Sunday, August 18, 2013


Walking around the neighborhood, I’ve noticed a few new health-based establishments.  Right down the block from me, there’s a seemingly clandestine yoga studio that opened next to a small scrap-metal shop that’s been there for years.  You wouldn’t know this unless you saw someone walking in with a mat.  There’s a small sign on the door, but unless you’re right there, you won’t see it.

More surprisingly, along the avenue that leads down to the Con Ed plant and East River, nestled between a chicken-processing plant (mentioned parenthetically here) and a marble factory, a Crossfit gym opened recently.  You can tell: the front garage grate is always left open, and there’s usually a massive truck tire or two sitting on the sidewalk.  Walk by, and you’re met with a blast of hiphop and various gym members grunting and groaning through their workouts.

I’ve been reading a lot about Crossfit, as I’m always curious about different workouts.  A smaller gym space next to the laundromat opened up and failed within a year, although that wasn’t explicitly Crossfit, seemed more a like a place that personal trainers could rent out for their client sessions.  I took it as a nice sign that the neighborhood hadn’t completely gentrified when they went out of business … but a Crossfit gym and a yoga studio?  They make Starbucks seem like a bodega.

As it goes with Crossfit gyms, this one matches the iconography: bland warehouse space, no traditional gym machines, plenty of free weights, kettle bells, push sleds, gymnast rings and ropes dangling from the ceiling, mats, monkey bar contraptions.  I’m assuming there are no showers or any amenities like that.  The image is meant to be lowdown and gritty.  The guys who open these things must make a fortune as their overhead is so comparatively low compared to chain gyms.

And they charge a fortune, the assumption being the people taking the classes are going to achieve personal-trainer levels of fitness from their experience.  They probably will, but this is also a deal breaker for me: I won’t spend upwards of $100/month on gyms.  I assure you, most Crossfit gyms are charging far more than that per month.

The bigger deal breaker is the hernia and resultant surgery I recently had, and the realization that blowout regimens are not a good idea for me moving forward.  Working out, yes.  I’ve made my way back into my weekly boxing classes, albeit carefully.  I thought the boxing workout was hard, and it is, but probably nowhere near as hard as a Crossfit workout that encourages members to push themselves to muscle failure each class.  My boxing workout gets me winded routinely but rarely to the level of puking or passing out.

The weightlifting component of Crossfit also seems ill-advised, especially post-hernia.  I’m going to be very careful about incorporating weights into my life again and will do so only sparingly, with relatively low-strain workouts on universal machines where I can isolate muscle groups and avoid over-working abdominals.  My logic is related to the ageing process, that it’s a good idea to do some type of work with weights to maintain muscle and tendon strength.

That doesn’t mean these intense Crossfit workouts where you do X number of Olympic-style lifts or squats as part of a series of other high-stress, fast-paced exercises that will leave you exhausted before even touching the weights.  I’ve never been that into weights, simply because I’ve noticed friends who’ve lifted, even when they’re fanatical about form, injure themselves routinely.  There’s no need for me to lift that intensely.  There’s no need for anyone but professional athletes to do so, but I understand the psychology of weightlifting and why so many people enjoy the results they get.

But to do that sort of intense lifting in the middle of other intense aerobic exercises is just a bad idea.  It’s inviting disaster; I don’t care what positive results are possible.  At some point, everyone slows down and/or backs away from working out that hard.  For me, it was getting a hernia and realizing there’s no need to kill myself in a gym.  Surely a need to maintain some level of physical conditioning.  But not like that.  Not so fanatically.  You’re truly not competing with anyone but yourself.  The long-term goal is to maintain a reasonable level of fitness, not push yourself into roadblocks that could sideline you for months or permanently. 

I can see this is the crux of the issue so many people have with Crossfit: that mentality, not so much the workout itself.  It seems like there’s a whole culture tied in with this workout that, let’s face it, isn’t far removed from professional wrestling.  It’s probably more so the macho camaraderie associated with the military.  I’ve noted before how our culture seems intent on forcing men to either feminize themselves or go to the other extreme and present themselves as hyper-macho.  Give Crossfit credit: rather than emphasizing surface values like tattoos, shaved heads and bad facial hair, it emphasizes actually doing things that will make you physically hard.

In my 20s and 30s, I would have been completely sold on this workout.  It takes aim at the mirrored-walls/narcissist culture of weightlifting that has dominated gyms for decades now and replaces it with a better all-around fitness regimen.  In and of itself, barring the above-noted reservations about the weightlifting and “push til puke” work ethic, I think Crossfit is a great concept.

