SHIRTLESS, SWEATY AND extremely jacked: Over the past decade, that’s been CrossFit’s public image, manifested at the Olympic-style CrossFit Games, which drew an estimated 11.6 million viewers in 2019 on its Facebook and YouTube livestreams alone. The finalists who go on to win that competition’s centerpiece souped-up fitness circuits, filled with muscle-ups, power cleans, and burpees, epitomize the brand’s tagline of “Forging elite fitness.” (Yes, it’s trademarked.)
No men have represented that ideal better than Rich Froning and Mat Fraser —four-time champs who are now in their early 30s with sponsorships from brands like supplement giant Cellucor (Fraser) and apparel company Reebok (Froning) and a combined 3.3 million followers on Instagram. Repeat female champs like Annie Thorisdottir and Tia-Clair Toomey have won their own share of fame and endorsements—and are equally rippling powerhouses. So why exactly is CrossFit Inc., the brand’s parent company, now putting its spotlight on old and (largely) less fit people?
In January 2019, the company started posting video tutorials for iconic workout moves on its website, Twitter feed, and YouTube channel starring anonymous men and women who appear to be in their 60s at least. One of the first, dubbed “The Burpee,” shows a balding, gray-haired, and relatively out-of-shape guy in a loose plaid button-up, baggy blue shorts, and hiking shoes executing the eponymous leaping, full-body conditioning move in real time—only in what seems like slow motion: Rather than dive toward the ground, he simply kneels, lies down on his chest, and pushes himself back up.
The videos are part of CrossFit’s new “At Home” series, a mix of exercise tutorials and healthy recipes. Some of the videos are shot against a white background, while others are filmed on living room sets featuring dated furnishings. (Think wood paneling and drab floral couches.) The kettlebells and sandbags typical in traditional CrossFit workouts are replaced in these shoots with everyday home items, like jugs of blue-tinted water and a bag of pet food.
This is part of a “dramatic change” in CrossFit’s marketing, says Eric James, Ph.D., a professor of communication at Metropolitan State University of Denver. James studies organizational culture communication and wellness. He has done research on the way CrossFit presents itself, and views the current shift as a conscious departure from the brand’s public image, from an apostle of elite fitness to an advocate of accessible fitness and a crusader in the fight against inactivity and chronic illness. Convincing older folks, a huge and growing but often sedentary demographic, that CrossFit can work for them as well as it works for Froning and Fraser is a key goal of, and trial for, that transformative push.
Physical therapist Kelly Starrett, DPT, who founded San Francisco CrossFit, the brand’s 21st affiliate, in 2005, says he and many other trainers and affiliate owners have tried for years now to ensure that their gyms feel inclusive to older and less fit people. (CrossFit is highly decentralized. Affiliates are free to develop unique cultures and practices.) Many longtime CrossFit insiders, he says, welcomed this shift, feeling it was high time that HQ recognized and embraced the age and fitness diversity in its gyms—or, as CrossFit calls them, “boxes”— worldwide. But “from the outside,” he admits, “you might think this is new or different or radical… The juxtaposition suddenly caught people off guard [and] there’s this perception of Wow, CrossFit has lost its mind.”
Some CrossFit fans seem to feel the same way, given the number who have panned the videos in comments and taken to Reddit to vent their frustrations. “I thought she had fallen and couldn’t get up,” one YouTube commenter quipped about a woman in a “Thrusters and Planks” tutorial. “[This] is going to crash the CrossFit brand,” a Redditor grumbled in a (top-rated) comment about the shift in general.
CrossFit founder Greg Glassman opened his first sparsely furnished box filled with no-frills equipment like barbells and flat benches to promote high-intensity workouts in 2000. Since then, the CrossFit movement has grown exponentially, reportedly encompassing more than 15,000 affiliates worldwide. But selling seniors on CrossFit, either out of an altruistic desire to help them live healthier lives or in a grasping bid to tap a huge new market of potential box goers, may be one of the brand’s hardest lifts yet.
THE “AT HOME” series’ message of accessibility is hard to square with Pukie the Clown, a cartoon character always pictured projectile-vomiting after a harsh workout. Or with his counterpart, Uncle Rhabdo, a muscular but haggard clown covered in lesions and hooked up to a dialysis machine—because he worked out so hard that he developed rhabdomyolysis, a potentially fatal condition in which muscles are worked so hard they sustain damage severe enough to cause the fibers to break down, releasing cellular debris into the blood, which can cause permanent kidney, muscle, or nerve damage if left untreated. Some early CrossFitters claim Glassman invented the clowns in the early 2000s for use in CrossFit materials; Pukie is still seen in murals in a few boxes, as their unofficial mascot. (Men’s Health reached out to CrossFit Inc. for this article but did not receive a reply by publication.)
Many CrossFit fans and critics alike believe Pukie glorifies pushing yourself so hard that you yarf, while Rhabdo makes light of the risks of over-exercising. Some insiders say the clowns are actually cautionary tales—Don’t push yourself so hard, don’t be a fool. Whatever the origins, both perpetuate a popular belief that CrossFit is all about going absolutely HAM and prioritizing progress over everything.
