Barbells for America? Crossfit, the Military and War

On any given day, if you were to click over to the Crossfit ‘mainsite’,  the chances are you will find a reference to the military  in the daily entry. Today, on February 25th, the blog prescribes a ‘Hero workout’ named ‘Zimmermann‘ named after U.S. Marine Corps First Lieutenant James R. Zimmerman, who died in action in Afghanistan. (The  ‘Hero’ workouts are almost invariably named after men; recently, one of them, ‘White’, was named after a woman, U.S. Army First Lieutenant Ashley White, who, like Zimmermann, died in action in Afghanistan.) The ‘mainsite’ often features photographs of members of the military working out at US bases all over the world, service members frequently write in the comments space, and occasionally articles with a military or national security orientation are linked to on the blog; Crossfit affiliate gyms all over the country offer discounts to the military; the annual fund-raising event Fight Gone Bad raises money for wounded servicemen; and many affiliates celebrate Memorial Day by performing the ‘Murph’ Hero workout (named after Navy Lieutenant Michael Murphy, killed in action in Afghanistan).

There is, it appears, something of the military in Crossfit’s genes. (This is partially explained by the fact that service members were among the first to adopt Crossfit training routines and that much military physical training already incorporated aspects of the Crossfit training methodology.)

So, is Crossfit ‘militaristic’, ‘pro-war’, ‘jingoistic’, ‘right-wing’, ‘cheerleaders for US imperialism and expansionism’, or whatever else? The answer, like that to any interesting question, is complicated. The flavor of the ‘mainsite’–moreso in the past–often seemed to indicate a facile ‘yes’ answer to those questions. (When I was first directed to the ‘mainsite’ by a Crossfitting friend, he warned me to ‘stay away from their frightening right-wing politics’; when I got to the site, I found an article by Charles Krauthammer just below the daily workout entry.)

But as Crossfit’s popularity has grown, and as the demographic associated with Crossfit has diversified from a core population made up of  servicemen, law-enforcers and firemen–the three groups that until recently, were the only ones to receive membership discounts; my affiliate now offers discounts to teachers–the ‘orientation’, such as it is, of Crossfit, has become more ambiguous. Crossfit doesn’t just mean Air Force crewmen working out in hangars; it also means Berkeley grads sprinting on beaches in North California; it doesn’t only conjure up images of crewcut privates working out in remote mountain outposts, but also those of post-natal soccer moms discussing paleo recipes (and perhaps even skinny-jean clad hipsters riding gearless bikes to the daily WOD).

The Crossfit world is made up of thousands of affiliates each with its own particular flavor, style, demographic, geographic location, and culture. And many of those who Crossfit now don’t like wars in general, they don’t like the wars the US wages, they think the best way to ‘support our boys over there’ is to bring them right back home so that they don’t get killed in action (and stop killing others), to stop spending money on drones or stealth bombers, and to spend it on public schools, infrastructure, and basic scientific research instead. Their membership, enthusiastic participation, and responses to Crossfit’s connections with the military complicate any easy answers to those questions.

Many Crossfitters disdain the political implications of a workout regime: ‘I workout, move the weight, sweat the work, and I’m done. I stay away from the politics.’ This apolitical response works most of the time. But at times like Fight Gone Bad, or at the Memorial Day ‘commemorations’, as one performs ‘Murph’, it is hard not to have to face up to the question of what affiliation with, or participation in, a perhaps-militaristic culture might entail for one’s own political commitments. (This complication is especially enhanced by that all-too-common exhortation, ‘Even if you don’t support US foreign policy, you should be behind the brave servicemen and women, out there, doing their jobs’).

I cannot–and will not–attempt an answer for anyone else that Crossfits. (I do hope that by writing this post, I can raise questions for any Crossfitter to consider. ) All I can do is offer a few thoughts about my personally complicated implication in all of this.

