“Crossfit does not operate within the formalized world of sport or the corporate gym establishment. It features contests involving sandbags, tractor tires, ropes, weights and surprise challenges. It promotes itself on social media, and is rarely written about in newspapers, except in the business pages. Ten years ago there were 13 Crossfit gyms in the United States, where it started. Now it has conquered most of the world – it has a presence in Mongolia, Fiji and Kazakhstan – and there are 11,000 Crossfit affiliates. Forbes magazine valued the brand at $4bn.” -The Guardian, December, 2015
A documentary appeared on Netflix recently and showed up at the top of my recommended lists. The name of it is Fittest on Earth (2015).
As a total documentary junkie, I tend to simply add any and all documentaries that pop up in the recently released lists on Netflix and Amazon straight into my watch lists. Subjects range from parking lots to serial killers, and I love them. While not all of them are the most high-end on the production front, the majority are executed well enough to entertain me, if not spawn an entirely new obsession cycle—like this one did.
Fittest on Earth is all about Crossfit, the fitness craze that has apparently been taking over the world for about two decades. In 2007, Crossfit put on the first Crossfit Games competition (the 2nd annual Crossfit Games is documented in another documentary available on Netflix called Every Second Counts ).
For years I’ve kept up a fairly regular but always changing workout routine at home with my light and medium weight dumbbells and lots of different workout videos. My mother still has ridiculous VHS footage of me in a leotard doing her 1980s Firm workouts (Vol. 2 was the best! lol). I continued to love workout videos and rotated them, returning to them again and again even if there were some hiatuses ranging from a few weeks to a few months.
After college, moving in to my own apartments and eventually a new house with my husband, I continued to look for hour long-ish workouts that I could do at home with my little dumbbells and a yoga mat for abs stuff. In 2009 I picked up running after discovering a lovely park with a four mile trail that I still visit regularly today, even though it is a little bit out of the way now. The key with keeping some kind of regularity with my workouts has always been that I could change it up and not get bored doing the same thing all the time. I love running, but I can’t just run every day, it would drive me crazy. Some days I want to just do a workout video and just sweat it out at home, working different muscles and exhausting them in ways that they aren’t accustomed to (always resulting in lovely and intense amounts of soreness the following day).
Anyway, when I began watching this Crossfit documentary, I was just mildly interested. It was something about a subject I did not know anything about. My husband goes to a gym and has coworkers that have mentioned how much they love it now and then, but I didn’t know what it was all about.
Within the first half hour, I was watching it for the athletes being followed during the 2015 Crossfit games. The Icelandic women Sara Sigmunsdottir and Katrin Davidsdottir, a beautiful and funny Brook Ence, ridiculously strong Samantha Briggs, down-to-earth and hilarious Mat Fraser as the underdog chasing first place with all he’s got, superhuman Ben Smith, Dan Bailey, etc. All of these people were unique to me and showed a lot more going on in their personalities than I usually think of when I think of the muscle-clad, self-obsessed stereotypes surrounding the men and women who spend endless hours weight lifting and training in a gym. (Mostly this idea comes from ignorance on my part of course.) Most of the guys I have known who spent hours at a gym every day didn’t even compete in a sport, just took pictures of themselves to put online lol.
But here I’m being introduced to a group of incredibly dedicated athletes who actually heavily support each other in a sport that has gotten so popular so fast that they have become celebrities in their own right. Individuals who have dedicated years of their lives to becoming the most all-around fittest people in the world, but still able to exude awesome personalities and incredibly supportive and encouraging sportsmanship…because they know that everyone else there is going through hell just like them. And maybe that’s a big part of it.
Crossfit is not about doing so many reps, lifting so much weight, and getting so good at a single objective that you can display your ability effortlessly at a competition and win by a landslide. Not anything like that. While all of the Crossfit Games athletes have strengths and weaknesses, not one of them flies effortlessly past these challenges to get to the podium at the end of the weekend. It is a grueling and unpredictable test that tears these people apart and throws them into so much pain that they have to be hyper-aware of how they are parading their complete vulnerability, giving everything they have, strain visible on their faces, to a gigantic audience in the stands and watching from all over the world—that has to be humbling, and it must be what gives these athletes a level head when it comes to how they train, how they compete and how they view the other athletes around them.
