You might have heard about CrossFit, the fast-growing fitness sensation that’s turning athletes’ and regular folks’ heads. In Learning to Breathe Fire: The Rise of CrossFit and the Primal Future of Fitness, J.C. Herz delves into the world of this ultra-difficult craze and discovers a determined fanbase, one that could even be described as “the good cult.”

KG: Let’s start with what might be the easiest and the most complicated question: what is CrossFit and how is it different from the exercise I see and do at my local gym?

LEARNING TO BREATHE FIRE - final cover

JH: So if you ask a CrossFit coach, there’s this kind of catechism: constantly varied, functional movement, executed at high intensity across broad time and modal domains. And what that really means is it’s never the same thing twice. And it’s gonna be a combination of lifting heavy things, running fast and getting your body through space that are mixed up in a hundred different combinations.

And there are these different attributes of fitness, from agility to power to speed, endurance, stamina — and then there’s this mythos of, when the zombie apocalypse comes, will you be ready? And there’s a line in Learning to Breathe Fire that every CrossFitter secretly believes, that the people in his box will be the ones to survive the zombie apocalypse.

KG: CrossFit is known for the Workout of the Day, or WOD — many are named after women — and “Karen” sounds really simple. It’s just one exercise, the wall ball, but you describe Karen as a WOD that tests an athlete’s ability to endure discomfort. And as a woman named Karen, I have to ask: what makes me so uncomfortable?

JH: So, there’s this exercise in CrossFit called the “wall ball” where you take a medicine ball — 20 pounds for men; 14 pounds for women — and you go down into a deep squat and then you launch yourself up and throw the ball up against a target — which is 9 feet in the air if you’re a woman or 10 feet in the air if you’re a man — and then you catch it and go back into a deep squat. And you do that 150 times in the “Karen.”

One of my purposes in this book is to convey the internal psychic experience of CrossFit, because you look through the window and you see people, “Oh, they’re tossing balls up against the wall. That kinda looks goofy.” But they don’t grasp the level of misery of actually doing this and how deep you have to dig, spiritually, to actually get this thing done. CrossFit is the only modern thing that lets Joanne from human resources feel like a Marine four times a week.

KG: Christmas Abbott was working for a military contractor in Iraq when she was shown an online video of three women performing the WOD called “Nasty Girls.” One of the women, Nicole Carroll, struggles. She fails over and over again, and she finally finishes in tears. What was it about that video that made Christmas want to find a workout that would make her cry?

JH: This woman, Nicole Carroll, who finished last in this video against these other two amazing female athletes — they were like the Charlie’s Angels of fitness at that time; one of them had been an Olympian. She was humiliated because she had finished so far behind. This video was going up on the internet, so she viewed, “Oh, well I’ve been humiliated, and it’s gonna be in public, in front of all my peers. Lovely.”

And what happened was that all these male athletes came out of the blue to say, you know, “Way to gut it out, Nicole. If I had half your heart I’d be twice the athlete I am today.” And these were special operators. And so there’s this thing about the CrossFit tribe responding not to your athletic performance so much as to your courage.

KG: CrossFit’s unofficial mascots are Pukey the Clown and Uncle Rhabdo. Uncle Rhabdo refers to rhabdomyolysis, which is a serious and potentially life-threatening condition. It can cause permanent kidney damage and is caused by overworking muscles. So why hasn’t CrossFit dialed back the intensity after numbers of athletes were struck with Uncle Rhabdo?

JH: First of all, rhabdo is very, very rare. The general prevalence of rhabdo is not the everyday Jane or Joe who walks in off the street. It’s the person who used to be a little bit of a bad boy or bad girl, who used to be a triathlete. Those are the people who, in my opinion and in the evidence that I’ve seen, are at the highest risk of injury.

KG: But just like I would say to a football coach who had a bunch of players come in during the summer and had this happen to them, don’t CrossFit gyms say, “Huh, maybe we should watch out for this a bit more?”

JH: Oh yeah, most CrossFit gyms don’t even let people who haven’t done CrossFit into the CrossFit classes until they’ve done a course called Light or Foundations or Elements. So there’s a lot of observation that goes on in CrossFit, and this stuff is vanishingly rare. It’s present, but there’s an interesting discussion in the book that has to do with risk, right, cause there’s risk here, there’s risk if you wanna run a marathon, there’s risk in most sports.

KG: You refer to the “cruelty of the CrossFit gods,” you run through the typical born-again CrossFit story, and you even explain that some of these athletes feel alienated from their old friends after finding CrossFit. So what makes you describe this as “a good cult?”

JH: It’s not one of these exploitive, cult-of-personality type of cults. It’s not a cult in that sense. It has a lot of social cohesion, it has a lot of ritual associated with it. It’s transformative. Someone said, “CrossFit is a cult just like parenthood is a cult.” You know how people have a baby and then they become obsessed with it and they can’t talk about anything else? And the reason for that is that it transforms them. It gives them a different perspective on life. And becoming an athlete does that.

I was never on teams. I’m an excellent example of what you can do with zero genetic potential for sports. And I felt like when I got into CrossFit, well, I finally made the team. I’m 38 years old. You know, “I’m on the team! I got chosen for the team!” And these people, these super athletes, were cheering for me when I was struggling for a strict press. And that is a pretty delightful experience.