The absorbing, definitive account of CrossFit's origins, its explosive grassroots growth, and its emergence as a global phenomenon.
One of the most illuminating books ever on a sports subculture, Learning to Breathe Fire combines vivid sports writing with a thoughtful meditation on what it means to be human. In the book, veteran journalist J.C. Herz explains the science of maximum effort, why the modern gym fails an obese society, and the psychic rewards of ending up on the floor feeling as though you're about to die.
The story traces CrossFit’s rise, from a single underground gym in Santa Cruz to its adoption as the workout of choice for elite special forces, firefighters and cops, to its popularity as the go-to fitness routine for regular Joes and Janes. Especially riveting is Herz’s description of The CrossFit Games, which begin as an informal throw-down on a California ranch and evolve into a televised global proving ground for the fittest men and women on Earth, as well as hundreds of thousands of lesser mortals.
In her portrayal of the sport's star athletes, its passionate coaches and its “chief armorer,” Rogue Fitness, Herz powerfully evokes the uniqueness of a fitness culture that cultivates primal fierceness in average people. And in the shared ordeal of an all-consuming workout, she unearths the ritual intensity that's been with us since humans invented sports, showing us how, on a deep level, we're all tribal hunters and first responders, waiting for the signal to go all-out.
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J.C. Herz is a Harvard-educated former New York Times columnist as well as a former rock critic and tech writer for Rolling Stone and Wired. A two-time author and technology entrepreneur, she started doing CrossFit in a gym where white-collar professionals and new moms cranked through pull-ups and Olympic lifts next to active duty military and members of the presidential Secret Service detail. Her favorite CrossFit workout is “Cindy.”Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved. :
THE BLUE ROOM
Martial Arts Sublets and the Forbidden
Pleasure of Dropping Barbells
With a few barbells, medicine balls, pull-up bars, boxes, and kettle bells, and a nominal fee to CrossFit HQ , any certified Cross- Fit coach could become the proprietor of a CrossFit affiliate. In the economic hangover from the dot-com crash, this meant guys like Jerry Hill could sublet space, often from martial arts dojos, before they had enough athletes to afford a dedicated space. From Glassman’s early years in Santa Cruz to today, there’s been a symbiosis between CrossFit and martial arts, especially jujitsu, mixed martial arts, and Krav Maga. Part of this compatability is cultural, and part of it is architectural. The cultural part is a fundamental embrace of functional fitness. In martial arts, it doesn’t matter how beautifully curved your biceps are, or if you have six-pack abs. If you can’t hit hard, or if you’re easily winded, someone’s going to mess you up. Any kind of conditioning that makes you hit harder or breathe better in the middle of a round makes it less likely you’ll get messed up. So people who do hard-core-combat martial arts (as opposed to the beauty-of-grace-and-form varieties) are serious about high-intensity training.
The time domain of a martial arts match, a single-digit number of minutes of all-out effort, is on the same order as a WOD. The type of effort required—violent bursts of explosive effort under fatigue and
time pressure—is exactly what CrossFit cultivates. It’s competitive, high discipline, heavily male (along with a certain type of seriously kick-ass female). It demands the ability to suffer, and develops an athlete’s capacity to suffer and keep going—the quality of relentlessness.
CrossFit, in its early days, attracted MMA fighters with a geek streak. Guys like Josh Newman, who went to Yale, built and sold tech companies, and spent time getting his teeth knocked loose in Connecticut MMA arenas, invariably stumbled onto the CrossFit website and caught the bug. After winning the state MMA championship in his weight class two years in a row, Newman was looking for an edge. As he says, “There’s nothing like getting the crap beat out of you to keep you honest at the gym.”1
When he checked out the CrossFit.com site, Josh thought the Workout of the Day was a joke: 400 meters of walking lunges. Then he tried it and, about 100 meters in, realized, “Oh yeah—I’m fucked.” The next day, he missed his stop on the subway because he literally could not stand up. He had to wait until the next stop, when a lady near the pole got off, so he could slide across the subway bench, grab the pole, pull himself to a standing position, and hobble onto the platform. If some- thing so simple and time efficient could incapacitate him, he thought, this was clearly the way to go.
Before long, he’d roped in a buddy who did Brazilian jujitsu (and later founded CrossFit Virtuosity in Brooklyn) to work out in Central Park. They showed up with medicine balls and kettle bells and did pull-ups on the playgrounds. People joined, and pretty soon ten of them were getting in trouble with the park police for doing box jumps on benches or stringing gymnastics rings up on the trees. This went on for six months, until it got cold. Then they moved into, and got kicked out of, six gyms in the space of two years. Because they did things like rig treadmills to see how fast they could run without shooting off the back. Or bang out so many pull-ups in a personal training gym that clients would simply abandon the hard body trainers who’d brought them there to Feel the Burn and maybe move the peg down one notch on the machine. At a Chinatown kickboxing gym, the manager saw Josh and his pals doing high-volume barbell WODs, marched over, and barked, “What you guys are doing looks really dangerous.”