I’m a naturalized US citizen, I have marched in anti-war marches, I find the culture of masculine violence veneration obnoxious. But, I also write books on military aviation history; more particularly, air wars in the Indian subcontinent; members of my family–my father and my brother–have served in the military (the Indian Air Force); my father fought in two wars–the 1965 and 1971 wars with Pakistan–and picked up a gallantry medal. Some of my most enjoyable childhood memories are those of watching jets–afterburners on–take off; some of my most pleasurable adult experiences have been of interviewing war veterans for my books.

Pro-military? Anti-military? For the ‘boys’? Or against them? Comfortable with Crossfit’s connections with the military, or not?

The answer, I think, is a mishmash of many competing impulses. The comfort-seeking apolitical part of me disdains a conceptual connection between a workout regime and a political orientation; another part, the one that thinks ‘the personal is political’, is made uncomfortable by my association with a ‘culture’ or ‘institution’ that is so passionately pro-military and perhaps militaristic. These responses are made ambiguous by my personal identification with members of the military; I find myself striking up conversations about service life with servicemen quite easily; I think of myself as a ‘military brat’ and find empathy with the children of service members. And somehow, I still cannot bring myself to think that when I do a ‘Hero’ workout I am honoring the memory of the fallen. To do that, it seems to me that I should work to ensure no more children are ever orphaned by war, that no more families ever have to confront the sight of a funeral casket. My father, someone that actually fought in a war, as opposed to those who merely cheer for it from the sidelines, described it as ’90 percent boredom, 10 percent confusion’; he refused to glamorize war and disdained the telling of tall war tales; he urged me to think about careers other than that of a fighter pilot; and by making sure I read more than just war comics, made me think about the politics that makes war possible.

The sum total of these competing impulses is ultimately determined, as it is for most people, by their own personal connections with Crossfit culture. I don’t ‘do Crossfit’; rather I work out with a group of folks that I can best describe as my friends, at a highly particular, specific location: Crossfit South Brooklyn. This, for me, isn’t Crossfit so much as it is ‘The House That David Built.’ It might utilize Crossfit training methodology but its deployment is uniquely personal and idiosyncratic. If there is an ideology on display here, it is that of working hard, and accepting as much diversity–in fitness yes, but in every other dimension as well–as possible. Fitting in here is easy just because the space accommodates so many in all their variety.

When I interviewed veterans for my books, to a man, they said their most important motivation in any display of courage was invariably personal; they fought not so much for flag or country but for the men, their friends, who worked with and alongside them; quite simply, they didn’t want to let them down. In my participation in Crossfit ‘culture’ a decidedly less martial variant holds true; I work out with my friends in a space that is accepting of my political stance, and in the end that is all that seems to matter. Last year, I dedicated my ‘Murph’ to my father and my brother. And even though I do not think performing a ‘Hero’ workout will honor the memory of the fallen as much as working to end wars will, if performing it helps someone think about war and its cost, then I’m all for it. In the end, it’s perhaps best to find– within this particular space–my personal orientation to the questions it raises and to answer them in my own way. What that way is, is something I’m still figuring out as I move on. (That is, when I’m not performing a workout or recovering from one; at those times, my mind is fixated, almost exclusively, on the demands my body is making on me!)

I remain, as always, deeply curious about what other Crossfitters think about the questions raised in this post, and would love to engage with their answers to it.

28 thoughts on “Barbells for America? Crossfit, the Military and War

    1. Ben,

      Glad you liked it. Took me too damn long to write it, and I still think its all over the place! But it’s a start – I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of this subject.

  1. tl;dr.


    Seriously, good post. So this bit is interesting:

    When I interviewed veterans for my books, to a man, they said their most important motivation in any display of courage was invariably personal; they fought not so much for flag or country but for the men, their friends, who worked with and alongside them;

    That I think is the part of the military that attracted me in the first place and what motivated me to put my hat in the ring and attempt to join the Marine Corps. This is the military at its highest ideal and best, but also it is the bit that makes it so easy for evil politicians to subvert such a fine institution and use it to their own nefarious and evil self-serving ends. They then subvert these fine and honorable motivations to support their fellow servicemembers into doing things that hurt our country.

