Most brands, especially those that generate more than $100 million in annual revenue, don’t begin with a story about vomit. Yet, according to CrossFit, Inc. founder and former CEO Greg Glassman, the “eureka moment” of his now astronomically popular fitness program began just like that—with a teenage Glassman, having subjected himself to a grueling combination of barbell push presses and pull-ups, barfing on his garage floor. At the center of CrossFit’s origin story and its subsequent success is the human body at its most beautiful, its most playful, and its most grotesque. Indeed, in a previous article in Engaging Sports, Matt Crockett and Ted Butryn compellingly argue how CrossFit expresses a collective anxiety surrounding how our bodies atrophy in increasingly sedentary workplaces.
Other studies have examined the cultural and discursive dimensions of CrossFit in a similar vein—how Glassman’s business model, exercise regime, and community speak to the particular character of our times. Especially suggestive analyses describe CrossFit’s focus on individualism, competition, and self-sufficiency. These studies characterize the sport and its community as exemplary of what political theorist Wendy Brown refers to as the biopolitical imperative of “responsibilization,” whereby individuals are impelled to maintain and advance their own human capital via activities involving hygiene, self-care, and education. We are all entrepreneurial beings, hoping to maximize our human capital vis-à-vis market imperatives.
Yet, still understudied is one of CrossFit’s most palpable elements—its willingness to laugh at itself: the laughable team names, the multicolored socks, and the endless complaints about workouts. Given that humor, whimsy, and ironic self-awareness are central elements to our historical moment (a period evocatively labeled by some as “late capitalism”), it is surprising that such factors have been largely ignored in research on CrossFit. Dating to roughly the year 2000, Glassman’s now famous exercise routine has been around for almost a quarter of a century. But the emotions, celebrations, and jokes associated with CrossFit largely remain overlooked.
As an avid CrossFitter but also a scholar, my perspective on the sport is somewhat unique: informed by literary criticism, cultural studies, and critical theory. Specifically, I propose that Mikael Bahktin’s concept of the carnivalesque, as it is detailed in Rabelais and His World, serves as an ambitious and accurate toolkit with which to understand CrossFit. Born in Russia, Bahktin (1895-1975) was a philosopher and literary theorist who has had wide-ranging influence on various forms of cultural analyses—especially academic disciplines like communication studies, linguistics, and sociology. In Rableis and His World, Bakhtin forwards a notion of the “carnival” as joyfully ribald, profoundly democratic and ultimately, transformative. During a celebration, time stops, identities are upended, and social hierarchies are, at least for a fleeting moment, overturned. Like CrossFit, these carnivals are meant to include everyone. Bahktin explains:
Carnival does not know footlights, in the sense that it does not acknowledge any distinction between actors and spectators…Carnival is not a spectacle seen by the people; they live in it, and everyone participates because its very idea embraces all the people. While carnival lasts, there is no other life outside it.
As an activity that promotes an extraordinary care for the self, CrossFit strikes a balance between agony and ecstasy, body and spirit—even soul and vomit. The culture associated with the sport challenges us to accept personal responsibility for the condition of our minds and our bodies—our health status and particularly in opposition to an inadequate healthcare system.
In this way, CrossFit aims to balance the earnestness of responsibilization with the ludic self-awareness of our ironic times. How can we crack a smile even while confronting serious health concerns, and finding ourselves abysmally alone in the world? As an early client of Glassman’s described the experience, CrossFit is “agony coupled with laughter.” Bahktin himself couldn’t have said it better.
