I started Crossfit in Dunedin, New Zealand, in March 2012, when I was a visiting professor at the University of Otago. It was autumn in the southern hemisphere, the days were getting too short to get very much time in on my bike, and I didn’t want to join a traditional gym. I’d heard the buzz about Crossfit, and this seemed like an ideal time to give it a go. I went in thinking of it as a bit of an experiment, and 10 months in I’m a convert.
I did what any self-respecting academic does and I read a lot before I started. That helped me become familiar with the jargon, and prepared me (mentally at least) for the style of conditioning Crossfit emphasizes (“Forging Elite Fitness,” as they say on the door of the Crossfit gym where I’m a member).
I have come to love Crossfit’s emphasis on strength, especially for women, and its focus on General Physical Preparedness—being, basically, ready for anything life throws at you. (I write more about this in this post, Fitness, yes, but fit for what?) But I believe there is a clash between the image of Crossfit and the reality, particularly when it relates to the role of women in the Crossfit community.
Whenever I try to talk my women friends into joining me at Crossfit, they express incredulity and fear. Crossfit? Are you kidding? That’s for fitness maniacs, right? A place where the already fit get super fit, isn’t it? One friend even joked that she needed to train for a year and then she’d join Crossfit with me.
The reality: Crossfit workouts are tough, but they are also among the most scalable exercises that I do—meaning that they can be easily adapted for people of varying fitness levels and athletic abilities.
Consider a portion from this morning’s workout. We did three rounds of the following as fast as we could, as we were timed by our workout partners: 50 double-unders (skipping rope so that the rope goes around twice while you jump once), 21 box jumps (jumping on and off a 20 in. wooden box) and 12 deadlifts at 60 percent of each person’s one-repetition max (the greatest amount of weight a person can lift at one time). The fastest, fittest people did it in just over 4 minutes. The slowest people did it in 12. I fell into the middle, as usual, finishing in 8 minutes and change.
The workout was also easily modified to our varying abilities. Not everyone can do box jumps with a 20 in. box—me, for example. So I used the 18 in. box. Others used 14 in. boxes. We all did what we could. People who can’t yet do double unders substitute four times as many singles. As for the deadlifts, the amount of weight we lifted was based on our individual ability. So the workout was tough but it was also totally do-able, even for beginners.
I’m not saying Crossfit isn’t for the very fit—some of those people do the same workouts wearing weighted vests!—but it’s also a fine place for anyone who’s just starting out, women in particular.
Now, I’ve been lifting weights since 1988,when I took Fundamentals of Weight Training at the University of Illinois in the first year of my PhD. I love lifting weights. I decided back then, in my mid twenties, that if I was going to be big I was also going to be strong. But I’ve never had much female company in the weight room.
But Crossfit is different. The gender ratio is about 50-50 on most days, and the women are strong and powerful. It’s inspiring to see so many women lifting weights. But I worry that images of women who represent Crossfit in advertising and in Crossfit community publications don’t match the diversity of women I’ve met who actually do Crossfit. My co-blogger Tracy (at Fit, Feminist and (almost) Fifty) has written about how pictures of impossibly fit people aren’t really inspirational and about the need for more diverse images of what fitness looks like. That’s definitely true in the case of Crossfit.
I like that there are people out there who admire women with muscles, and I’ve met lots of amazing-looking women at Crossfit. But these images do not do justice to the range of women who actually do this activity. The images are almost all young and lean, able bodied and white. Now, I’ve only been to two Crossfit locations, and I’ve been doing it for less than a year, but I’ve seen a lot more diversity in reality than I see in the media promoting Crossfit.
If you’ve been thinking of giving Crossfit a try and find the super-fit, super-lean images off-putting rather than inspirational, set the images aside and come see the reality. It’s a very supportive community of real people, in a range of shapes, sizes and ages, all aiming to get stronger, faster, fitter and more powerful. Among the women at my local Crossfit, there are teachers, nurses, professors, students, derby girls, runners, rugby players and triathletes. There are some very fit people who’ve been doing it for years, some brand new people, some new to regular exercise even, and loads of us in the middle.
My favorite “woman of Crossfit”? Jean Stewart, the dead lifting grandma. Now, THAT’s inspirational.