    I love my country, I love my military, and I absolutely hate my government.

    1. Sameer,

      Good to see you here. I think the relationship between the perception that members of the military have of their work, and of the motivations that are projected onto them by non-serving folks and the government is very interesting and if studied, I think, would make the debate about supporting particular policies because you think you need to support ‘the boys’ much more complicated.

      Thanks for the comment. (I’m glad you read the post all the way through :))

  2. Well said Samir. I too try and use Hero WODs as a lens that might help me better inspect the nature of service, sacrifice, and community. I for one have always thought that Hero WODs should be extended to memorialize any Hero, not neccesarily military.

    I’m more conflicted on this topic than I normally let on. I certainly think the Crossfit-Military link is an obvious one due to the nature of our practice and the nature of the demands of military life. That being said, as Crossfit expands, I think it will be interesting to see whether HQ continues to be as openly political as they are. I think there is certainly room to be pro-miltary (or pro-soldier, etc. etc.) and apolitical, the military (ideally) not being only a tool and/or pet project of the right.

    Any self respecting business should certainly never include a link to a Krauthammer article, thats just ugly.

    1. Noah,

      Thanks for the comment. I remember thinking at last year’s FGB: this is a good time to think of how many kids have lost their parents to war. So I think in a way, the CF-military connection helps keep war uppermost in people’s minds, which as it should be. And yes, I’m certainly interested to see how the political orientation of ‘HQ’ (ha! that sounds military!) will change as the demographic broadens; there might be a trend towards less explicitly political stances, precisely in order to grow the business. (I hear you on the Krauthammer :))

  3. Hey Samir,

    In relation to your article, I have been thinking lately although I remain unsure, if there isn’t a connection between Crossfit and rigid thought and what exactly that correlation is. From the right wing, pro-military bent of the main page down to people wearing the same shoes and not eating rice, there appears to be elements which discourage alternative perspectives. The main site also will have lots of Christian comments. I was curious of your thoughts as this. There is a “cult like” atmosphere to Crossfit which isn’t really explored.

    1. Ryan,

      Thanks for the comment. I think the conformity or cult-like atmosphere that you allude to is certainly there. It’s almost as if some kind of groupthink sets in as a reaction to having adopted a particular lifestyle; in the case of Crossfit, that manifests itself in the patterns you notice (the ‘Christian comments’ you notice could be a function of the particular demographic on mainsite?). Anyway, I think this needs to be thought about a bit more, and perhaps I’ll write something on it soon. Thanks for the prod in that direction!


  4. I chalk it all up to marketing. Whether the political opinions of CrossfitHQ are firmly held or not, they know their most avid members come from the military/ex-military audience, and that those members have the highest ‘net promoter score’ (

    I also pay it the attention I give most forms of marketing: as little as possible. Plus, now that Reebok is on board, I feel reasonably safe that I won’t find myself needing to quit b/c of some crazy CrossFitHQ political stance/stunt I don’t want to be associated with.

    1. Ryan, (Not Piester?):

      Thanks for the comment. Marketing is certainly an interesting perspective on this! I’m also interested to hear your response to Reebok getting on board: what do you think the downsides of their involvement might be?


  5. Wonderful post, Samir. I too have sometimes felt uncomfortable with the military aspects of Crossfit central. You’ve forced me to think about it, rather than just act like it’s not there. I like the idea of dedicating work-outs to loved ones. One could also dedicate it to the life of the soldier(s) who have died in fruitless wars without endorsing the wars. While I don’t necessarily think of Crossfitting as a spiritual practice, it might be a little bit like praying for the dead. I gotta say, what I ADORE about Crossfit South Brooklyn is the openness and the welcoming atmosphere that invites you to write and share a thoughtful post like this one. Good job! And I gotta say good job to David, Shane, Fox(es), Margie, Noah, Nick and Josh (hope I didn’t forget anybody-not looking at the coaches page right now) for creating a great community to get healthy in.

