What CrossFit has in common with Stalin’s Russia

​They made the arrests in broad daylight.

​“They are leading you … pistols unholstered, through a crowd of hundreds of just such doomed innocents as yourself. You aren’t gagged. You really can and you really ought to cry out that you are being arrested! That villains in disguise are trapping people! … If many such outcries had been heard all over the city in the course of a day, would not our fellow citizens have begun to bristle?”

​This was Russia in the 1920s and 1930s, as described in Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago.

It was oppressive. Citizens who resisted were arrested, tortured and shipped to slave labor camps. Innocent citizens who didn’t resist but still presented a minor threat to the state were treated in the same manner. 

It was a society which abhorred criticism, banned challenge and struck down those who asked questions.

The Soviet state was a predator of the highest kind. And as Solzhenitsyn observed, “a submissive sheep is a find for a wolf.”

Conversation, criticism and questions are central to any organisation’s ability to survive and thrive. But cults and oppressive regimes discourage them. 

“Cult” is a word that is often used to describe CrossFit. I’m not going to reference any articles. Google “the cult of crossfit” and have a wander round. Or ask speak to someone who is a former member of a CrossFit box. You won’t have to go far before you hear a story of someone being ostracised because they weren’t “all in” and “one hundred percent committed.”

The actions of these dedicated CrossFitters reminds me of Robert Greene’s 27th Law of Power: 

“Play on People’s Need to Believe to Create a Cultlike Following.” 

Greene goes on to describe five steps that will entice and ensnare followers.

Step 1: Keep It Vague; Keep It Simple.

From crossfit.com:

“Overall, the aim of CrossFit is to forge a broad, general and inclusive fitness supported by measurable, observable and repeatable results. The program prepares trainees for any physical contingency—not only for the unknown but for the unknowable, too. Our specialty is not specializing.”

Step 2: Emphasise the Visual and the Sensual over the Intellectual.

“The best way to do this is through theatre, or other devices of it’s kind. Surround yourself with luxury, dazzle your followers with visual splendor, fill their eyes with spectacle” says Greene. “Not only will this keep them from seeing the ridiculousness of your ideas, the holes in your belief system, it will also attract more attention, more followers.”

CrossFit on Instagram. Every Second Counts.

Step 3: Borrow the Forms of Organised Religion to Structure the Group.

“Create rituals for your followers; organise them into a hierarchy, ranking them in grades of sanctity, and giving them names and titles that resound with religious overtones; ask them for sacrifices that will fill your coffers and increase your power.”

​Step 4: Disguise Your Source of Income.

​“Never reveal that your wealth actually comes from your followers pockets; instead, make it seem to come from the truth of your methods.”

​Affiliates anyone?

Step 5: Set Up an Us-Versus-Them Dynamic.

“Do what all religions and belief systems have done … First, make sure your followers believe they are part of an exclusive club, unified by a bond of common goals. Then, to strengthen this bond, manufacture the notion of a devious enemy out to ruin you.”


Undeniably, CrossFit brings something to the table. That is in part, why it is still here. 

Every individual enticed to join their ranks is an individual that dodges the disease and unhappiness brought on by a lack of physical activity and challenge. 

But CrossFit and it’s operators also continues to exist because they understand how to accumulate influence and manipulate people’s perceptions. Whether they utilise the steps outlined above intentionally or unintentionally is uncertain. 

But use them they do.

Another reason they continue to grow is that CrossFit fills a vacuum. 

The vacuum may be existential in nature. We are searching for meaning in our life and find it in the “bond of common goals.” 

Or it could be intellectual. We are filled with doubt, uncertainty and indecision regarding our health, and so seek an authority. 

Or it may be a social vacuum. An increasing loneliness and disconnection with friends and family that makes us reach for the CrossFit community. 

Whether it is one of or a combination of all, CrossFit steps in and fills these gaps in our lives. But the danger arises when the great new thing that we’ve found, isn’t what we really need.

