Check the Box


// by Melody Taylor

For the uninitiated, the mention of CrossFit may conjure up visions of sweaty, muscular bodies torturing themselves through tractor tire flips in an intense, paramilitary environment.

While it’s true that CrossFit athletes perspire through some of the toughest-looking workouts around—sometimes even involving unconventional equipment—there’s more to the CrossFit fitness trend than meets the eye.

Northeast Florida is home to more than 30 CrossFit “boxes”—open gyms typically housed in bare-bones warehouses or suburban garages. They augment a network of just over 11,000 affiliates worldwide, including more than 7,000 in the U.S.

Before they can use the trademarked “CrossFit” name, would-be affiliate owners must fork out a $1,000 training fee, participate in (and pass) a prescribed “Level 1” certificate training course at a local affiliate gym and submit a short application essay.

“They really focus on your [application] paragraph. They want to make sure you’re in it for the right reasons, and most people are,” says Josh Krehbiel, owner and head coach of CrossFit 904 on Jacksonville’s Southside.

Upon receiving CrossFit corporate’s stamp of approval, affiliate owners like Krehbiel are required to maintain a website presence, provide up-to-date proof of liability and personal injury protection insurance coverage and pay a $3,000 annual affiliation fee.

As a privately held company, CrossFit’s corporate earnings are not publicly released. But according to Krehbiel, the company receives a portion of every training seminar fee (with four levels of certification offered at local gyms on an ongoing basis) in addition to each affiliate’s annual maintenance fee. They also benefit from competitions like the annual CrossFit Games.

The majority of each affiliate’s income remains at the local gym level, where owners enjoy little corporate oversight and a great deal of management autonomy. Some gyms charge membership fees while others adhere to a per-class class tuition model, allowing for great cost disparities between participation costs on the local and national level.

With a variety of similar off-brand options such as Timed Exercise and independent “boot camps” housed in local gyms, it can be tough for consumers to know which CrossFit-style option is right for them.

Chris Russell, an 18-year active duty Navy veteran, owns and manages CrossFit Jax. Located in Mayport, Russell’s “box” was the first public CrossFit affiliate to open in Jacksonville. Maintaining an authentic CrossFit affiliation seems a no-brainer to him.

“You’d be paying more in the long run to use something cheaper in quality,” Russell says of generic bootcamp-style facilities.

One Size Does Not Fit All
Unlike franchises, each CrossFit location is unique by design. Several in the greater Jacksonville area are owned and attended by current and retired members of the Armed Forces, firefighters and police officers. Some are faith-based, some are family-oriented and some focus on the competition aspect. Some clubs have hundreds of members and others have fewer than 50.

Before becoming acquainted with CrossFit, Krehbiel worked as a corporate tax accountant. He says that failing an FBI pre-employment physical fitness test made him realize how unhealthy corporate environments can be. He joined CrossFit Southside, where he got in shape and decided to become a certified CrossFit trainer. From there, he spent six months researching and planning his own box strategy before opening CrossFit 904 in late 2011.

Krehbiel says he had a good understanding of what he was getting into, thanks to his tax accounting background and the mentorship of CrossFit Southside coaches, but admits that negotiating the tax and legal aspects could prove challenging for those who choose to approach it alone. He recommends that new owners consult with an attorney and a tax accountant in addition to an insurance broker before pulling the CrossFit trigger.

Dave Castro, a former Navy Seal who is now the director of the company’s corporate training program and of the nationally televised CrossFit Games, introduced Russell to CrossFit in 2005. Russell’s first workout, completed in Afghanistan, left him feeling sore for days.

“I said—probably out loud—‘this is stupid,’” Russell says.

But he began to see results quickly and eventually decided to become a trainer. An early adopter, Russell has completed the highest levels of company certification and now travels the country in his spare time as a CrossFit headquarters seminar staff trainer.

Isn’t that dangerous?
With intense weightlifting as a core component, CrossFit’s propensity for injury has elicited scrutiny from everyone from The New York Times to Businessweek and ESPN.

Perhaps adding to its dangerous public image is a lack of corporate regulation or oversight of equipment safety. According to Krehbiel, each owner independently chooses the quality and quantity of equipment to be used in his or her box.

Russell acknowledges that social media is chock full of videos showing CrossFitters “on the floor, bleeding;” meanwhile, competitors shown on TV are often “the best of the best.”

“In the press, what’s being shared is the same song and dance,” Russell says. “To us, it’s about educating, informing and dispelling those myths that we, in some ways, have perpetuated ourselves.”

According to Russell and Krehbiel, most injuries can be attributed to improper form or to doing too much, too soon. “CrossFit has this stigma that it’s too intense and it causes injuries. The thing that causes injuries is not CrossFit; it’s people and coaching,” Krehbiel says.

The cult of CrossFit
“It becomes an obsession or a cult. People always say, ‘we drank the CrossFit Kool-Aid’—which we understand. We get the jokes,” Krehbiel says.

Whereas traditional gyms are built on the theory that the vast majority of paying members will not regularly come in, CrossFit members are notoriously faithful.

CrossFit Jax uses half-hour breaks between classes to encourage members to socialize and help build a sense of community—which Russell says is how the program was intended to be shared.

Krehbiel and Russell both say that faithful members often refer to their boxes as “third place”: the place where they devote their time when they aren’t at home or work. Krehbiel says he even receives calls from CrossFit athletes living in other parts of the country who want to scout out new box homes ahead of choosing neighborhoods for planned moves to Jacksonville.

CrossFit members even speak their own language: where else have you ever heard of someone doing a “burpee” or a “WOD”?

Here to stay
With ever-increasing national and local popularity, Russell says that market saturation could at some point become a legitimate concern. Still, he says rather than look at each other as rivals, area affiliates should band together as much as possible.

“Our competition is not other CrossFit gyms,” he says. “There are a lot more people lost in the sea of equipment at traditional gyms that need us. Those are the ones we want to help.”