CrossFitters expend their sweat, tears (and sometimes, even blood) in order to transcend the humdrum of everyday life. Workouts delineate a fleeting moment when we can leave behind our stultifying workplace lives. Like Bakhtin’s carnival, CrossFit, too, is understood as deeply democratic and barrier-breaking: it challenges both elite athletes and underdogs so that we may transform ourselves into something uniquely human. The most “advanced” or high-tech equipment found in so-called “globo-gyms” (namely, Universal Fitness equipment) is rarely used. Rather, CrossFitters seek excellence via everyday items lying around the house. As CrossFit legend Rich Froning Jr. explained in his 2013 autobiography, “One of the beauties of CrossFit—and one of the big reasons for its incredible surge in popularity—is that anyone can watch a video of CrossFit athletes doing a workout and then go do the same thing.” The fact that CrossFit has been so successful and has such devoted followers, too, adds to both its equalitarian and ritualistic character. As an anonymous CrossFitter explained in the 2009 Crossfit documentary Every Second Counts: “Fitters tend to only associate with other CrossFitters. Now, is it a good cult? It’s a fitness cult—it’s making you better. Is it a cult? Yeah, it is.” As ritual acts, Bakhtin’s carnivals remind us that structures can be questioned and (perhaps) even toppled. His ambitious toolkit (again, the carnivalesque) challenges us to make fun of institutions—to understand their transitoriness and vulnerability. Appropriately, in his biographical documentary The Fittest Man on Earth, five-time CrossFit Games champion Mat Fraser recounts the first time he stepped inside a CrossFit gym, with its “chaos going on, with the loud music.” Previously, as he describes it, he had only exercised in traditional weightlifting gyms (think Gold’s Gym) where the heaviest lifts demanded solemnity and seriousness on the part of gymgoers.
Like Bakhtin’s carnivalesque, CrossFit suggests the power of metamorphosis, while risking a type of death—when former selves are sloughed off and a new being is born. Every workout thus constitutes a celebration of life. Bakhtin asserts that the carnival is characterized by “a naked posing of ultimate questions on life and death.” Furthermore, for the Russian philosopher, death is not a negation of life but part of life as a whole—an indispensable component, the condition of life’s constant renewal and rejuvenation. Even death, Bakhtin explains, “becomes pregnant” within the carnival.
For both CrossFitters and Bakhtin, these birth-death processes happen through a type of initial degradation. As CrossFit’s founder, Glassman, tells it, his workouts were developed to leave gym goers “flat on [their] back, staring up at the sky, wondering what the hell happened.” Like Bahktin, CrossFit—with its focus on the squat as a staple movement—charges us to consider the lower stratum of the body, the belly, and the buttocks. To degrade something does not imply merely hurling it into the garbage, but also rescuing it from oblivion. In CrossFit-speak, this might be understood as a deep dive into the travails of a “butt-wink” in hopes of acing the perfect squat. Indeed, as claimed by George Bataille—a fellow philosopher and, tellingly, a contemporary of Bahktin’s—the body’s lower half, the bowels, and the viscera are all deeply associated with death. These nether regions are also central to CrossFit.
In order to gain life, CrossFitters risk death. As the community has known and debated for a long time, the programmatic breakdown of the body during exercises may even cause rhabdomyolysis. In an appropriately sarcastic (even rogueish?) way, CrossFit has embraced a buff, vomiting clown named “Uncle Rhabdo” as an unofficial mascot.
Recently, gyms have stepped away from being associated with zany, protein spilling cartoon jesters. Yet, as a CrossFitter myself, I wouldn’t count on tomorrow’s WOD—that is, the “Workout of the Day”—being any less challenging, less Bahktinian, or less low-minded. In an almost wholly non-ironic way, I believe that nothing tests my body more than getting up at 4:45 AM to lift odd objects. As I have proposed here, I also surmise that CrossFit explains much about how playful and focused on the body our historical moment really is.
Author Biographical Note:
Dr. Kevin M. Anzzolin, Lecturer of Spanish, arrived at Christopher Newport University in 2021, where he teaches a wide range of classes. His scholarship, mostly focused on Mexican cultural studies, can be found here, and his monograph on Mexican journalism will be published in 2024. He has been an avid albeit amateur CrossFitter since 2018.