Why Veterans Can’t Get Enough Of CrossFit

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Air Force Master Sgt. Jason Phillips, 176th Air Defense Squadron air surveillance technician, performs a clean and jerk during an Arctic CrossFit class.
Photo by Staff Sgt. Sheila Devera

Black Box, work out of the day, burpee, ass to grass, kipping, Turkish get-up: If you know these terms, then you are one of the thousands of service members who have found their way into CrossFit. There are now countless CrossFit gyms on military bases around the country and even a few in Afghanistan that are operated by active-duty military members. In the civilian sector, there are numerous CrossFit gyms owned and populated by combat veterans.


Even though former gymnast Greg Glassman developed CrossFit as a workout in the 1970s, it did not become a formal company or gain much popularity until 2000, making it a relatively new and alternative exercise philosophy. CrossFit incorporates a groupthink element and is a broad, general, and inclusive strength and conditioning program designed for universal scalability, making it easily applicable for any committed individual regardless of experience. The workout is also almost totally decentralized, allowing any qualified trainer to become certified. But why exactly does CrossFit appeal to so many military members and veterans? Where does the nexus between military and CrossFit lie?

I posed this very question to Jason Sturm, a CrossFit trainer and wounded veteran, who trains and coaches at the CrossFit Walter Reed in Bethesda, Maryland. He offered me this response:

Some [service members ] tried and did CrossFit while in the service or pre injury. A lot of the appeal to CrossFit for veterans is due to the support and camaraderie the sport has overall. CrossFit Headquarters has several strenuous workouts named for fallen service members called Hero WODs (Work outs of the day). CrossFit gyms also tend to be very accepting to veterans … [they] find commonality among the other veterans in class. Let's also not forget that veterans, much like athletes, can be fiercely competitive and CrossFit helps them remain or rediscover that feeling.

Additionally, while the innovations of battlefield medicine have preserved the lives of thousands of our nation’s warriors, they have also produced over 50,000 injured servicemen and women who now must manage the life-long physical fallout from missing limbs, injured brains, chronic pain caused by multiple deployments and heavy gear, emotional wounds, and post-traumatic stress. Injured active-duty service members require more than just the customary push-ups, sit-ups, and a two-mile run to stay physically healthy, and veterans are beginning to need more than just a handful of pills from their doctors to manage conditions like post-traumatic stress and chronic pain. Traditional medical tactics that once worked to treat injured service members are no longer enough on their own. More than at any other time in our history, today’s service members are taking the fate of their health into their own hands, and are pursuing alternative ways to stay strong and even heal their bodies and minds.

Often, due to the specific types of injuries that service members suffer, core-centric rehabilitation and variety of movement are the first and most integral step in the physical healing process. CrossFit is especially strong and focused in these two areas, helping to build up strength in one’s core muscles, demanding, proper alignment and form before advancing to other exercises. CrossFit also, by its very philosophy, incorporates constantly varied functional movements. But perhaps the most fruitful thing that CrossFit offers an injured warrior, or adaptive athlete, is the gift of rekindling his or her competitive spirit, through accomplishing challenging exercises that most uninjured men and women could not do.

We strive to understand the physical demands of modern military members, as well as how to treat both the physical and mental injuries that will almost certainly accompany them as they emerge from combat. But when it comes to physical fitness injury, and recovery, it is clear that our military is undergoing nothing short of a revolution.

Shelly Burgoyne-Goode is a former Army Officer. She served two tours in Iraq, leading combat resupply convoys to forward units. She is a Tillman Military Scholar, veteran advocate, military blogger, and writer.

 

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