The truth is a little different. Glassman and his early collaborators built CrossFit to foster functional fitness through high-intensity workouts rooted in basic movements. The program centers on “workouts of the day” (WODs), each ostensibly focusing on a different type of core physical competency. (Like devotees of any club, CrossFit fanatics have their own vernacular, rich in abbreviations and code names. If you’re new, the box finder tool Rounds for Time has posted a 71-term glossary.)
Doing a WOD as Rx’d (CrossFit speak for “as prescribed”) involves completing sets of predetermined moves as quickly as possible within strict time limits. That alone might seem tough. But trainers can encourage competition by scoring your performance based on how many reps you got in before time ran out, which can make things even tougher. The “Fran,” one of a group of classic and consistently repeated benchmark WODs collectively known as “The Girls,” Rx’es 21 reps of 95-pound barbell thrusters followed by 21 pull-ups. Then 15 barbell thrusters and 15 pull-ups. Then nine thrusters and nine pull-ups. Beginners with a “good” time are supposed to complete a Fran in seven to nine minutes, while elite athletes are expected to nail it in under three. That’s a tall order for many casual athletes, much less older folks who are affected by age-related muscle loss and any number of other subtle to serious physical limitations.
But there is a tweak: The CrossFit regimen allows practitioners to “scale” WODs, using lighter weights or easier versions of motions as needed to maintain form and safety. CrossFit still encourages people to push their limits. But scaling allows them to set their own pace. As early as 2002, in an article in CrossFit Journal, CrossFit Inc.’s official magazine, Glassman explained how scaling creates space for seniors to work out comfortably in boxes alongside elite athletes. “The needs of an Olympic athlete and our grandparents differ by degree not kind,” he wrote. “One is looking for functional dominance, the other for functional competence… We have used our same routines for elderly individuals with heart disease and cage fighters one month out from televised bouts. We scale load and intensity; we do not change the programs.”
Some trainers take that to heart. Four of the half-dozen CrossFit trainers I spoke to for this story said they had relatives over the age of 65 who had been involved in their local CrossFit boxes for years. Recently, boxes have started establishing and sharing tactics for integrating older or less experienced individuals into their communities, at times by creating special programs. “Most of the gyms I’ve gone to, and that would be in the hundreds, have masters programs,” says Starrett, using a general fitness-world term for over-40 athletes. “And really senior athletes,” he adds.
Even the CrossFit Games, launched in 2007 with no age brackets, had created an explicit over-60-athletes category by 2011. The 19 men who competed in this category did an Rx workout of 500 meters of rowing, 500 meters on a bike, 15 burpee box jumps, and a 120 foot carry, but in an age-scaled time frame.
THE FIRST PEOPLE Glassman focused on bringing into the CrossFit fold in the early 2000s were mostly police officers, other first responders, and military types. He reportedly built a lot of CrossFit’s early rhetoric and imagery around their hardcore, tough-guy vibe—Pukie and Rhabdo were allegedly born out of their dark humor. So the CrossFit regimen may have in theory been inclusive and accessible, but the public image was incredibly niche, and likely unappealing to many seniors.
But according to Chris Cooper, a former CrossFit media-team member and current box operator and gym business mentor, this was all part of a grand plan. Glassman often talked, he says, about “starting with the SEALs and then work on the grandmothers.” The idea being that bringing in elite athletes first would eventually allow him to show people, through arguably extreme examples, that CrossFit worked. From a marketing perspective, that’s really a one-way street: Once you get enough shirtless icons aboard, average people might sign up too because they want some version of that muscle-bulging jacked-ness. But on the flip side, elite athletes probably wouldn’t want to sign up for a newfangled program targeted at average folks precisely because the more malleable and accessible you make something, the more the gains might vary.
That’s how the Games started—as “a test kitchen where we can prove our concepts,” as Starrett puts it. But Starrett and others suggest that the Games wound up becoming far more central to CrossFit’s public brand than Glassman may have intended, thanks to snowballing media coverage and popular interest. The brand certainly leaned hard into the Games’ vision of physical exceptionalism at times seemingly to the exclusion of openness and accessibility. In 2009, the editors of the CrossFit Journal ran a small piece titled “Iron Will, Iron Bodies” alongside a series of photos of chiseled athletes straining with effort at that year’s Games. It read, in part:
“Without doubt, the bodies required to produce that functional movement are truly impressive machines made up of rippling muscle and taut sinew. CrossFit men are the direct descendants of hunters and warriors whose lives depended on fitness, but they are also living, breathing examples of the classical male ideal sought after by Renaissance artists.”
Starrett says that the Games ultimately became “a distraction” to affiliates trying to bring in an older clientele. While seeing people perform Herculean feats might be great entertainment, at a certain point it perhaps becomes a turn-off to average people. Especially if they’re past their prime and worried about having to get in sufficient shape to even try the workout. CrossFit’s “At Home” video series sets a fundamentally more approachable tone, right down to the soothing elevator music, with plenty of different ways to get started. There are now more than 100 exercise videos in the playlist.
