How did CrossFit become the world’s biggest fitness craze? How far can it go? And who’s in charge? Matt McEvoy headed off to America to find out...
“We all drink the Kool-Aid here,” says Yan Martin, Rebook’s grinning vice president of brand marketing.
It’s an odd thing to say as we drink iced tea but someone has just made a joke about CrossFit being a cult, and Reebok are now followers.
We’ve just had lunch, and we’re sat on the veranda of the main block at Reebok’s HQ in Canton, Massachusetts. Staff are walking around in their gym gear, ready to put in the work for their 12 o’clock session.
If you’d rather spend your lunch hour in the pub, this kind of guilt-enduced inter-work fitness scene could have you reaching for Jim Jones’ own Kool Aid. Yan, though, explains that it has actually ushered in a new sense of togetherness that was lacking before.
This is partly why CrossFit is so big. And it’s been labelled a cult before. It has all the benefits of a crazy cult (community, camaraderie, beliefs) without any of the downsides (tattoos, secret handshakes, mass suicide).
As with any new fitness fad, people derided the very nature of working out with loads of other people under a branded name (think Taibo). Yet since CrossFit’s inception in the mid nineties, it’s starting to look like founder Gregg Glassman and his acolytes might just be on to something.
Studies performed by the Physical Activity Sciences Laboratory at Laval University, Québec, suggest that short, punchy periods of exercise will boost lipid oxidation (fat burning) more efficiently than steady-state cardiovascular exercise will, for example, while you’ll continue to burn fat for hours after you’ve exercised, thanks to a ramped-up metabolism.
As it approaches its 20th anniversary, CrossFit’s reach is global, with more than 13,000 affiliated gyms worldwide. ‘Boxes’ are springing up all over big metropolitan cities and small provincial towns, luring in get-fitters with the promise of total-health readiness that will last. There are around 528 in the UK to date, with more than 60 of those being based in London alone. They reach as far as Inverness, the Isle of Man and Cornwall. There are now more CrossFit boxes in the UK than there are Topshops.
Why does CrossFit work where others fail?
CrossFit certainly isn’t the short-term, quick-fix that other programmes tend to offer, as it rejects finite periods of training that are often too ambitious or flat-out unattainable. The genius bit is that it offers its clientele a community.
This is possibly one of the single most powerful marketing tools that any fitness brand could employ, but usually passes up on. The spirit of togetherness is tough to pull off in the industry, and no matter how hard a gym or health club tries, their ‘inclusive’ approach usually winds up feeling a touch impersonal.
With CrossFit, the evidence is right in front of you when you walk into any box up and down the country. Girls are pushing their boyfriends; new mums high-five each other and nail the rudimentals of a complex Olympic lift; coaches sweat it out alongside the students they are teaching.
Reebok joined forces with CrossFit in 2010, solidifying their commercial partnership with a ten-year deal, as well as becoming the sole commercial supplier for the marquee event in the CrossFit calendar – the CrossFit Games.
Yan talks us through how Reebok’s decision to join the CrossFit family came at a pivotal moment for their own brand, as they were looking to refocus their own mission.
“Our partnership originally started out with a few guys who worked here trying it out, coming back and going ‘Ho-ly crap! We all need to try this!’” he laughs. “We were into it before the partnership; we had our own box and our own trainers, and we’ve built it up from there.
“Back in the ’80s, we weren’t about team sports nor catering for elite athletes, we were all about fitness. Now, looking at the industry now, we’re saying fitness isn’t what it was 20 or 30 years ago, so we’ve had to rethink how we’re going to define Reebok in this new world.
“CrossFit came in our sights and we discovered what really makes fitness unique is the community aspect of it, stepping out of your comfort zone to grow, and the output of fitness – enhancing your whole life, basically.”
Today, it’s tough to tell Reebok and CrossFit apart. Reebok’s new delta logo, which replaced the traditional vector logo in 2014, is now synonymous with CrossFit branding, thanks to Reebok’s takeover of all things apparel. The kit is functional, too – shoes such as the Nano range are designed to take all manner of beatings – while shrewdly exclusive sponsorship deals for CrossFit athletes have all but stitched up a market in terms of corporate advertising.
Reebok is also paying for credibility – important when you consider it reportedly turned its back on a $500m deal for a major sports league in 2010. This one-of-a-kind relationship has become symbiotic, and for both brands’ survival they have to maintain the community spirit that drives them.
“We needed to re-centre ourselves around that concept,” Yan concludes. “The application of fitness is what has defined Reebok at heart. Then there’s the community aspect.
