The Morality of Fitness: An Anthropologist’s Observations in a CrossFit Gym

Editors note: Katie Rose Hejtmanek, Ph.D. is a cultural anthropologist conducting research on the culture of strength sports in the United States. This is the second of an in-depth series introducing readers to her research and preliminary findings. All observations and data come from her own research. You can read her first article here.

If you’re a fan of strength sports and want to look at their growth from a cultural, anthropological, and/or analytical perspective, we highly recommend this series. The articles go in-depth on Dr. Hejtmanek’s work, and they’re well worth your time.

CrossFit Anthropology

We often think that fairytales are just old stories, about princesses and princes and a happily-ever after. However, they are important elements of culture. Fairytales are ways that we share moral codes with children, how we teach children what’s right and wrong, what’s good and evil. But fairytales aren’t the only cultural stories or moral tales we tell each other and ourselves.

Think about the stories your family tells, the legacy stories of universities, or cautionary tales about Twitter use. These are our origin stories, our collective tales. When I explain this to my students, I almost always hear, “Oh, like the bootstrap story?” Yes. In American culture we learn that if we work hard we can move up in the world, we can change our social status — we just have  pull ourselves up from our bootstraps.

This is the American Dream. Individual effort, merit, and responsibility are explicit American cultural values, and they shape the way we view ourselves, others, and the world. Despite recent financial turmoil, we still tell stories of individual effort, merit, and responsibility as the reason for achievement or failure. Even if this story isn’t true, it is still one of the most dominant American stories.  

These cultural stories we tell ourselves provide the moral codes by which we organize our lives. In my piece Anthropology 101, I explained that cultural anthropologists study two different aspects of culture – the implicit and explicit. Here I want to talk more in-depth about these, through the stories we tell ourselves and others about who we are, and how to be a good person.

Specifically, I examine the story of CrossFit. First, I will use the official story of the company as listed on their website. Then I look at how this CrossFit story is used in a local box in Brooklyn, and how a CrossFit coach put this story to good use in a free trial class, almost quoting it directly. Participants of the class react to this story in a variety of ways. I conclude with why I think official stories and local engagement with them matter in the world of CrossFit itself, especially in the ways we link health to our morality by joining boxes or buying memberships in an effort to achieve good personhood.

The Official Story

According to the CrossFit website, specifically the page “What is CrossFit?” this is the story you read (excerpted):

CrossFit is a fitness regimen developed by Greg Glassman over several decades. Glassman, CrossFit’s Founder and CEO, was the first person in history to define fitness in a meaningful, measurable way: increased work capacity across broad time and modal domains. He then created a program specifically designed to improve fitness and health.

CrossFit is constantly varied functional movements performed at relatively high intensity. …

The community that spontaneously arises when people do these workouts together is a key component of why CrossFit is so effective…. Harnessing the natural camaraderie, competition and fun of sport or game yields an intensity that cannot be matched by other means.

The CrossFit program is driven by data. Using whiteboards as scoreboards, keeping accurate scores and records, running a clock, and precisely defining the rules and standards for performance, we not only motivate unprecedented output but derive both relative and absolute metrics at every workout. …

What a great story! Like all good stories, we learn about the hero, Greg Glassman, and what makes the adventure of CrossFit unique. What makes CrossFit unique according to this story is the focus on functional movement, building a community, being data driven, and attention to overall fitness or specializing in not specializing. Although a “The End” could be stamped to the end of this quotation, these kinds of stories don’t really end. Think about it: What do we do with stories? We let them influence us, we tell them to others and we hope they influence them.

CrossFit and Anthropology

That is the real function of a cultural story, how it works in the world, how we believe it, and how we let it shape our lives. In other words, have you heard this CrossFit story? Have you told this story?

A Brooklyn Box: A Local Take on the Official Story

Saturday at noon, I sat in the corner of a CrossFit box in Brooklyn. Armed with pen and pad, the anthropologist’s old-school tools, I was ready to take notes on the free trial class I was observing. After a brief warm-up of jumping jacks, lunges, and mountain climbers, Scott*, the coach, gathered the seven attendees to sit in front of him. He wanted to talk for “5-7 minutes.”

What is CrossFit? It is general based fitness, it is strength and conditioning. We aren’t professional athletes so we don’t need to specialize. Here our goal is strength and conditioning, so that living life is easier.

My ears perk up at what sounds like an origin story, the “official” story of CrossFit.

Scott continued for well over his stated 5-7 minutes, but as well all know, sometimes tales become tall. Scott talked about the different elements of CrossFit, including weightlifting and gymnastics. He shared the story of Tabata, a form of high intensity training used by, according to Scott, the Japanese speed skating team. Scott states, “People have a hard time believing this but the research comparing 4 minutes vs. 40 minutes, 6 days a week, for 6 weeks, the 4 minute exercise was better than the 40.” I listened and took notes as Scott continued, taking a moment to apply the CrossFit story to the lives of the people taking the class. “How many of you have hurt yourselves running?” Four of the seven seated participants raised their hands. “Running has the highest injury rate of any sport, at 80%. How functional is running on a treadmill?”

