Is Crossfit Really a Cult?

“Crossfit is the Scientology of Fitness’

I’ve heard this line a handful of times. But is Crossfit really a cult? Some say ‘yes’, others say ‘no’. Crossfitters even joke around about how ‘culty’ CF is, others leave and never turn back because of this reason. The main problem with the debate is that there is no substance only yes’ and no’s. If Crossfit is a cult it should show signs, symptoms, and characteristics of just that.

Understand that there are 3-5 thousand cults in America and they aren’t all animal sacrificing, religious dictatorships, that convince their members to do horrible things. So here is a list of the top 14 signs a community is really a cult. [1] [2]

Note: Each characteristic is followed by a story or link to an article. These are actual events. It does not matter if you don’t agree with them. They are just as real as your reality, even if it comes from a different perspective.

1.Excessively zealous and unquestioning commitment to its leader and/or his belief system, ideology, and practices as the Truth, as law.

Super faith to the Crossfit community, the coaches, the programming, CFHQ, the CF Journal, Paleo, and articles/video posted by various CF coaches. I’ve talked with health professionals that wince every time gnarly information is being put out on the web. Better yet, it is being absorbed like a paleo snack from Crossfitters. This is Confirmation Bias and Branding hard at work. Science and articles that support the cause are more important than the context or validity. Meanwhile, physical therapists and health professionals are left scratching their heads. Here is a good example of fixing a shoulder impingement [3]

2.Questioning, doubt, and dissent are discouraged or even punished.

Given the public nature of CF, this has been observed multiple times and is clearly not something that is tolerated [4]. Even injuries are to be handled by ‘STFU’ [5].

3.Mind-altering practices are used in excess and serve to suppress doubts about the group and its leader(s).

This is another practice commonly used by CFHQ and various CF coaches used to reemphasize how great the product really is. If you debunk all of the conflicting information and cherry pick the studies that support your belief system, you are only confirming the brand, not committing to actual science.

For example, recently a study was conducted by ACSM which detailed specifically that while some benefits were observed from Crossfit(improvements in V02Max, and bodyfat %), injury rates were very high (16%). For those of us that have seen the darker side of this style of training, we weren’t surprised, we’ve seen a lot of the injuries. I review this study and compare it to other sports related injuries in my blog [6]. But, CFHQ came out with a sort of Mel Gibson style Conspiracy Theory[7]. Claiming the conversation they had with the professor in charge led CF to believe that no injuries occurred. But when I personally contacted Dr. Devor, I got a totally different answer. He claimed the study was legitimate and that ‘we have nothing to hide’. So who are we to believe, a peer reviewed study that only verifies what we see (clear evidence of high injury rates), or CFHQ who have been known to manipulate data to support the cause?

4.The leadership dictates, sometimes in great detail, how members should think, act, and feel

“Whats the WOD?”. There are no if-ands-&-buts about the WOD. Instead, you can ‘scale’ a workout. This is the most amount of flexibility CF will offer. Understand that scaling an exercise is different than replacing an exercise. The problem is that the scaling often times is not enough, other times, the CF programming is not built for the specifics of actual athletes. This is described as the big difference between a program that is adaptable for its users and a program that forces its users to adapt to it [8]. Thus, higher injury rates and sub-performance in real sports. 

Even in our group classes, we may scale exercises, or we may replace them outright with something more appropriate. We also build the class around the individual. Thus our class is a template but we have so much flexibility so it can be molded to fit our broad spectrum of members.

5.The group is elitist, claiming a special, exalted status for itself, its leader(s) and members

‘Forging Elite Fitness’, the name says enough. From the interviews with Glassman down to the individual athletes themselves, elitism is clearly engrained in the CF model. It is a pretty big complaint across the board. [9]
[10]
[11]

  1. Why I resigned my affiliation with Crossfit
  2. Stop the Crossfit Elitism
  3. The Crossfit Elitist

6.The group has a polarized us-versus-them mentality, which may cause conflict with the wider society.

