In this episode I talk to writer J. C. Herz about her book, Learning to Breathe Fire: The Rise of CrossFit and the Primal Future of Fitness. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably heard about CrossFit. I’ll admit that before I read Learning to Breathe Fire, I had just a vague idea of how CrossFit worked, and was honestly pretty skeptical of it. My only interaction with the program has been giving the CrossFitters (or “fire breathers” as they sometimes call themselves) at my gym the stink eye for taking all the barbells from the squat racks so they could do their hang cleans. So it was interesting to read a book that goes into the history, philosophy, and even anthropology of CrossFit, and why it has become so popular so quickly. While the book didn’t turn me into a full-on convert, it did really broaden my perspective of the program, and I even tried my first CrossFit workout after reading it.
- What a typical CrossFit workout consists of
- The health benefits of CrossFit
- How and where CrossFit got started
- The libertarian ethos that runs throughout CrossFit and how that shaped its unique business model
- The role military and law enforcement officers played in popularizing CrossFit
- How CrossFit is in many ways a response to modernity’s luxurious landscape and social disconnection
- The connection between ancient ritualistic sacrifice and CrossFit (this part is particularly interesting — anthropology, Greek history, and modern sport rolled up into one)
- And much more!
If you don’t know much about CrossFit, I highly recommend picking up a copy of Learning to Breathe Fire. It’s an in-depth and engaging read about a new and growing fitness subculture. It may even inspire you to give a CrossFit WOD (“Workout of the Day”) a try. If you’re already a diehard CrossFitter, Learning to Breathe Fire will give you history and insights about your sport. The New York Times said the book is “sure to become the Gideon Bible of the CrossFit movement and giving it to your friends may convince them to drink the Kool Aid too. Or at least help them understand why you can’t shut up already about CrossFit.”
For more info about the book, check out the Facebook Page.
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness Podcast. So if you haven’t been living under a rock these past five or six years, you’ve probably heard of CrossFit. This new workout routine program where you’re using barbells and medicine balls and it’s just high intense or whatever, you’re probably seeing people like you do CrossFit workouts and you probably had friends who told you about their CrossFit box.
Anyways, I’ve known about CrossFit, but I really didn’t knew much about it like the history of it and the development of it and all like the culture that goes around CrossFit, because I don’t belong to a CrossFit box. So I was really excited when this book came out called Learning to Breathe Fire: The Rise of CrossFit and the Primal Future of Fitness. It’s by J.C. Herz and it’s basically a history and cultural analysis of CrossFit which was really fascinating. I got to go into this world today. I knew nothing about it.
So today on podcast we have J.C. Herz on discussing her book Learning to Breathe Fire. We’re going to talk about what exactly is CrossFit and some of the workouts that you might see in CrossFit. We’re going to talk about the guy who started CrossFit, the political philosophy that sort of underlies CrossFit that most people aren’t aware of. We’re going to talk about business model of CrossFit which I think is fascinating. And we’re going to talk about why CrossFit and other workouts like CrossFit are resonating with Americans right now. And J.C. has some interesting cultural insights on and why that maybe, why more and more people are turning to CrossFit instead of just doing your typical machine – weight machine workout.
It’s a fascinating podcast. I think you’re going to like it, so let’s do this. J.C. Herz, welcome to the show.
J.C. Herz: Great to be here.
Brett McKay: All right. So your book is called Learning to Breathe Fire. It’s about the rise of CrossFit. Why did you write a book about CrossFit, about sort of this new fitness, some would say a fat or fitness trend? Why that?
J.C. Herz: There was such a big difference between what was going on in the workouts, the experience of the people who are doing them and what you would see if you just looked through the window at these insane people chucking balls up nine feet in the air. So the difference between the experience of the people doing it and what you would just see looking through the window was so huge. And the tribal dynamics going on inside the box was so powerful that as someone who does cultural analysis for a living, it just seemed very ripe to write about, also it’s really fun to write about, because it’s dramatic, because it’s intensity. Anything intense is inherently dramatic.
So one of my inspirations was the book Born to Run by Chris McDougall and I got to take my hat off to Chris McDougall, because he made putting one foot in front of the other for 40 miles, interesting and that’s hard. Making people competing against each other to like lift up heavy objects and do stuff they don’t know that they’re going to be able to do or not is relatively easy to make that read really fun and exciting for people.
Brett McKay: Yeah, you did a great job with that. Sort of there was – yeah, the CrossFit has for this competitive nature which makes a great story. And you yourself, are you a CrossFit practitioner?
J.C. Herz: I am, but I will qualify that by saying that I’m an excellent example of what you can do with zero genetic potential for sports. So I was kind of dragged into it by my husband. My husband started doing it; he is like a really great athlete. So he got – he drink the kool-aid and he was throwing around all the terminologies. So I had the experience that many people have which is someone I know will not shut up about this.