Coaching at it’s most pure is a simple process:

1) Understand the needs, capabilities and desires of the trainee. 

2) Help the trainee find and define a realistic objective. 

3) Walk the path with them, assessing and adapting along the way. 

Good coaches juggle the trainee’s ambitions, the trainee’s actual abilities, and what the trainee really needs.

But many CrossFit boxes chuck novices in at the deep end and make no consideration for history, lifestyle or movement ability. Their aim is to “prepare trainees for any physical contingency” after all.

So how can you protect yourself?

First, seek coaches and facilities that take you into account. Find coaches that are willing to take the time to introduce you to and educate you about movement. Avoid the ones that, on your first day, hand you a WOD, pat you on the back and leave you to fend for yourself. 

Second, be less of a submissive sheep and more of a wolf.

Avoid the social pressures and dogma. 

Learn to think for yourself.

When it comes to health and fitness, there are a dizzying number of choices to make. The freedom to choose and independence of thought required to choose well is too costly for most. So we outsource. We opt to trust in another’s expertises. And as soon as we make this choice, we start a snowball of unintended consequences.

We join a group and we become a part of a social hierarchy. 

Hierarchies come with their own set of unique rules. And usually, what they are set up to promote is unity to the group and loyalty to the cause. Actions that prove this loyalty mean you rise within the hierarchy. Actions that offend this loyalty demote you. 

And the longer you spend within the warm embrace of the community, the more dependent upon it you become. What started as “I’ll see how it goes” mutates to “I don’t know what I’d do without it.”

This is dangerous. It alters how we see what happens around us and how we make decisions. If we are thinking clearly, our decisions are guided by a full awareness of the reality of the situation. But when we are absorbed and immersed in a “community”, the hierarchy mindset sets in. Our decisions are no longer made according to reason, but on how they will affect our position and standing amongst the group.

This increasing immersion in the community, which is made all the more suffocating if the community fills a vacuum in your life, leads you to confuse your ideas with your identity. 

Anyone who talks down or challenges the rightness and the goodness of your ideas is making a personal attack. Because actually listening and engaging with these detractors is a sign of treachery within the community, you don’t do it. Instead you sidestep their questions by going on the attack.

You know where your loyalty lies and it is not with the people on the outside.

Far more dangerous than the physical harm CrossFit inflicts is the mental damage. CrossFit fills an existential, an intellectual or a social vacuum, and in doing so, makes us forget what it was to think for ourselves. 

By propagating the hierarchy mindset, conversation, criticism, challenge and debate are all depressed. 

Only by placing yourself outside of the hierarchy can you question their methods, think about their impact and confirm the truth (or falsity) of their methods. 

It requires a level of detachment. You should be prepared to speak up, and if needs be, walk away when the motives and conduct of what you see come into question. It requires a certain amount of courage in the face of often overwhelming pressure from those around you. It requires you to be willing to turn your back on what is detrimental to you and to others.

But once you’re in and invested, it’s hard to pull out. It’s hard to detach yourself from a community when you are immersed in it.

“Error culture” is a phrase coined by Gerd Gigerenzer

There are two forms. Negative and positive.

A negative error culture prefers agreement and acceptance. It punishes dissension, the breaking of arbitrary rules and the revealing of mistakes and inefficiencies.. 

Positive cultures have systems in place that encourage feedback, that reward helpful observation and constructive criticism. They willingly seek out errors so they can capitalise on them.

Negative cultures squash openness and dialogue. Positive culture sincerely encourage them.

With human beings, the behaviour you get is the behaviour you reward for. In a community that fosters the hierarchy mindset, the behaviour that is rewarded is loyalty and rigid adherence to the socially accepted behaviours and ideas. No matter how illogical and ludicrous. 

In an organisation that encourages everyone to think for themselves, you get a community based on openness, on equality. An organisation united in it’s search for what is best.

I’ll leave you to decide which ideal CrossFit achieves. 

This is an expansion of a previous article, Bending and bowing, which you can read here.