Crossfit’s overly critical judgement of bodybuilders, ‘globo gyms’, isolation exercises, exercise machines, and basically anyone that is not Crossfit goes to show, they are built upon being a ‘us vs them’ society [12]. 

7.The leader is not accountable to any authorities

A lot of people have gotten hurt, inflicted with Rhabdo, and have even died because of CF(A case where a mans heart condition and pacemaker was not factored in to his workout. After his first workout, we went home and suffered a fatal heart attack). I know people have sued, I just don’t know how successful they were. I do know if I injured 16% of my clients I can guarantee that I’d be held accountable for my actions.

Jerome Mayberry’s Fo’ Real X Workout

8.The group teaches or implies that its supposedly exalted ends justify whatever means it deems necessary. This may result in members’ participating in behaviors or activities they would have considered reprehensible or unethical before joining the group.

From rounded backs, shitty form, (days before giving birth) pregnant women, dropping bars on your head, falling on your neck, rhabdo, and the like. It is all acceptable. As long as you get the WOD in and lift that weight. I’m sure we’ve all seen the Crossfit Fail videos.

http://youtu.be/wZ7Pj2EIKuw

9.The leadership induces feelings of shame and/or guilt in order to influence and/or control members. Often, this is done through peer pressure and subtle forms of persuasion.

I have spoken to many Crossfitters that upon retiring hit a wall of shame and guilt instilled onto them via coaches. Unhappy athletes leave and are belittled. I’ve heard many times of Crossfitters doing a workout at another box (out of convenience) and then met with the same control methods and intimidation from their original box and coaches. This is not something rare to the CF community.

10. Subservience to the leader or group requires members to cut ties with family and friends, and radically alter the personal goals and activities they had before joining the group.

If the feeling of community is so strong that it strains relationships because of time constraint, then relationships can fail. But that isn’t something CF is forcing on its athletes. Altering/ignoring your goals is something I have seen from many coaches. Because CF promotes cookie-cutter program design, if you want to train for something specific (your goals), it is usually overlooked. Training for specific goals needs to factor in many variables, in class settings this is nearly impossible (unless a coach/trainer puts in the additional work to go outside the WOD).

11. The group is preoccupied with bringing in new members and bringing in money.

Obviously, as a business, CF needs members and money, this part is normal. But, Crossfit as a fitness model is designed for making money more than it is made for making people healthier. How so? Crossfit requires you to get your expensive cert(s) and provides you the coach with limited time and schooling(a weekend workshop). High Affiliation Fees followed by membership fees that cost anywhere between 150-250 dollars per month. The commonality? Everything is over-priced.

A few years ago I talked with a owner of a CF Box who had once been a certified trainer. For years he had committed to clients on an individual (or small group) basis. He told me that personal training was inefficient and I could make way more money teaching classes like the CF model. There you have it, money trumps the ability to focus on the individual, program specific for their needs, correct imbalances, and lower the likelihood of injuries. Therefore, training on a personal (one-on-one) level will always leave more room for growth towards health. Classes bring in the opportunity to make more money and see more people, but you will never be able to get that 100% attention when it is divided by 10-30 people. And as stated with the recent study, the result is 16% injury rates, which in terms of health is much too high.

12. Members are expected to devote inordinate amounts of time to the group and group-related activities.

Crossfitters may commit to 2 hours a day, and sometimes at late hours on weekdays. But, some boxes may require bigger chunks of time than others. I’ve talked with ex-Crossfitters that have left boxes because of the amount of gym-time required by the coaches could not be met by the athlete.

13. Members are encouraged or required to live and/or socialize only with other group members.

I don’t believe this one is true to CF. But, the clickiness of CF’ers often times brings them together in various settings. ‘Nice shirt, you Crossfit?‘Yea!’ ‘Cool man, lets be friends’. Its kinda silly, because I don’t go out of my way in the real world to find and befriend other people that workout. There is more to life than the weights.

14.The most loyal members (the “true believers”) feel there can be no life outside the context of the group. They believe there is no other way to be, and often fear reprisals to themselves or others if they leave (or even consider leaving) the group.

