Is CrossFit Really a Narcissistic Cult?

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If you consider yourself a fitness guru, or even if you do not, you have probably heard of the new workout trend, Crossfit. Why? Because Crossfit is one of the newest, fastest-growing workout trends in America today.

In fact, statistics show that their meager 13 affiliates in 2005 have turned into “more than 13,000 licensed CrossFit affiliates worldwide, and the number is growing.”

The Crossfit website defines its structure as “constantly varied functional movements performed at high intensity.” Essentially, the goal is to get the most power out of your body by training at high intensity for short periods of time. But what about the cons? Crossfit has often been branded as an elitist cult, but is that always the case?

I checked it out for myself, and in the process, I have found that as with most trends, there is also some controversy surrounding Crossfit. There is certainly much to gain physically, but not all aspects of Crossfit are necessarily positive. One of the primary concerns is the questionable level of safety in repeatedly pushing your body to its limits. Eric Robertson investigates this physical controversy in his article Crossfit’s Dirty Little Secret, but my goal is to explore more of the psychological and emotional aspects of Crossfit.

Feeling Accomplished

I just started taking Crossfit classes about three to four months ago and have really enjoyed being a part of my particular group. The women in my group have become my friends and accountability partners. We encourage one another to keep going during our workouts and pray for one another afterwards. I look forward to seeing them during the week, and I am thankful that Crossfit has brought us together and given us the opportunity to push each other towards healthier lifestyles. Granted, I’m not as enthusiastic when I am out of breath and my muscles feel like noodles, but afterwards, I get the best feeling of accomplishment.

Over time, however, I have seen how easily this sense of accomplishment can turn into narcissism. I have already caught myself on multiple occasions  bragging to my friends about how I go to Crossfit three times a week. They all say things like, “I could never do that!” And “Wow, you’re so intense and athletic!” It’s definitely nice to hear. And I know I’m not the only one who struggles with this.

Adam Willman, Crossfit competitor and coach at Wheaton said in an interview that although he knows such comments are intended as compliments, “It continues to add to my ego, and I have to keep that in check.”

As both a Crossfit competitor and coach, Adam has had an inside look at the relational circles within the Crossfit community. He mentions that he has noticed some level of pride and closed-mindedness in those communities, and that it is a “group-think” problem. The issue he sees is that when you get a bunch of people together who all think the same thing, in this case, they would all agree with Crossfit’s definition of fitness, then it can perpetuate a sense of superiority.

The Crossfit slogan is, “Forging Elite Fitness,” and there is no doubt that these are physically accomplished individuals. But does this mindset make all Crossfitters arrogant and elitist about how to work out? Crossfit claims to be the only entity to have ever defined and tested fitness. You can find their definition in the Crossfit Journal, but essentially, “Fitness to a crossfitter is well-balanced of all physical skills and traits,”. They use ‘The CrossFit Games’ to test fitness and ultimately crown the fittest man and woman in the world. Willman believes that it is really debatable, whether or not those people are the fittest in the world, because it depends on a person’s definition of “fit.”

Stop ‘Fit Shaming’

He explains that Crossfit is completely different when you are in the competitive setting versus a general class. In a competition, one is more focused on fitness numbers, like speed or amount of weight lifted, whereas Crossfit for the average participant focuses more on ‘wellness’ numbers like cholesterol level etc. He remarks that the competitive atmosphere can create negativity, “especially [among] competitive males; they hate that when they hear that (about someone being crowned the fittest male in the world) because they feel that they’re becoming inferior to the more fit male.”

Adam supposes that this is due at least in part to a social construct-“It’s this idea that to be a man in our culture almost, you should know how to workout; you should know how to lift weights. And for another person or male to say, ‘hey, you should be doing it this way’ can come off kinda like, ‘I know more than you’ ” — even if  that is not the intent. Out of insecurity springs the need to bash other forms of fitness.

Phrases like, “Punishing the specialist” are common within the Crossfit community. The marathon runner receives the brunt of Crossfit critique because he or she represents the type of fitness Crossfit strives so fervently to avoid.

Crossfitters would deem marathon runners as unfit because although they might have excellent cardiovascular endurance, they most likely have very low strength numbers. They are not well-rounded athletes. Adam recognizes the hurt that can be inflicted when critiquing other athletes and advocates that “We need to stop fit-shaming people.”

It all comes back to the central, philosophical question, “What is fitness?”

The definition might be different for athletes in various sports. It is important also to remember that our level of fitness does not define us.

Willman admits that “Like anything else, I think in our lives…[exercise] can become an idol.” When people see him spending a good portion of his time in the Crossfit room, “They kinda identify me as either the weightlifter or the crossfitter, and it’s very hard for me in that moment to step back and say, you know, ‘I’m a child of God’ rather than, Adam, the guy who does Crossfit…For me personally, I just want to say, it’s something I battle with continually day after day.”

He believes it is important to view Crossfit as a platform to glorify God. This might be a good step toward decreasing arrogance within the Crossfit community. Adam also suggests that it starts with the coaches and what kind of mindset they encourage. What kind of environment do they perpetuate? Is it one of encouragement and humility or pride and fit-shaming?

Certain groups and gyms do a better job of creating a psychologically healthy environment than others do. We should all desire to use our bodies the way they were intended-to glorify God.

You can pursue a healthy lifestyle without putting others down for their method of working out. You can pursue fitness and encourage others to do the same without speaking from arrogance or a superior sense of self.

So whether you’re an avid Crossfitter, you’ve been considering joining a Crossfit group, or you have no desire to take part in this growing trend, you can be an agent in reversing some of the emotional negativity that is so controversial within Crossfit and other fitness trends.