From an outsider's perspective, CrossFit seems a bit, well, cultish. From the super intense workouts (and injuries that often come with them) to the overall mindset, it's a bit intimidating to the layman.
One brave soul, Tyler Daswick from Men's Health, infiltrated this year's CrossFit's Wodapalooza Fitness Festival, the largest fitness competition apart from the CrossFit Games. Named after CrossFit's Workouts Of the Day (WOD), it was held in Miami Beach and gathered 1,550 athletes from 52 countries.
"There's music and grandstands and an ocean of near-nudity, but make no mistake, people aren't here for the imminent carnal pleasures," Daswick wrote of the festival. "They're here to work out as long, hard, and heavy as they can. They're here to support each other and be in community and share their fitness message with the world. This is paradise without sin, Eden before the apple."
Like any decent cult, Wodapalooza boasts two prophets: co-founders Steve Suarez (36) and Guido Trinidad (37), who argue that the cult feel of CrossFit is misunderstood.
"We believe in what it does to your body, but CrossFitters truly create a community, and that's what's so brilliant," Suarez told Daswick. "I'm sure you get people that say CrossFit is too culty, right? It has that stigma, but there's something special about this event. You'll feel it."
So how does the festival work? Daswick says to picture what you imagine a gladiator event to look like. "At Wodapalooza, athletes score points by completing each of the festival's nine workouts. The faster you finish, the more points you earn, and in some cases there are one-rep exercises where you can go for your max weight and earn additional points for big numbers," Daswick writes. "At the end of the weekend, the person with the highest total is declared champion. This is to say: These competitions are intense—less jazzercise, more gladiator pit."
The work these athletes are putting in is real — so real, it's a lil scary. Just look at an excerpt of Daswick's vivid imagery:
"Faces contort and strain and flood with blood and the air fills with shuddering screams. Sweat sprays the ground with every lip-biting grunt and the crowd holds up phones and takes videos and covers their mouths with their hands. Veins rise to the surface and throb thick. The movements—jerky pullups and trembling lifts—are graphic and frightening."
"You wait for something, anything, to pop or break, and when time's up and the spent bodies fall to the ground they all splay there for a while and shake with relief. When the athletes finally rise and begin to walk, you imagine the first mammals crawling out of the sea, fully evolved. All thoughts of fellowship evaporate: No community is worth such suffering."
Not entirely convinced of the festival's intensity? Take a gander at the kids' competition (because of course they start 'em young): row as fast as you can for 1,500 meters, then run 1,500 meters as fast as you can — in under 16 minutes. (By the way, 1,600 meters is a mile.)
"The kids all take off from the stage and up a little hill toward a line of rowing machines. They sit down and grab the handles and start tugging," Daswick writes. "The announcer booms, 'Do you want to have anything left at the end of this? No you don't!'"
"The kids row faster. The first athlete finishes his 1500-meter row and runs back down the hill, looking like he would enjoy nothing more than to be at home with his PS4. He clambers on the treadmill and pushes off and starts running, his eyes glued to his progress screen."
"As the other children join the first, something horrible happens: One kid takes his shirt off. He peels it away from his chest and flings it behind him and a couple parents cheer and then another kid is taking his shirt off and then it's like a giant chain reaction of little kids stripping their clothes off in the middle of the workout. A girl takes her shirt off, too."
"Not a single kid finishes all 3,000 meters. The announcer yells for time and the children crumple like husks and their little shirtless bodies quiver and heave. Two kids step down from their treadmills and puke all over their clothes and equipment. One kid is crying. The crowd is still yelling."
Co-founder Trinidad says being uncomfortable is part of what CrossFit's all about.
"What I love most is the effect CrossFit has on you and your character," Trinidad told Daswick. "We live in a world where everything's about comfort, comfort, comfort, yet a CrossFitter lives in a world where they get uncomfortable very often. No s--t; it's scary. To suffer so much, just to see how good you can be, is a rare quality in a human being."
But he knows that the public perspective of CrossFit needs to change, because quite frankly he sees it as more than an injury-prone workout. He sees it as a fitness revolution.
"Here's the thing," Trinidad told Daswick. "We have to minimize the negative publicity—injuries, things like that. CrossFit has created a fitness revolution. People were going to be worse than injured, they were going to be obese, have diabetes, be self-conscious, insecure. We want to let the rest of the fitness world know that CrossFit is a good thing. Hell yeah we like to look good, but that's not our purpose. We train for functionality. The definition and perspective in the eyes of people who don't do CrossFit needs to change for it to grow."
However, Daswick suggests that maybe it's the semi-exclusive attitude of the CrossFit community that needs to change.
"This place is as impressive as you would expect and as pure as you wouldn't. Nevertheless, for all its wholesome familial emphasis, it's impossible to shake the feeling that non-believers don't belong here," he writes.