I’ve heard and seen this one 100 times. ‘I love Crossfit more than…’ or a slew of articles of people that have ‘drank the kool-aid’. Stories of how Crossfit has changed their life, etc. The strength of the community is a mechanism that prevents people from leaving because they will be outcast from the group.

How’d we Score?

Crossfit answered yes on 11/14 (some were halves). Meaning Crossfit is 78% a cult on our scale here with questions provided by a website designed for determining whether or not you have joined a cult. This same list is also published in the book ‘Taking Back Your Life: Recovering from Cults and Abusive Relationships’. I hate to break it to all the Crossfitters out there, but Crossfit is more of a cult then it is not.

Where you go from here is up to you. It is much harder to take all of this in, identify with it, and perhaps make difficult changes so that your box/coaching style is less culty and more authentic. But, statistically you will say-

“Well, you are just Anti-Crossfit”

Immediately dismissing all that has been said. Cult members don’t realize they are in a cult, or have the strength to admit it.

If you are labeling this article as ‘bashing’, we have a problem. You may choose to ignore these stories and articles, but they are just as real, despite being from a different perspective. The main problem with this is that scientific progress is stunted by the lack of critical absorption. If the belief is that your training style is the holy grail and absolute, and nothing can tarnish that, then any critiques to the model (there are many) are met with ‘Stop hating on Crossfit’. That only shows a lack of maturity on a cultish level. Sadly, this dismissing of real criticism is all too common.

I criticize the world of Fitness and Health, Performance and Nutrition. I use critical thinking to educate my small fan base. I am not a Crossfit hater. Under that logic I’d be a personal trainer hater, nutrition hater, gym hater, blah blah blah. Honestly, I came at this article believing that there is no way Crossfit fits the mold of a cult. I was surprised when I found out it did (more than it didn’t).

Imagine a world where I’d be labeled a Football hater if I had concerns of football related head injuries. Or a Paleo hater if I criticized the theories behind how ancient man conducted himself. If you checked to see if you had a particular disease on WebMD, you’d see if you had the appropriate symptoms, that wouldn’t make me a (fill in disease) hater. If an artist displays his/her artwork and it is met with constructive criticism, that artist can take that different perspective in, and perhaps allow it to promote growth or can simply say ‘screw you, stop hating on me’. Guess which version is going to mature while the other remains stagnant.

Why do Cults exist?

The main reason cults are so popular is the sense of community. Often they are filling in a void for its members. We have to ask some serious questions about our culture, and what is missing in so many peoples lives that makes cults even exist. I have my suspicions but I’ll leave that for another time.

Deprogramming

I’ve trained many ex-crossfitters before. My approach towards recovery is through a process of deprogramming. This is when you integrate a former cult member back into the real world. There is a lot of talk these days about mental training, but if you want to see the ultimate test to ones mental capacity go about deprogramming them. Often this is met with resistance, some fail from the shock of a reality outside of the one they’ve been fed, only to go back to the only thing they know. Others break free from the chains. But, we will leave that for a future article.

 

 

References

1. Cult Questions and Answers, Cult Hotline and Clinic

2. Characteristics Associated with Cultic Groups-Revised, ICSA

3. Research Provides New Insights Into Preventing Shoulder Impingement, Breaking Muscle

4. The Peasants Are Revolting: It’s Time for CrossFit Affiliates to Take Back Their Name, Breaking Muscle, Breaking Muscle

5. Do Not Cross Crossfit, Inc.com

6. Why We Don’t WOD, Spartan Fitness

[7] NSCA “CrossFit Study” Fraud?, Crossfit Journal

[8] Ex-CrossFit devotees take new gyms to the next level, SealFit

[9] Why I Resigned my Affiliation with Crossfit, Greyskull Articles

[10] Stop the Crossfit Elitism, Live Fit and Sore

[11] The Crossfit Elitist, The Biz

[12] Why I Quit Crossfit, Medium.com