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Pain is weakness leaving the body.

A new breed of extreme athletes have crawled, jumped and sprinted their way towards a new benchmark of fitness excellence. Fueled by the ethos of super-performance, the modern zealots of health and fitness have turned their backs on conventional gym workouts to seek out more primal, stripped-back ways of building their bodies and maximizing its potential.

With millions of people worldwide signing up to high-intensity regimes that were once only found in military barracks, pushing your body to its limits has attained a newfound cult status. The spandex-clad tribes hopping and high-kicking their way through Jane Fonda workouts in the 80’s have been replaced by Navy SEAL pretenders lugging weighted rucksacks up mountain tracks, and CrossFit ‘firebreathers’ chasing the burn.




From Miami Beach to Moscow, gym floors, abandoned underpasses, and racetracks have become rallying halls where hardcore fitness devotees gather en masse. Captivated by the idea that self-mastery starts with the physical body, thousands turn out each day, pushing themselves through relentless drills to achieve peak physical condition. As sites of personal transformation, these spaces have evolved to fulfill the social and spiritual needs of their converts, leading us to ask – is fitness our new religion?

Speaking to the founder of the free, grassroots running club The November Project, Bojan Mandaric, and sports journalist, author and CrossFit enthusiast JC Herz, we explore the psychology that drives people towards these extreme fitness movements and keeps them coming back for more.

Daft Punk

Harder, better, faster, stronger.

In parking lots around America, fresh out of their brutal daily CrossFit regimes or ‘WOD’s’ (Workout Of the Day), men and women of all ages and fitness levels are dropping to their knees. Lying prostrate on the floor and breathless, they have pushed themselves through the red zone of physical effort, enduring deadly metcons of sprints, deadlifts, pull-ups, squats that drain the body like no other workout. This celebration of physical punishment to achieve “elite fitness” is also known as CrossFit.

Greg Glassman, CrossFit Founder

We have sought to build a program that will best prepare trainees for any physical contingency — not only for the unknown but for the unknowable.

Greg Glassman, CrossFit Founder

It’s the sacrifice, it’s the soreness, it’s the getting up in the morning, it’s doing one more rep when you think you can’t.

As a young gymnast looking for a way to improve his performance on the rings, Greg Glassman innovated a high-intensity weights routine that obliterated the distinction between “strength training” and “cardio”.  By repeating explosive sets of 21, 15 and 9 barbell thrusters and pull-ups, he reached a stage of complete full-body exhaustion and promptly threw up on the floor. Doubled over with intense sickness, he had finally found the high he was searching for. This incident marked the day that the controversial sport was born.

Since that afternoon spent toiling in his father’s garage, CrossFit has grown into a multi-billion dollar franchise and gained millions of loyal followers around the globe. Drawing from the intensity and complete physical commitment he learned as a gymnast, CrossFit forges a broad, general and inclusive fitness supported by measurable, observable and repeatable results. Rather than settling for a routine that keeps them trim, healthy and functioning, these people take the hard road through relentless metcon circuits to reap remarkable results. With thousands of followers posting their daily ‘WOD’ times on the CrossFit message boards, it has evolved into a community that publicly tracks and records leaps in human performance.

However, beyond CrossFit’s image of steelcut torsos, its ethos rest on the simple idea that we should all build our bodies as functional tools for living self-sufficiently and with purpose. Sports journalist JC Herz adds, “CrossFit has this draw which is to face the crazy, unknown and unknowable. There is the idea that we might have to be first responders, and are you strong enough? Are you smart enough, fast enough and adaptable enough to be helpful in an emergency?” Herz adds, “people want to experience a moment of triumph, they also want a sense of mastery and achievement. I think there is this theme of self reliance that still runs through a lot of American and British culture.’

JC Herz

There’s something inherently compelling about intensity and peak experience, it’s more vivid than routine.


Whilst the appeal of intense workouts has been chalked up as symptomatic of a culture hungry for instant-gratification and fast results, a growing body of research suggests that there are deeper reasons behind its lure. After studying the psychological interconnectedness of pain and pleasure, psychologists have suggested that extreme regimes like CrossFit work as a form of “functional” self-punishment that helps us absolve bad behaviour and pull back control.

Looking out at the tribe of CrossFitters running in to join the next session, Herz writes, ‘I can’t help but believe that the path out of physiological purgatory lies in the footsteps of the people who are sprinting past my car. They’ve found redemption in their willingness to get primal.’

JC Herz

There is this spiritual quality to high-intensity exercise. Any experience that forces you to dig deep, that requires courage or fortitude is inherently spiritual.

“You think religion is dying. We are saying that religion is changing” writes Casper ter Kuile, a founding member of ‘How We Gather’, a collaborative study between Harvard Divinity School, the Fetzer Institute and On Being. Using fitness collectives like The November Project, CrossFit, and Tough Mudder as examples, they dissect the organizations that deepen community in ways that are powerful, surprising, and perhaps even religious in an increasingly secular world.

These new groups are unified by a similar set of core principles; community, personal transformation, accountability, purpose finding and social transformation. Railing against associations with the word ‘cult’ The November Project founder interjects, “In a cult there’s always a central leader, a holy figure and everyone is kissing their feet. That’s not what we’re about. We’re about the community, we’re celebrating humans, we’re celebrating accomplishments and we’re encouraging people to try something out of the ordinary.”

Between the CrossFit clan and members of The November Project, there is a secret handshake that connects them; a sense of belonging that fosters a social trust that is often lacking in modern communities. As a unit, they have built a whole system of meaning that connects them, signposted by garish spray-painted t-shirts, underground lingo and cryptic bumper stickers that proclaim their personal best’s.Mandaric recalls the tale of two members meeting in the middle of the Grand Canyon, recognising their ‘grassroots gear’ and sharing a knowing look.

Herz even goes so far as to suggest that these high-intensity enthusiasts are all members of a subset of society, those who are drawn to the extreme. And, in through the power of modern technology, they have been able to find their tribe. “I think that certain people are seekers. For thousands of years, there have always been people who are looking to climb the unclimbable mountain.” she adds, `’It’s a question of how we connect to that part of ourselves in the modern age.”  Where do you look for connection?


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J. C. Herz is a former rock critic and tech writer for Rolling Stone and Wired and wrote The New York Times’ first game design column. A two-time author and technology entrepreneur, she started doing CrossFit in a gym where white-collar professionals and new moms hit WODs with active-duty military and members of the presidential Secret Service detail. Her favorite CrossFit workout is “Cindy.” Her book, ‘Learning To Breathe Fire‘ offers an insight into the fascinating CrossFit subculture, explaining the science of maximum effort, why the modern gym fails an obese society, and the psychic rewards of ending up on the floor feeling as though you’re about to die.

Bojan Mandaric is a retired rower on the Yugoslavian National Team and at Northeastern University. He is also the co-founder of the free fitness movement, The November Project. Born in Boston, as a project between two friends trying to stay in shape during cold New England months, The November Project has spread to cities all around the world. With members varying from Olympic medalists, professional athletes, marathoners, triathletes and complete fitness rookies, the core aim of the project is to get people moving, speaking and enjoying the bodies they live in. Find your nearest club here

Photography courtesy of Paul Calver. Follow his story @calverphoto