We limped off as another group stepped up.
"How was the WOD?" someone asked.
"Fifteen minutes of sheer hell," I wheezed.
"Awesome!" he said, without sarcasm.
It took just a few classes to understand why my ex was crazy for CrossFit. As bad as it feels when you're halfway through a WOD, you know it'll be over soon. And you know you'll make it to the end because no one is allowed to quit. That's one reason it's so exhilarating. Another is the camaraderie. You're not really competing with your fellow CrossFitters as much as competing against yourself, and everyone in the room wants you to win.
But at the same time, you have to abandon whatever ideas you had about fitness being a linear pursuit toward a measurable goal—whether it's strength, size, or weight loss. Traditionally we're told to first define a goal, then find a program designed to reach the goal, and finally work toward a series of adaptations that will bring us closer to that goal. If you want to grow stronger, for example, your traditional program should help you increase your strength incrementally over time.
That's not how CrossFit works. The workouts aren't typically programmed. You jump from one hard thing to the next, with the goal of becoming better at doing hard things. The approach mystifies many fitness experts.
There's a randomness to the exercises in CrossFit that's really not ideal for the average fitness enthusiast, says David Pearson, Ph.D., an associate professor of exercise science at Ball State University. "But if you needed to run into a burning building, hoist a wood beam, and then run out with a person over your shoulder, this might be the best program for you."
In fact, emergency workers were among the early adopters of CrossFit. Glassman opened the first CrossFit gym in 1995 in Santa Cruz, California. He defined his mashup of weightlifting, sprinting, and gymnastics as "constantly varied, functional movements, executed at high intensity." That same year the Santa Cruz police department hired him and charged him with the goal of preparing its officers for what he called the "unknown and the unknowable." CrossFit's ensuing popularity with firefighters, SWAT teams, and special-ops personnel gave his ideas credibility that money couldn't buy.
It took a while for the public to catch on—just 18 affiliates were open in 2005. But since then, growth has been exponential. Today there are more than 3,000 affiliates, all of which help promote Glassman's definition of fitness: "increased work capacity across broad time and modal domains." Put another way, it's the ability to perform well in a wide range of activities over varying periods of time.
"You can accept that definition or offer a different one, and we're willing to engage in a competition with anyone else on any other notion," he says. To back it up, he hosts an annual competition, the CrossFit Games, and boldly claims that its champions are the "fittest human beings on earth."
"Fitness" has neither an official meaning nor a governing body, much less agreed-upon checkpoints. But Glassman has his own self-serving definition, and not surprisingly, his system aligns perfectly with it. But if there's one thing every non-CrossFit-affiliated expert I spoke with agrees on, it's this: CrossFit's one-size-fits-all methods are flawed, perhaps dangerously so. "If you're strong and healthy, you'll probably do okay," says Robb Wolf, who opened the first and fourth CrossFit affiliates and later became the brand's nutrition expert before falling out with Glassman. But according to Wolf, if you're prone to injuries or crazily competitive, CrossFit could be a terrible fit for you.
It's not just the intensity of the workouts that worries experts. It's the fact you're doing technically complex lifts for high reps in a state of fatigue, when form is guaranteed to break down. "It takes time to perfect certain movements, especially the Olympic lifts," says trainer Joe Dowdell, founder of Peak Performance in New York. "Not spending enough time teaching people how to perform these movements correctly is dangerous."
More worrisome is the way the CrossFit trainers themselves are trained. "If you have reservations about CrossFit going in, then attending a CrossFit certification likely won't make you feel any better about it," says journalist Bryan Krahn, C.S.C.S., who attended a weekend certification class on assignment for T-nation.com. "The seminars were well run and the speakers were very good. My problem had more to do with the CrossFit ideology itself. The programming doesn't make sense from a strength-training standpoint. The reality is, a lot of guys who go to the gym want to put on some muscle. CrossFit is not the optimum way to go about doing that."
Glassman scoffs. "If you came to me with a set of goals that looked like 'lose the fat, improve my musculature,' or 'move toward a better aesthetic,' I wouldn't do anything differently for you than if you came to me and said, 'I want to improve my work capacity across broad time and modal domains,' " he says.
To be sure, no one would ever say that or anything like it. So Glassman becomes specific about why CrossFit works the way it does.
"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."