CrossFit, the ultra-competitive, high-intensity, stat-obsessed fitness and strength training program, plays well to left-brained analytical types, because every workout has discrete weight measurements, a stopwatch time, or both. "It's an obsessive thing that dovetails nicely with my tendency toward quantified self," observes Jim Stogdill, who used to run O'Reilly Associates' Strata conference. "I'm of a mixed mind on this: it strikes me as ridiculous to spend so much time and energy collecting and analyzing data on oneself. But the data, in life and CrossFit turns out to be useful. For CrossFit, it's both a benchmark and motivator for self-competition."
"CrossFit's analytical structure is very appealing," says Keith Hoffman, a Cisco web marketing manager who worked out at Gold's Gym for 15 years before joining NorCal CrossFit in San Jose. "I look for new ways to challenge myself - I'm very data driven." CrossFit's data-trail of lifts, clock times and personal records is turbo-charged by constant variation in its programming. "The gamification," swoons a Facebook engineer (who trains at CrossFit Palo Alto but didn't want to go on the record). "The workout is different every time, but every time I can try to play it better. I keep trying to play it better. If you come back to Grand Theft Auto, you want to play it better!
The relative brevity of CrossFit's workouts (25 minutes is considered a long slog) and emphasis on efficiency appeal to the Agile Development crowd. That 200m dash/prowler-push workout-of-the-day (WOD) is, literally and figuratively, a sprint and a scrum. "It's efficient," says Hoon Kim, whose startup is developing a social media app for CrossFitters. "I know what commitment I need to make, time-wise. It's intense and it attracts people who like and want challenges.
"People ask me, how do you network to find engineers?" Kim says. "CrossFit's one of the best ways to meet engineers because it attracts a certain type of person. Tim Dymmel, the founder of CrossFit Palo Alto, has seen more than one startup founded by sweaty, chalk-dusted techies at his gym, and pitched to investors using the same set of barbells. "Limited partners, VCs, founders, engineers who work for those guys, and people who work for the larger companies. That's who come to my gym." One wealthy venture capitalist switched from CrossFit Palo Alto's 7am class to the 5am class, to weed out entrepreneurial fitness buffs who weren't willing to get up early. "If they want to find me at 5am," Dymmel recalls him saying, "they know where to find me."
"CrossFit's a filter," Dymmel says of the connections forged under the pull-up bar. "It's the ability to suffer. Are they mailing it in on the workouts? Or are they really working hard?"
There is a ruthless logic to this. It's a war for talent, sure. But why stop at talent, when you could be recruiting talent with a tolerance, even an appetite, for grueling group suck-fests? Sure, that Stanford computer science major can code. But will he take leisurely water breaks when the clock is ticking? Will that mobile e-commerce ninja stop to stare at the barbell between rounds of "Fran?" Or will she power through it, high-five everyone afterwards and describe the ordeal as awesome?
Mental toughness in crunch mode is a quality tech firms want to cultivate in their workforce. But it's not just buff type A's running a fitness Fight Club in the company gym. One of the largest companies promoting CrossFit as a corporate wellness program is HGST, whose average age is 51. HGST makes the hardware that big "cloud" companies use for data storage. The company runs campus CrossFit boxes, staffed by NorCal-trained coaches, at its development laboratories in San Jose, Colorado and Minnesota - but also at engineering centers and manufacturing facilities in Malaysia, the Phillipines, Singapore, China, Japan, and Thailand. Online sign-ups for the Thailand classes fill up in less than five minutes after they open up - hundreds of high-tech factory workers are gunning for a few dozen barbells per WOD.
According to HGST CEO Mike Cordano, the Asian tech staff focuses less on the individual competitiveness of CrossFit workouts and more on the group experience of it - the communal bonding of a shared physical challenge. The intensity of it gives employees an opportunity to prove that they're willing to literally shoulder a heavy burden, even when it's difficult - that they have the discipline to slog through and achieve their goals.
Because the workouts are scaled for each individual, weaker athletes perform the routine with less weight or modified movements. What matters, in the ritual of a CrossFit WOD, isn't the absolute level of effort so much as the intensity of the struggle. A weaker athlete is often cheered through the end of a WOD because of his obvious fortitude, whereas a stronger athlete working at a lower quotient of her capacity doesn't get the same kudos, even though she's running rings around lesser specimens.
By design, CrossFit pushes people out of their comfort zones. The workouts are humbling. This in itself makes the whole notion of CrossFit anathema to people who'd rather not challenge themselves to physical ordeals in public, or perform less than perfectly in front of others. But then, the ability to miss a lift and be OK with it also squares with the Silicon Valley tech culture. "The ability to fail and fail well and be OK with it" is what appeals to Lisa Rutherford, a serial entrepreneur in Palo Alto.
Strangely, CrossFit's tendency to reveal the character of an athlete is similar to that of a much less strenuous, more time-consuming sport. "I met with Tom Panzarella of Love Park Robotics in Philadelphia a while back for work. Instead of taking in a round of golf after our meeting, we walked over to CrossFit South Philly to hit a WOD. I would love for that to be A Thing."
Reporting for this story was done on J.C. Herz's book tour for Learning to Breathe Fire: The Rise of CrossFit and the Primal Future of Fitness, a cultural analysis of CrossFit and the link between today's high-intensity training and the genesis of sport in ancient human society. Most of the individuals quoted in this piece were techies who showed up to have copies of Fire autographed at NorCal CrossFit and CrossFit Palo Alto. HGST and other corporate CrossFit programs are chronicled in detail in the book (in a chapter entitled "Corporate Kool-Aid").
(Images: OK Foundry Kettlebells, OK Foundry Company, CC-BY; Kettlebell, Andrew Malone, CC-BY)