What is CrossFit Good For? (Part 2)

The Evolution of the Fitness Industry

What get’s you up in the morning?

No, I’m not talking about that cup of coffee, although that certainly helps. I’m asking why do you bother living another day.

This might sound grim, but I consider it an important question, perhaps the most important question. Yet how often do you think about it? Once a year? Never?

Even if you never contemplate this question, I’d like to argue that somewhere, deep down inside of you, there is a hope for something more. This is hope for change; hope for newness; hope for experiences beyond your wildest dreams. This hope keeps us moving forward in the face of all the dissatisfaction life can bring. This hope is evolution unfolding.

At its core, evolution is about change. The moments that make up our lives are always changing; they are an expression of an ever-evolving universe. Most life on planet Earth is just along for the ride. It has very little say in how anything changes. Fortunately, human self-awareness brings us a special gift, the ability to consciously direct change towards its highest potential.

So what can we do with this gift? As individuals this might mean cultivating fuller expression of our physical, mental and spiritual capacities. As a relationship this might mean holding each other to higher standards of communication, honesty and intimacy. As a culture this might mean designing more peaceful, enlightened and ecological communities. Regardless of the area, evolution is about change directed towards greater possibility. 

So what do you want to change? What possibilites keep you motivated to live another day? The desire to be fitter? Happier? Healthier?

Can CrossFit help you evolve into your highest potential?

Before addressing this question, I think it is important to look at CrossFit itself as an evolution in fitness. 

Fitness Evolution: From Movement to Exercise

To fully understand CrossFit, it helps to look at the long view of fitness. I’m talking about going way back, before fitness was a thing that you did. Biologically speaking fitness is the extent to which an organism is adapted to a particular environment. Fitness means reproduction and survival; therefore, it was woven into the fabric of life by way of necessity. 

Go back to a time when there were no elliptical machines, medicine balls, or TRX trainers. (You actually don’t have to go back very far at all). There was just running, jumping, balancing, climbing, etc. There were no glute-ham raises, rowing machines or kettlebells. There was just stuff that needed to be moved from point A to point B—heavy rocks, swinging vines, and tall trees that needed to be chopped down, torn apart and hoisted into place. For most of human history, the hardship of daily life was best WOD one could imagine.

Fast-forward many thousands years and our pre-historic physiology is incompatible with our calorific, sedentary, post-modern culture. Given this obvious misalignment between our bodies and our lifestyles, the fitness industry emerged to serve our growing need for more movement. Like all social institutions, the modern fitness industry was highly colored by American ideals and successfully commoditized movement into exercise. Its glizty marketing and fancy packaging has sold us stereotyped images of what it means to look good and be healthy.

No doubt, you’ve been acquainted with fitness indusrty palace, the big health club with cardio theaters, resistance floors and group exercise rooms. You probably have seen its lines of elliptical trainers synced to TVs and its escalators and elevators shuttling people up and down its halls. You may even have been one of the people mindlessly bobbing up and down on machine while reading a magazine or watching the news. You probably thought you were doing something good for your body and for you mind all at the same time.

If you have been the victim of this crime against humanity, I’m sorry. I too have suffered from and perpetuated this rat-wheel madness. Yet we should not blame ourselves, for the fitness club presented us with this perfect blend of hyper-productivity, distractedness and Cartesian mind-body duality that appealed to our American sensibilities. We were duped by own dogma.

Although I’m being somewhat hyperbolic, the modern health club often perpetuates the fractured, distracted and unnatural lifestyle it was meant to remedy. Thankfully, some people opted out of this mass produced fitness system and returned to the basics of what makes homo sapiens healthy. In other words, how can we train and move to cultivate the athleticism the human body is capable of.

First and foremost, this meant putting away the TV monitors and actually paying attention to our bodies moving through space. Screw the elliptical; let’s sprint up a hill.  Ditch the machine overhead press and try a balancing handstand instead. Let’s focus on performance across all domains (cardiovascular and respiratoryendurance, stamina, strength, flexibility, power, speed, coordination, agility, balance, and accuracy) so we are ready for whatever life throws out way.

CrossFit fully understood and embraced this paradigm. It directly addressed the shortcomings of isolation-based exercises by focusing on compound functional movements such as Olympic lifts. It understood that few things develop raw power, neuromuscular coordination, and strongman satisfaction the way a clean or snatch does. Moreover, CF focused on high intensity anaerobic circuits opposed to high-volume steady state aerobics. At this point, it’s clear that short burst of high-intensity exercise is a more effective way to build a strong and lean body than long sub-maximal cardio.

More than replacing commonplace exercises with more evolved protocols, CF replaced impersonal big-box gyms with healthy and active fitness communities. Sure, the community dynamic has existed in team sports for ages, but somewhere between Nautilus machines and huge Zumba classes, the mainstream fitness industry seemed to forget how powerful exercise with/against another person can be.

I think the CF brand has done a great job successfully leveraging the social dimension of fitness. This is especially true with regards to www.Crossfit.com which supports a complex network of expertise, education and camaraderie. Along with thousands of affiliate CF sites, CrossFit.com continues to reveal the power of allowing a virtual community to blossom and congregate online.

As a whole, CF continues to bring the latest technology, research and coaching methods under its umbrella. This is both its greatest promise and biggest peril. Because CF is simultaneously a brand, a training philosophy, a community, and a sport, the CrossFit name is being pulled in many directions, some of which may be healthier than others. Alas, any system that becomes mainstream must balance the loss of brand standardization with opportunities for growth and change.

Going back to the original statement that life is a process of change, and CF represents not only the most recent of a long series of changes in fitness industry, but is also constantly changing itself, we must ask where to from here. Will CF evolve into an even better version of itself? Or will the CF name devolve into a watered-down fitness craze that passes the way of the shake weight?

I am both excited and cautious to see what emerges next, especially as CF expands in international markets. There’s no doubt that “encourag[ing] creative and continuously varied compositions that tax physiological functions against every realistically conceivable combination of stressors” (CrossFit  Foundations, p.6) can lead to a whole bunch of innovative ways to train as well as a recipe for health and fitness disaster.

Since this post ended being longer than I anticipated, I’ll save part 2.2 “CrossFit and Personal Evolution”  for another day and let you get back to your Holiday activities.

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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