Crossfit in Richmond: Cult or Craze?, Virginia/February 5, 2014

By Fayeruz Regan

What began as a murmur has escalated into a full scream – CrossFit is blowing up in Richmond. But this new workout regiment is highly polarizing. On one side of the debate are those who swear by it, claiming that CrossFit has changed their lives. The other side claims it’s dangerous, expensive, and a cult. There does not appear to be a grey area in between.

Publications from the New Yorker to Time magazine have run articles on the cult-like pull of CrossFit. I wouldn’t have unearthed this sea of information had I not been exposed to a CrossFit devotee this summer. I was at a barbecue in Bon Air when I overheard this devotee discussing her regiment with a Marine in the dining room. In the back yard, she waxed poetic to a group of girls about it. Later in the kitchen, she demonstrated a “burpee” (a CrossFit push-up exercise) for a group of children and adults alike. I was intrigued not so much by the workout as I was her acute devotion.

That’s when I started doing CrossFit research in Richmond. CrossFit gyms are popping up with the swiftness of a Starbucks franchise, from Shockoe Bottom to CrossFit Midlo. A recent Groupon deal for CrossFit Full Circle has garnered 430 packages purchased and counting.

But these growing numbers have many locals worried. Sean Granger of Carytown laments, “I have a friend who got into CrossFit, and that’s his whole social life now. I never see him, and when he does invite me out, it’s an invitation to work out with him.”

Others find the insider slang to be exclusionary, even off-putting. Terms that seem almost sexual in nature are tossed around, such as “snatch” (a barbell lift), WOD (pronounced “wad,” meaning “workout of the day”) and thruster, (another type of barbell lift). Shelly Bailey of Midlothian wrinkles her nose at the terms she’s overheard, but admits, “It sounds perverted, but in a way CrossFit has helped me around the house.” When I asked how, she replied, “When my four year-old acts up, I make her do burpees. At first she thought it was funny, but it’s getting intense. She can do up to 50 now.”

Others remain curious about the workout phenomenon, but are simply priced out. Some memberships average $150 dollars a month. A hefty ticket for an organization that doesn’t advertise, and provides only a bare-bones warehouse setting with ropes, weights and little else. In fact, many CrossFit groups work out in unmarked buildings they call “boxes.”

The issue of cost is a heated debate online. Hamilton Nolan of Gawker reports, “It is too expensive. A CrossFit gym is like a regular gym but purposely dirtier and with all the expensive exercise machines replaced by ropes and iron balls.” However, CrossFit Syngergistics has a very emotional response to those who think they cannot afford the workout. Their reaction: “Really? Bluntly, you can’t afford not to CrossFit.” Their 1,351-word diatribe ends with, “The reality is, you can’t understand it emotionally until you step into the arena and wave the Matador’s cape.”

Strong language such as this is one of the reasons people feel CrossFit’s adherents are a little too intense. But according to Carla Winston of Midlothian, “People assume it’s a cult just because it’s more than a workout. It’s a lifestyle. You don’t train alone, but in groups. You cheer each other on. I do it this way because I wouldn’t be this dedicated on my own.” And there is no denying the transformation this workout has done for her physically. As a new mother, she had trouble dropping the baby weight after her daughter was born. But since joining the “PushinW8” CrossFit group, she’s grown increasingly svelte each time I’ve seen her.

“What about the injuries I’ve seen online, with hands torn and bleeding from the weights?” I ask. Says Winston, “All workouts are customized for you, and you’re always around others, so it’s safe.” Her confidence was supreme, regardless of the fact that a CrossFit coach recently severed his spine during a workout, causing paralysis. Winston was quick to point out that the CrossFit community rallied, holding fundraisers to cover his extensive medical bills.

The Internet is rife with articles and gruesome photos of the injuries sustained by these athletes. According to some sources, not all CrossFit gyms are created equal, in terms of safety and scandal. In fact, a Richmond CrossFit group recently disbanded, due to a married CrossFit couple that practiced infidelity within their own team. Both parties assumed that that no one in their tight-knit circle would talk. This group has since disbanded.

I find stories such as the above irresistible, just as I find Carla Winston’s enthusiasm. For reasons such as these, I’m attending the SuperFit Games this February 8 and 9 at the Richmond Convention Center. If anyone else is curious about this polarizing and exploding phenomenon, I’ll see you there.

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