Yale’s campus was quiet at 7:45 a.m. the day before fall classes began. Just two miles away at CrossFit New Haven, chatter and the clanging of dumbells mixed with a pop-music playlist. Minutes before the 8 a.m. CrossFit class, a handful of athletes were warming up: A 30-something-year-old woman with defined muscles bent down in a squat; an older man in baggy clothing reached down to touch his toes. Two fit men paced the perimeter of the small turf field just outside — on their hands, with their legs dangling in the air. Daniel Stein ’19, the youngest athlete and only Yale student in the 8 a.m. class, extended one leg back in a calf stretch.

Sunlight streamed in from the large windows lining the warehouse-style space, hitting the judicious selection of equipment like rowing ergs and pull-up bars. There were no mirrors. In the front, a whiteboard displayed several members’ goals in a “what, by, or else” diagram: Vicky will perform three perfect pull-ups by Oct. 31 or else she will “not [be] allowed to loiter in gym after class.” May had to master the “ring muscle up” by Aug. 30 or else subject herself to “zero coffee pre-workout.”

When the clock struck 8, the instructor called for everyone to gather in a circle. The athletes nodded and smiled at each other and Stein reached across the circle to shake hands with a newcomer. 

CrossFit, a fitness organization with thousands of gyms around the world, teaches training regimens of primarily aerobic exercises, body-weight strengthening and Olympic weightlifting. But to many outsiders, CrossFit is a cult of intense athletes who dedicate their lives to extreme training schedules (and don’t shut up about it). In a 2017 article, The Atlantic referred to CrossFit as a church with “evangelical zeal” in an increasingly secular society — an idea that made several CrossFit New Haven athletes laugh. In reality, CrossFit is just another way of working out. It provides members with the opportunity for intensity, but to many, it is simply a fun way to fit in a challenging workout around a busy schedule.

In CrossFit New Haven, Stein found a positive community, a welcoming space between a sports team practice and gym workout. Like athletes on teams, Stein and the other CrossFitters train together at high effort levels and focus on what their bodies can do, not what they look like. But like average gym members, their end-goal is health, not competition, and all fitness levels are welcome.

Before his first CrossFit class, Stein’s perception relied largely on the CrossFit Games, an annual televised competition for the world’s top CrossFit athletes. In August, CrossFit members worldwide tuned in: Sweat beading on her neck and chalk stains smeared across her jersey, Tia-Clair Toomey lunged for the finish line, securing another first-place event finish. As she raised her arms in celebration, her shoulders and biceps bulged. Her open-mouthed grin and sparkling eyes suggested ferocity; she looked like a cartoon superhero. Several victories later, Toomey and Mathew Fraser were named the fittest woman and man on earth — the faces of CrossFit — for the second and third year in a row, respectively.

Of the CrossFit athletes who watched, a few share these professionals’ intensity and impressive physiques. Most do not.

“I had always thought of CrossFit as this really intense thing that scary jacked guys do,” said Victoria Bartlett MED ’21. Bartlett never considered herself athletic before she started training at CrossFit New Haven.

Aaron Poach, the manager and head trainer at the gym, said his main goal was to combat these misconceptions. Though CrossFit classes and the CrossFit Games share similar exercises, the great majority of CrossFit New Haven athletes do not resemble the CrossFit Games athletes. Coaches work closely with each athlete, modifying exercises to ensure that, as Poach claims, “Crossfit is for everybody.”

That is not to say that CrossFit is easy. While commitment varies on a weekly basis, CrossFit athletes are expected to exert high effort levels in each session. Classes begin with a warm-up, which often involves running and stretching, then lead into the strength portion and finally the workout of the day, or WOD. At Stein’s 8 a.m. class, the strength portion was farmers carry sets and barbell “hip ups.” The WOD was a cycle of rowing sessions on the ergs and “wall balls” — squatting with a weighted ball, then throwing it high up against the wall. CrossFit prides itself on its constant variation, so WODs are rarely repeated. The New Haven and Science Park locations near Yale offer hourlong classes throughout the day, generally with the first around 5:00 a.m. and the last around 7:30 p.m.

