The extreme culture of CrossFit

WATCH ABOVE: John Vivian, a certified CrossFit level 2 trainer, talks to 16X9 about the culture of CrossFit.

TORONTO – It takes a special kind of dedication to get up in wee hours of a cold winter morning, and schlep over to the gym not just for a workout, but a CrossFit bootcamp. And yet, here, at CrossFit Toronto, the place is buzzing with dozens of devotees.

They’re swinging kettle bells, jumping on boxes, doing dozens of burpees, chin-ups, climbing ropes, swinging off Olympic rings. Sitting by the cubbies and coat racks, sipping a coffee, the whole thing looks intense, tiring and fun.

“Coming up when it’s minus eight and you know it’s a quarter past five in the morning and you’re running outside doing 800-metre sprints – it’s hard. There are days when all you want to do is sit in your bed,” says Chris Hood, a banker in his early 40s who works out at CrossFit about five times a week.

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“It takes a commitment if you want to get the results and being surrounded by people who are like-minded who are going to encourage you rather than hold you back.” Hood has also embraced other parts of CrossFit culture including a “paleo” – sometimes called the “caveman” diet for its mimicking of a hunter-gatherer diet of meat, fruits and veggies, and nuts. Hood says he lost 60 pounds in six months.

READ MORE: Doctors warn of rhabdo, a deadly condition linked to over exercising

“We’re trying to get as much work done in as little amount of time as possible,” says John Vivian, owner of CrossFit Toronto who considers Hood to be one of his gym’s success stories. “There’s this sort of training certainly attracts the typical stereotypical type ‘A’ personality,” he says.

And with that A-type personality, comes a culture of pushing yourself to your physical limits during your CrossFit workout.

“CrossFit is all about doing things that are scary and hard and painful,” says Devin Radcliffe, a fit twenty-something former soldier in the Canadian Forces. “It’s such a great culture of being comfortable with the uncomfortable,” he adds.

CrossFit’s pack mentality to working out is a big part of the culture.

For instance, there are generally no mirrors in CrossFit gyms, to encourage focusing on your workout and interacting with the people around you, rather than staring at your own reflection, Chris Hood told 16×9.

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With CrossFit’s culture of pushing the limits of your fitness come some provocative and controversial mascots. There’s “Pukey the Clown” a cartoon of a clown who has worked out so hard, he’s vomiting next to a set of dumbbells. The other mascot is “Uncle Rhabdo”, a grotesque-looking cartoon clown standing next to a barbell while he is hooked up to a dialysis machine with his kidneys dangling from his body and standing in a pool of blood. Uncle Rhabdo is named after the medical condition, rhabdomyolysis – a condition whereby muscles are damaged and begin to release a protein called myoglobin into the bloodstream. Left untreated rhabdomyolysis can cause fatal kidney damage.

16×9 told Dr. Mark Tarnopolsky, an expert in rhabdomyolysis and neuromuscular disorder, about CrossFit’s “Uncle Rhabdo”. “That is absolutely criminal,” he said.

“There’s just no question that whoever is idiotic enough to put something like that and make fun of a real medical condition is just setting themself up for a major lawsuit.”

John Vivian says Uncle Rhabdo isn’t about making fun of a medical condition. “I think the whole notion behind the mascot is again to bring awareness without scaring the hell out of everyone,” says Vivian. “I don’t think it’s intended to make light of rhabdo, I think it’s sort of a light-hearted way to bring it to the surface,” he says.

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Despite questions about whether Uncle Rhabdo and Uncle Pukey are in poor taste, CrossFit is gaining popularity. The gyms, which are independently owned and operated, not franchised, have 7,500 locations worldwide, and are expected to expand to 10,000 locations by the end of the year.

Don’t miss “Extreme Workout” this Saturday at 7pm on 16X9.

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