Brett McKay: Yeah. There is that joke that the first rule of Fight Club is never talk about the Fight Club and the first rule of CrossFit never shut up about CrossFit.
J.C. Herz: Always talk about CrossFit, right. So I figured I had to try it kind of for the sake of my marriage, because if I liked it, it will be something we both love that we could share as an interest. And if I didn’t like it and didn’t do it, at least I would get points of credit for trying it. So that was my starting point. And what I realize when I started doing it was that for the first time in my life, because I had never been an athlete, I was always smaller, slower, less powerful, I’m a year younger in school, so I was this shrimpy little kid.
For the first time in my life someone actually gave a damn about my physical capacity and my progress like I had a coach and I was on a team, all right. So I finally at the age of 38 I got my jersey, I got to be on the team. And it resolved a lot of adolescent hunks for me. And what I find is that there is two people who love CrossFit when they joined. One is the people who played sports in high school and maybe even in college and they thought that they would never have that amazing experience of being on the team and being in the wait room again that that was gone and they get that back and they get their varsity letter back. And the other is the people like me who were never part of a sports culture and the athletes where always – those people who were sitting at different tables in the cafeteria who finally get to experience that spirit of core and it’s great. It’s fantastic even if you come to it a little bit late in life. And those two groups of people generally love the experience of CrossFit.
Brett McKay: Okay. So let’s talk about what CrossFit is, because before I read the book I had a general idea of what CrossFit is, it was Olympic less combined with throwing the wall ball or combine – it is sort of like multifunctional strength endurance beat agility type workout, but I really didn’t know the specifics of it. So for those who aren’t familiar with CrossFit workouts, can you kind of explain what makes it different from other types of exercise routines and what type of workouts a person will typically encountered?
J.C. Herz: So one thing about it is that it’s functional movement, so a lot of whole body movements, not sort of a single muscle isolation exercises, no curls. It’s high intensity which means you’re going to be really uncomfortable. When you’re doing it your heart is going to be going – you’re going full on all out. And then it’s constantly varied which means you get the same workout twice which is good, it’s a different form of torture every day. So you combine all these different things, you do them at high intensity and you develop strength, skill, coordination, all the rest of it.
Well a thing that tends to hook the kind of type-A competitive personalities is that it’s all measurable. All of the workouts are sort of named and you do them and then three months later you do them again and you can see that you’ve improved. And for people who like to see progress, you are your own avatar. For anyone who plays online role-playing games, you have these different attributes and you know sort of to build up. You are your own avatar, right. You get to build up in your speed and you get to build up in your strength and you get to build up in coordination. You can see evidence of all of that, like hard numerical evidence. And that progress in itself is really, really motivating. So it’s not like yeah I went to the gym, I did 30 minutes of this, I did some crunches. It’s like wow, I actually got better. I put five more pounds on each side of the bar or I did this 35 seconds quicker than I did it three months ago and that’s really awesome.
Brett McKay: And one thing I noticed about CrossFit workout, after I read the book I decided to actually try some – the lingo is what, WOD…
J.C. Herz: The Work Out of the Day.
Brett McKay: Work Out of the Day. And the one that I tried out was Friend, because I was sort of…
J.C. Herz: Oh my goodness!
Brett McKay: I tried it out. And the thing is here is the thing with CrossFit like workout is that they look deceptively easily, because like okay…
J.C. Herz: Yeah, on paper.
Brett McKay: Yeah. So tell like what Friend is and what exercise you do in this and then what it’s actually like doing? I can tell you my experience, it was horrible.
J.C. Herz: Yes, it is horrible. It is the most feared workout in CrossFit although there is one other workout that I think is actually more miserable for me. But – so Friend is simple along paper, a Reputation Scheme of 21, 15 and then nine of two exercises. One is coupled a thruster where you have 65 pounds for a woman, 95 pounds for a man on a barbell and you basically take it to your shoulders, do a full squat and then you launch upward and propel the barbell all the way over your head and that’s one, that’s called a thruster. So you do 21 one of those 21 pull-ups, 15 thrusters 15 pull-ups, nine thrusters nine pull-ups.
And it is awful because it taxes your heart and lungs so you’re breathe your gust and as you’re gust you’re also having to move significant quantity of weight. And it’s really, really – it sucks, it’s terrible. And that’s why people at CrossFit use it as a benchmark, because there is this really like depending on how you define it like awesome or completely perverse pride and being able to endure discomfort and just be able to step up and your mind is telling you stop, this just feels bad and you managed to keep going.
Brett McKay: Yeah. So you do this nonstop like it’s for time, right, so…
J.C. Herz: It is for time, yes.