Throughout the film, many of the top contenders at the 2015 Crossfit Games are commenting on how this person is way stronger than they are in this particular field, how they weren’t ready for this, how they didn’t train properly for that and they will need to change it up to improve. Mat Fraser knows (at least back in 2015) that he isn’t the strongest sprinter in the world. And when, in one of the workouts called the “Soccer Chipper,” a 500lb+ “pig” tore apart his biceps to the point where he couldn’t even execute a single legless rope climb, he bought one of them after the competition (in which he placed 2nd) to bring home with him to train with for the next year; it must have constantly reminded him of his failure, but more importantly given him a way to improve and prepare if it were to come up again.
And therein lies one of the most interesting facets of the Crossfit Games. You train all year round, but when the Games finally approach, you have no idea what you will actually have to do once you get there, and there is no more time to prepare. Some of the workouts are revealed beforehand, but some of them no one is aware of until the day it is time to perform them. Crossfit is about a whole new level of serious all-around fitness. Not only do you lift, run, sprint, push-up, hand-stand, swim, climb, etc., etc., but there are so many different kinds of challenges that there is no way to perfect all of them. And that is why it is a really good test of the “fittest on earth.” When you can face something you’ve never faced before, but you’ve trained your body well enough that you can adapt to that level of intensity and challenge from any and all direction…”that’s how you get batman” as director Dave Castro puts it.
I started thinking about all the times in my life when I was happiest. There is nothing like getting on track with eating right and challenging your body through workouts. There is a natural high to running that instantly dissolves anything else that may have been the center of your world a few minutes before. When you are in that place, nothing else matters and that is what life is about. Your senses are heightened and you can feel every inch of yourself working. And then you wonder why you ever let yourself slack off or get lazy. This month especially has been incredible, taking late afternoon runs through the leaves on the trail at my favorite park. It’s like I don’t need anything else and it makes me so happy, especially when I exhaust myself but am able to push through to complete a goal and get a little further or a little faster than before.
One element of Crossfit that interests me is the objective of taking your body to its absolute limit. I think of other types of competition, let’s say a dance competition, something I’m familiar with. Everything you can expect at a competition, you already have with you. You have steps. You practice them, you get them down as perfectly as possible. Eventually it’s not so much about the energy you expend, but how well you can train your body to have the proper turn-out on this step, get to this height on this step, perfect the rhythm here and there. You compete with yourself, but you know what is in front of you, you know what is expected of you, and you know exactly what you are capable of. The only thing left up to chance is the mood of the judges that day and whether they care if your hair is out of place.
With Crossfit they take their body to limits that they haven’t seen before because they keep pushing themselves further than before. One day it is a ten minute routine, then you add some backflips, then you have to do eight of them, then you have to turn around and run a million miles afterwards, etc. It’s like an ever-evolving routine that never ever feels like a routine, it just feels more challenging than you did it last time, because you’re trying to push to get more, go longer. That is really interesting, and something that I always thought was dangerous. And it is of course, if you don’t know how to listen to your body and understand your limits. But at the same time, I watch these athletes after completing the infamous Murph workout. They’re blacking out, passing out on the field, can’t move their arms the next day, getting carried out on stretchers…but then they recover and say they can’t wait to do it again next year…WHAT?! lol
And that’s where a lot of my admiration for them comes in. It is obvious that these peoples’ minds can be even stronger than their bodies. When they get to the wall that most people don’t care to push through because it hurts so much, they do it. They keep going, they keep pushing even though they are in pain.
Lastly, I wanted to comment on how awesome it is that the incredible Crossfit women are being adored for their strength and discipline, their beauty in a world culture that has been so quickly seduced by the concept that thin and soft is beautiful and feminine. “Strong is Beautiful,” as the Guardian article quoted at the top of this article states (read here.)
I know I’ve always had a hard time dealing with the fact that I was not built to be stereotypically feminine. I have big arms and broad shoulders and monstrous calves from years of stomping around on a dance floor competing in Irish dance. I’ve done all kinds of diets thinking that I could somehow alter my body in a way that is not actually possible. But when I work out, lift weights, do 200 squats and feel how much work I was able to put my body through and still feel good, I wonder how important being soft and pretty is, and why I think that would make me a better person in the first place. I look at Brook Ence and I think she is incredible looking, I hope that my generation and the generation after me can begin to look at strong women like her as their role models and start to move away from the silly dreamland for which we’ve been drowning ourselves in guilt for so many years. Nope, we can’t all be the size of Taylor Swift, but with hard work, focus, and dedication, anyone can turn themselves into a strong, healthy woman ready for new challenges, both mentally and physically.