    1. Martha,

      Thanks for the comment – good to see you here! I agree; the vibe at CFSBK has been a big help in getting me to get clear on these thoughts and try and write them up. And I think it’s a good idea to think about the many ways in which the personal can intersect with the political; thinking about CF’s connection with the military certainly does that. Incidentally, I think lifting is meditative for sure! I plan to write more on that very soon.


  6. Hi Samir, nice write up. I can’t help but share my own ideas, please feel free to tell me to scram.

    I struggle with Crossfit’s relationship to the military on a few levels. The first is that I do not want to be a part of the myth-building that happens around the US Military. I say this as a former high school teacher in a low-income school where many of my students were heavily recruited into the armed services, particularly my homeless students. They felt they had few, if any, other options after high school and often the gifts and interest they received from recruiters were so desperately needed that, I don’t know, it just didn’t seem right or fair for the recruiters to give them their cell phone numbers and build a friendship with them, then ship them off and never talk to them again, right at the very time they were most vulnerable (losing all their HS friends and teachers and food sources). So, when I am working out, in the relative comfort of the gym, with a lot of people, who I consider real friends, who can afford to buy a membership and lululemon clothes and the whole bit, and we are in a way playing soldier, it feels disrespectful, I feel like I am disrespecting my former students and trivializing the very real nature of violence and war in their lives that was not a choice and that they don’t get to walk away from after the buzzer rings.

    On another level, as someone who like yourself tries to practice non-violence, wherever appropriate, I find it curious that people voluntarily want to do violence-inspired workouts. But, I recognize that non-violence is an ideal, and that we live in a real world where violence happens everyday and that as humans it is important that we are psychologically and physically prepared for that reality and for many of us Crossfit is a healthy and productive way to explore that side of our own personalities.

    Which brings me to my own most political point, I believe, strongly, that most violence occurs to protect money and power, that it is often perpetrated by wealthier people on less wealthy people, that historically it has more often performed by men on women, by imperialists on first nations peoples, by heterosexual, gender-conforming people on their queer and gender-nonconforming peers, that it is not only glorified, mythologized and legitimized in society through language and art, but it is even eroticized.

    So, I have a particularly hard time with the language and culture-building aspects of Crossfit’s named WODs. I feel that when people do not actively complicate the stories we tell, when we choose words for things that are genuinely non-inclusive and perhaps even scary or offensive to poor people, queer people, people of color, non-English speaking people, non-citizens, etc, that we are in effect complicit in building and perpetuating the injustices that create iniquities in wealth, power, and force. I know that other people see this issue through a radically different lens, and I respect that deeply, too.

    As my own form of personal, non-violent resistance I made up a set of Crossfit-style workouts to do on days when there is a pro-US military WOD. I have named one group things like “Pine Ridge,” and “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” then I named the other group things like “Kittens,” and “Purple,” etc. I just felt like I personally needed to push reset after a year of workouts like Murph and a closet full of shirts with skulls and crossbones and the like.

    Thank you very much for writing this post, and helping to create a meaningful and multi-voiced dialogue about this really interesting thing we all do 2-6 times a week together!

    1. Billy,

      This is only a quick response; I think in order to do justice to your comment, I’d need to write a whole post, so let me think about that. I want to write something on the gender-related issues of WOD nomenclature as well. Thanks again – this is great, thoughtful stuff, and I appreciate your effort in writing it.

      1. Samir, a few idea starters re: Crossfit and Gender.

        1: The mainsite doesn’t post women’s scaling. Inclusive or exclusionary?
        2: During the 2011 games former golden kid dark, short, masculine Kris Clever almost disappeared from media coverage (ESPN) of the event. In her stead, blonde, tall, white, feminine Annie Thorisdottir with pale eyes and blood-red lips was all the rage. It was incredible an incredible coincidence that this shift happened the same year ESPN and Reebok came on board.
        3: Female-named WODs, empowering or radically sexist?
        4. Drug testing, leveling the playing field or excluding transgender athletes?