Brett McKay: So you don’t – there is no rest between the different sets. And yeah I thought of it is like okay I can probably do this in 10 minutes and it just – 10 minutes turn into 15 and 20 and I had to bring out the rubber – the giant rubber band to put on the pull-up bar to help me assist with the pull-ups. It was brutal, it was tough.
J.C. Herz: Yeah. It’s not a workout I would recommend as a started workout and the workout that I would love the most is called Cindy and it’s great for beginners. It’s a RepScheme of five, 10, 20, so five pull-ups, 10 push-ups and 15 – sorry, 15 squats, full air squats and you do a round of that five, 10, 15 as many times as you can in 20 minutes, so as many rounds as possible and Rep. And the thing I love about it was that when I started I could not do many push-ups on my toes, I actually started doing them on my knees and I couldn’t do unassisted pull-ups. I had to use big rubber bands and squats I could do. And I started out doing the modified that way and then over the course of a year worked my way up so that I did more on – more push-ups on my toes every single time and I use skinnier and skinnier and skinnier, rubber bands on the pull-ups and then no rubber bands on the pull-up. So then I could knock out five pull-ups anytime I wanted.
And so I could really see myself getting stronger and moving my own body around in this quantitative way. And it was a real accomplishment for me and people look at the CrossFit games in ESPN and they think it’s for these super humans or for soldiers or fireman. But everything can be modified or scaled down. I mean even Friend right there, people who are doing Friend just with the bar or doing it with rubber bands on the pull-ups. And the point is that if you really want to be a macho you can try it scaled, but if you just want to work within your definition of intensity like what you’re capable of, you can always start somewhere. And I think that that’s one of the empowering messages of CrossFit. Especially for women is that you can start somewhere and get really strong. You don’t have to be this super athlete to even begin.
Brett McKay: And then – but then you can grow along with it, you will get better?
J.C. Herz: Hmm-hmm.
Brett McKay: All right. So speaking of Friend, because that is I guess like the first CrossFit workout I guess in the CrossFit Laurel.
J.C. Herz: Yes, in CrossFit Laurel.
Brett McKay: Can you talk about the origins of CrossFit, how this whole thing gets started?
J.C. Herz: So CrossFit was started by this guy, Greg Glassman who was a personal trainer, who was super, super smart, kind of rebellious, not very good at working for people. And he had originally been a gymnast and he wanted to come up with a workout when he was a teenager that would be as taxing as a routine on the rings. They would get him out breath, because building stamina was really important in gymnastics. So he started experimenting his dad’s garage with all of these different routines and mixing it up and mixing what we call weightlifting with what we call cardio and finding out that actually there is not such a big division after all. If you move a weight around enough, it gets very cardio. So – and that’s what gymnastics is, it’s moving your own weight around very quickly. And you know what; it’s pretty taxing on your heart and lungs.
So when he moved to California and originally to train police officers, he started doing this with personal training clients in Santa Cruz and this eventually morphed in to the CrossFit Gym in Santa Cruz which was the original CrossFit Gym of which there were now like 10,000.
Brett McKay: Okay. And we’ll talk a little bit about the business model because I think it’s really interesting about CrossFit. But – so what role did – he thought about – you just mentioned that he trained LEO’s, Law Enforcement Officials. What role did law enforcement and military play in popularizing CrossFit?
J.C. Herz: So first responders I guess broadly define…
Brett McKay: Sure.
J.C. Herz: Were some of the first early adapters of CrossFit, because these kind of high intensity bursts of strength and speed where what they needed for their job. So the archetype of that will be a fireman, right and that guy needs to be able to run into a burning building carrying all this gear, the equipment, the oxygen mask, everything, up a flight of steps because you’re not taking the elevator, you’re a firefighter. Maybe get an unconscious person, sling that person over your shoulder and carry them out. So you’re moving heavyweight quickly and CrossFit is perfect for that. So if you’re a police officer you have to chase a criminal, you might get into a scuffle with one of them, that’s very taxing. It’s the kind of high intensity functional movement that CrossFit trends. Also a lot of MMA guys, so very, very early adoption, mixed martial arts for exactly the same reasons.
It was a great form of conditioning for these things that you would do where you have to move heavyweights that would simultaneously also get you out of breath. At the same time we had a bunch of people moving into Iraq, moving into Afghanistan, military guys deploying, they didn’t have a lot of expensive equipment out there to workout. So you needed something you could improvise just with yourself and then fill a bunch of ammo cans with sand and walk them around and – or there is a great chapter in the book about how these guys in Iraq where improvising weight training equipment from like the shells and husks of exploded cars and trees and anything that you could kind of find to move. And during Fallujah, marines were literally stepping out into the night to head a workout of the day, just to keep themselves prime for what was going down in Fallujah.
Brett McKay: Yeah.
