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Inside the Cult of CrossFit

"Nature will punish the specialist," he says. "I want to be a jack-of-all-trades and master of none. Specialization is for insects. I'm looking for breadth of experience, and anyone who is at all wise realizes that being a specialist represents a compromised position."

He illustrates his point with a parable about a guy who can run a 4-minute mile and a guy who can squat 900 pounds. "What a 4-minute mile implies is that you've whittled away enough body mass that you're no longer strong by anyone's estimation. And by the point that you can do a 900-pound back squat—brother, you even walk funny. And to see you run is laughable."

These people are not functionally fit, he says. Instead, they've wedged themselves into a niche and made themselves useless outside of it. I can't disagree. But then again, I don't know anybody who squats 900 pounds or runs a 4-minute mile. Most of the fitness-conscious people I know just want to look better than they do now. Once again, Glassman asserts, the answer is CrossFit. "In the real world, the best physiques belong to people who have functional capacity," he says. Find out what kind of shape you're really in by taking our test: Are You Men's Health Fit?

That contradicts my own observations at my local CrossFit gym. If Glassman's brand of functional fitness produces better aesthetic results than the traditional approach does, why did the gelatinous bodies at my gym often outperform those who appeared to be in better shape?

Concern for Injury

A more pressing concern is the potential for injury. CrossFit WODs sometimes use Olympic lifts, like the snatch, for high repetitions when lifters are in a state of exhaustion. That worries almost everyone I interviewed.

"The problem has to do with fatigue and going to failure," says Stuart McGill, Ph.D., a professor of spine biomechanics at the University of Waterloo, Ontario. "Some exercises are conducive to this and others are not." McGill puts Olympic lifts in the "not" category.

"Repeating movements where form is compromised with fatigue really does not fit the philosophy of Olympic lifting to reduce injury risk and enhance performance."

Then there's the issue of coaching. "You can learn the mechanics of an Olympic lift in 2 days, but you can't develop enough of a proficiency to teach others," Krahn says. "The guy who's teaching you a complex movement may have very little knowledge about it."

Rhabdomyolysis is another health concern that's become associated with CrossFit over the years. "Rhabdo" can occur when muscles are worked so hard that the fibers break down, releasing the protein myoglobin into the bloodstream. In extreme cases, it can lead to kidney damage or even kidney failure. It's commonly seen in people with crush injuries, such as those from auto accidents.

Former U.S. Navy information systems technician Makimba Mimms was awarded $300,000 in damages from his local gym, the CrossFit affiliate training company, and his trainer for injuries he sustained during a CrossFit workout in 2005. Those injuries included rhabdomyolysis.

Rather than refute the association with potentially fatal injury—or at least try to change the subject—CrossFit has used it as proof of its intensity. The WOD that nearly killed Mimms was renamed "Makimba" and recategorized as a children's workout. The derision ignores not just the seriousness of Mimms's injuries but also the fact that no one is immune to rhabdo, including elite athletes. In January 2011, a local paper reported that 13 football players at the University of Iowa were hospitalized with rhabdo after a workout that included 100 squats with 50 percent of their 1-rep max. It wasn't a CrossFit workout, but it was in the same ballpark: a technically complex exercise performed for high repetitions under conditions of extreme fatigue.

Pukie the Clown

But CrossFit's embrace of its worst qualities goes even further. One of its unofficial cartoon mascots is "Uncle Rhabdo," depicted as a beat-up clown connected to a dialysis machine, with what appears to be a kidney, his large intestine, and a copious amount of blood spilling out of his shorts and onto the floor around him. The other, Pukie the Clown, is shown crawling away from a loaded barbell and gymnastic rings, clutching his chest and projectile vomiting. The Phillie Phanatic they ain't.

"With Pukie the Clown and Uncle Rhabdo, they take the 'no pain, no gain' thing to a whole new level," says Alex Koch, Ph.D., an associate professor of health and exercise sciences at Lenoir-Rhyne University in North Carolina.

"I think exercise should be fun. Movement should be fun. I don't encourage the athletes I train to exercise until they vomit, not least because I don't want to smell it or clean it up."

In my 3 months of doing CrossFit three times a week, the closest I came to barfing was a 1,000-meter race on rowing machines. For some reason I really wanted to win, despite the fact that one of my opponents had extreme performance advantages. I didn't puke, but I also didn't win.

I did, however, lose 7 pounds in 90 days. That would've been a great result if I hadn't started at 141 pounds. The last thing I wanted was to end up skinnier. Nobody at my CrossFit gym knew about my weight loss, or cared. At no point was I asked what my goals were. If nothing else, I hoped that all the squats, deadlifts, and Olympic lifts would put some contours onto my tragically flat ass. Alas, my buttocks remained more or less the same.

The Problem With Group Workouts

I also discovered that I'm not the best candidate for group workouts. To my surprise, I was easily coerced into adopting a competitive mindset. It didn't matter if my rivals were nice middle-aged women; I was driven by the need to crush them. At first I thought it was good to move so far out of my comfort zone, but it didn't take long for me to realize why I'd been so comfortable in that zone. It wasn't just the intensity or the inappropriate competitive zeal that put me off CrossFit. The endless affirmations—all the clapping and grating exclamation points after "You're doing a great job!"—brought out my inner misanthrope.

The last straw came when I found myself in a class of 12, mostly women. They'd all finished, but I still had 3 sets to go. There's something uniquely humiliating about trying to squeeze out a fifth round of 10 pullups, completely red-faced and fatigued, with a group of women yelling encouragement. I finished 2 minutes after my nearest rival, stumbled through a forest of high-fives, and then went out the door and never came back. (Can't do a pullup either? Use this personalized plan to conquer this classic exercise and finally master the pullup for good.)

A month later I bumped into a neighbor who'd joined CrossFit Westside around the same time I did.

"Where have you been?" she asked.

"Oh, I don't go to CrossFit anymore," I answered.

She was slack-jawed, speechless.

"You're still going, I take it?"

"Hell, yeah!" she said. "I'm an instructor now. It's the thing I love most in the world. Well, maybe my husband is first, but CrossFit is a close second, and the gap is getting narrower."

I laughed, but she assured me she wasn't kidding. It's like a cult crossed with a pyramid scheme, and the base is always widening. It brought me back to my first conversation about CrossFit with Becky, my old girlfriend. There's something about CrossFit that makes some people want to post videos of themselves doing pullups—while that "something" drives others like me away.

But if nothing else, the earnest zeal I saw in my 3 months of WODs gave me hope. Maybe someday I'll find a fitness regimen that hooks me the way CrossFit hooked them.

What have you heard about Zumba?

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