OPINION: The Dying Stigma Around CrossFit and the Democratization of Functional Fitness

August 19, 2022 by
Courtesy of CrossFit
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The 2022 NOBULL CrossFit Games are in the rear view mirror and it’s time for us to take stock of the sport, the season, and where we go from here.

The 2022 season was another one filled with highs and lows–wins and losses–capped off by a Games in Madison and a new CEO in Don Faul. But there are bigger, more philosophical questions we should be asking ourselves: where is CrossFit as a methodology and what is the trajectory of the sport, for both the elites, and the everyday gym warriors who head to classes before, during and after their real jobs? 

Two things come to mind: one, there is still a stigma around CrossFit. This is notable in the fact that we here at the Morning Chalk Up have difficulty getting celebrities to talk to us about doing CrossFit, even though lots of them are doing it. Mega movie star Chris Pratt talking about doing Murph over and over to prepare for a role is a good start, but it’s still clear to see: when some people hear the word CrossFit, they do not have a positive response. Why is this?

Founder and former CEO Greg Glassman has always pointed the finger at The New York Times for two pieces in particular, Getting Fit Even if it Kills You, and When Some Turn to Church, Others Turn to CrossFit. And while this stigma still lingers from the newspaper’s damaging pieces and even more damaging headlines, it is dying, and we are seeing a slow, yet seismic shift. Telling people you do CrossFit doesn’t elicit the same response it would say five or even two years ago. 

I caught a piece on YouTube the other day from fitness vlogger Will Tennyson where he did a workout with Noah Ohlsen during the Open and got absolutely trashed and humbled simultaneously. Tennyson, who has more than a million subscribers, has always struck me as the kind of guy who doesn’t take himself seriously, but does take what he does very seriously.

Having a guy like Ohlsen–who is impossible not to like–obviously helps, and if you watch the video you can visibly watch someone’s mind change about CrossFit in real time. Tennyson is sold, realizing just how much fitter Ohlsen is than him, and the sheer amount of work it must take to be able to do what Ohlsen does. 

These little battles are happening all over the internet, and in gyms across the world. People, once skeptical of CrossFit are now dropping their guard and realizing CrossFit is just another way for people to get fit and live healthier lives. CrossFit’s community is what helps people stick around as opposed to a generic gym where people workout solo, headphones in, and usually get bored of doing the same thing over and over.

Mat Fraser’s recent interview with USA Today is another example, in which a curiously styled article showcases that the mainstream sporting world is at least paying attention to what is going on in the world of CrossFit. This is great news and it’s also great to know that CrossFit has superstars like Fraser who can act as great de facto spokespeople and ambassadors for the sport.  

I had an interesting conversation with Fraser’s longtime friend and manager Matt O’Keefe, the CEO of HWPO and an elder statesman of the sport, and we talked about the stigma around CrossFit. He acknowledged it, but he also acknowledged it is dying, and said he is starting to see the fruits of many years of labor start to pay off.

“There does feel like a softening of that globally,” he said. “Part of it was there were forces working against us at that time and I’m sure Greg (Glassman) can attest that we were being unfairly categorized in that way as a methodology.” 

Fraser poking his head into the mainstream sporting world, said O’Keefe, is a great sign moving forward.

“Mat has done a great job at articulating what CrossFit has done for him and his family, he has so many great stories, his friend losing 100 pounds, his father having open heart surgery, then moving into CrossFit to maintain their lifestyle.”

O’Keefe did admit there will always be naysayers, but then again, every sport has naysayers, and the goal isn’t to win everyone over, but simply to solidify CrossFit as a reputable way to go about getting, and staying, fit.  

“There’s always going to be a little bit of that, and that’s okay. I know we are really intent on building more accessibility to functional fitness through what we do. Because I think guys like Mat and myself, our platform can help soften that.”

O’Keefe’s use of the word “functional fitness” leads me to believe that CrossFit doesn’t have any type of an actual issue, it’s more branding and association. If someone were to head to a gym and start working with a reputable coach who helped them build muscle strength and cardiovascular endurance by doing a number of different exercises in a properly programmed workout and told everyone he or she was doing “functional fitness training” to get and stay in shape, one wonders if the reaction would be different if they told everyone they’d “started doing CrossFit”.

This is where we sit in 2022. There are millions of people out there doing functional fitness who have made it a part of their lives, and the more they see the benefits of their action, the more the walls will drop whenever someone drops the word “CrossFit” into the conversation. 

Everyone on the planet can utilize functional fitness, whether it’s staying in shape for another sport, or to simply be able to run around with your kids in the backyard. CrossFit simply gives it a name, and some people who are really good at it, are doing it as a sport. This is the final bridge we need to cross and it’s not as far off in the distance as some may think. 

Bridging this gap is the last step between erasing the stigma around CrossFit, and democratizing the usage of “functional fitness” as a catch-all, rather than a separating term. Strides in the right direction have been made, and all the winds are blowing north. Time is the only factor moving forward as CrossFit looks for more mainstream acceptance, and all the signs are trending in the right direction. 

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