J.C. Herz: And a lot of the response that I’ve got from book, I mean from marines and from Special Forces guys, I mean who’ve told me the book made them cry because it really did speak to the experience of these people for home. High intensity movement was not just a way to look better naked, it was survival.
Brett McKay: Survival, because that’s – yeah, you’re right. It’s like one of the emphasis on fitness nowadays is sex, right like you exercise so you look good so you can get sex. CrossFit doesn’t really have that ethos. I mean the benefit of that is yeah you will get in shape, but that’s not the primary – you look good naked, but that’s not the primary reason why you do CrossFit.
J.C. Herz: Yeah. I mean it’s a functional movement, right. So it’s the difference between sexy because you have the six pack and you can flex your muscles and sexy because you can help someone survive the zombie apocalypse. So in a way to the art of manliness it speaks to a kind of deep sexiness which is the ability to help protect people in the real world to actually respond and be responsible for your survival and other people’s survival. So being able to flex your abs is one thing, being able to actually take your lady friend and throw her over your shoulder like a sack of potatoes and run at eight-minute mile pace, I would say that is more sexy.
Brett McKay: More sexy, okay. So let’s talk about some of the criticisms of CrossFit, because it’s a hot button topic anytime it gets brought up. And one of the criticisms of I Love You Dad is that CrossFit is dangerous especially for beginners, because some people say there is not a emphasis on form and because of that you’re doing these very complex exercises, Olympic lifts with heavyweights, very fast, there is a tendency to – you can – injury, drop a weight on your head. And then there is also some like health risk that have been – that always gets brought up in the news. Uncle Pukie, you can talk about that and then like was the – its Pukie, the Clown, right and then Uncle Rhabdo.
J.C. Herz: Yes, Uncle Rhabdo…
Brett McKay: Rhabdo.
J.C. Herz: So there is show about Rhabdomyolysis, so Rhabdomyolysis…
Brett McKay: Yeah, what is Rhabdomyolysis, it’s kind of scary.
J.C. Herz: It is kind of scary. It basically what happens when you do so many reputations of a movement of it, heavy movement and workout that your muscle starts to wear down and the particles of muscle are released into the blood…
Brett McKay: You call it muscle dust.
J.C. Herz: And you can damage your kidneys. And the place where we traditionally see the highest rates of Rhabdomyolysis which happens in almost every sport, but it has very high rates in precision football camps both in the pro leagues and unfortunately in high schools. And what we learned from that is that it’s not the weakling newbies who get wrapped or like no person off the street who wanders around, who doesn’t do sports and isn’t very strong is going to get Rhabdo. It’s the people who are very strong. They’re strong enough to exert significant amount of effort, but they’re also out of shape. So they pickup and they go like they just stopped doing it yesterday or last week, but they’re actually de-conditioned.
So it’s usually the difference between what you were able to do three months ago or a year ago and what you’re trying to do now. And if you throw in a little bit of heat in there, it’s risky and there are – there is a risk of Rhabdo for athletes and for former athletes who go and hit it like they never stopped and that’s real.
Brett McKay: And how do you prevent that?
J.C. Herz: And it happens in sports.
Brett McKay: Is there anything you do to prevent it?
J.C. Herz: The thing you need to prevent it is to check your ego at the door if you think you’re a Billy Badass and you use to run tarpons and you go and there is a whole bunch of guys around you who are doing CrossFit three or four or five times a week. The thing you can do about not getting Rhabdo is not try to copy exactly what those guys are doing at the weights that they’re doing on right when you get there.
Brett McKay: Got you. I mean what about the criticism about form? There CrossFit is teaching all these beginners bad form and they’re hurting themselves as a consequence.
J.C. Herz: I have never seen a CrossFit gym and I’ve traveled to a whole bunch of them where beginners are not put through a foundation’s class or an element’s class where they’re taught the proper form for all of the movements. That said, as the number of CrossFit gym expands so does the variation and coaching between CrossFit gyms, right. So way back when there were only a few CrossFit gyms and these people were all very experienced, true believers, very attentive coaches and now I mean there is 10,000 CrossFit boxes and there were going to be some bros who go and get their level-1 certifications over a weekend and then they’re going to pop up their CrossFit boxes.
And so I think it now behooves the individual to look at the coach profiles and say how long you’ve been doing this and what were you doing before and it’s a sport. I mean I think you have to look at it like a sport. If you go and get on a snowboard and you throw yourself down on mountain you’re going to get messed up. And the kind of disconnect in terms of the people saying oh CrossFit is dangerous and people say no, you just have to learn what you’re doing is between the people who are talking about CrossFit in the context of exercise like you would get on a elliptical at the gym. All these gym activities are purposely designed to not have any risk of injury, right.
