CrossFit is a workout philosophy, a brand, and a network of affiliated gyms. It’s also a subculture that, with its manic friendliness and clan-like vibe, carries a whiff of cultishness.
Browse the digital pages of our nation’s finest periodicals, and you can read about the cult (or is it more like a church?) of Crossfit, that attracts “Painiacs” who have either joined an ordinary conditioning program or a bona-fide cult that feeds you Kool-Aid.
These critics do have a point: CrossFit gyms—called boxes—tend to nurture the kind of close-knit communities more commonly associated with desert-bound Mormon sects. CrossFitters work out in groups, moving to the demands of a benevolent taskmaster. They pepper their conversations with a strange, clubby lingo—the Yiddish of fitness—and they undertake special workouts to honor comrades who have fallen in combat (CrossFit is especially popular among military personnel).
CrossFitters can buy apparel that plays on this reputation: “Like a Cult, Without the Creepy Leader” reads one t-shirt. There’s even a gym in Connecticut that’s called CrossFit Religion. The name, they assured me, is tongue-in-cheek; their motto, a play on the acronym for CrossFit’s Workout of the Day, is “In WOD We Trust.”
Since 2000, CrossFit has grown from a single gym in Santa Cruz to around 10,000 worldwide. According to Jimi Letchford of CrossFit, Inc., the brand adds 10 to 15 boxes per day. Like Orthodox synagogues or third century churches, CrossFit spreads without any centralized orchestration; boxes are independent affiliates, not franchises.
Actual religious groups, one imagines, watch CrossFit’s growth with envy. Church membership is declining, millennials are disaffiliating, and, as Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam famously bemoaned at the beginning of the last decade, in-the-flesh communal life in the United States may have reached a nadir. Meanwhile, CrossFit has taken the relatively solitary world of weightlifting and calisthenics and spun a communitarian dreamland.
Still, religious groups may be catching up. The fascinating thing about CrossFit is not that it looks vaguely religious. It’s that religion in the United States—in particular, certain strains of Protestant Christianity—is starting to look a lot like CrossFit. “Across the country, congregations are whipping members into shape with highly marketed, faith-based health programs,” wrote Leslie Leyland Fields in a Christianity Today feature last year. Churches are adding weight rooms and launching weight-loss programs. There’s even a consulting firm that specializes in helping churches open gyms.
When megachurch pastor Rick Warren launched a dieting initiative in 2011, more than 12,000 people signed up on the first day. The Daniel Plan, as Warren named the program, offers a kind of Bible-inflected Weight Watchers in which participants often join together in small support groups. Citing research into human social networks, the Daniel Plan website explains, “Community has the power to change our overall health more than any doctor or clinic.”
Elsewhere, as Jesse James DeConto wrote in Christian Century in December, many Christian groups and churches, with names like Team Sweaty Sheep, are combining worship with a Sunday morning jog. These mobile worshippers, DeConto writes, are joining “a wave of churches that are embracing physical exercise in their ministries.”
Some Christians are directly applying CrossFit’s workouts and strategies to their faith. There are Christian-oriented CrossFit gyms, such as CrossFit 27:17, named after a verse from Proverbs (“As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another”), and CrossFit For My Savior (“Because My Savior Was Fit for the Cross”).
On Easter, some CrossFitters participated in a special Easter Workout of the Day, an especially grueling session that, wrote one gym leader in Texas, “is brutal, but not nearly as brutal as what Jesus endured for each of us….”
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