The public debut of that programming might have seemed sudden, but CrossFit Inc. has been working for a while now on several ways to become all-ages accessible. Three years ago, the company published training materials on how to work with masters athletes, making it easier for boxes to develop competitive programs for the slightly older set on their own. And two years ago, Glassman started offering MDL1 courses, a version of the intro (or L1) two-day training course required to be a certified CrossFit trainer geared explicitly towards medical doctors. Glassman, who is now 63 and going strong, seems to be betting this will improve their knowledge of his version of functional fitness—and potentially get them to refer less fit or older patients to CrossFit boxes for their health.
But this shift has not necessarily prepared individual CrossFit affiliates to work with the older people. Early on, CrossFit’s masters training appeared to be a work in progress. A CrossFit Journal article, “Functional and Fit over 50,” published a few months before the training materials came out, all but tells affiliates to just figure out how to work with older populations on their own. A few members of the CrossFit community have criticized their peers for being too rosy and glib about the supposed ease of working with seniors, many of whom have a number of physical restrictions that trainers need to know how to deal with. This stacks onto longstanding critique from more-traditional trainers that CrossFit does not require nearly enough instruction for its own trainers and simultaneously gives affiliates extreme autonomy to work with clients however they see fit within their own fiefdoms. Their more oblique message seems to be that doing CrossFit is somehow risky, although there is no evidence that the format causes injury.
Axel Pflueger, M.D., Ph.D., a New York City-based doctor, teaches his clients CrossFit routines in his office to help them stay fit. He served as CrossFit Inc.’s chief medical officer from 2016 to 2018 and says he still acts as a medical advisor to Glassman. But Pflueger says there are few boxes to refer his older patients to for ongoing support and training. He knows that some boxes have a long history of working with seniors and acknowledges that many trainers seem to want to be able to work with his patients, in keeping with CrossFit’s core accessibility ethos. But in the grand scheme, he thinks few are fully prepared for the task. “Sometimes there is a hesitancy from the coaches, like, Oh my God, here’s a 65-year-old. What am I getting into?” he says.
THE PROPOSITION OF attracting more seniors to gyms certainly looks like a savvy business move. “People over 60 have the most free time,” notes Roland Sturm, Ph.D., a RAND Corporation economist who analyzes health and wellness trends, and much of that is in the late morning or the afternoon, typical gym downtimes. Not everyone may be willing to dip into their retirement savings for a CrossFit class. But Jon Levell, a co-owner of CrossFit by Overload, a box in Murrieta, California, showed last year that they don’t necessarily need to pay their own way.
Through his other job as a business manager at the Loma Linda University Medical Center, Levell and another CrossFit client and enthusiast, who also worked at a local health-care group, Rancho Family Medical, teamed up to add seniors to their list of acceptable reimbursements. He now runs three 10: 30 A.M. classes per week, specially scaled for seniors, for about 60 participants—and hopes to move up to five a week soon. Thanks to the program’s visibility, he adds, “I’ve had [older] people come in and say, ‘I don’t have that medical benefit, but I’d still like to [participate],’” and they pay full freight.
“When implemented safely and correctly,” Levell says that creating a program like his can “attract a revenue stream that has been untouched” by other gyms. Maybe so. But that only matters if you can convince seniors to show up in the first place. According to the federal American Time Use Survey, Strum says, only about 2.5 percent of older people go to a gym on a typical day. (For perspective, that’s less than half the rate for people between the ages of 15 and 25.) Seniors prefer to work out at home, or by walking around their neighborhoods, if at all. Giving them video guides to doing scaled-down CrossFit workouts they can do in their living rooms may help to demystify the movement, but that’s only a starting point. And while Levell has had some success, he admits that he’s struggled to find other boxes willing or able to adopt his program. Concerns about trainer preparedness are still big deal. “The minute one 70-year-old has a heart attack or breaks their femur,” he says, “you know all kinds of bad vibes and publicity are going to get behind it.”
Regardless, James, the Denver-based marketing researcher, believes that this new wave of senior-friendly tutorials ultimately still sends older people an important message: That it’s okay for everyone to pursue their own individual health goals, rather than some prescribed (or RX’d?) notion of the “fitness ideal for all.” That could actually get more older folks into health and exercise, even if it’s in the comfort of their own home and even if they don’t end up following CrossFit’s routines specifically.
One year in, the comments on more recent videos seem generally more upbeat and the makeshift exercise tools have achieved their own cult status. “I would like to see the water jugs,” someone jokingly posted on a YouTube video uploaded in mid-February featuring a woman doing lunges without weights. Within a week, two more tutorials involving the now famous jugs went live.
Mark Hay is a Brooklyn-based reporter who writes frequently about health, medicine, and sex for publications like Men’s Health, Men’s Journal, VICE, Aeon, Slate, and more.