There is an expectation that if you get on a piece of machinery in a standard gym that the risk of injury is going to be zero versus if you play any kind of sport. And I don’t care what it is, whether its basketball, soccer, rugby, all of these sports have injury rates. And if you look at the epidemiology of sports, the interesting thing you find is that the injury rates for practice are about a third of the injury rates for competition. And so the observation I would make is all right, so the injury rates for practice for all of these sports are actually – a lot of them are higher than the CrossFit injury rate that we think that CrossFit has. But then when you go to competition it leaps up.
And I think the critic of CrossFit is what happens in a sport when everyday is a game day, right. If you’re in competition mode like you hit a wad and you want get on the whiteboard and you act like this is your competition, this is your game day. You’ve essentially got a sport where there is no practice, it’s all competition. And the injury rates for competition, for any sport always going to be higher in competition than they are for practice.
Brett McKay: Okay. So the risk factor in CrossFit, it’s a feature, not a bug. It’s like just a…
J.C. Herz: No, I don’t think it’s a feature. I think that you just have to go into it understanding that this activity has a skill associated with it or skill level associated with it. And so you have to treat it like a skilled activity and understand that yeah I have to learn how to do this at a low weight or no weight before I start piling on weight. And that requires a little bit of judgment. And I think to the degree that there is a legitimate critic of CrossFit, it’s that you have the skilled activity where you have to learn form and technique and all this other stuff, at the same time as you have a culture that says high intensity, go, get on the whiteboard.
Brett McKay: Got you…
J.C. Herz: That’s where the risk comes from.
Brett McKay: Yeah, okay. So let’s talk about the other criticism that people feel about CrossFit and you’ve sort of addressed it already is this cultish aspect or tribal aspect of CrossFit. Yeah, so CrossFitters, they call their place their workout boxes, they have their own lingo, they even have like a way to dress. I mean it’s almost like a – and the way they talk about it, it’s like they’re newly converted evangelist or whatever. Why do you think that – I mean is it bad that CrossFit is sort of cultish or is it something good that there is sort of like this tribal mentality to it and maybe has that contributed to it’s success?
J.C. Herz: Oh, the tribal dynamics in CrossFit have definitely contributed to its success, because each box has its own little community, right. People – they make friends with each other, right. It’s not like when you go to the gym and you kind of workout, you put on your earphones and you’re all kind of judging to know we’re on the elliptical kind of alone together, right.
Brett McKay: Yeah.
Brett McKay: It’s a group activity and people bond and they bond for the same reasons that marines bond which is you’re getting together to do something very physically difficult and uncomfortable. And you’re proving to each other and to yourselves that you can all do it and you’ve got this kind of shared suffering going on, because you’re all on your backs in the end breathing hard and saying man, did that suck or my god that was terrible.
And anytime you make people do this and this is outward bound, this is like all the stupid corporate retreat stuff. Anytime you get a group of people together and you make them do something difficult and physically uncomfortable, they’re going to feel like they are a group like they belong together. It’s like this band of brothers phenomenon. In this case it’s kind of interesting because this is like kind of band of brothers and sisters because it’s co-ed.
Brett McKay: Yeah.
J.C. Herz: And if you get into the military, right, this is the standard experience. What’s different about CrossFit is this is the first thing that allows anyone from human resources to feel like a marine three times a week and that’s what makes it sort of new is that people who are not part of these kind of first responder, only Special Forces or marines can have that same kind of group bonding experience and that’s really different.
Brett McKay: Yeah. I like to get your insight on to this. Why do you think and it’s your – you do this for living, you analyze culture and I mean why do you think CrossFit has resonated? Like – I feel like it’s struck a nerve in our culture, why is that? Why is that that people are drawn to that and feel like they need to be a part of that? I mean what’s going on do you think?
J.C. Herz: Well I think there are two things. One is just it flat out works in terms of the physical result. So you have a whole bunch of people who have tried this, who have tried that, it kind of bumped along from workout-to-workout, different fads and they find something where they get physically strong and they drop weight and it actually works. So you can’t really underestimate the impact of that. On the other hand you have this kind of combination of this kind of tribal social experience and right of passage, group bonding, marine, hoo-ha stuff. And also a sense of kind of progress and competence that I can actually do something that I can be responsible for myself in an emergency this whole mystique of the unknown and the unknowable. And this is part of CrossFit is this whole mythos that you never know what life is going to throw at you, so you want to be strong in kind of every way and prepared for it.
And my joke that I make in the book is that secretly every CrossFitter believes that the people in his box will be the ones to survive the zombie apocalypse, right. So there is the sense of being competent and capable and tough. And in a fairly comfortable plush consumer society I think that this speaks to something primal in people that they want to be stronger and more self-sufficient. And you see that play out in a whole bunch of places that are not fitness. I think if you look at the sort of maker movement and that could be I want to make my own cruddcopter or it could be the people who’re doing, they’re kind of artisanale choucrouterie or cheese making, pickle making, jam making knew well like who would have funk that like ball preserves would be like the thing.
