Breaking up with CrossFit

CrossFit is like a beautiful, crazy woman I can’t stop loving, no matter how many times she sets fire to my house. So this could be a weenie “breakup” wherein I go back later with fresh hopes, or a weenie “taking a break” wherein I never do.

I’ve done CrossFit for three years. Four days a week, I lace up my Ivov-8’s, check the whiteboard, and get after whatever’s on tap for the day. I’m strong, fast, and agile — likely in the top fittest 10% of any random group of 38-year-old women as long as we keep the Eastern Europeans out of the mix. CrossFit has helped get me there, and it’s been exhilarating — the timer goes off and my heart starts to pound before I even move because the challenge is to be the fastest, strongest, and most agile version of myself for the next 8 or 12 or 20 minutes.

I love throwing heavy weights over my head; I love jumping 35 inches into the air. CF has given me physical confidence that transfers into other areas of my life — if I can do this, I can face down 140 teenagers every day at work; I can say no to toxic relationships; I can trust myself.

CrossFit has gotten more hands around more barbells than anything else in the history of weight training. It asks women to lift seriously; to sweat; to build muscular strength and power – and for this, in a sea of candy-colored 2- and 3-pound dumbbells and Tracy Anderson tone-up shysters, I am grateful. But. Here are my problems with CrossFit (hat tip to Beth French at Lift Big, Make It Beautiful):

  • The sexualization of women’s fitness. I’m sick of the “snatch” jokes; the Lulu booty shorts; and the Reebok sponsorship tie-in tagline: “Turning Sevens into Tens” (CF makes average-looking women into knockouts, as measured by the time-honored frat-boy rating system) No pressure on male athletes to be sexxxay AND badass; just the women. One popular CF T-shirt reads, “Cheat On Your Girlfriend, Not Your Workout.” Another reads, “Strong Is The New Skinny,” which translates to “CrossFit: Exchanging One Form Of Miserable Body Dysmorphia For Another.”
  • The injury trap. Do most CrossFit workouts the way they’re written, and you will get hurt. For example: Heavy high-rep snatches for time. The snatch is a highly technical Olympic  lift; a lift which, if you fuck it up, has the potential to rip your shoulders out of their sockets. The best way to fuck up an Oly lift is to do it lots and lots of times, with heavy weight, against a clock. This is a recipe for sloppiness.  Sloppiness means injury.  I was once laid up for three weeks after giving myself snatch-related whiplash (insert joke here).
  • The emphasis on making the numbers. Got an obsessive element to your personality, or a history of eating disorders? CF can act as gasoline on that fire. Never mind that whoever wrote the workout doesn’t know you, your body, or your fitness level — by God, the whiteboard says 30 clean-and-jerks for time; you’re gonna clean and jerk as fast as possible — even when your form degrades. That’s how I did something to my back three months ago that still hurts.
  • The disingenuous way some CF coaches/gyms tell you to “know your limits” while simultaneously pushing pushing pushing you past them. Then, when you get hurt? You’re the asshole who didn’t know your limits, so your injury is your fault. Have fun waiting two weeks to get in to see an orthopedist, and I hope you’ve set aside $500 for that MRI.
  • The false correlation between injury and being a badass. It’s part of CrossFit’s bravado  culture to insist that pain is mental; to get that last…rep…no…matter…what. Grinding pain in your knee/shoulder/elbow? Sharp agony in your lower back? Push past it! Too many people at my gym have suffered moderate-to-severe injuries — cervical disc damage; elbow fractures; torn ligaments. Can you imagine how painful and disabling those injuries are going to be in 10,15, 30 years? The point of exercise is to feel better, not worse — to age with strength, not worsen the inevitable aches and pains. I mean, we’re not at war here, OK? There’s, like, some nice Kombucha in the gym fridge just across from the racks. No reason to be a hero.
  • Inadequate training for CF coaches. Want to get certified? It’ll cost you about $1,000 for a two-day course and a 50-question multiple-choice test. Then you’re qualified to hold a stopwatch and scream, “GO GO GO, YOU GOT THIS!” Some coaches are excellent; some are clueless, and there’s no real quality control. The onus is on you to make sure your coach is skilled — difficult to discern if you’re not already an expert yourself.
  • The expense. CF’s $150/month price point tends to attract only upper-middle-class people. The CF Games are, fundamentally, a selection process to identify the world’s whitest person with the most disposable income.
  • The competitive trap. Ostensibly, you only compete with yourself, but it’s near-impossible not to look at the athlete next to you, powering through those high-rep snatches, and not try to surpass her/him. Unfortunately, the athlete next to you may be 60 pounds heavier and 8 inches taller; or 20 years younger; or independently wealthy with nothing else to do but CF and shop for cool Lululemon shit online.
  • The competitions themselves, and problematic emphasis on same. CF is not a sport, mkay? It’s a competitive activity, but it’s generalist, not a sport. Four frantic minutes of 65/100 pound thrusters and chest-to-bar-pullups? Not a sport, especially when you have athletes of wildly disparate size and weight competing against one another. But the energy funneled into competition makes some coaches neglect regular members — the ones scrimping and pinching $150 a month to belong to the gym.
  • The refusal to take aging into consideration. CrossFit considers athletes “masters” at the age of 45 or 40, depending. Ages 18 and 39? No difference. There’s nothing quite like being coached by a 22-year-old woman who yells, “Your mind will give out LONG before your body does!” I’m pushing 39, and it’s the reverse: My body turns in its notice WAY before my mind. For example, I’d LOVE to dance and drink and sex all night and still feel OK when it’s time to go to work at 7 a.m. — my mind is up for that! — but my body can no longer handle it. I won’t put my trust in a coach who’s never experienced that reality; who’s never felt her body refuse to do anything she told it to. She gets hurt? A little ice; good to go. I get hurt? I’m out of the gym for weeks.  Exercise is integral to my mental health, so I can’t afford weeks. My age is not some excuse I’m pulling out of my ass to avoid working hard.
  • Calling it “training” instead of “exercising” or “working out.” Training is something you do for a specific event or accomplishment – say, running a marathon or making the CrossFit Games. Very few people legitimately “train.” The rest of us just exercise.
  • The Paleo diet is mostly bullshit pseudoscience. Grains aren’t poison, humans can metabolize soy, and “the cavemen” lived to be 35 years old and were kind of dumb. Experts in evolutionary physiology work at universities, not your local CF box. I’m not eating goddamn bone marrow and organ meats for breakfast. Colon cancer is bad. One time I saw a guy sit on a plyo box and drink a pineapple juice/calf’s liver smoothie, and it grossed me out forever.

