Over the past 10 years, the fitness industry has played out a lot like a zombie movie. Somewhere in a remote corner of California, a fitness craze breaks out, infecting exercise enthusiasts in a viral spread that starts with a nagging itch but soon becomes an inseparable part of the host’s life. It’s been a decade into the epidemic known as “CrossFit,” and the courageous holdouts face defeat as the industry collapses around them in a mess of kettlebells, calf-length socks, and bloody pull-up bars.

Of course, CrossFitters might see it differently.

CrossFit is a fitness methodology that practices functional movements — everything from running to gymnastics and Olympic-style weightlifting — performed at high intensity (often meaning “as fast as possible”). Over the past decade, it’s grown from a handful of affiliated gyms in the U.S. to nearly 8,000 across the globe.

I've been CrossFitting since late 2011, and in that time, it's built me up, broken me down, caused me to vomit, instigated more physical therapy appointments than I can count on fingers and toes, and sent me to the surgeon’s table for wrist reconstruction. I’ve seen others tear muscles, knock themselves out on pull-up bars, and, yes, develop the dreaded condition rhabdomyolysis (“rhabdo” for short, a condition in which the body experiences rapid muscle breakdown in response to stress). Despite all that, I still hit the gym four or five times a week for stomach-wrenching workouts. Here’s why.

The Community

When I discovered CrossFit in late 2011, I was desperately searching for social outlets. I’d recently graduated from college and moved to New York. The city proved both a dream and a nightmare for a country boy from Kentucky. Though I refused to admit it, I was still reeling from the death of my maternal grandfather. Despite some excellent friends and colleagues surrounding me, I felt lonelier than ever before.

What first convinced me to join a local “box” (slang in the community for a CrossFit affiliate, or gym) wasn’t the promise of intense workouts and a fitter body; it was the sense of community. At an intro class at a nearby CrossFit gym, I was more intrigued by the camaraderie, encouragement, and friendliness than any of the grueling workouts. Members were pushing themselves and each other to the brink, then swapping phone numbers and making plans to go out on the town after they’d recovered from the day’s punishment.

Shared suffering, mutual suck, call it what you will: Pushing yourself to the physical limit with strangers can breed friendships quicker than almost anything else I’ve witnessed. CrossFitters get a bad rap for being a zealous, overly competitive group, but that’s only partially true. For many in the community, competition begins and ends with yourself, and every workout is a chance to prove you can push yourself further and faster than the day before. (A perfect example pictured above: Me after my first 500 pound deadlift, completed with plenty of friends looking on.) In CrossFit competitions, it’s a common site to see people finish their workouts and immediately transition from athletes to cheerleaders, shouting encouragement at those they’re ostensibly competing against — even when’s there’s money on the line.

Joining a CrossFit affiliate led to some of my strongest relationships and given me access to friends with different careers, interests, and backgrounds. It’s been an invaluable way to find common ground with all sorts of folks, both inside and outside the box.

The Knowledge

I’ve gotten injured in CrossFit workouts, including (at least) two sprained ankles, a pulled back, minor hamstring tears, and elbow impingements. In late April 2013, the day after a particularly tough and arm-intensive series of workouts, I woke up to a swollen right wrist. When four months of physical therapy and rest proved futile, I underwent a wrist reconstruction in mid-August. (The picture to the right is of me in the recovery room.) I’m only now getting back into my old exercise routine, relearning movements that used to seem like second nature.

But to blame CrossFit for this or other injuries would be a mistake. As with all fitness endeavors, it’s up to the individual athlete and his or her coaches to create a safe environment that minimizes the risk of injury. My fellow CrossFitters had nudged me time and time again to take better care of my joints by wearing wrist wraps, icing, and taking more rest days; advice I routinely ignored. I ignored my body’s signs and wound up getting hurt, something the CrossFit community warns against.

While CrossFitters love pushing the body to its limits, the community is also obsessed with increasing knowledge about our wonderful human machines. CrossFit’s focus on mobility and recovery techniques has brought significant attention to what we do around exercise, helping to popularize everything from weightlifting shoes to self-myofascial release (aka foam rolling). CrossFit figures like physical therapist Kelly Starrett and movement guru Carl Paoli have worked to get people across the globe more in tune with their bodies. CrossFit’s methodology emphasizes an awareness of how the body works, and the community has embraced that pursuit of knowledge as an integral part of their experience.

Of course, CrossFit’s emphasis on expanding our knowledge of the body has also backfired. By taking great pains to educate its coaches and athletes on conditions like “rhabdo” (it’s an integral part of the basic CrossFit certification course), CrossFit has quickly and inaccurately become marked as the number one cause of severe overtraining. Yes, I’ve witnessed a friend develop rhabdomyolysis while CrossFitting. But I also know people who have developed it during football practices, “regular” strength training in a college gym, and even physical therapy sessions.

CrossFit is still a relatively new and developing fitness methodology, and it will take time before coaches and athletes figure out the safest ways to train. Different CrossFit affiliates will also vary in the experience and skill of their coaches, making it even more important for individuals to be aware of how their body responds to training. With their emphasis on knowledge and education, the community is certainly off to a solid start.

The Fitness

I am not, nor will I ever be, an elite CrossFit athlete. Once upon a time, I hit the gym every day trying to keep up with some of New York City’s elite athletes; my failure was a sobering experience. I’ve been lucky enough to train alongside some of CrossFit’s top athletes, from sharing pointers with multiple Games champions to running up a mountain in Iceland with 10 of Europe’s fittest men and women (needless to say, they beat me to the top). Almost every one of my regular training partners can smoke me on any given WOD, and their performances once frustrated me when I compared it to my own, less-than-impressive results.

These days, however, I’m more concerned with improving my own performance than comparing it to someone else’s, and I’m fortunate to train alongside folks who respect that goal. CrossFit has undoubtedly made me fitter and stronger than I’ve ever been, and the realization that I’m getting better every day is more than enough to temper the sting of knowing I’ll never win the CrossFit Games.

The human body has limitations, biological brakes that vary from one person to the next. Despite the intensity of competition, and a couple vocal, over-zealous folks who appear now and then, I have yet to see a single CrossFitter judge or be judged because of their fitness level. In my humble opinion, that’s the single most powerful factor in removing the stigmas still surrounding the fitness industry.

The Takeaway

No two people’s outlooks on fitness are quite the same, and the CrossFit community is no exception. CrossFit broke me down in ways no other endeavor ever has, but to me its ethos has always been one of self-discovery and improvement, not failure and envy. And that’s why I continue to do it.

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