And so I think people generally want to feel more self-sufficient and capable and competent. And CrossFit is one of the ways that you can achieve that in a very measurable fairly quick high gratification way that you can feel stronger. And I think that that’s a general that’s something underneath the culture. That people feel like a little bit nervous about the fact that we’re all hostage to these technologies that we can’t see and we don’t know what it’s doing to our brains that we’re kind of checking in our Facebook all the time and our cars can’t be fixed by a regular human. And so it’s this kind of return to a sense of ruggedness and resilience which is a big part of like the American frontier culture that’s just – it’s buried below the surface, but it’s still there.
Brett McKay: Yeah. And I think too that you mentioned the tribal, I think like I’m a big believer that human beings are social creatures by nature like we want – like we’re wired for that. And as you said like most gyms or the way society is setup, if you’re sort of alone together, right and I think CrossFit provides here is a community, like a tribe that you can belong to where you actually interact with people and you know the person and I think that’s another big drop.
J.C. Herz: And you don’t have to schedule it, that’s the other thing is that people will forget what we remember about high school and college socializing that was so great was that you didn’t really have to plan it, you didn’t have to arrange like a grown up play day like to be with people and you could just hangout. And it’s that third place, right where you don’t have to make such a huge effort to be around people that you get along with, that you have shared experiences with. People go, they hit a wad and they’re like grab a drink afterwards or they will just hangout and shoot the breeze. And you don’t have to make such a monumental effort. You can just hangout.
And I think that’s a little bit of a relief for people too. I mean it’s great that there are communities that kind of been together, they do fund raisers, they do charity stuff, all the rest of it. But part of it is just nice to be able to hangout with people that aren’t necessarily your coworkers, because that’s the default now is if you want to hangout it’s the people at work. But sometimes maybe you don’t want that to be your primary social group, maybe you want some other group of people who do other things to be your social group.
Brett McKay: Very interesting, all right. So let’s talk a little bit about the business model behind CrossFit, because it’s really interesting and I think it plays a big role in how quickly it’s spread. So how does the CrossFit business model work and I guess you can talk a bit about the sort of the libertarian mindset that sort of filters out into that business model?
J.C. Herz: So Greg Glassman was a kind of guy who really didn’t want anyone kind of up the chain telling him the ins and outs of what to do, what to charge, rules, here is the color of your t-shirt, on down. And so when lots of people wanted to have a CrossFit, he made this conscious decision not to make a franchise, but to actually make it into something he calls the affiliate model. And the affiliate model is you have to be certified CrossFit coach and this is how CrossFit makes most of their money is by certifying coaches, by having people learn how to be CrossFit coaches. And you have to pay an affiliate fee every year which is something like $3,000.
And after that you decide when you’re going to be open, you are the captain of your ship, right. So every CrossFit box is a small business run by someone who sets all their own rules. And there is no other revenue sharing. There is not like oh open a juice bar or sell protein powder or equipment or apparel or anything and that gets cut back to some central organization like you would in a regular chain gym. If you want to sell t-shirts, sell t-shirts. CrossFit HQ doesn’t really have anything more to do with it.
So it allows people to be more autonomous. And this fits in with Glassman’s general political philosophy which is sort of a radical libertarian, competition, even to the point of if a CrossFit gym wants to open right next door to you, there is nothing stopped again. And the answer to that and there are some people who are really upset, who’ve had CrossFit gyms for a long time and saying hey what are you guys doing to protect us from the fact that someone could open up right next to us. And the CrossFit HQ response to that is if you’re a great gym with great coaches whose athletes are happy, you don’t have to worry about that, just be excellent and you don’t have to worry about competition.
So it really is darwinistic in that way. And the position there is that CrossFit HQ doesn’t “want to protect mediocrity”. Like if a gym is not doing well, it’s losing members, coaches are not that great and everyone wants to go next door, that first gym probably shouldn’t be in business.
Brett McKay: Very interesting. Yeah, I mean so that gives each CrossFit box a different feel and so I guess that maybe a suggestion would be if you’re interested in CrossFit, like checkout the different boxes before you commit to one, because you might find one that fits more of your personality.
J.C. Herz: Absolutely. People say well there are five CrossFit gyms within two miles of my house, where do I go. And I find myself feeling a lot like a college counselor, it’s like okay well you have to visit them all and then you also have to figure out what your goals are. If you want to – I mean if you want what I like which is call it chairs with barbells, that little place where everybody knows your name. You probably don’t want to go to a gigantic hanger sized CrossFit gym with 600 members, because that’s huge and it’s not going to feel as familiar and it’s not going to have a stronger community. However, if you want – if you are competitive athlete already or you want to be a competitive athlete or you want to be a CrossFit competitor and you need a Olympic lifting coach and you want to work on gymnastics. I mean those large boxes have more to offer in terms of specialized training.
