Seven years ago, CrossFit had 13 gyms nationwide. Today, the privately owned company has 4,000 affiliates in 67 countries, including 2,100 in the United States. Even though the brand has grown quickly and is viewed by members as a fast way to get fit, the high-intensity workouts also have raised safety concerns, sparking some injury lawsuits and controversy in the fitness industry.
Greg Glassman created CrossFit after working as a personal trainer in several commercial health clubs where his out-of-the-box workouts—doing overheads with weights and climbing poles—caused friction with the club owners.
After he was “thrown out of a commercial facility,” as he says, Glassman considered training clients in his garage, but one of his clients allowed him to use his 400-square-foot Jujitsu studio instead. Six months later in 2000, Glassman opened his own 1,250-square-foot CrossFit gym in Santa Cruz, CA, and launched his website a year later. The business took off through licensing.
Every 18 months, CrossFit’s revenue doubles from seminars, affiliate fees and the CrossFit Journal, which has a $25 per year subscription fee, Glassman says.
The rapid growth stems from the popularity of functional training and boot camp-style training. But the effectiveness of the workouts also has spurred growth, says Gabriel Haas, a personal trainer for CrossFit Orlando.
Using accessories such as kettlebells, medicine balls, Olympic rings and weight-lifting bars, personal trainers lead high-intensity functional group training sessions involving everyone from “super soccer moms” to elite military forces.
CrossFit also offers a greater sense of community than most traditional commercial clubs, says Aush Chatman, owner of CrossFit San Diego.
“Most people go to the gym, put on their headphones, work out alone and look at themselves in the mirror,” says Chatman, who owns a 4,100-square-foot gym with 110 members and nine group classes per day. “At CrossFit, everyone is working out together, cheering people on and giving each other pointers.”
The airing of the CrossFit Games, a fitness competition owned by CrossFit and run by the corporate team, also has helped to popularize the workouts and the brand. After last summer’s competition aired on TV, Chatman received a flood of phone calls from people wanting to try a class.
Steve Paul, owner of CrossFit Denver, says, “Word is getting out that full-body functional fitness is a better way to go than the traditional fitness model. You don’t have to be a crazy good athlete to do CrossFit. It’s more along the lines of fitness for everyone.”
Not everyone, however, agrees that CrossFit is safe or appropriate for all exercisers. Some people question the biomechanics, exercise selection and program design.
Jason Dudley, head tactical strength and conditioning coach and manager for the National Strength and Conditioning Association in Colorado Springs, CO, raises concerns about the company’s training methodology. When implemented incorrectly, high-intensity training can have adverse effects on all types of performance as well as lead to both acute and chronic injury, he says.
Some of these concerns revolve around the CrossFit online training videos. Dudley says that participants are at a greater risk for injury if the proper technique and progression are not overseen by a certified strength and conditioning specialist, tactical facilitator or personal trainer.
Nonmembers of CrossFit can view the videos, but Paul says that a video clip is not a good way to learn functional movement. Case in point: when many people come to his gym, they tell him they already know all the movements because they have been doing CrossFit in their garages for years. In reality, however, their technique often needs correction that only in-person instruction can provide.
“The reason CrossFit gyms exist is because the movements are difficult and require a great deal of instruction, continual correction and refinement of technique,” Paul says. “When you work from a video, you have no idea if you are executing the movement even close to correctly, and the timely feedback of a coach is critical.”
Concerns about overdoing it also exist. Four years ago, a U.S. Navy technician sued a CrossFit affiliate in Manassas, VA, for inflicting permanent physical damage due to rhabdomyoloysis, or muscle breakdown. He eventually won the case against the affiliate. CrossFit’s affiliates created a risk retention group to protect themselves from lawsuits such as these and are self-insured with their own attorneys, Glassman says.
Despite these concerns, CrossFit is on the “perfect side of safety,” Glassman says, adding that he does not have a problem compensating exercisers if they have an injury.
The company has lawsuits pending in a half-dozen countries, but not all revolve around injuries, Glassman says. Some relate to issues such as intellectual property and protecting the brand. For example, someone sued CrossFit to reverse the company’s European Union trademark, asserting that he was the one who invented it, a claim Glassman says is untrue.
Up to now, Glassman says the corporate business has never lost or settled a lawsuit, even if some affiliates have.
“Legal is the fastest growing line item in our budget, and we hire more attorneys and legal interns every year,” Glassman says. “We’ve been sued and countersued, and we’re better at lawsuits than the New York Yankees are at baseball.”
Despite the concerns about CrossFit, the company has had a significant impact on the fitness industry, Dudley says. In his view, CrossFit has earned a large and loyal following and helped people reach new levels of fitness. At the same time, however, it has raised questions about the need for the individualization of training programs and stimulated passionate discussion on topics such as injury incidence and overtraining.
“There has to be recognition that high intensity training may be as much a measure of guts as of fitness,” Dudley says. “It remains to be seen whether this is a wise approach.”