“Don’t use machines. Become one.” —A sign posted at my local CrossFit box
Right now, my legs are sore, and even standing seems like a chore. For the final act of the CrossFit Open, I surprised myself by performing a total of 90 thrusters (squats with overhead lifts at 65 pounds) and 350 single-unders. These numbers may not mean much, but they add up to an incredible amount of faith I have in pushing my body to its breaking point—the same faith that compelled me to run a ten-mile race not too long ago.
A month and change ago, one of my coaches casually asked me during class if I wanted to participate in the Open. I said, “Sure!” not really sure what I was agreeing to. I would probably have fun; I would probably be sore. That’s how these things tend to go.
This is a far cry from who I was even as recently as a couple years ago: I remember setting foot for the first time inside my CrossFit box and being struck by how unathletic I was at the time. Did I even belong there? The box was an austere warehouse space with 1990s alt-rock blasting on the speakers while a crew of seasoned athletes tore through their workouts. Their movements had poetry and a sense of aplomb. I couldn’t help but feel like an impostor.
But, unlike gym memberships, the environment seemed a lot more welcoming. I wasn’t an ID number in a database full of mostly-lapsed members. There weren’t pushy trainers trying to upsell me on a deluxe membership–mainly because there was nothing like deluxe memberships here. There’s no branding of any kind. There were no treadmills or StairMasters, no television sets or juice bars.
A quick scan of the room revealed wooden boxes and stationary bikes clustered in one area, racks of dumbbells behind it, and racks of medicine balls in the corner. There were barbells and plates in the opposite corner. There were hooks with bundles of jump ropes draped over. In the center of the box was the most intimidating thing I had seen ever seen: the pull-up bar and ring-row rig, a sheer mess of horizontal bars.
Impostor or not, I was there for my first-ever onboarding class, and I owed it to myself to at least see this session through. By the end, I was drenched in sweat, sore, and out of breath. It wasn’t that I reconciled how gooey I was. In learning about my weakness, I learned about my potential for strength. If I stuck with this particular practice, my endurance would build.
After your twenties subside and you wake up, slightly hungover in your thirties, it becomes clear that it’s time to lay the framework out for the rest of your life. I had always known I wasn’t taking the best care of myself, but did a bang-up job persuading myself that I could always course-correct later. That deferral kept auto-renewing until one day, a few years ago, my physician took a look at my vitals and told me plainly that I was pre-diabetic, and unless I made substantial changes in my habits, the outlook wasn’t good. Impostor syndrome seemed like an inconsequential price to pay, then.
Not too long ago, I took a red-eye to Philadelphia to reunite with a best friend I hadn’t seen in about three or four years. It was around 2 a.m. when I arrived on his doorstep, and we exchanged big bear hugs. Then, in a whisper-shout—so as not to awake his wife or baby—he exclaimed, “You’re so skinny!” I whisper-shouted back, “I’m not, really. I’ve got a long way to go yet.” But then, “Thank you, though!” I’m trying to get better at accepting compliments.
I hear this a lot, and it’s something that makes me feel very nervous. My body has always been my enemy. It’s always been defined by what it wasn’t: fit, strong, chiseled. Or by what it was: pre-diabetic, fat, troubling. It means now that as I continue to receive praise from coworkers, I need to find a way to accept it humbly. My reflex at any kind of praise is to undercut or deny it. I receive praise even from my own mother, too—the same woman who would be among the first to point out the slightest weight gain. “Your cheeks have filled out” is a euphemism that used to make regular cameos in my life after a slight weight gain.
My doctor was looking over my charts during a routine physical recently and was impressed by how much weight I had lost and how healthy I appeared. My nutritionist told me, “Look. You’re actually at a good weight now. You don’t need to lose any more weight. Instead, let’s help you build more muscle.” After a lot of progress, there it was: an opportunity to level up.