And so you have to figure out what your goals are and then also what the experience level of the coaches. And not just the experience level, but what their preferences are, because a lot of these people come from sports, some used to be gymnasts, some used to be power lifters and weightlifters. And there are some CrossFit gyms run by guys who are old power lifting guys and it kind of makes me smile, because 20 years ago would be running a barbell club and this is just like their barbell club except in between barbells people are jumping on boxes. But that works for guys who really love barbells.
Brett McKay: Got you. Well here is a thing to point out too is that CrossFit is open source like you don’t have to necessarily be a part of a box to do CrossFit workouts, correct, because…
J.C. Herz: Yeah. You can go to crossfit.com and you can look at all of the tutorials and the videos of all the movements and you can get the workout of the day from the main page and you can try to do it.
Brett McKay: So there is people in the – they just start like a little CrossFit box in their own garage like just for them, right?
J.C. Herz: Yeah. A lot of people do it. I mean in the backyard we renovated our little garage and built a bigger garage and my husband works out there a lot. I call it shed fed. And yeah, a lot of people do that either because they’re still far away from a CrossFit gym or because they don’t feel like paying for a CrossFit gym and they feel like they can do it themselves or there is a group of folks at a regular gym that will let them do that kind of stuff, who just want to get together and do that kind of stuff.
Brett McKay: Very interesting, okay. So one of the fascinating things or one of the interesting chapters in your book was about the businesses or the industries that have grown up around CrossFit, because CrossFit hasn’t been around all that long. I mean when do you think it really…
J.C. Herz: Probably a decade.
Brett McKay: A decade, right. But in that time there is just businesses that didn’t exist that now exist. Can you talk a bit about some of those businesses?
J.C. Herz: So the number one would probably be Rogue Fitness which I think the shorthand for people who aren’t familiar with Rogue, it’s like the Apple computer of barbell. They have this combination of like technical expertise and then this kind of design obsession about making the best possible gymnastic rings for the people who like to do muscle ups. And there is a really interesting bit in the book about the Rogue Factory and how they’re actually doing manufacturing there in Ohio, right. So bringing manufacturing back to the United States, but doing it in a smarter way and doing it in a way where there is a lot of back and forth between the factory and the customers, the people who actually use the stuff.
So for people who are gear heads, there is a lot about the kind of metallurgy of the barbells. And I never have thought that I would sort of geek out on steel, but I really caught Bill’s energy, his sort of infectious enthusiasm for like how you use steel in different ways and how the property of the metal affects the performance of this different athletic equipment. So there is some gear head stuff in there. And then all the way from that which is literally steel to things like beyond the whiteboard and all these apps that are helping people track their performance, all the kind of online stuff and apparel companies to say nothing off Reebok which – I mean the Nano which is their CrossFit shoe, that’s their best selling shoe across the board for anything and so CrossFit sort of saved Reebok after they lost the NFL.
Brett McKay: Yeah. And it seems like Reebok is sort of embracing that sort of like alternative fitness sport, right. So CrossFit and there is like the Spartan Race, they’re doing stuff with – so I think yeah, that’s really interesting.
J.C. Herz: I think it’s the idea of – and this is again sort of an art of manliness thing. It’s the idea that the athlete that you want to aspire to be is actually the better version of yourself. It’s not the celebrity, million dollar athlete on a billboard in Times Square. It’s actually the person that you could be in six months if you really pulled out the stops.
Brett McKay: Very cool. So let’s talk about the CrossFit games, because this is where in your book where lot of the drama and the tension exist, because I couldn’t like – and whenever I start to read the CrossFit games, I couldn’t stop reading it, because I wanted to see what happened.
J.C. Herz: Yes.
Brett McKay: It’s sort of like their version of the Olympics. How do the CrossFit Games work?
J.C. Herz: So the CrossFit Games is a really interesting process where there is tiers of qualifying events, right. So the baseline qualifying event is called the Open. It’s five separate workouts, anyone can enter and they had over 200,000 people last year participate. And the workouts are announced on a Wednesday or Thursday and then people have until the end of Sunday to do the workout and they can do it at a CrossFit gym with people who are signed up as judges to authenticate their results or they can do it – they can videotape it and post it and someone will count their ups and they will enter their time. So anyone can do it. Of those they take the top 30-man, 30-woman and 30 teams in their region and those people go to regionals which is a much more serious event for like more badass athletes to actually compete to get the top slots in regionals and those people go to the CrossFit Games which is kind of the international level competition with athlete from around the world.