The problem is when concept becomes culture.  Look at it this way: I recognize my boxing workout, which I’ve been doing since the mid-90s, as a highly-beneficial hobby.  Not a culture.  I suspect that line has been crossed with many Crossfit aficionados.  I do understand the appeal – I feel the same with my boxing buddies, many of them hard-assed women who seem as geared to handle the workout as most men.  There’s a certain kind of bonding that occurs when you do something that physically demanding with a group of people: a mix of endorphin-related euphoria and the simple pleasure of surviving a hard physical challenge.

It makes you feel strong.  I imagine something as harsh as Crossfit might make you feel invincible.  There’s a lot to be said for achieving that level of physical confidence.  I know, because it’s the crucial thing I lost with the hernia, and what I feel like I’m slowly recovering almost two months into re-establishing my boxing routine.

That’s the overwhelming vibe I get from Crossfit, at least poking around the web, reading the commentary to articles, stopping in on Crossfit sites, that sort of supreme physical confidence … that I now know is bullshit.  I was lucky enough to be proven wrong by something as harmless as a small hernia.  “Lucky” and “harmless” are relative terms that take into account life lessons like disfiguring/debilitating accidents and diseases that completely destroy people’s lives.  They are coming, if not for you directly, then for someone you know.  Everyone gets touched by this sort of rotten luck, sooner or later.

It surely makes sense to keep yourself strong to face the world, but there’s a difference between that and believing this state of physical grace is going to last forever.  You’ll hit a point, most likely in your 40s or 50s, when that belief will be tested, and more than likely damaged.  Damaged in ways that you may recover from, but with a new knowledge that there’s just so much you can do with your body to feel invincible.

I really don’t mind the kind of braggadocio and chest-beating I come across with any workout, but it’s just not the sort of thing you indulge in after having your body fail you in a very real way.  Even if you come all the way back physically.  In my readings over the past few months on hernias, another hallmark is the gym nut who comes back to the gym and declares himself “stronger than I was before” in terms of the physical challenge he’s overcome.

Shit, man, not me!  I’m hyper-aware of this hernia, knowing it won’t fully heal for at least a year, and that I need to be careful with how hard I workout, and the things I choose to do with my body from now on.  I have no intention of being stronger than I was before.  I’m happy enough to have lost a truckload of weight in the past few months.  If it means I’m less physically imposing than I was before, so be it.  I am healthier in that sense but am overly cautious with my body and will be for awhile.  You would be, too, if you had your body cut open and dealt with all that implies.

Assuming I hadn’t dealt with this, would I be into Crossfit?  Simply based on my age, no.  A decade or two earlier, I’d be game.  And I suspect I’d do fine at it, too.  Just as some soldiers in the army don’t fully buy the military rhetoric, I’m sure there are plenty of people doing Crossfit who don’t swallow the culture whole and simply enjoy working out.  All gym cultures are essentially childish.  They rely on constructing a sort of fantasy world around the given workout and believing this is a shield of superiority wielded as protection against the world.  Boxing surely has it.  Weightlifting, too.  I’ve seen fanatical women in step classes.  And people who take multiple spin classes daily.

The concept is to align yourself with a gang of people and take comfort in the knowledge that you’re not alone.  Which is pretty much how I look back at my youth, that feeling older people get when they “miss” being young.  A large part of what they’re missing is that sense of camaraderie kids and young adults have because they spend so much time together in groups.  Whereas you age, you have to work more, people get families, kids, other responsibilities and spend much more time on their own than in these comfort groups.

Getting into a workout routine with regulars at a gym taps into that feeling again.  Same thing happens with bars, as drinking is such a totem of college culture and our 20’s.  I’ve seen with my own experience in gyms, it’s a good feeling to have that, to see familiar faces and make these floating friendships in gyms.  I really like a lot of the people I work out with because I can see some very positive things in them, mainly the discipline and resolve to keep showing up and doing what we do.

The biggest criticism of Crossfit I’ve seen is that it doesn’t prepare the student for anything, i.e., the best you could hope for is to be in some type of ESPN-sponsored Crossfit games.  But this is bullshit.  As far as I’m concerned, unless you’re a professional athlete or highly-ranked amateur, any workout you do as an adult is a means to an end.  It’s good in and of itself, whatever it is.  It keeps you occupied, healthy and sane, and gives you a sense of structure that most people could use.  I’m not going to be a professional or amateur boxer.  I’m not even going to spar or take any sort of contact self-defense class.  The workout, in and of itself, does enough for me in terms of keeping me fit and connected in many senses.  Any good workout will do that.

So I can’t criticize Crossfit for providing people with the same thing I feel towards my workout.  The macho swagger?  The weird culture?  The quasi-religious rhetoric so many followers espouse?  If you spend time around gyms, all these are standard issue.  I’m paying good money every month to keep myself in reasonably good physical condition, not conduct sociological research or measure myself against anyone else.  Crossfit will come and go, and so shall I.  The day will come when I’ll no longer go to gyms and most likely view walking every day as a good workout.

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