Part of what makes CrossFit so intriguing is that the traditional reward of competition does not follow most members’ fierce training. Competitive athletes often refer to games and meets as “rewards” — chances to show off their hard work while facing off against competitors. Some CrossFit members participate in CrossFit competitions, but according to Stein, even those meets do not feel oppositional. During competitions, Stein feels like he is competing primarily against himself.

Instead of games, CrossFit athletes find motivation in day-to-day victories, whether it is mastering a new lift exercise or a new personal record number of pullups. Anna Ayres-Brown ’20 compared tracking her progress in CrossFit New Haven to playing video games: “When you unlock a new movement, that’s really exciting,” she said.

This philosophy of functionality sets CrossFit apart from sports teams and gym workouts like spin classes. While soccer players train to be good at soccer and everyday gymgoers work out with a more general sense of health, CrossFit members focus on “functional” workouts. This means that CrossFit exercises are mirrored in everyday life.

“A deadlift is picking up your kids,” Poach explained. “A press is putting the groceries away or a piece of luggage in the overhead storage bin.”

According to Poach, the main goal of CrossFit is for participants to live longer and better. He wants his athletes to be able to play with their grandkids without knee pain.

Body positivity naturally accompanies CrossFit’s focus on functionality. Forget summer body transformations — CrossFit athletes tend to care about how many pullups they can do and how fast they can run, not what they look like.

Stein first joined CrossFit partly because he wanted to look as muscular as the CrossFit Games athletes he saw on TV. But once he began celebrating his victories in various CrossFit exercises, he focused instead on his body’s abilities. Likewise, many athletes who join CrossFit with a goal to slim down and lower calorie counts begin to value strength over slimness. This shift promotes healthy relationships with food: CrossFit athletes are encouraged to eat more because food fuels their workouts. Food becomes nourishment, not a pesky source of calories and fat. The absence of mirrors at many CrossFit gyms, including CrossFit New Haven, ensures that athletes focus on their exercise and on each other instead of their appearances.

CrossFit’s marketing proves particularly significant for female athletes — instead of portraying only small, thin women, CrossFit presents a variety of body types, including women as buff as male bodybuilders. Women make up about half of CrossFit athletes and they work out in the same classes with the same basic exercises as the men. Kaitlynn Sierra ’21 noted that, since joining CrossFit New Haven, she has felt more confident lifting next to crowds of men in Payne Whitney Gym.

Just as this confidence does not come without work, it also carries a cost. At CrossFit New Haven, a drop-in class costs $20, a three-class-per-week membership costs $134 per month and an unlimited membership costs $174 per month, not including tax. CrossFit New Haven offers a 10 percent student discount. This sacrifice proves tricky: Unlike many people who decide between buying a gym membership and CrossFit, Yale students can work out at Payne Whitney at no additional cost. But Payne Whitney does not offer the same community, so Yale CrossFit members are willing to pay.

At CrossFit New Haven, athletes typically do not stack their equipment until after they have cheered on the last remaining athlete through his or her last rep. Manager Poach remembered a moment from one of his first CrossFit classes: Leaning against a box for a break from box jumps, he locked eyes with another athlete. “We both looked at each other like, ‘Wow, this is really hard,’” he said. “Then we both stood up like ‘Oh, this is hard for you too, so it’s not just me.’” With that understanding, they returned to the box jumps with new energy.

Not every Yale student can pay, but those who can and do think these benefits are worth the price. Stein recently reflected on this sacrifice; he considered cutting back his membership to three classes per week. He wonders if he will be able to craft even more productive workouts with more lifting for himself at Payne Whitney but knows something would be lacking.

“CrossFit is the most humbling thing because you always realize how much improvement can be done,” he said. “There are workouts where I know I’ve pushed myself harder than I thought I could.”

Far East Movement’s “Like a G6” blasted as Stein finished his final set of Wall-Balls. Exhausted but refreshed, he sat down and worked into a stretch. It was only his second time back at the gym after summer, and some of his friends were walking in for the next class. He had not seen them since May, so they paused to catch up. After chatting for awhile, they said goodbye quickly. Tomorrow he will lift in Payne Whitney, but they will see each other again at a future class.