Nervous laughter broke out among the seated classmates.

“Runners,” Scott continues, “are just good at running. CrossFit looks at fitness as an extension of health, and if you are here for your health you should get better at everything. CrossFit doesn’t specialize in anything, we are good at everything.”

A bit later in the session, Scott states, “The other reason you should do CrossFit is for the community, it is what keeps people here. We have fantastic people but we have no egos. And we do lots of fun things too like happy hour, movie nights, why not? We want everyone to feel comfortable here.” Three of the young women who came together looked at one another and giggle. A few other participants nodded their heads. The community element of the origin story hit home for some of the participants.

Scott then asks the athletes to grab kettlebells and  explains the workout to the class. He then starts the clock and playlist. As the participants completed the 10 minutes of kettlebell swings, squats, and sit ups and Katy Perry sang about California Girls, Scott walked around talking, “You’ll push yourselves here because it is a class, a group. They will push you.”

At the end of the 90-minute introductory session, five of the seven joined the box.

What I Think Is Going On

As an anthropologist who walked into this gym, I am interest in how the origin story of CrossFit was told to the people taking the introductory course and how it worked in their lives. We see how Scott talks about functional movement, the non-specialization as the specialization of CrossFit, the role of community, the use of data to support CrossFit as an activity, and the importance of overall health and fitness. In his local Brooklyn CrossFit box, Scott is the bard Homer, and the CrossFit story his Iliad. All of the key elements of the story are there, and it is a very good story.**

CrossFit Class

We also see how it “worked” in the lives of the people taking the free class, why I think so many joined. I think it worked in a couple of ways: 1) by mobilizing moral frameworks of health, and 2) linking the activity with a community and relationships.

First, it is important that I noticed “nervous laughter” when Scott talked about the injury rates of running and the lack of functionality of treadmills. Nervous laughter is a sign that people are embarrassed or ashamed. Embarrassment and shame are linked to moral frameworks of self: are we good people, are we doing the right thing, in this case, are we working out correctly, are we taking care of ourselves right? Few people like to be told they are doing something wrong even if that applies to fitness. At least four of the seven class participants had been outed for performing non-functional movement. Scott and CrossFit are there to save them from this tragedy by offering them a way to get “good at everything.”

One of the ways that CrossFit works, as claimed above, is that it uses “data” to show people that what they are may previously be doing for fitness is wrong, or at least non-measurable. Scott uses the story of Tabata and the Japanese research on high intensity workouts in comparison to longer cardiovascular exercise as “data” to make his argument for CrossFit’s success. He also uses the percentage of athletes injured in running as data to show that what the participants were doing was potentially hurting them.

No one asked Scott to cite his sources for these numbers and claims. Rather, the individuals taking part in the free class seemed to believe these data based on the nervous laughter exhibited when the data-supported revelations were made. And most often people want to know how they can right their wrong, as I mentioned earlier taking individual responsibility is an American cultural ideal. CrossFit is the right answer, if people are really “here for their health” as Scott states, they should stop doing what’s wrong, and do what’s right, join the box.

CrossFit and Anthropology Study

Scott reveals to these athletes that their moral-fitness-compass is off. But, luckily, he is there to help them recalibrate it. All they need to do is join the box.

Second, the giggling and head nods illustrates that people agree with the community aspect of CrossFit. Unlike nervous laughter and embarrassment, head nods mean that a moral code is agreed upon. Yes, community is important, yes, it helps with fitness, yes, I’m a fantastic person, yes, I will push myself more as part of a class, and no, I don’t like to work out with “egos.” These aspects of the story are in-synch with the initiates’ moral compass as evinced by the head nods and giggling. Everyone agrees that community is important, and the initiates can be part of this community; all they need to do is join the box.

Five of the seven joined. Roughly seventy percent of the trial class decided to join the box. Apparently, the CrossFit story hit home, and now five more can count themselves among the many who seek functional fitness through community, good people taking care of their health in the right way.

Stories matter in our lives, in the way we share our family histories, our cultural ideals and “dreams,” and in the world of fitness. I focused here on CrossFit, but this analysis can be applied to other strength, fitness, and athletic activities. As a cultural anthropologist, I find this part of sporting activities as important as any other (for example, injury rates). Why? Because stories link sporting activities with morality, and morality tales are how we know how to be good people, the quintessential cultural ideal.

Sports are not just recreation, games, or play; they are key portals to understanding cultural frameworks of right and wrong. Therefore, it isn’t surprising that when a cultural anthropologist walked into a gym, she heard an origin story and a morality tale.

*Scott is not his real name. All names are pseudonyms for confidentiality purposes.

**I am not sure where Scott got his “data,” but fact checking that is not part of my analysis. The point is that he used data to make his argument.


Editors note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein are the authors and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.

Photos courtesy Siem Photography.