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The Death of CrossFit

I love CrossFit. Let’s put that concern to rest right here. This article isn’t a piece of clickbait to get more eyes to our website. There is no company or fitness movement that has redefined and enhanced the lives of so many folks looking to get in shape. More people today are picking up barbells, focused on eating real food, and thinking about training differently because of what Greg and Lauren Glassman started nearly 2 decades ago.

This article isn’t about how you’re going to be horribly injured by CrossFit. Leave your ego at the door before you walk into any gym. There are no dangerous exercises. There are, however, dangerous people attempting to perform them.

That said, the problem we see today is that the CrossFit model of training has been co-opted and re-interpreted so often (13,000+ gyms as of last count) that cracks are starting to show. What we’ll dive into here is the details of how it started, what led to its exponential growth, and how so many affiliates (CrossFit parlance for “gyms”) have gone  astray. CrossFit haters will (hopefully) gain an appreciation for the methodology, the uninitiated will get to see behind the curtain as to what this thing is all about, and the folks looking for a quality gym will be able to discern which ones are worth their time and money.

Origins

glassman

Glassman’s creation of CrossFit came about through his childhood and his years working as a personal trainer in Southern California. Like many of us in the pre-internet era, Glassman rode his bike just about everywhere he went. He also trained as a gymnast as a boy and developed a particular interest in how to get stronger than his gymnast friends. Discovering barbell and dumbbell training opened his eyes to another form of physical development and he used his discovery to challenge his gymnast friends doing only body weight training. While he had friends who were better gymnasts or cyclists, he found that he could dominate his gymnast friends in weightlifting or bicycling and out-tumble his bicycling friends.

This early realization shaped Glassman’s “Jack of all trades, master of none” approach that eventually became the $4 billion dollar behemoth called “CrossFit”.

Approach

Glassman’s life as a personal trainer in the gym industry was typical: underpaid and overworked. Though he got phenomenal results applying variety and intensity to the workouts his clients went through, he was making pennies for his time. Realizing he could start his own gym and work with 2 or more clients at the same time, charging each of  them slightly less but making significantly more money for his training expertise, his business took off.

Of particular interest here is how Glassman formed his groups. Having developed multiple relationships working one-on-one with his clients, he had developed movement and performance standards for each of his clients. His small groups were combinations of clients of similar ability levels.

The introduction of small group training was a revelation. Glassman was able to work half the time he previously had and make more than twice the money. On top of that, a strong community had started to form among his clients. The crazy workouts, shared suffering, meals together, parties together, all created a new culture slightly different than anything the gym industry had seen before.

Growth

CrossFit became a legal business entity in the year 2000, it’s first affiliate opened in 2002 in Seattle (in a 200 square foot garage), and by 2005 had 13 affiliate gyms by 2005. At the end of 2017 there were over 13,000 affiliates world wide. The CrossFit Games, a multi-day competition-style CrossFit workout, started in 2007 by offering $500 to the male and female winners. Today, the winners of the Games takes home $275,000. Crossfit, Inc. is estimated to generate $4 billion in annual revenue.

Cracks in the Foundation

With the exponential growth of CrossFit it seems apparent that this fitness trend is more than a fad. And yet, at the local level, we’re seeing a precipitous fall of group fitness training as modeled by CrossFit. Why? In short, the approach has changed.

Attracting New Clients

At a fundamental level, the process to get new folks into CrossFit has changed from Glassman’s original vision. Most gyms have no standards of physical performance that their clients must meet before joining group classes. Rather, folks are run through a 2-4 week “On-Ramp” class that teaches the fundamental movements of CrossFit. While the idea has merit, a group of people 6 in number or larger is difficult to manage for a single coach. The assumption that folks will “figure out” how to move well ignores the individual differences they walk in the gym with: injury history, flexibility limits, strength deficits, poor movement habits.

After On-Ramp, the newbies get thrown in with a larger group of existing members at the gym who also have varying levels of athletic ability. Now the coach has a group of anywhere from 10 to 20 folks they’ve got to run through an hour long workout that includes warm-up, skill development, strength training, and conditioning work. The likelihood that every one of the people in that class are at the same ability level is somewhere between minuscule and zero.

The coach is forced to “scale” (decrease weight, range of motion, or intensity) the workout for the less able folks. All while monitoring 9 to 19 other people. In an environment like this one, a handful of people will thrive, a few will survive, while the bulk will drop or burn out.

Market Saturation

There are now 40 affiliate CrossFit Gyms in the Kansas City metro. How do they differentiate themselves? A quick web search reveals that Groupon seems to be the method du jour.

But what happens when you introduce a new person to your gym through a discounted rate? Will they stay when the price goes back up? What keeps that person from buying another Groupon from the gym down the street? If low price and group classes is all the gym is selling, how is that gym different than the 100’s of others in the city?

And how does a gym survive if there main way of trying to stand out in a crowded market is being cheaper? That doesn’t seem like a sustainable business practice.

If there’s no personal coaching, 1-on-1 training, or care for the individual, and price is the only concern, why would someone stay at their affiliate?

Jumping Ship

CrossFit’s rapid growth was spurred in large part by their association with some of the best and brightest minds in the world of training and nutrition. Remember that first affiliate started up in Seattle back in 2002? Paleo godfather and nutrition expert Robb Wolf was a founding member of that affiliate. CrossFit Football, a method developed to bridge the CrossFit approach to training with general physical preparation for sports, was founded in 2007 by former 10-year NFL veteran John Welbourn.  MobilityWOD, one of the most popular fitness blogs online, founded by physical therapist Dr. Kelly Starett in 2009, became the foundation of one CrossFit’s specialty certification courses for educating trainers. Wolf left in 2009, and by the end of 2017 none of these three founding fathers of the CrossFit community had any business affiliations with the company.

Bad Business

When the foundations of a fitness business includes 2-day certifications for trainers, a competition to provide the cheapest training rate, an approach to training that some interpret as crushing people during every workout, and a ubiquitous name that makes it appear that the practice is uniform in quality while in reality being widely variable in its application…you’ve got problems.

So where does CrossFit go from here? Does it simply ride the tide of cultural popularity that eventually swept away Jane Fonda, Richard Simmons, Tony Little, P90X, and the like?

The Next Evolution

Wolff’s Law, developed by German surgeon Julius Wolf in the 1800’s, states that the bones in a healthy person will adapt to the load under which it is placed. Over time, if the loading on that bone increases, it will become stronger.

CrossFit gyms around the world are under load. We are less healthy than we’ve ever been as a community in this country. There is an undeniable need for folks to get moving and engage in resistance training. The challenge for CrossFit gyms, and for any gym, is how do they connect with those people who need their help?

The answer? Less is more. We live in an age where we can discern through testing exactly what micro-nutrients our bodies our missing from our diet and apply targeted supplementation to improve our health. We have cell phones that respond to the unique individual features of our faces. We can customize the constant flow of information online to the degree that we only see the exact items we’re interested in seeing. We no longer need to do, see, or feel what everyone else does.

Gyms that succeed in growing a client base and helping the most people will be the gyms that recognize and treat each member as an individual. One size of training does not fit all. Random training will produce random results. If you treat people like a herd of cattle, they will be swayed by whatever pasture looks greenest (and it’s unlikely yours will always appear to be that). Just as Greg Glassman started to grow his gym by training clients individually, personal contact with a quality trainer will always create a better outcome for the trainee and the business.

Will CrossFit be around in another 10 years? The methodology will undoubtedly endure. but will its presence in our culture’s consciousnesses? Time will tell.


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