CrossFit & The Warrior Ethos

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April 2, 2015

There is an unavoidable link between CrossFit and the fighting spirit. We are all familiar with the Hero WODs that honor fallen servicemen and women: Murph, Jason, The Seven are just a few that come to mind. These workouts are not meant to be easy. They are meant to be grueling, and test you on a physical and mental level.

But yet we still do it, and come back for more. Could it be the post-workout endorphin high; that blissful state that consumes you after collapsing on the mat? Perhaps. But is there something else that draws us, ethically and deeply, to this painful and radically difficult culture in which we operate? I would like to think so.

There have been many articles, blogs, blurbs and interviews about CrossFit and the fighting spirit. There have also been parallels drawn between CrossFitters and the Spartans of ancient Greece. Of course, there are plenty of differences between the modern CrossFitter and the warrior Spartan. For one, we don’t head out to the agogetheSpartan military boot camp that turned young boys into warriors—and then spend a lifetime of training and fighting in war after war. We do, however, volunteer our bodies and minds to the warrior ethos that pervades the world of CrossFit.

Now what does this all mean? How will it help you? The fact is that you can learn more than how to do a double-under or legless rope climb from doing CrossFit. You can learn where your boundaries lie, and how to smash through them.

Molon Labe.

A phrase of defiance uttered from the renowned (thanks to Hollywood more than Plutarch, sadly) warrior King Leonidas. He uttered this maxim when Xerxes and his invading Persian soldiers demanded they put down their weapons ahead of the Battle of Thermopylae. Its translation?  “Come and get them”. As CrossFitters, we consider ourselves the elite. Weights you once thought impossible to hoist are now merely a warm-up. This practice lends itself to an age-old assertion that the hardest warriors come from the hardest locales. If you want to beat us at anything, you need to be able to prove it.

I’ve met many CrossFit newbies that thought they were “in shape” and that CrossFit was “easy”.  Then Fran left them crippled and unable to walk for a week. Myself included. I thought that because I could do a ton of pull-ups and push-ups I was in shape. Then I got introduced to a woman named Isabel. Or Grace. They both took my ego out back and shot it in the face. Our workouts alone (not to mention the elite-level times some athletes can put up) make us, as a culture, unique. Nobody just walks into a box and gets a sub-two minute Fran. You train for it, just like the Spartans, Romans and Gladiators trained for battle.

You learn to never back down from adversity. Ever.

We all know the feeling of walking into the box and see your biggest enemy glaring at you on the whiteboard. For some, it’s wall balls and heavy thrusters. For others, it’s muscle-ups or heavy deadlifts. And running. Oh the humanity, a WOD with 800m runs for multiple rounds! But to echo an old saying from Plutarch: “The Spartans don’t ask how many are the enemy, but where they are.”

So you chalk up, embrace the suck, and hold on until you hear that glorious buzzer go off. You dig in, and you give it everything you got.

And we respect our enemy. Very few sports (even the actual combat sports like boxing or MMA), harbor this unilateral veneration for our competitors. Just like Alexander the Great would respect the kin of men he had just laid to waste, we respect our fellow CrossFitters, especially in a competitive setting. We don’t wish them dead; we cheer them on in competition. Even if they smoke you in a WOD, today’s enemy is considered tomorrow’s friend. The people you first disliked at the box end up becoming your best training partners, and even close friends.

The warrior ethos also recognizes that we all have demons inside of us. Faults. Shortcomings. Fears. Doubts. Some firmly rooted in the battle at hand inside the box, and some outside of it. But we always get the job done, one way or another. We scale if we have to, we slow down—but we do NOT quit.

And this brings me to another tenet of the warrior ethos, an element that pervades CrossFit culture: it’s more about competing against yourself rather than others.

That holds water, especially in the box. Most people going for a max lift, especially for new inductees into CrossFit, will ask how much weight is on the bar. I always tell them what my first Crossfit coach told me when I asked how much weight was loaded: “Enough.”

And sometimes, that’s all it takes. I just keep loading plates until I fail, then count it up later. And “failing” is never a negative. It’s just a new line in the sand you can cross tomorrow, or the next day, and sooner or later, when you look back you can’t even see it.

On to my next point: rugged terrain breeds rugged people. Now, most CrossFitters aren’t Pashtun tribesman living in the mountains of Afghanistan or soldiers living in the bush of the Congo. But the box; that is a rugged place. Heavy things live there. Truck tires and slabs of steel we call kettlebells lie in wait. Determination measured in pounds and poods reside in those walls. We WOD in warehouses, for the most part. Air conditioning and smooth shiny surfaces are far and few between. The powdery remnants of chalk, the salty scent of sweat, the iron-like aroma of blood; those are the vicissitudes of our battlefield. “Soft lands make soft people,” another ancient warrior saying goes. Most globo-gyms would tell someone to stop if they ripped a hand or smashed their shins on a box. Not in our world. You tear that callous off and get back on that bar.

I believe that we’re as close as anyone will get to the ancient warrior in a fitness community, and thus have to adopt a warrior ethos whether we like it or not. We lift heavy things. We never know what we’re walking into. We grunt, sweat, yell, scream, and sometimes bleed. We never let our comrades fail, not without giving them hell for it. We constantly opt for adversity. True CrossFitters never back down from a challenge or let the WOD beat us. We get angry and we get moving. Even if it takes you two hours, you will finish those burpees.

Additionally, there is an intimate sense of community and brotherhood. We’ve seen it countless times: That weary, sweat-soaked stagger over to a fellow box-mate, the pound on the fist and the breathless utterance of “nice job.” Or “screw Cindy.” And this brings me to another significant tenet of a warrior ethos: Brotherhood. Camaraderie. An unflinching sense of unity and togetherness. And it extends far beyond the box. If any of my fellow WOD-warriors called me and asked me to change a tire, build a house or slay a Hydra. I’d say, “Sure, no problem; I’ll be right there.” I’m sure I’m not alone in this regard.

For the men and women in uniform reading this, you know this better than most: The ability to endure adversity and trudge on. And you have my utmost respect.

The Warrior Ethos is a pervasive element in the collective psyche of CrossFit. Whether it’s there by necessity or arose organically is up for debate. But it’s there, old as time, solid as granite, and as ubiquitous as sunlight.

Molon labe…

Photo courtesy of Crossfit Kandahar/CC BY SA 2.0

About Damect Dominguez

Co-founder of BoxLife Magazine. Author: Training Day: 400+ Workouts to Incorporate in Your Training.

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