So, for now, I’ve dusted off my P90X DVD’s and the barbell in my garage. No yelling or clocks for awhile. I miss my CF friends already, but I’m going to enjoy working on my technique; improving my focus; and hitting the pause button once in a while. In sweatpants.

9 thoughts on “Breaking up with CrossFit

  1. I’m sorry to see that! I’m not a CrossFitter myself, but my brother was for a while, and I heard some things I liked about and others I didn’t. In general, I had good feelings toward it because I like high-intensity training, and I liked their emphasis on building strength and explosive power. But what you say about injuries, and about the one-size-fits-all nature of the Workout of the Day? Yeah, I definitely noticed those things when my brother was doing it. Sometimes I’d look at the website to see if there was anything I might want to start doing in *my* workouts, and indeed I did take a few things from them! But it seemed to me like you really needed to approach the workout critically, and know your limits and how to adjust it so you don’t hurt yourself or overtrain. (And this was from the standpoint of being a random person going to the website and then doing the workout by yourself at home or at a non-Crossfit gym — I imagine the “you WILL do whatever the board/website says” vibe is especially strong when you’re at a CrossFit gym and the trainer is yelling at you to do it.)

    That’s also really depressing about the culture of enforced hawtness, though! I hadn’t known that, and honestly had expected better of CrossFit. (My own experiences with serious weightlifting have been delightfully egalitarian, with men complimenting my strength and never saying boo about my looks.)