In video games, leveling up is easy. You grind and grind away your playable characters until they earn enough hit points to advance to the next level. At certain levels, cool power-ups kick in. In real life, leveling up is less glamorous. The grind is painful: Muscles are sore, and discipline is essential. For me, the grind means waking up most mornings before dawn, eating a couple eggs, doing a combination of high-intensity workouts and weight training, and then coming home to get dressed for work and start my day.
A little like video game heroes facing off against a seemingly unbeatable boss, it’s easy on some days to feel like you’ve hit a wall; or in the middle of an overhead lift, feel your shoulders start to give out, which forces you to bail mere reps before you hit a personal best.
There is a gift, however, in being able to do a movement as unforgiving as an overhead lift—and finding that with time, you can raise more and more pounds above your head. I’m coming to terms with the fact that my physical limitations can always be negotiated with continued practice.
I’m also coming to terms with the fact that my physical limitations are a reminder of a privileged life I can lead with able-bodied leisure—and one that I should use to keep leveling up.
“You have to start somewhere, and I would start off slow. The only person I am there to impress is myself. Others who are above or below my ability give me confidence and something to strive for in my own way.” —Overheard at the box
Exercise has always been terrifying to me. It’s terrifying because it’s a combination of movements, the sole aim of which are to push me physically to my limits, to the point of exhaustion and fatigue. It’s terrifying in a communal setting because it pits my abilities against others’; I get to see how weak I am, and how much stronger I can become. It’s terrifying because for as long as I could remember, exercise only exacerbated the antagonistic relationship I had with my body.
Couple this anxiety with the monotony of your standard gym—a dank palace sewn up with rows of rusty equipment—and it was always easy for me to make nearly every day a rest day. Exercise was a terrifying chore, and as such, it was easier to keep my body gooey than ever make a single gain at the gym.
However, more terrifying is having to embrace my mortality: When my doctor diagnosed me as pre-diabetic, I had to try something new, in a bid to recalibrate. I would cultivate a new ritual around making myself stronger and healthier.
“I need something that is going to be different every day, something challenging, something that will make me do things that I would not choose to do on my own.” —Overheard at the box
Lately, I think a lot about exercise as a ritual, the ceremony with which I have to manage a practice of physical fitness. I make time on snow days, or tired days, or sad days. There is a savory predictability to working out. This is an hour of my day where all my movements are planned. Even a single rest day feels too indulgent, and yet, just as necessary as the actual exercise. There is a person whose job it is to tell me how to do things better to become a better version of myself. More incredibly, there are always others who show up, and there’s a spirit of solidarity in our collective willingness to forgo extra sleep in order to be present. It’s not just that people show up, but rather, it’s more or less the same crowd of faces. If I’ve made a promise to myself to improve the state of my body, there’s a class full of like-minded people who have made the same promise. While the bros can be intimidating, even their showboating inspires me to push myself harder.
“Because I know it is good for me. I feel better after I do it, and sometimes I even amaze myself with what I have accomplished.” —Overheard at the box
Our bodies were never meant to be so gooey, so unaccustomed to work. Muscles exist to work in concert to perform complicated feats of strength. Through disuse, they waste away. I feel the same thing about the parts of our brain we have to engage to face unsavory challenges. We can put them off or take the shortcuts, or we can stay the course and and grow from the pain.
I feel my body become a little less soft each day. I feel myself becoming just a little bit stronger. I feel another change, too: How I define strength.
In my practice, I have learned about another of my limits: How I engage with people, in and out of the CrossFit box. I have always cherished my ability to be stand-offish, to hang out on the fringes, to lurk, so as never to be fully vested in people unless I know for a fact that I can trust them. My willingness to say hello, to have a conversation, to disclose even mundane things about how I’m doing are all defined by how much I can trust someone.
Trust manifests itself in a strange way during my workouts. It comes in the form of someone telling me how an adjustment to my form could help me lift more efficiently. It comes in the form of someone cheering me on as I struggle to execute even a single pull-up. These are banal acts of kindness. Yet, after a workout, even the most trivial encouragement pushes me to new personal bests.
