The Cult of CrossFit

The Cult of CrossFit

Some of its practitioners freely admit: They're obsessed with this fitness program, which features an intense workout, its own vocabulary and even a Paleo diet. Some critics worry, though, that it takes things too far.

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The thunk of metal punctuates the grunts and groans resounding through the no-frills gym at CrossFit Bethesda as several people lift and lower barbells loaded with heavy plates in a white-walled, mirrorless room.

Workout participants—including a college kid in a baseball cap, an older woman with a neat silver bob and several fit-looking middle-aged men and women—move swiftly through several exercises. They do “double unders,” jumping rope so quickly that the rope passes beneath their feet twice for each jump; use gymnastic rings to do reverse pushups; and hurl heavy medicine balls high against the wall in front of them, catching them on the rebound.

“Come on! Push!” instructor Marcus Taylor shouts as he circles the room.

Less than 20 minutes later, the group staggers to a halt, the workout complete. Several lie flat on their backs, exhausted.

“That happens a lot,” CrossFit Bethesda owner Judd Borakove says, grinning as he surveys his sweaty devotees.

Welcome to CrossFit, a short, intense workout program that has exploded in popularity in recent years. Greg Glassman, the former gymnast who invented CrossFit in Santa Cruz, Calif., in 1995, defines his program as “constantly varied, functional movements, executed at high intensity,” aimed at those training for everything from combat to a 5K race.

Originally favored by military and law enforcement types, CrossFit now draws participants of all fitness levels to more than 5,000 locations around the world, including several in the Bethesda area.

But even as it has grown in popularity, CrossFit has stirred controversy and drawn criticism. The American College of Sports Medicine, among other organizations, has warned that its focus on speed and intensity can sacrifice form—and even lead to exercise-induced rhabdomyolysis, a potentially fatal condition that leads to the release of muscle fiber contents into the bloodstream.

On CrossFit message boards, the condition often appears in cartoon form as “Uncle Rhabdo,” a companion of “Pukie the Clown,” who shows up when you work out so hard that you vomit. But the possible health risks are no joke.

In 2008, Makimba Mimms, a former Navy information systems technician from Bristow, Va., was awarded $300,000 in damages from his gym, his CrossFit affiliate and his trainer for rhabdomyolysis and other injuries he sustained during a CrossFit workout, according to press reports.

“It can kill you. I’ve always been completely honest about that,” Glassman told The New York Times in 2005.

To outsiders, the all-consuming passion of CrossFit followers can sometimes come off as, well, cult-like.

To be sure, CrossFit isn’t the only workout to inspire the intense devotion of a group of fitness-minded followers. Competitive marathon runners and fans of P90X workout videos also come to mind.

Still, some proponents of the program do display a passion that borders on obsession. They post pictures on Facebook of themselves wielding sledgehammers, flipping truck tires or doing pullups and handstand pushups. They’ve even got their own vocabulary: The gym is the “box,” and workouts are WODs (“workout of the day,” pronounced “wad”) or “metcons” (short for “metabolic conditioning”).

Those who love the program can subscribe to the CrossFit Journal, a monthly digital publication. Some follow the CrossFit-approved Paleo diet, mimicking the diet of our Paleolithic ancestors by eating animal protein and plants and shunning dairy, legumes and whole grains. The truly passionate compete in the annual Reebok CrossFit Games, international championships that were broadcast on ESPN2 in September. Held at the 12,000-seat Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif., tickets for that three-day event were sold out.

There’s even a version of the program for children, CrossFit Kids, which one local affiliate describes as helping kids “learn how to move more efficiently and effectively in the world.”
Nancie Ruder, 44, of Bethesda, a regular at CrossFit Bethesda, says she and her fellow CrossFitters joke about their obsession when they catch themselves asking about the previous day’s WOD.  

“My kids call it a cult,” Ruder says, laughing. “They make fun of the fact that I eat Paleo, and they think I’m a little obsessed. At the same time, I know I’m setting a good example by being active.”

Individual workouts are often named to honor fallen soldiers (the notoriously intense “Murph” is named after Navy Lt. Michael Murphy of Patchogue, N.Y., who was killed in Afghanistan) or given women’s names (the “Barbara” consists of five rounds of 20 pullups, 30 pushups, 40 situps and 50 squats).

Glassman wrote in a 2006 CrossFit Journal piece that he sometimes chooses women’s names for workouts because  “anything that leaves you flat on your back and incapacitated only to lure you back for more at a later date certainly deserves naming.”

If the workouts are explosive in nature, the movement itself was somewhat slow to take hold. A decade after Glassman started it, only 13 CrossFit affiliates existed worldwide, according to CrossFit Inc. Today, that number has grown to more than 5,000.

There are several CrossFit gyms in lower Montgomery County and in Washington, D.C., and a total of 55 in Maryland, according to CrossFit Inc.  

Borakove has witnessed the CrossFit revolution firsthand. When he opened a gym in Rockville seven years ago, his was one of two in Maryland. Now Borakove owns three CrossFit gyms: in Rockville, Bethesda and near Metro Center in the District. He says memberships have skyrocketed over the past few years.

The explosion in popularity is partially tied to the addition of support from big-name entities such as ESPN and Reebok, which produces an apparel line geared specifically toward what it calls “the sport of fitness.”

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