In the beginning, Greg Glassman created the workout known as Fran: 21 thrusters, followed by 21 pull-ups, then 15 of each, then nine of each.

Then he vomited.

And it was good — like breathing fire.

Thus the essence of CrossFit was born: high-intensity, full-body movements that obliterate the distinction between weight training and cardio workouts, which leave you feeling stronger, quicker, more agile and more fit than you ever dreamed possible.

Raised in the San Fernando Valley, Glassman eventually became a personal trainer whose strong personality and revolutionary methods could never find a permanent home, no matter how many health clubs or fitness gyms hired him.


J.C. Herz; Credit: Photo by Matt Mendelsohn

J.C. Herz; Credit: Photo by Matt Mendelsohn

But over the years of wandering the workout wilderness, Glassman attracted disciples who would do whatever was required to complete the Workout of the Day — whether repeatedly throwing kettlebells at a wall or pulling truck tires with a chain — to get that feeling of breathing fire.

The movement grew steadily until Glassman founded CrossFit Inc. in 2000. By 2005 there were only 13 CrossFit-affiliated gyms, or “boxes.” But in the last nine years, the movement exploded. Today CrossFit-affiliated boxes number more than 10,000.

That's the adoring, awe-struck story told by J.C. Herz in her new book, Learning to Breathe Fire: The Rise of CrossFit and the Primal Culture of Fitness. (Asked what J.C. stands for, she tells the Weekly: “If I told you, I would have to kill you.”)

Herz, a 42-year-old journalist, author and cultural critic who has written for Rolling Stone, Wired and The New York Times, admits that she did not undertake a traditional, even-handed journalistic approach. That would require a discussion of why CrossFit has become so divisive, a candid assessment of its injury rate (pegged at 16 percent in a recent scientific study), an investigation into how many CrossFit affiliates are led by people who simply paid $1,000 to pass a weekend course that certified them as Level 1 trainers, and more transparency than simply noting that CrossFit affiliates must pay an annual “nominal fee” (as she tells the Weekly, it's now up to $3,000 — which itself could generate $3 million annually to Glassman, the sole owner of CrossFit stock, although older boxes apparently are grandfathered in at their original, lower fees).

“I'm just trying to give the reader a better understanding of why CrossFit is so successful,” Herz says.

Herz is herself a Crossfitter, which might explain why the book channels CrossFit's dismissive attitude toward traditional training methods. “The modern gym has been deliberately designed to not require any coordination, accuracy, agility or balance,” she writes in one passage. In another: “At a regular health club, if someone you knew only from spin class asked for help getting his car started, you'd probably feel reluctant, even suspicious.” Not so, apparently, at CrossFit.

The history told in this book is frequently fascinating, especially when Herz recounts the stories of soldiers fighting in Iraq who adopted the CrossFit routine.

But Herz's relentless rah-rah tone may be as much of a turn-off as CrossFit's passionate proselytizers. After all, CrossFit has become the most divisive workout fad in history in part because true believers are so gung-ho. That has led critics to charge that it has become a cultlike organization, which encourages converts to attempt physical feats they simply are not capable of, which often lead to injury.

Is there truth to those claims? Herz raises the injury question and dispenses with it in a couple of pages, concluding that critics simply can't, or won't, grasp that CrossFit is not a fitness regimen but rather a sport — and in all sports there is the risk of injury. “This explains why gym-related fitness experts and CrossFit defenders talk past each other and flame each other online,” she writes.

She uses a curious analogy to drive home the point, noting that 2,000 people annually hurt themselves slicing bagels: “But we don't characterize bagels as dangerous or malign bagel bakers because their products cause injuries,” she writes.

From boxes to bagels, she has a CrossFit answer to everything.

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