  7. Billy, thanks for those! I didn’t know of/think about 1, 2 and 4. 3 has been on my mind for a very long time. I’ll probably get to that first just because I think it connects to broader concerns I have about gym cultures in general.

  8. Referred here by Sumbul, great piece. At the beginning I thought it was going to turn into an anti-war Crossfit bashing piece, but you surprised me with some thoughtful insight. I own South Baltimore Crossfit, and this will help to frame some of my talking points at this year’s “Hero” workouts and Fight Gone Bad. I look forward to reading more of your posts.

    1. Sean,

      Thanks for the comment; I’m glad you found the piece thought-provoking. I’ve been very keen to hear from other Crossfit affiliates on what they think about this, so it’s good to know that the word is getting out there. And I look forward to having you back here as well!

  9. Hey Samir,

    Better late than never for this comment, but just in time to be late for Murph!

    Thanks for getting me (and a lot of others) thinking about this stuff.

    I’m glad Crossfit has Hero WODs. I’m troubled by militarism and making violence seem cool, but I’m glad there’s a way–past just saying words or looking at a monument–to express my gratitude for the fact that a person in a place did an unimaginably hard/boring/terrifying/selfless thing and then died in an effort to protect the people around him or her, and also in some way to protect me.

    Still, I’m glad to see a Hero WOD named after a firefighter (“Arnie,” You often hear “military/police/firefighters were the first to embrace Crossfit,” but the ones who are trained to hurt people often get the most press. And while sprinting into a burning building and carrying people out might be as good an example of “general physical preparedness” as any, fighting seems to be the most simple, common, and easily imaginable example. Turn on the TV and try to find a show about people rescuing each other from burning buildings.

    In both cases, the test is, ‘are you prepared enough to survive?’ If you are a decent person in a sane line of work, it’s unlikely you’ll be in physical danger on a given day,* and so you’ll almost never feel the human parts of yourself that were built to engage with danger. Those parts are important. This is one of the reasons I like Crossfit so much: it gives you a place to safely experience how your brain reacts when your body faces a challenge very similar to danger.

    Because fighters do engage those parts of themselves, it’s easy to romanticize them. As Hemingway–that most manly of people who sit inside and poke at keyboards all day–said so well, “Nobody ever lives their life all the way up except bull-fighters.” And it’s hard to argue that the organizations that make up Crossfit culture don’t do this romanticizing. Three examples off the top of my head: Rogue Fitness calls their wall-mounted barbell storage “the Gun Rack;” the CrossFit Journal’s “Sealfit” segments have music and an editing style clearly borrowed from action-movies; and “Talk to Me, Johnny,” the extremely useful and informative blog by the founder of Crossfit Football, takes its name from the first Rambo movie, “First Blood.” Crossfit admires what soldiers do, not just what they sacrifice.

    And, I’ll admit, so do I, even if I think of myself as a peaceful person, someone who abhors the hurting and killing of other people, and someone who rolls his eyes at people who believe that war isn’t as tedious and banal as Samir’s dad confirms. I think it’s admirable to be able to fight well. And I don’t know what to say about that.

    Back to Hero WODs (and wrapping up soon, I swear). I also wonder if there’s a desire for vicarious suffering involved. Apart from service members and their friends and family, most Americans feel completely disconnected from the wars, and it makes them feel crazy to watch CNN footage from Kabul while sitting on their comfy couches. And that war over there is supposedly for us. So maybe Hero WODs give people a concrete way to suffer along with the soldiers they know so little about. Is this admirable? Or some kind of pathetic experience-tourism that ends after 8 minutes? Again, I don’t know, but I think it comes from a good impulse, and might be helpful.

    Anyway, under all of this, I love going to the House that David Built (love that phrase, Samir), and sweating with people I like and admire. Or, I *will* love it once my shoulder heals from surgery and I can get back there.

    Thanks for the great post.

    *and, as Billy points out, being white, middle+-class, male, and American sure helps a lot with a person’s freedom from danger.