“We’ve gone in there as participants. We had to listen and understand, and build an authenticity that didn’t mean we were just imposing products on people. CrossFit marries up perfectly with this philosophy.”
This is not a game
CrossFit promotes inclusivity by offering a bit of everything for everyone. While CrossFit’s function as a legitimate training protocol is questionable (can you use CrossFit to train for a 10K, for example?), it does give newbie ’Fitters the option to integrate quickly.
Sessions are named WODs (workout of the day) and generally comprise anything from Olympic-style lifting (snatches, deadlifts, cleans, jerks etc) to cardio endurance exercises (such as jumping on the Concept 2 rower), to the more abstract, such as calisthenics or gymnastics.
The idea is to constantly keep the body guessing, to recruit new muscle and to cause neurological responses to stress that your body hasn’t had to do before. In turn, this improves the ten key tenets of fitness, according to the CrossFit philosophy – cardiovascular endurance, power, speed, flexibility, agility, balance, strength, stamina, coordination and accuracy.
While CrossFit itself may not be goal-orientated, there’s another facet to the brand that has done immeasurable amounts of good to its profile: the CrossFit Games. Held annually since 2006, the five-day event has acted as a platform for some of the world’s best CrossFitters to compete in a battle of the fittest.
As the Games have grown bigger, CrossFit has started to bleed into the American public’s psyche: competitors such as Tennessee-born Rich Froning, a 29-year-old fire fighter, and four-time Games winner, have become household names, and it’s gathering momentum on network television Stateside.
With Reebok’s involvement, the Games has raised the profile of the programme as a whole: 50,000 spectators piled into the StubHub Centre in Carson, California, for the 2015 edition of the Games.
Again, inclusivity is at the heart of this. More than 324,000 CrossFitters globally submitted their best scores for five exercises on an internet poll called the Open, and the very best were then invited to compete in the regionals, and from there, the Games.
Another sign of Reebok’s commitment to the programme is its efforts to bolster the Games as a bonafide event. Prize money for the winners of the individual category has risen from $25,000 in 2010 to $275,000 this year. The total prize pot will increase to $3m by 2020.
More interesting is how CrossFit is democratising elite sport: its egalitarian selection process has opened up the elite sport option to those who failed via traditional routes.
Many competitors are peaking in the mid-to-late 20s, having only taken CrossFit up several years previously. Katrín Tanja Davíðsdóttir, 23, the winner of the 2015 Games’ female class, only became a CrossFitter in 2011 at the age of 18. Previously she had been a gymnast, with no route to achieving anywhere near the level of fame or success she has in the CrossFit community.
This is a sentiment that four-time CrossFit games veteran Jennifer Jones couldn’t agree with more. Unlike most elite-level competitors who’ve been able to leave the day-to-day grind behind, Jones, 31, is still a part-time nurse, having only cut her working hours in the past two years.
“You have to find a balance between your day job, but I’m grateful I can still go out and pursue something I love,” Jones explains. “I get to help save lives with my day job, and get to transform them when I’m coaching. It’s awesome.”
Too much Kool-Aid?
That’s not to say CrossFit doesn’t have its drawbacks. If you drink too much Kool-Aid, it might leave a bitter taste in your mouth. Considering the range of moves that could potentially be executed over a range of WODs, the scope of complexity is huge. Without the adequate coaching, people will invariably put themselves at risk.
Going further, it’s unclear how many coaches supervising newbie practitioners have any prior experience other than a weekend certification course overseen by qualified examiners. Is a single weekend course really enough to be supervising people performing complex Olympic lifts, for example?
There is also evidence that CrossFit increases the likelihood of injury when training, too, according to a 2013 study in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. Out of 132 CrossFitters who responded to a survey, 97 admitted picking up an injury during a session, with the most common injuries being either shoulder or spinal.
While safety surrounding the programme raises serious points, CrossFit is generally no more or less dangerous than any other form of group training. There’s also a risk of injury with every other form of sport or exercise.
CrossFit’s underlying philosophy says everyone works for one another in some shape or form, no matter how individually challenging a lift, sprint or a jump can be.
Not too sure what that means? Lift the lid on your local box and experience the camaraderie yourself. Witness the sportsmanship of the fittest people at the CrossFit Games. Acknowledge Reebok’s intentions as a provider for a community, not some murky corporate entity looking to make a quick buck. And, if you think that’s what might be missing from your own experience, it’s time to take a sip.
Take a look at the WODs we tried.