And the fun thing about it is it in some ways is closer to the original sort of Greek Olympics than it is to the modern day Olympics. And there is just all this ritual of sport and one of the big themes in the book is the connection between the kind of ritual intensity of CrossFit and the genesis of sport in ancient human society. So part of the books quest and what makes it fun to read for people who aren’t necessarily fitness enthusiast is this question of what is sports, why did we come up with it in the first place, why would a bunch of people run out on to a field, set rules and it expand calories gratuitously when food … like why do we do that and why do we still do that.
And so the book becomes this investigation into the ritual power of athletics and the sort of genesis of athletics in the history of human beings as a species. And that mystery, that kind of cultic practice, the ritual of athletics is something you see in spades in the CrossFit Games and that’s part of what makes it so mythic to view and also to write about. My editor was teasing me about this sort of, because the game sagas kind of take on this mythic tone. So it’s like barbells at the gates of troy, but it really goes to that sort of the ritual sacrifice of human energy that define sport and this kind of primal competition which is very close even though it’s on television, right and even though it’s a very modern online social media phenomenon. It’s very close to how sport began.
Brett McKay: Yeah. I love that last section in your book about as sort of sport as an embodiment of ritualistic living – like we make ourselves human or living sacrifices in a sense.
J.C. Herz: Yeah we sacrifice our energy, because when we’re hunter gatherers we would sacrifice our animals to gods so that we would have the animal again in the future and that’s what sacrifice is about, it’s kind of paying it forward. And we sacrifice when we hunted an animal, two things, one was the animal and the other was the energy would have take to hunt that animal because hunting takes a lot of energy. And then we become Neolithic farmers and we still want to sacrifice an animal to our gods, because that’s what Neolithic religion is all about.
But then we have the animal right there in the pen, because we domesticated animals, because we’re farmers. And this is when things like foot races become associated with religious festivals. So we sacrifice the energy of the hunt alongside of the animal. In the original Olympics the foot race started at the end of the finish line. The winner would actually take the torch and go up the steps to this statute of Zeus and light not an ornamental thing to say hey we’re in the Olympics, but it actually was the animal that was the burnt offering so the energy of the hunt was reunited with the animal as a form of sacrifice. And that’s the sort of deep mystery of sport that we deep down kind of know, but we forgot it on a conscious level.
Brett McKay: I love it, I love that sort of stuff. Okay, so last question. What do you think the future of CrossFit is? Will it – can it get more and more popular or we’ve reached peak CrossFit?
J.C. Herz: I think that it will continue to grow and simultaneously that people will talk about it less and less. I think it’s like yoga, right. So 10 years ago everyone was talking about yoga and now one was talking about it, but everybody does it and it’s the same about jogging, running in the seven days, right. There was a point in these seven days when running and jogging was all – anyone could talk about. And then more and more people started doing it, but less and less people were talking about it. And I think CrossFit and things like CrossFit become like that. We realize that this is – it works, it has all these benefits and more and more and more people do it, but fewer and fewer and fewer people sort of talk about it which is why I think it’s a good time to have a book out about it, because the history of it is very interesting. And already the number of new people doing it completely swamps the people who are around back in those early years who actually remember what happened.
And so what I’ve tried to do with Learning to Breathe Fire was sort of do this kind of deep anthropology, but also to chronicle sort of the lore for all the people who don’t know how it began or don’t know what was going on in Iraq when people first started doing it out there as military. And it’s a really fascinating history.
Brett McKay: It is. Well J.C. Herz, thank you so much for your time. It’s been fascinating and a pleasure.
J.C. Herz: And Learning to Breathe Fire is on Facebook, so you can search for it on Facebook. We’ve got a very, very lively and passionate reader community and we have a lot of CrossFit humor we come up with. Self-depreciating quizzes about CrossFit in case you think that people who do CrossFit never make fun of themselves.
Brett McKay: All right. So I will just search Learning to Breathe Fire on Facebook. Very good, all right. Well thank you so much J.C.
J.C. Herz: Thank you.
Brett McKay: Our guest today was J.C. Herz. She is the Author of Learning to Breathe Fire and you can find that book on amazon.com and you can also check out her Facebook page, its facebook.com/learningtobreathefire where post updates about the CrossFit community and the CrossFit world, lot of fascinating stuff.
Well that wraps up another edition of the Art of Manliness Podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure to check out the Art of Manliness website at artofmanliness.com. We have the store at store.artofmanliness.com. We got a really cool camp coffee mug there; we got tie clips, posters, t-shirts, lots of great stuff. If you’re a big Art of Manliness fan, it’s a place where you can get some swag. I would really appreciate if you pick something up. Your purchases will help support the website as well as the continuing improvement of this podcast. So it’s store.artofmanliness.com. And until next time this is Brett McKay telling you to stay manly.
Last updated: December 7, 2017