  10. Not sure how I got to this blog but I’m glad I did. Very thoughtful post, and a welcome one for me to read. I’ve been “Crossfitting” on my own, in gyms, at home, in the park, for about a year and a half now, and got the Level 1 Certification just over a year ago. I’ve been somewhat reticent to tell people that I’m doing Crossfit, though, for fear that if they go to the main site to check it out they’ll assume I’m some kind of jingoistic nut.

    Like you, my father was in the military (Navy, WWII), but I feel strongly that the best way to support those who serve now is to bring them home. I’ve always gotten the very strong impression that the Crossfit “culture” glorifies the military and glorifies its exploits, which is repugnant to me, so it was nice to read your more generous assessment. It’s also nice to know that there are Crossfit gyms and communities out there that don’t follow in lock step with the hyper-masculine, militaristic leanings of the headquarters, so to speak.

    If I ever have the chance, and can get down there from the Bronx, I’d love to come to Crossfit South Brooklyn some time. It sounds like a great place, with great people.
    Thanks again for the thoughtful post.

  11. Thanks for this thoughtful post. Came across your site after doing a Google search for “crossfit militarism.” I have been curious about Crossfit for a while, but offput by the militaristic vibe and male-dominated impression I got. I think I am going to pass on the local Crossfit gym in my area, given this article and a few other sites I found, for two primary reasons:

    1. I have no interest in being preached at about the military while I work out. The thought actually makes me ill. I don’t think I could just ignore it and focus on the exercise—I would find myself recalling the “collateral murder” video, the torture, the night raids on families, the dead children, and the thousands of veterans who are now killing themselves over what they saw and what they did. I’ve paid too much attention over the past ten years to just brush that off and play along with the “heroes” B.S. I have compassion for all the poor kids who joined the military out of a lack of opportunities, but I can’t smile and nod while hearing the lie that these brutal wars were “service” for our country.

    2. I also don’t like the exaggerated gender norms and vaguely misogynist aspects of the culture. I found this quote from the Crossfit founder about the female WOD names: “I thought that anything that left you flat on your back, looking up at the sky asking ‘what just happened to me?’ deserved a females name. Workouts are just like storms, they wreak havoc on towns.” The site adds that the “Nasty Girls” workouts “[leave] you flat on your back and incapacitated only to lure you back for more at a later date.”

    The objectifying, somewhat contemptuous tone, sexualization, and the presumption of a male audience are disconcerting. Being in a space surrounded by men much bigger and stronger than me, with a male instructor, in a culture that tolerates that kind of misogyny, would make me feel uncomfortable and unsafe.

    Nope, I don’t think Crossfit is for me. Too bad, it seems like it’s a good workout. I hope someone comes up with a similar fitness program/workout subculture without the crappy militaristic and patriarchal ideology.

    1. Claire,

      All good points. I think individual ‘boxes’ have evolved their own styles which depart from the mainsite CF ethos quite sharply. My box in Brooklyn is a good example of that. Stop by if you are ever in the hood. We have all body types, female instructors, and coaches who actively look out for the kind of behavior you don’t like. There are plenty of folks who are trying to reform the culture from within.

  12. What are you all so afraid of? Just because some individuals choose to hold a different opinion than you about how they support a war effort doesn’t make them a radical or an extremist. It disgusts me that you and your mindless entourage here speak with such fear at the idea of working out with conservatives, or christians. What are they going to do, mind melt you through high-intensity fitness to being one of us god fearing war mongers. Honestly, just go work out, stop being so uber sensitive that other people have opinions that vary from yours. I know that I could care less that you are living under the blanket of protection that I provide while you blast the manner in which we provide it. Id love to have world peace but its not always possible.

    Politics aside, the practice of naming a Hero Workout after a fallen soldier is gesture of respect for those men and women. Just like naming a highway or a building after a notable public figure is intended to honor that persons achievements. The fact that you feel such a strong inclination to write these posts attacking the idea of a fitness culture that houses a differing popular opinion than yours is a true testament to the real problem. The real extremists seem to be those who feel the need to force silence upon anyone who might disagree with you.

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