How I became obsessed with CrossFit

Grunting, followed by banshee yelping. Later: deep, satisfied exhaling.

A man lugs a large, robust metal frame slowly across the floor, like an irate snail cursed with an oversized shell. Meanwhile a woman confidently darts between gymnast rings and dead-lifts, to the encouraging whoops and continuous instruction of trainers.

How do you know if someone does CrossFit? They’ll bloody tell ya.

Welcome to the weird, wonderful world of CrossFit.

For a long time I'd resisted. Many outside it call CrossFit a 'cult' and scoff at its peculiar ways and terminologies. As you become immersed, a stereotype emerges: highly competitive, overbearingly intense, Paleo-munching and irritatingly evangelical.

Or, as one former participant put it: "How do you know if someone does CrossFit? They'll bloody tell ya."

Is this a fair assessment? Having tried three Sydney venues and now settled into Waterloo's CrossFit Ignite, I feel qualified to shed some light.

For the uninitiated, CrossFit is group personal training - if that isn't an oxymoron. It happens in what 'Crossfitters' call their 'box' – usually a warehouse-like space, providing room for all that signature kettle bell swinging. It prides itself on the "community that arises when people do these workouts together".

The lingo

CrossFitters speak their own language. I mean, who else calls their gym a box? When recently asked how my Tabata side-prone was coming along, I thought I'd walked into a Lebanese cooking class (very un-Paleo). They also bark things like "activate the glutes!" Translation: "squeeze your bum cheeks!"

Acronyms are beloved - WOD (workout of the day) is the best-known, but others include AMRAP (as many reps as possible) and ATG (ass to grass). The WOD is often given a female name. Founder Greg Glassman explains: "Anything that left you flat on your back, looking at the sky asking 'what just happened to me?' deserved a female's name." Not terribly PC, that one.  

Like many argots, the unique vernacular enhances CrossFit's mystique and sense of being a special, exclusive community.

As well as needing a jargon decoder, the semantics can give credence to the confronting feel of some CrossFit boxes. The sentence, "Today, start by doing a super-set of sumo dead-lifts followed by a farmer's walk with heavy kettle bells times three" makes me want to farmer's-run right out of this hipster warehouse and back into the comfort of my own home to put my feet up and a real kettle on.

Competitive, but supportive

But CrossFit is all about challenging yourself in a community of others doing the same, knowing they once felt as intimidated/exhausted/emasculated as you do now. The environment may be competitive – many participants aim to compete at the CrossFit Games – but it's also very supportive.

One CrossFitter told me how, upon finishing a rope shimmy exercise that would probably make Michelle Bridges weep, he looked down to witness the air-punches of four cheering onlookers – two trainers and two participants.

CrossFit isn't like having a personal trainer; it's like having six – at least, it is at my box. Each brings different expertise and tips for technique and motivation. It's certainly a refreshing antidote to the lonely individualism of gyms.

Jason Pelham, CrossFit Perth's head coach, says: "I'd much rather be around CrossFit than the 15 years I spent in commercial gyms: most people kept to themselves wearing headphones."

A cult of personalities?

As for the melodramatic 'cult' assertion, a more meaningful question might be: is a fitness cult a bad thing in a nation afflicted with spiralling obesity? It's true that for some this is more than a fitness community; it's a family. A marketing video on CrossFit's website includes American Crossfitters declaring their devotion: "It's my life." "It's my passion." "It's my obsession." "It's raw." "It's emotional." Is their pre-workout juice making them delirious? "People walk in and ask – where are the machines? We're the machines!" another exclaims. Yikes.

Australians can be equally enthused. As Pelham explains: "It attracts outgoing people who are after more in life."

Kath McCormack owns a CrossFit box in Melbourne's Richmond: "It's not a cult - but athletes are dedicated and loyal to the box they represent," she asserts.

The criticisms are wearing thin for some boxes – one metro CrossFit declined to be interviewed, citing the 80,000 articles that Google returns when asked 'Is CrossFit a cult?' as an example that there has been "too much coverage on those type of questions".

Although some participants count the days until the next competitive CrossFit Games and save the WODs to their web favourites, others – like me – combine CrossFit with traditional gymwork to keep the obsession in check.

My box, thankfully, tones down the intensity just a notch. Chris Ashworth, 33, a town planner from Sydney's Redfern, has been attending the same CrossFit box as me for 18 months.

"The variety makes it more interesting than using gym machines. And it pushes you harder," he says. "Of course it can be intense. You have to work hard to get results."

CrossFit v personal trainers

Some – especially sceptical personal trainers – focus on the risk of injury. Could the underlying issue be that they're being out-priced? Dr Ben Frazer from the CrossFit box in Melbourne's South Yarra says: "You can see a PT for three sessions - or get a full month of CrossFit training." Pelham adds: "The number one cause of [sports] injuries in Australia are jogging, netball and touch football."

From a personal point of view, there are many benefits to CrossFit. A big one for me is the camaraderie. My box also offers nutrition advice and while, yes, it does push the Paleo lifestyle, other options are available if, like me, you're not keen to jump on that bandwagon.

It also teaches respect: for every kilo of weight you neglect to pack away, you must do a burpee. CrossFit Ignite owner Darren Shaw says: "It's CrossFit for the executive, rather than the twenty-something gym rat."

So how do you know if someone does CrossFit? If, miraculously, they haven't told you, there's another way of knowing. "People come to us and say a friend now looks amazing," Shaw says. "When asked how, they simply send them here."

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