Religion in the gym? Cultivation of CrossFit culture in the third space

As a former group fitness instructor, I am well versed in the token, trite phrases we use to motivate amateur athletes in their everyday pursuits towards physical fitness. Within this world, I have observed firsthand the varying degrees of commitment people show both to their physical fitness but also to a mindset that comes with a certain sport or activity. Many of us are familiar with the yogis who embody a certain holistic attitude towards their world; their worldview informing their fitness or perhaps their fitness informing their world view. As the internet has fostered a space for safer, more anonymous and more visual communication of these commitments to certain fitness regimens and ideologies, we see the trite phrases transformed into something more powerful. We see a developing ethos that perpetuates the ideals of a physical activity, allowing that mentality to penetrate our everyday interrupting the separation of our various spheres of life. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in the sport of CrossFit, and more specifically, in the memes that seek to further the myths that surround participation in what has come to be known in pop culture as “the cult of CrossFit.”

It is virtually impossible to hear about CrossFit and not receive either a ringing endorsement of its ability to make an athlete out of anyone or a scathing dismissal of its extremity as a form of exercise and as a mindset that encourages “beast mode” and full immersion in what has surely become a subculture in and of itself. As someone who has tried the sport and enjoyed it, I find myself somewhere in between.  CrossFit, the “sport of fitness” as it is known to its practitioners, is a “broad, general and inclusive fitness” started by Greg Glassman over several decades, but only gained traction in the early 2000s and is now prolific across the United States. CrossFit gyms, or “boxes” as they are known more widely, are barren, industrial warehouse spaces in which athletes use “rigs,” ropes, boxes and barbells to perform a variety of movements from pull-ups to Olympic lifts. Workouts, which are intended to be uniformly performed across the country daily and known as WODs (Workout of the Day), are quick, intense and scalable but there is a certain pride in doing workouts as prescribed, and times and weights are posted in order to foster friendly competition between participants. CrossFit is more than a workout; it comes with a diet and lifestyle change, as well as with an attitude creating a sort of composite CrossFit persona. To participate in CrossFit is to participate in the CrossFit mindset, one of mind over matter, unyielding commitment to goals and a desire to push one’s body past the point of fatigue towards an ideal of performance. It is a mindset of guts and glory, bloody blisters and bulging biceps

This mindset is hardly new but what is interesting about the CrossFit culture is the way it reinforces itself online through the popular format of memes that encourage a dedication to and faith in the ideals, both physical and mental, of a sport. The meme, as a popular form, allows a simple and easy to follow template through which to articulate shared beliefs.  Through an examination of various memes about CrossFit, it is clear how the myth of “mind over body” becomes firmly cemented in CrossFit culture while enforcing the ritual participation in WODs, annual competitions and dietary and life habits. Take for example the following memes:


meme3The language in the memes featuring the female athletes serve various functions. They serve to create a hierarchy between CrossFit and other exercise routines that are considered less tough, rigorous or disciplined. Zumba is the form of fitness for those without the will and ability to CrossFit. The results then, as seen in the memes, are a satisfaction with one’s body that surpasses what is considered to be normal or mainstream. The image of the very muscular woman is the antithesis of the pop culture ideal set up socially for women and evokes a certain power. This image sees CrossFit as a gender-equalizing endeavor, granting that woman a degree of authority over

 athletes and a more mythical ideal for women to strive towards. What is 

meme2not indicated in these memes, is the notion that, not every individual can dedicate the time or considerable resources needed to be able to achieve that level of fitness. CrossFit is both a cost–prohibitive endeavor with a strong corporate sponsorship structure ingrained into its operation and proliferation. Similarly the memes that use common pop culture icons to further the tough, hardworking beastly mentality serve to normalize these notions. If Ryan Gosling loves CrossFit, we all should.

Perhaps even more interesting than the images that serve to cement the position of CrossFit at the top of the fitness hierarchy, are those that purport to motivate CrossFit athletes and any who aspire to the status of CrossFit’s most elite practitioners. In these images we see many prominent and notable CrossFit figures, many who are lauded as the best of the best and World Champions of the CrossFit Games (the annual competition where participants from across the country and world come together in various affiliate gyms to compete). Take for example this image:motivation 1

This is an image of a CrossFit champion though he goes unnamed in the image, perhaps granting him the potential to be any man as CrossFit proclaims to be a sport for everyone. This is in spite of an affiliate structure that caters only to those who have upwards of $150 to spend on monthly membership, though hypothetically a CrossFit box is not a requirement for participation. By showing a capable and physically fit man in the process of motion, while asking the question about giving up, indicates that this man answered that question and chose to continue forward with his exercise regimen past the point of exhaustion. Regardless of his prominence in the CrossFit community, the man in the image is presented as powerful, referential and strong. His fitness is one that, as perpetuated through the tropes of the meme, ought to be imitated. If we want to reach his status, his level of fitness, exhaustion cannot enter into our imaginary. The limits placed on the imaginary of what is and is not acceptable in the universe of CrossFit serves to establish a sort of ritual, in which hard work is valued above all other values, perhaps even that of physical and emotional exhaustion. If we are to see images as David Morgan does as appealing to and relying on the body, “provoking fear, envy, pride, desire, obsession, rage” then we can recognize their power (Morgan, 2008, p. 96). This image evokes that power quite effectively, using these visceral reactions to it to motivate practitioners to meet and surpass the level of this elite athletic figure.

The image that most centrally, efficiently and concisely captures the myth and ritual that foster the CrossFit culture and mentality is one of a woman who is a prolific and successful CrossFit competitor. Her face is turned down as she squats behind a weighted barbell. Her arms are flexed and the shadowing of the image clearly highlights her vast musculature. Across her body and the image the text reads. “It’s just you against you.”

motivation 5

Here we see multiple things happening. First, the woman again has her face turned away from the viewer, this allows a viewer to see themselves in her image. Through this the image “indulge[s] passions,” (Morgan, 2008, p. 97) cementing an emotional and visceral connection to this image and an identification with the subject. Perhaps even more specifically, an embodiment of the subject. As Roland Barthes indicates, “the photograph is the advent of myself as other: a cunning dissociation of consciousness from identity” (Barthes, 1982, p. 12). This image, more than any of those others, but operating as one of many CrossFit images, cements this notion of embodying one’s own success through the physical success and power of others. We see the woman’s physical prowess, dominance and superiority in her muscles and in the way she is lighted on a dark background. She is the beacon of light, using her ability to overcome her own challenges to embody greatness in the most physical sense but also as a point through which others can find motivation. Her image moves others to action through its exemplary strength.

CrossFit exists without and outside of its existence online, but what we see here is quite interesting. The space fostered by social media allows for a degree of expression and commitment that surpasses the hours spent in the gym. These memes become a forum through which to express devotion to the ideals that make CrossFit what it is. There is a certain faith in CrossFit to take us lowly amateur athletes and make us into the people whose images we worship through the memes we create. We appropriate their images, re-mediate them and create meaning with and through them. We find something akin to religion in the devotion to the unyielding desire to harness the power of our minds to overcome the obstacles of our bodies. This religiosity, this devotion proves very powerful and it would not, could not exist without a forum through which to share it and allow it to permeate our everyday understandings of who we are and who we want to be. So my motivational sayings, those trite, tired things we shout at each other at the zenith of physical exhaustion, they acquire a power of their own afforded to them by technology and cultural form.

By Samira Rajabi

One response to “Religion in the gym? Cultivation of CrossFit culture in the third space

  1. Pingback: Just what is yoga? Arguments in D.C. tax case may inform us | The Confluence Countdown·

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