    I have … complicated feelings on the whole strong-is-beautiful thing. I probably like it more than I feel alienated by it, but I definitely felt like I had to choose between the two (hello, thin ideal! hello, normative femininity!) and without the slightest hesitation or difficulty I chose strength. I wonder to what extent the ease with which I let go of beauty, decided I was 100% OK with probably being very unattractive to most men, had to do with seeing it as necessarily incompatible with the physical strength, security and self-sufficiency I wanted so badly for myself. (I’m sure this ease of letting go also came from being more interested in women than men romantically, anyway, but I also think I *made* conventional attractiveness dispensible in my own mind because I was sure I could never have it and also have the strength I needed.) So, in some ways, a girl growing up now, wanting the same things I wanted, might not feel like she has to make that choice at all, but then she also might feel like she *has* to fit an ideal of beauty that I never felt even the slightest obligation to fit. More choices become more obligations to fulfill … not an unfamiliar theme for feminists!

    And I have a biochemistry degree, so I have an EXTREMELY low tolerance for dietary woo. I’ve been lucky enough not to have encountered much of the paleo fad, though I have read that apparently that community overlaps a ton with the CrossFit community. Like atheists, science nerds and gamer geeks, to use examples of highly overlapping communities that I belong to.

    There’s a book I’ve got it in my head to read called Paleofantasy, which is a woman anthropologist’s debunking of the paleo woo. You might find it fun, if you like that sort of book.

  2. I am with you with most of those complaints, especially the cost. I can’t afford to join my local crossfit at that price. Like, not even “eventually” or “one day” or “if I save up.” I might argue with you on the science behind the diet, but I kind of think women should eat whatever they feel best eating ’cause don’t we all get told how/what to eat all the time anyway. And if you’re going at crossfit hard like they say, eating low carb won’t feel too good.

    I had to stop following all the paleo people on twitter because of the rampant sexism in that community, even from women, and it’s all supposedly “backed up” by anthropological research or “evolution” or some nonsense. Don’t even get me started on the evo psych morons. I feel like starting a blog just to complain about the whole paleo community, but I think it’s probably better for my mental health to ignore the lot of them. It’s like what you leave off with – do what works for you and don’t worry about them.

  3. The only woman I know who is into crossfit used to have an eating disorder. This is preferable, but your post make me wonder if she’s going to do some damage to herself. Next time I see her, I’ll drop some hints.

  4. A lot depends on individual gyms — some are better than others, and mine is actually pretty great on that score — but there’s no getting away from the mandatory hotness quotient of CrossFit culture in general.

  5. Exactly. Diet is personal; everybody’s different. I think we can pretty much all agree on refined sugar and flour — anything white is going to make you feel and perform less than ideally — but I don’t like magic paleo woo woo especially as it’s directed at women. There are too many people, as you say, telling us what and how to eat.It’s an old dance and I know all the steps.

  6. I broke up with the same CF gym a while back (perhaps temporarily too?) and so I was very excited to see someone say the exact same things I was feeling when I left. Perhaps I’ll see you again the the regular gym where we can do CF-like wods any way!

  7. Thank you. I had long flirted with the idea of CF but there was something that just didn’t sit well with me, mostly the one size fits all approach that seems to be common with the CFs I am familiar with. Still, I kind of longed for that intense physical challenge.

    As an aside, I see the “strong is the new skinny” thing a little differently. Although I grew up involved in sports and was very physically active, no one would have called me strong…I am not sure if I would have wanted them to. Strong wasn’t lady like, strong wasn’t pretty or desirable. I remember being oh so concerned that I might develop muscles and “bulk up” (oh heavens). Now, as I creep ever so steadily past my mid thirties, I love being strong. I had always felt like it was a reclaiming (or perhaps just a claiming…there really was no “re” to it). I had never thought about it being another form of body dysmorphia. I will have to mull that one over for awhile.

  8. Definitely a claiming! I love that. Your strength is yours.

    CrossFit is definitely an intense physical challenge. The other challenge — always having to keep your own safety in mind because your coach may not — is less fun.

  9. I broke up with CrossFit 3 years ago and have never looked back. It’s amazing what a short period of time outside of the cultish group-think can do for your goals and your lifting.

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