CrossFit has this draw which is to face the crazy, unknown and unknowable”. With thousands of followers posting their daily ‘WOD’ times on CrossFit message boards, many within the community regularly testify to the affirmative influence of the uncompromising militaristic- minded sport.
After studying the psychological interconnectedness of pain and pleasure, psychologists have suggested that there exists a deeper, more profound reason for its appeal. Extreme regimes like CrossFit, they suggest, work as a form of “functional” self-punishment that helps to mitigate negative behavioural patterns and instill self-control. Increasingly, fitness collectives like CrossFit appear to rally individuals around collective values and community accountability that encourage personal and social transformation. Between CrossFit members, the sport’s fans brandish grassroots gear of spray-painted t-shirts and cryptic bumper stickers, even sharing a lingo unique to its community. “You think religion is dying. We are saying that religion is changing” writes Casper ter Kuile, a founding member of How We Gather, a collaborative study between Harvard Divinity School, the Fetzer Institute and On Being. To this point, Herz shares, “there is this spiritual quality to high-intensity exercise. Any experience that forces you to dig deep, that requires courage or fortitude is inherently spiritual.”
J.C. Herz is a former rock critic, two-time author, technology entrepreneur, and an avid CrossFit athlete. Her journey into CrossFit began in a gym where she practiced drills alongside white-collar professionals, new moms, active-duty military members and members of the presidential Secret Service detail. Her favorite CrossFit workout is “Cindy.” Author of the CrossFit book Learning To Breathe Fire , Herz offers an insight into the fascinating world of CrossFit subculture. Visit her site here for more information.
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