High-Intensity, Functional Fitness (and Formation?)


High-Intensity, Functional Fitness (and Formation?)

Crossfit and Philosophy

By Zachary Mabee

Those who have (philosophically inclined) interest in the world of popular culture probably ought to have something to say about the fitness world. After all, personal and group fitness command a great deal of time and money in many people’s lives. (Think, e.g., of how popular and attention-getting various diets are, or fitness-apparel companies like Nike or Under Armour. Perhaps even more interestingly, think about how spandex yoga pants have become something of a cornerstone of many women’s wardrobes.) And if you’re going to take stock seriously of the fitness world nowadays, you no doubt need to give serious consideration to the global phenomenon that is Crossfit.  Officially launched around the turn of the millennium in Santa Cruz, CA, by Greg Glassman, a feisty former gymnast and Libertarian-minded coach, Crossfit has come to be known as “the sport of fitness.” It hinges around daily workouts (known as “WoDs,” or workouts of the day) that force athletes to endure strenuous, sometimes grueling, combinations of “functional” movements, which range from calisthenics to olympic weightlifting exercises to climbing ropes or flipping large tractor tires. Having begun in a humble, warehouse-style facility in a California surf locale, Crossfit has aggressively proliferated, such that its brand now boasts more than 10,000 affiliate gyms worldwide and over 100,000 certified coaches. Its “Games,” an annual international showdown of the world’s premier Crossfit athletes, has a secure, featured spot on ESPN, not to mention a hefty endorsement package from Reebok (among other brands).

Crossfit WoDs often only last from 8-15 minutes, but they require athletes to endure taxing combinations of movements that leave them metabolically spent. Such sessions also, though, tend to cultivate significant bonds among the sport’s faithful practitioners and often lead them to a sort of devotion to their trade that is noteworthy, if occasionally obnoxious. (I’ve seen it joked that Crossfitters, vegans, and atheists are all alike, in that you’ll be sure to know, within 5 minutes of having met them, that you’re talking to one.) Many Crossfitters seem to see their fitness, and their pursuit of excellence therein, as something more than just “going to the gym.” For them, it often takes the tenor of something closer to an exercise (pardon the pun) of spiritual significance. They see it as character-shaping and community-building, as virtue-developing and relationship-strengthening, as offering them a domain of personal and athletic fulfillment that is largely immune to many of the superficial trappings of the broader popular and consumer fitness culture. To be sure, results don’t come easy at a Crossfit box. You’ll pay for your gains in sweat, pain, and perhaps even occasionally vomit. But you’ll likely enjoy the overall process and find yourself steadily striving to improve and excel even more. (I say all this, I should add, from prolonged personal experience.)

I said earlier that if popular culture is deserving of consideration, then so too, probably, is the world of fitness. And if fitness, then certainly Crossfit. But I’m inclined to think (and, again, I don’t deny a bit of personal bias here) that Crossfit is more worthy of (philosophically inclined) attention than many other popular expressions of fitness – be they yoga, Pilates, or “Spinning” classes. I think this is the case for several reasons. First, the Crossfit brand actually enunciates a “philosophy” that accompanies its programming. That is, Crossfit tells you that, when you engage it seriously as a fitness (and life-training) program, you’re going to be schooled in the pursuit of certain goods and accompanying virtues. So you won’t, as many fitness plans have it, simply be moving (to the degree you please) toward some broadly conceived goal of fitness or general wellness. No: You’ll instead be growing in – to quote Coach Glassman himself – “cardiovascular/respiratory endurance, stamina, strength, flexibility, power, coordination, agility, balance, and accuracy.” You will be caught up, that is, in a group-oriented process of growth toward these various goals or virtues, you might say, of a fit human life.

