What is CrossFit Good For? (Part 1)

Whether you’re a climbing junkie, a yoga bunny or a regular gym rat, it seems like a right of passage to have your ass kicked by a CrossFit WOD (Workout Of the Day). With boxes (a CrossFit term for ‘gym’) sprouting up in every vacant lot in the neighborhood, it’s no wonder lots of people are curious about this behemoth.

In fact, a good friend of mine told me she was looking into starting CrossFit. Like many of the people I know and work with, she was a healthy and active young adult looking to get in better shape. She heard CrossFit would whip her butt into gear and decided to sign up. Then she heard about rhabdomyolysis, injurires and hospital visits and immediately had second thoughts.

“Uncle Rhabdo” as it’s sometimes referred to is a dangerous side effect of super-intense exercise. Rhabdo occurs when muscle fiber contents (myoglobin) are released into the bloodstream, causing kidney damage and a host of other nasty symptoms that can put you in the hospital for days. If you need some evidence, ask my friend Jess.

Rhabdo is bad.  We can all agree with that. But does this relatively uncommon condition warrant forgoing CrossFit entirely? Is CrossFit still a good option for someone like her?

“Yes and No.” I said. I took a long sigh, “As with everything. It’s much more nuanced than that.”

As if she knew I was about to give a long lecture, she asked me to explain myself. The following is my attempt to crystalize some of my thoughts on CrossFit using the tenets of JES Wellness: Joy, Evolve, Sustain.

Part 1: Joy

Let’s begin on common ground that unites pretty much everyone: The desire to be happy. It is the very mainspring of whatever we do. Truth be told, sometimes we put up with a lot of shit in hope that it will bring us happiness in the future. So much of our behavior revolves around delaying gratification, resisting temptation or unabashedly indulging that we must examine any fitness program in this light. For most people, going to the gym is not fun. People drag their feet through it because they think it will pay dividends in the future.

Of course, this is not how I would approach training. This is not nourishing to the body, let alone to your mind or spirit.  Yet since so many people feel this way about exercise, how does CrossFit (CF) fit into this? Will CF make you happy?

  • Let me ask you whether doing 100 burpees (if you don’t know what a burpee is, see this video) followed by a 800m loaded carry sounds like a recipe for happiness to you.
  • What about the feeling of physical strength when you set a new personal record on a squat?
  • How about the disappointment and embarrassment when the grandmother in class beat you on the last set of pull-ups?

Obviously, the question of happiness is a complicated one. Are we talking about a feeling, a thought, an outcome, or a relationship? Any activity can be performed in a state of love or a state of fear. So if you were hoping for a straightforward answer, go read another blog. (My friends know that I never give straightforward answers.) The difficulty lies in dissecting and defining “happiness” and how it related to exercise.

As my father likes to say, happiness is really relative to your expectation. In other words, when things workout better than you thought they would, you feel happy. If you expect CF to improve your physique and it does, you’ll be happy. If you expect CF to make you a better athlete and it does, you’ll be happy. If you expect CF to provide a community of like-minded fitness friends and it does, you’ll be happy.

You see where I’m going. In this light, as long as you’re getting your needs met and making progress towards your health and fitness goals, CrossFit or any exercise program will probably make you happy.

Unfortunately, this is fairly limited perspective on happiness if you ask me. Surely accomplishing what we set out to do is a component of living well. Yet, we can never let our personal satisfaction be entirely contingent on someone or something else (e.g. a fitness goal) that we cannot fully control. Happiness that is conditional on external events is fleeting at best.

That 1 rep max you did today could disappear by tomorrow. Celebrate your accomplishments for sure, but don’t cling to them unnecessarily. My concerns is that CF is so performance oriented–they have everyone’s names, weights and times on the board for everyone to see and compete against—that people might lose perspective of why they’re exercising in the first place.

In the JES paradigm, the aim is to cultivate not just momentary happiness, but a more permanent, internally generated state of joyful being. So for the sake of curtailing what could otherwise be a very long discussion on happiness and joy, let me go ahead and define “Joy” as self-expression when we are at our best.

Cultivating joy means becoming less concerned with what happens to us, and more concerned with the quality of mind and heart we bring to every thought and action. When our thoughts and actions are based in love, we are living joyfully.

If you hate every minute of your workout, CrossFit (let alone any exercise program) is failing the test of joy. We’ve gotta retrain ourselves and give ourselves permission to feel good while working out. While we might be able to muscle through this discomfort for a while, eventually such practices are not sustainable. This is why Joy is the foundation for health and wellbeing that persists.

So, according to these terms, does CrossFit cultivate joy by helping people express their best selves?

I think CF deserves some credit for supporting people to rise above self-limiting beliefs about what they can accomplish physically. Pushing though a tough workout with other comitted individuals can bring out that little part of us that is greater than the circumstances we are facing. Stengthening this ability to set high standards and rise to the challenge can serve us throughout or lifetime. 

Aside from generating confidence and self-efficacy, I think CF can support the physical dimensions of joyful self-expression. After all, CrossFit’s very mission is to “Forge Elite Fitness” by enhancing an individual’s competency at all physical tasks. CF can help to build a strong body that we can rely upon for optimal living. 

However, we must be wary of the stronger, faster, harder mindset becoming a vicious cycle. Fitness for fitness sake is fine goal to have, but it can take a life of it’s own leading to a cultish tribal mentality. We must never forget that health, wellbeing and joy are about a lot more than whether you can do a WOD as perscribed.

At the end of the day, no one will remember how many burpees you could do. What people will remember is what you value, what you give your energy to, and how you treat others. We must not neglect these aspects, even when we’re in the gym sweating it out.

To borrow the words of Paul Chek, “Why just focus on building muscle if you’re still an idiot? If you’re not learning how to love, aren’t you just adding muscle to an idiot?”

Certainly, I believe a strong body is the foundation of joyful expression all domains of life and CF is a very effective way for most people to take their physicality to a new level. However, every training paradigm comes at a cost, and doing anything at an “elite” level might be too much for some. Just as optimal fitness requires a balance between specializationa and variety, optimal living requires a balance between all domains of our health: physical, mental, spiritual and social. 

Therefore, to fully answer the question of whether CrossFit earns a JES Gold Star, we must examine its relationship to the other dimensions of our lives and the tenets of the JES Wellness paradigm: Evolution and Sustainability.

Stay tuned for Part 2 and 3 of this series on exercise and CrossFit.

Jeff Siegel
Jeff Siegel
Jeff Siegel, M.Ed, is a personal trainer, health, and wellness life coach, Harvard University mindfulness instructor, and professional speaker.

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