Ten feet away guys were punching each other in the face, which was, apparently, not really dangerous.
The absurdity, and the hassle of it all, was just too much. So in 2007, Newman rented a 1,000-square-foot place in the Garment District, “The Black Box,” which refers to CrossFit’s empirical discipline of measuring inputs (the workouts) and outputs (athletic performance) from the training method. In a lovely stroke of irony, the term is also drama- world jargon for a small, bare-bones experimental theater.
Newman needed thirty members to cover the rent, and he had twenty people. “There are not thirty people in New York City who are going to do this CrossFit thing,” he thought. “This is just going to be an expensive gym membership for me.” That year, the Black Box grew from thirty members to over a hundred. Newman got kicked out of his first Garment District space when, during a WOD, a barbell someone dropped from overhead crashed straight through the floor into the space below. It was after hours, but the landlord wasn’t so thrilled. When the Black Box decamped to a larger space, also in the Garment District, Newman and his people pulled up the mats to move. They had broken literally every tile.
The tiles were broken because CrossFitters, left to their own devices, regularly dump heavily loaded barbells from overhead onto the ground. There is a legitimate reason for this: safety. If an athlete is going for maximum effort with a load he’s not sure he can propel all the way up to his shoulders, or all the way overhead, it’s essential that he be able to fail safely. And failing safely on a one-rep-max Olympic lift or overhead squat means dropping the bar. Also, it’s fun to drop barbells. The ability to instantly jettison a serious amount of weight gives strength workouts the quality of play, no matter how strenuous the effort. If you can’t do the lift, you can eject. And if you do manage to launch a heavily loaded barbell over your head, and your heart is pounding with the hot-damn-I-did-it victory beat of a personal record, it is sublime to simply release your fingers from the bar and have all those bumper plates suddenly not compress your body. The spine springs back to its full length. Muscles no longer brace. There, I did it—I’m free. That sense of victory and freedom, the sudden lightness of releasing a heavy burden, is like getting a cast taken off. It’s like getting a cast taken off your soul.
When it’s synchronized, the ritual of dropping barbells is even more intense and satisfying. So for instance, in an every-minute-on-the-minute set of heavy snatches, every sixty seconds a clock ticks down, and your coach bellows, “Three, two, one, GO!” The lightning of electrical impulse courses through each athlete’s nerves and muscles at the same moment. Every barbell flies toward the ceiling. There’s a slight variation in speed, depending on each athlete’s height and strength. Then, within a few seconds, all the barbells come crashing down, and the boom of dozens of twenty-five- and forty-five-pound rubber bumper plates hitting the ground is like war drums. Thunder. It’s beautiful. This is why every tile in the Black Box was broken. It’s also why CrossFit boxes outside industrial areas tend to have unhappy neighbors and grouchy landlords.
So Josh Newman was sent packing by his first Garment District landlord. He was also nearly arrested in Times Square for sprinting up
41st Street wearing a weight vest—the kind of vest that’s black nylon, with rows and rows of tiny pockets to hold one-pound lozenge-shaped weights, and looks exactly like a suicide bomber vest. Seconds into his full-speed dash into Times Square, Newman was being shouted down by ten police officers, two of them with guns drawn. “But then,” he recalls, “they realized I was too small and Jewy looking to be a threat. They just said, ‘I don’t know what you’re doing, but never do it here again.’ ”
Around the same time, a police car on Eisenhower Avenue in Alexandria, Virginia, slowed to a stop, its red-and-blue lights flashing in the pre-dawn darkness. Jerry Hill lowered his wheelbarrow and raised his hands. The wheelbarrow was loaded with two hundred-pound dumb- bells and an engine block, and he’d been sprinting with it, to build grip strength, on his way to the jujitsu studio where he trained athletes. Grip strength is essential when you’re moving a lot of weight with a barbell, or stringing together dozens of pull-ups, and the best way to build grip strength for these activities is by holding on to something heavy for as long as possible, preferably while you’re also winded. Hence the wheel- barrow, the dumbbells, and the engine block.
“I’m a strength coach,” Jerry projected his voice to the police car. “These are weights. It’s strength. And conditioning.” The lights kept flashing. The cop got out of his car. “I’m a strength coach,” Jerry repeated with conviction. “These are weights. It’s strength. And. Conditioning.” The cop scrutinized him, calculating the odds that this wiry little white guy was telling the truth versus running down Eisenhower Avenue with a stolen engine block in a wheelbarrow.
“You look suspicious,” the cop growled, got back in his car, and drove away.
Jerry and his wheelbarrow trundled off to the dojo. Same as in Philly, here was a jujitsu gym whose owner was happy to earn some extra cash by time-sharing a facility with CrossFitters. Aside from the cultural kin- ship between CrossFit and martial arts, they have similar real estate requirements. Both disciplines tend to occupy marginal space, often industrial space: warehouses, converted light-manufacturing buildings, former auto body workshops. Space needs to be cheap, open to accom- modate sparring, and easy to equip with basic training apparatus: mats, weights, punching bags, maybe a drinking fountain. Adding some kettle bells and medicine balls doesn’t screw up this kind of floor plan.