It has taken a very long time for me to understand that at my box, the language of trust is unique. Trust is defined by the shared interest everyone has in seeing their peers finish a workout without injury; trust is defined by someone commending you on a new personal best. If competition drives every other pursuit of my life—from romance to work—it is the one thing gloriously absent from my exercise practice. I am trying to best myself; I am trying to beat the clock.
This language of trust has created a culture of accountability that, to the uninitiated, can appear frustrating and bizarre. This accountability is at the core of the global CrossFit subculture—a subculture where I am still a tourist. I’ve learned the lexicon: WOD (workout of the day), EMOM (every minutes on the minute), and AMRAP (as many reps as possible) among many others.
I’m learning why I should fear workouts that have names like “Cindy” and “Fran”. The weightlifting blisters on my hands that form sad faces? They’re badges of honor, and they heal up in a few days’ time.
When it comes to making friends, though, I can be chilly. I like hanging out on the perimeter of this particular subculture as well. I venture in far enough for people to know my name, but not so far that they know my entire story. I make small talk with a few people whose drive to come back, even after injury, I find inspiring.
These days, I am making an effort to say hello, to be a little less chilly. These are, after all, the people who see me pushed to my physical limits on a daily basis. These are some of the most casual intimate relationships possible.
It’s no wonder that a global fitness practice which is home to such intimacy is coded with its own linguistic shorthand and memes. One CrossFit Facebook group boasts over 32,000 fans, featuring memes about the perils of puking after a tough workout and setting your clock by events like the CrossFit Open. The most devoted CrossFit practitioners have personal histories dotted by personal bests—and personal worsts. They have injuries and recovery stories. Working out defines their lives.
I like to bear witness to some of these fanatics, and I draw inspiration from their extraordinary feats of strength. After all, there is something awesome about witnessing another human piling on so many plates to either end of his barbell that the bar itself starts bending a little on the rack. I am years away from such a feat, if ever. I am happy with my limits right now and the pace at which I am able to push back.
Weeks ago, I hit my most recent personal best: A 150-pound back squat one rep max. It’s become apparent to me that if I decided to become a CrossFitter to lose weight and get in shape, I decided to remain one to keep getting stronger. I’ve found, oddly enough, that as my physical stamina grows, so does my mental acuity and my ability to tackle increasingly difficult tasks in other avenues of my life.
“My youngest kid had heart surgery at age nine. We needed to show him and his older brother and sister that fitness and health was, and continues to be, a priority for our family.” —Overheard at the box
I think we are conditioned to be gooey in mind and body. We dwell in our comfort zones, no matter how much a rut they become, because they are so comfortable. Yet I find that when I am comfortable, I become inert and frustrated. I derive happiness from challenges, and lately, from the kind of physical challenges that require practice to become better.
“I had a ‘sabbatical’ after a double knee replacement and couldn’t get motivated to a regular workout routine again. CrossFit is what worked to get me back to being me again—a fanatical, in-shape, workout person.” —Overheard at the box
“Don’t use machines. Become one.” It is a frothy platitude, but I find it endearing. I find it endearing because after an adversarial relationship with my body, I’ve built up a cadence of movements that have enabled me to fall back in love with it.
“I will continue for as long as I can.” —Overheard at the box
My mom asked me one day, “So how long do you plan to keep this up?” This, of course, referring to my current workout regimen. It was a fair question because it’s a regimen that required a lot of lifestyle changes, including adopting a paleo diet.
I don’t see an end in sight to this particular practice. I don’t know that there needs to be an end in sight. I think about the world around us, our everyday exertions. I like knowing that there will always a part of my day devoted to testing my limits, to making me feel a little more super-powered. Leveling up is a long game, and I intend to never to tap out.
This story is part of the Culture Trip Special: Limits collection.