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Corporate cult or fitness family: what is the secret of CrossFit’s success?

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Corporate cult or fitness family: what is the secret of CrossFit’s success?

CrossFit bestrides the world of urban exercise like a colossus – one with especially great abs. The reach of its ever-expanding empire is writ large on the company’s own website, where the number of affiliated “boxes” – CrossFit-speak for gyms – is charted on a global map. When you’ve cracked the French Polynesian market, you’re probably entitled to regard yourself as an international success story.

More than 13,000 “boxes” have been established since CrossFit was founded 16 years ago by Greg Glassman in Santa Cruz, California. The company and its clients are routinely accorded “cult” status; a tag bestowed by critics and welcomed by adherents.

CrossFitters are notoriously committed to the gruelling workouts and fierce competition that characterise the movement, and it’s often remarked that the first rule of CrossFit is to never stop talking about CrossFit.

Naturally, such unconfined zeal invites derision and perhaps even suspicion. Some common and potentially awkward questions have already been posed: why is the regime so addictive? And for what – or for whom – are CrossFitters actually training?

Collective action

Spartan bod. archer10 (Dennis) (77M Views)/Flickr, CC BY-SA

By common consent, the main explanation of CrossFit’s popularity lies in its collective and competitive nature. There’s nothing outlandishly novel about this; the unifying power of physically intense activity has been appreciated for centuries. From the agōgē to aerobics, from Sparta to spandex, shared endeavour has proved an effective means of forging bonds and bringing people together.

Though the austerity and ferocity of the CrossFit ethos is nearer to ancient Greece than to Jane Fonda in her 1980s heyday, the underlying principle is much the same. You can subject yourself to assorted agonies in the company of fellow sufferers and emerge joyous and triumphant; or you can subject yourself to assorted agonies in grim isolation.

Even so, the pleasure of overcoming adversity as a group may not be enough to explain why CrossFitters are training with such relentless fervour. This puzzle has prompted several theories – though none is clearly correct.

One idea is that our lives have become so bleak, so empty, so aimless, that we’re forced to look for something – anything – that gives us at least an impression of control. We realise self-care and self-love are all we have. We obsessively render our bodies temples, conceding we can do nothing to reshape the endless wasteland that surrounds them. In effect, we give up on the wider world but take enormous comfort whenever we’re told: “Wow, you look uh–mazing!”

Taking ‘workstyle’ a step too far. from www.shutterstock.com

But as Carl Cederström and André Spicer argue in The Wellness Syndrome, this nihilistic determination to strive for individual well-being tends to come at the expense of communal engagement. And this seems to be the opposite of the CrossFit philosophy.

Another school of thought is that exercise has become little more than an extension of work. We touched on this phenomenon in research that examined a propensity among City workers to reflect and conform to professional ideals – competitiveness, motivation, success – through gym membership and the development of a “professional body”. In such circumstances, health and fitness become expressions of occupational control: “lifestyle” is supplanted by “workstyle”.

Balancing act

CrossFit undoubtedly lends itself to the blurring of these boundaries. For one thing, it has become a huge business and conducts itself as such. The assertion that Glassman ranks as “the first person in history to define fitness in a meaningful, measurable way” – as if no-one else since the dawn of civilisation has made a connection between, say, feeling completely knackered and calling it quits for the day – sounds rather like unabashed corporate bombast.

Even more overtly, the company’s wholesale appropriation of the language of organisations – monitoring, metrics, data and strategy – underlines another key claim to emerge from our previous research, which is that work-life balance is a myth.

As we’ve written before, these two supposedly separate domains are constantly colliding with each other, frequently to an overwhelming degree, rather than surrendering to neat division. You don’t have to be a disciple of lung-bursting exertion to recognise this: even a mid-jog peek at your inbox proves our point.

Work calls. from www.shutterstock.com

The main story so far depicts CrossFit and work as looking a lot alike. But our newest research project suggests that something different is happening. Despite its work-like jargon, targets and feedback, some CrossFitters have told us that in the battle over what gets their attention, CrossFit is winning. Instead of staying behind at the office to finish off that report, they are logging off at five to get to the WOD (workout of the day).

Having bought into the workplace promise of fulfilment and found it lacking, CrossFitters are seeking their high intensity thrills, bond-building experiences and feelings of control inside the box. While working out, both male and female CrossFitters challenge mainstream ideas about femininity and masculinity, which have proven to be so robust over the years.

So, based on our initial research, it sounds to us like CrossFit might also be a form of resistance against the corporate world. We’ll continue to investigate this possibility, but for now, we can only say that few people anywhere in the world – whether in Santa Cruz or Tahiti – would risk a sneaky glance at their smartphone while attempting to flip a tractor tyre. And that alone, all things considered, may be no bad thing.

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