This brings me to a crucial point. Crossfit, in my estimation, has a particularly virtue-ethical bent to it, more than many current approaches to fitness. That is, as we just saw, Crossfit demands of its practitioners – their size, skill, age, and experience notwithstanding – certain practical excellences (and probably some concomitant theoretical understanding, to boot) as athletes, or perhaps simply as active human beings. In a world where many fitness programs are slavishly suited to the goals of the individual client, Crossfit demands of its practitioners a common striving toward certain codified virtues and goods. With its workouts being generally scaleable according to athletes’ skills and abilities, it no doubt acknowledges that such virtues will look or be embodied differently in, say, a twenty-year-old former gymnast, on the one hand, and an arthritic seventy-seven year old, on the other. Regardless, it will call both such athletes to grow in such areas, inasmuch as they’re willing and physically able.

Such growth, however, never happens individually for a Crossfitter. Though some practice the sport at their own home gyms, its fullest embodiment is at its affiliate gyms, various local “boxes.” At these sites, Crossfitters come together and complete WoDs together, regardless of their levels of expertise. That is, the workouts are normally performed within classes, running about an hour, that involve joint warmups, work on relevant skills (e.g. gymnastics or olympic-weightlifting movements), the WoD itself, and usually even a collective cool-down. The hour, that is to say, is logged together, as a group, usually in an environment of playful, friendly banter and mutual encouragement (though, of course, of severely hard work, too).

So Crossfit also, in addition to being rather virtue-ethical in orientation, has a very communitarian sensibility to it. As a Crossfitter, you become a member of your respective box, but also of the broader sub-culture that practices the art, if you will. And practically speaking, Crossfit has certainly succeeded in recruiting people to be part of it, as a movement. It would, therefore, be of significant interest to those who study political philosophy or psychology or who have interest in group dynamics and collective social action – because, for better or for worse, it has succeeded greatly in recruiting folks to join its ranks. And its communitarian orientation, along with its emphasis on core virtues, makes it rather unique among pop-cultural phenomena, particularly within the fitness world. For while many pop-cultural movements (in entertainment, fitness, or other domains) have collective or widespread appeal, few seem to involve the more concrete common pursuit of virtues or goods. And though its orientation might seem a bit more corporeal and mundane than many philosophers would care to indulge, it could still be a valuable and worthwhile case study in these respects.

I have, then, summarized how Crossfit works and highlighted some aspects of it that would be of particular philosophical interest: its having, as an organized, member-recruiting practice, a philosophy of its own. (It could thus be susceptible to a sort of Wittgensteinian/MacIntyrean analysis as a philosophically-charged practice.) What is more, it is a popular-cultural practice (or set of practices) that has a uniquely virtue-ethical orientation. Now, while the virtues that it encourages tend to be primarily corporeal or fitness-oriented, it also, as I noted, tends to take on a more sublime, even quasi-spiritual, tenor for many of its practitioners. They see it, that is, as a practice that helps to shape their lives and self-conceptions at a more fundamental level. I suspect it is probably rare to find popular-cultural practices that have such a virtue-directed orientation to them. For these reasons at least, then, I think Crossfit is worthy of the popular-cultural philosopher’s attention. Finally, Crossfit is a pop-cultural fitness phenomenon that encourages – even savors – the common pursuit of the various virtues and goods of the “sport.” And this makes it quite unique and noteworthy among its peers.

And so we have here, in provisional form, an invitation to a more philosophically inclined consideration of Crossfit – offered by one who fancies himself both philosophically inclined and a mildly seasoned Crossfit practitioner. I would enjoy hearing how this conversation, along with my scores on various key (or “benchmark” WoDs), might advance from here!

Rev. Zachary Mabee is a newly ordained priest of the Catholic diocese of Lansing, MI. He holds a graduate degree in philosophy from the Catholic University of America and is currently completing graduate theological studies at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, Italy. When not engaged in pastoral ministry or armchair philosophizing, he enjoys exercising (chiefly, Crossfit, weightlifting, and cycling); playing the guitar; reading and writing; watching films; and making and savoring good food and drink. You can contact him via Facebook (Zachary Mabee).

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