More important, the diurnal rhythms of martial arts and CrossFit were, at least initially, a perfect counterpoint. Martial arts athletes tend to work out in the evening. CrossFit’s early adherents were morning people, rising before dawn to hit an o’dark thirty WOD. Jerry’s classes started at 5:15 a.m. and ran every forty-five minutes through 8:15 a.m. Then it would be time for him to go home and be Mr. Mom. But for three hours in the morning, he was king of the Blue Room, so named for the color of the jujitsu mats. “It was on the second floor,” he remembers. “Everyone was asleep. It was like a speakeasy.”2 It wasn’t ideal. Because the jujitsu studio was, in turn, subletting
space from a conventional gym downstairs, there were constraints on how Jerry’s gang could use the equipment. There weren’t fixed pull-up bars, only bars hung on chains from the ceiling. So people learned how to time the kipping motion of their hips, generating momentum in tandem with the pendulum swing of the bar, to get up and over. There was a knack to it, as with any acrobatic trick.
There weren’t boxes to jump on, so they stacked mats to 24 or 30 inches, to jump on. Shoes weren’t allowed on the mats, so when it was time to run outside, people had to quickly lace up their shoes, run down- stairs, do their sprints, then run upstairs and kick off their shoes for the next WOD.
Worst of all, they couldn’t drop weights on the floor, which meant that heavy Olympic lifting WODs were out. For a powerlifter like Jerry, this made every barbell WOD into an unconsummated love affair. Bars would be loaded with less weight than he knew his athletes could handle with their mightiest one-time efforts. They’d string together barbell movements from the floor to hips, from hips to shoulders to overhead, and then, in a controlled sequence, back down to the ground. They never got to throw their whole selves into one skilled and mighty pull from the ground.
But there are different ways to build strength, and the early core of Hill’s CrossFit Oldtown gang built their strength with pull-ups, push- ups, and tons and tons of air squats. They did muscle-ups on gymnastic rings. Dan Wilson had trained with Greg Glassman in Santa Cruz and with the Marines in Pendleton, but he got his first muscle-up in the Blue Room. “Get up there and fight it, Dan,” Jerry hollered as Wilson swung from a pull-up to the transition. “You’re there, brother!!!” From the top of the rings, Wilson, graying, buzz-cut, whooped for joy. “Was that good? ” he asked.
“Yeah,” Jerry laughed, “that was awesome.” They got it on video. It’s one of the best middle-aged “still got it, baby” moments ever recorded.3
The Blue Room gang did a lot of air-sucking metabolic conditioning, or metcons, alternating strength efforts with the cardio stress of box jumps, wall balls, or sprints in the stifling humidity of northern Virginia. Before long, men’s shirts were off, and the habit of ripping shirts off during a WOD was well ingrained.
A statistician named Harold Doran was the chief instigator of the shirt-taker-offers. Perhaps it was the heat and sweat, or the high intensity, or a touch of OCD, but when Jerry yelled “Three, two, one, GO!” to kick off a heavy metcon, Harold’s shirt had only moments to serve its intended purpose before it was jettisoned to the floor. It became an inside joke that leavened the heaving intensity of summer WODs. Harold had a way of making deadpan remarks about his shirt removal that made it okay for everyone else to laugh—he deftly controlled the joke. He began to spin a thread of self-deprecating humor that pervades CrossFit Oldtown to this day—a mixture of absolute seriousness about physical effort and mock seriousness about yourself. It’s the sensibility of absolute commitment to a fast 800-meter sprint or a set of unbroken pull-ups, then making yourself ridiculous with a put-on remark. Yeah, I’m a serious athlete, check out these abs.
After his morning stint as class clown, Harold would hit the showers, change into a suit, and drive north over the bridge into Georgetown as an absolutely different, stone-faced, stressful grown-up. He’s a psy- chometrician, which means he analyzes student test data: all the stan- dardized tests that Congress mandated in No Child Left Behind, that teachers complain about, that teachers’ unions scream should never be used in teacher evaluations. State commissioners of education pay guys like Harold to churn those data into statistical results that show em- barrassing long-term differences between great teachers and the ones who stunt students’ learning for years. These statistics invariably trigger political attacks, from local school boards all the way up to Capitol Hill. Managing these projects and their blowback is all serious, all the time.
“When I go into the office,” Harold says, “I’m swamped. Swamped. There are real grown-up issues. They’re complicated. They’re stressful. They’re hard, and they’re taxing. But guess what? CrossFit is every- thing that my real world is not. I get to walk into the gym, and I get to be silly and crack jokes and be friendly and not be stressed out. I don’t think about work when I’m in the middle of ‘Fran.’ I don’t think about a client deliverable when I...
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