CrossFit is driving fitness into the future at warp speed. Here, we stop for a moment (like a one-minute rest in “Fight Gone Bad”) and talk about its past.
Technically, CrossFit as a company may have been born in 2000, but one could say its roots were planted years earlier, when founder Greg Glassman was a teenage gymnast. Like many other teenage athletes, Glassman wanted to be stronger. And so, he turned to dumbbells and a barbell and found he could get stronger than any other gymnast he knew, most of whom were working with bodyweight only.
But Glassman didn’t have just one outlet for his athleticism. He also spent a lot of time cycling with a group of friends. Competitive natures being what they are, Glassman realized that he could crush his gymnast-only friends in weightlifting or cycling and out-tumble his cycling friends. In short, he could find a person who was better than him in one arena but not in all arenas. This realization prompted Glassman to ask a serious question: “What price are you paying for a certain expertise?”
In many ways, that question lies at the heart of CrossFit training. The program’s “jack of all trades, master of none” approach defines the strategy it uses to achieve fitness. Glassman’s early athletic experiences directly influenced CrossFit’s goal of achieving “greater work capacity across broad time and modal domains.” In CrossFit’s view, the goal is not to achieve specialized abilities and fitness that applies to one particular set of movements, the goal is general physical preparedness.
The CrossFit ethos holds that adherents train to enhance 10 key physical qualities: cardiovascular/respiratory endurance, stamina, strength, flexibility, power, speed, coordination, agility, balance and accuracy. This list may be well-known to the CrossFit community, but members of that community will be the first to tell you that it’s borrowed from Jim Crawley and Bruce Evans of Dynamax, makers of the medicine balls found in boxes across the nation. However, early CrossFitters understood that they could build these skills by incorporating movements from a variety of disciplines, including gymnastics, weightlifting and sprinting and high-intensity work in various forms. In addition, CrossFit also stresses repeatable, measurable results. There is heavy emphasis on specific weights, specific distances and specific movements over specific times. This allows athletes to make clear measurements of their performance.
In 1995, Glassman established a gym in Santa Cruz, Calif., and was hired to train the Santa Cruz Police Department. Until that point, his work had involved private training with individual clients. But as he began to get overbooked, he doubled up clients and found that not only could he make more money (charging a reduced rate to two clients still equaled more money per hour), but that those clients often enjoyed the group activity. By keeping the groups small enough, Glassman found that he could still offer individual attention to each client to ensure safe and effective training. Thus the CrossFit community was born.
CrossFit was formally established in 2000. The company’s first affiliate was CrossFit North in Seattle. By 2005, there were 13 affiliates. In 2012, a mere dozen years after the company started, there are 3,400 affiliates worldwide.
The History of the Workouts
From its early days, CrossFit sought to create workouts that simulated the feelings athletes and fighters felt during real competition. As Glassman described in a 2009 discussion, coming off a two-minute gymnastics routine in front of judges, you felt spent but had to look solid and strong or points were deducted. The short-duration, high-intensity workouts of CrossFit achieved that goal. Athletes often say that the workouts simulate the feeling at the end of a competitive event. Law-enforcement officers will describe a CrossFit workout as similar to a foot pursuit and fight with a suspect. Fighters will tell you that these Workouts of the Day are similar to the feeling of being in a fight. In fact, the WOD “Fight Gone Bad” was developed to mimic a mixed-martial-arts bout and was named by fighter B.J. Penn.
The WOD known as “Fran” (21-15-9 of thrusters and pull-ups) is an example of this intensity. Glassman has described developing this workout in his garage as a teenager. He did the workout and promptly threw up. As soon as he was able, he jumped up and ran to his neighbor, brought him over and put him through the same routine.
What’s With the Girl Names?
As all CrossFitters know, Fran is not the only WOD with a girl’s name. There are other names, of course, including the Hero WODs, named for those — whether military, police or firefighter — who lost their lives in the line of duty. But girl-named WODs tend to be benchmark workouts designed to measure improvement through repeated, regular appearance in your medium- and long-term regimen. They first appeared officially in the CrossFit Journal in September 2003, and that early list included Angie, Elizabeth, Barbara, Chelsea, Diane and Fran. The motivation for naming them, as Glassman said in December 2009, was simple: He wanted to be able to explain the workout once to his group, give it a name, and then refer to the name next time the workout came up. It’s easier to say “Fran” than to say “a front squat into push press followed by pull-ups.”
Why give them female names? Glassman has said that Fran leaves you crushed and exhausted and joked that “any workout that leaves you flat on your back, staring up at the sky, wondering what the hell happened, deserves a girl’s name.”
The CrossFit Games have taken place every summer since 2007, and their growth has been faster than a CrossFit champion’s Fran time. At the initial Games in 2007, first prize was $500 and the male and female winners were James Fitzgerald and Jolie Gentry. In 2010, with a sponsorship from Progenix, first prize was $25,000. In 2011, with Reebok as the sponsor, the Games went online and the Open round debuted. For the first time, the CrossFit world was divided into various regions, and athletes posted times to narrow down the field, with the best competitors (based on their online scores) moving on to the Regionals, where they competed head-to-head in an effort to move on to the finals. In 2011, the top prize was $250,000, and the Games were televised on ESPN. In 2015, the prize purse will exceed $2 million.
CrossFit has taken the fitness world by storm — not only by becoming popular (jogging was popular, step aerobics was popular) — but by clearly defining what “fitness” means. With its solid, functional movements, clear results and growing popularity, CrossFit looks like it will remain fitness champion for years.