Few names in the fitness industry are as polarizing as CrossFit. Enthusiasts assert its regimens are effective, even life-changing. Detractors claim the same workouts are dangerous, although at least one detractor is locked in a battle over the validity of its claims. Another recent lawsuit went against CrossFit and an affiliate. The staff of Club Industry wanted to cut through the noise and go straight to the source. In an exclusive interview, brand spokesman Russell Berger speaks candidly about his company's so-called "reformer" role within the fitness industry, and why its courtroom battles are not what they seem.
Q: How did you come to be involved in CrossFit? What are your day-to-day duties with the company?
Russell Berger: I started [doing] CrossFit in the military and opened an affiliate in 2008. By 2009, I was writing for the CrossFit Journal and working on the CrossFit seminar staff. By 2012, I was working directly for [company founder] Greg Glassman.
Q: There are a lot of misconceptions about CrossFit—including what, exactly, CrossFit is, as well as what it represents. How would you best describe it, from the workouts to the philosophy behind the brand?
RB: There really is no better way to describe it other than constantly varied, functional movement performed at high intensity, coupled with a balanced diet and a competitive, communal approach to physical improvement. The trouble is that all of these terms have to be defined to mean anything. Regarding CrossFit, functional movements are those movements that are generally necessary for daily life, compound yet irreducible, flow in a core-to-extremity wave of contraction, and are relatively safe. Most importantly, they are capable of moving large loads long distances quickly. This is the key to intensity, which is a quantifiable metric associated with the greatest adaptive responses to the program. Finally, variance just means avoiding routine or specialization and aiming for an adaptation of general physical preparedness.
On nutrition, it’s hard to beat Greg Glassman’s line from World Class Fitness in 100 words: "Eat meat and vegetables, nuts and seeds, some fruit, little starch and no sugar. Keep intake to levels that will support exercise but not body fat."
Q: CrossFit is unique in that affiliates appear to have a lot of flexibility. As in, there’s a variety of experiences offered, as opposed to the uniform look and approach of major club chains. Is that by design? And from an executive level, how do you maintain control of the brand and the practices?
RB: Yes, it’s by design. One major reason for this is we want our program to positively effect the lives of as many people as possible. Telling our affiliates to dress a certain way, charge a certain amount ;or play a certain type of music will only interfere with that. Allowing our affiliates to tailor their businesses to the market they are seeking to reach usually ends with businesses that very much reflect individual personalities and values, meaning there is a lot of variety between CrossFit gyms. In other words, there is something for everyone out there. Another reason is that we simply want to allow our affiliates to experiment with business structure, pricing models, membership options, etc. It would be foolish for us to tell each of our 14,000-plus affiliates worldwide that we know better than they do how to structure and run their business.
With that said, our brand is defined and protected by CrossFit Inc. Our online properties, Journal, social media, The CrossFit Games and our worldwide presence all represent a part of CrossFit’s brand identity. Wherever you see elite-level fitness, health or people leading efforts to cut through the corruption and misinformation that is sports and health sciences, you will see the name CrossFit on the front lines.
Q: Is the lack of uniformity why some people are confused or hold misconceptions about CrossFit? And, for you, is that a point of significance?
RB: No. That really has nothing to do with misconceptions about CrossFit. Those are rooted almost universally in the efforts our industry competitors have made to attack our program. This has been true since the beginning, and it remains true even as most of them have begun imitating us. We have radically disrupted the fitness industry, and those who have long been treated as authorities (American College of Sports Medicine, National Strength and Conditioning Association, American Council on Exercise) in this industry have actively spread misinformation and, in some cases, blatant lies about CrossFit to hinder our community’s growth.
Q: Who is the ideal CrossFit member? What kind of person responds best to this style of workout?
RB: There really is no ideal CrossFit member. What I mean by that is everyone needs fitness. We need it like we need air or vitamin C. If anything, I can say that I enjoy seeing people who are severely de-conditioned or suffering from chronic illness start CrossFit, because I know there is a much bigger opportunity for improvement with those athletes.
Q: To outsiders, CrossFit's reputation may seem murky due to the volume of lawsuits the company is engaged in. You addressed this head-on in your video "The Good Fight," calling the legal battles "important" and "noble." Why shouldn't people be deterred?
RB: That question smuggles in the notion that we are involved in a “volume of lawsuits.” I know of one lawsuit we are in right now—our claim against the NSCA. That lawsuit is vitally important for defending the brand that over 14,000 small business owners rely on. In essence, the NSCA, a direct competitor with CrossFit, published a study that contained false injury data—data the editors at the NSCA pressured the author to ;introduce. They also published that data knowing it was suspected to be false and despite our warnings to investigate the& study. The only ethical thing to& do in this situation is to demand retraction, correction and apology. The NSCA has refused. Unfortunately, that means taking them to court. No one who recognizes what has really happened in this case should be deterred by our actions. (Editor's Note: This entry on the Russell's Blog says that the company has faced just two injury lawsuits.)
Q: Do you worry about your top-down message to CrossFit members and potential members being lost amidst headlines about litigation?
RB: Most of the litigation headlines aren’t featured prominently on our media. That’s why the Russell’s Blog is not the same as CrossFit.com. Those who want to know what is going on in our defense of the brand can find out, but it’s actually fairly uncommon for that kind of content to be published on our primary media platforms.
Q: Does CrossFit see itself more as an industry outsider—operating outside of a perceived status quo—or as a company that is deliberately attempting to right perceived wrongs in the fitness industry from within the industry itself? Or is it not that complicated?
RB: It’s complicated. We began as a disruptive force in the industry that spread as a grass-roots movement among all types of people. Over a decade later, we have more affiliated gyms and more credentialed trainers than any other gym chain or organization in the country. We began as outsiders, turned into reformers and CrossFit is rapidly becoming the new-and-improved status quo.
Q: From your blog, it is clear your position is that CrossFit is routinely and unfairly targeted with scare tactics—most often, by other institutions within the industry. Explain why you believe CrossFit is unfairly targeted?
RB: Here is the big issue: We have over 14,000 independent affiliates, owned and operated by small business owners. When the ACSM and NSCA, or any of the other big-soda proxy organizations threatened by growth of the CrossFit program spread misinformation about us, it hurts those small business owners first. They are the ones who lose a prospective client because he reads that the NSCA published a false study in which CrossFit showed high levels of risk. They are the ones who lose a prospective client because he or she saw an ACSM article that calls CrossFit “extreme” and implies that it is dangerous unless performed under the supervision of ACSM trainers. These aren’t innocent white lies—they are directly harmful to the CrossFit brand, and therefore the people who rely on that brand for their livelihood.
Q: Your blog is a surprise to many people who stumble across it. Explain its origins. Do you see it as an unorthodox PR tool?
RB: [My colleague Russell] Greene and I have used message boards, social media, main site comments for posting content for years. I used to contribute regularly to the CrossFit Journal as well. Eventually, we realized a few years ago that we needed a permanent hub for our articles—a place where readers could come and find all of the content we have produced on any given subject. The blog offers that. Is it unorthodox? Maybe not for journalists or researchers, but for a fitness company, I think so.