It’s a hot August morning in Madison, Wisconsin, and Greg Glassman is sipping iced tea in an air-conditioned, glass-walled room perched above a preternaturally green field. Below, two dozen ripped athletes are hanging by their feet from bars, performing upside-down sit-ups in sync while Kendrick Lamar’s “Loyalty” blasts from the speakers. The sun-warmed bleachers are a blur of taut and bulging skin, fans already drinking beer and getting rowdy above signs that declare this event the “Ultimate Proving Grounds for the Fittest on Earth.” It’s the 2019 CrossFit Games, the annual competition that brings together athletes from around the world to prove themselves worthy of this title. Here, the high-intensity workout regimen happening in nondescript gyms across the globe becomes a sport. And for the millions of CrossFit enthusiasts, it’s a big deal.
Glassman, the 63-year-old founder of this fitness phenomenon, doesn’t seem to think it’s such a big deal. From the glass room, the CrossFitters—now pushing massive, weighted carts across the field in teams of four—are hard to see clearly, and the TV meant to broadcast the games isn’t working. Glassman is unperturbed. He has turned his back on the action and is chatting with his ever present entourage about his new favorite topic: CrossFit Health, the company initiative positing that CrossFit is the cure to chronic illness and the savior of the failing health care system.
This is all Glassman wants to talk about these days, and he’s ready to raise his voice—from this VIP glass house or anywhere else—to ensure his point is heard. The problem is, he’s having a hard time convincing the world that the same sport pitting scary-buff jocks against each other could also be the very thing that saves ordinary people’s lives.
At a press conference the day before, Glassman bickered with a roomful of CrossFit-loving journalists about this very point. When a reporter asked about much discussed changes to the games’ structure this year, which some believe lowered the bar for qualifying athletes, Glassman ignored the question, going off on a tangent about CrossFit Health. He concluded with a harsh takedown of the very event everyone was there to cover. “This isn’t the miracle, and this sure as fuck isn’t the business,” he boomed as the room went still. Later, while being escorted across town in a rented black Escalade, he beamed with pride. “Did you feel how awkward that room was?” he asked, craning his neck to flash a feverish smile.
Glassman is known for this style of gleeful antagonism. In 2015, when musician Nick Jonas criticized a CrossFit tweet linking Coca-Cola to diabetes (Jonas is a type 1 diabetic), Glassman started his response with a succinct, “Fuck Nick Jonas.” When Facebook deleted (then reinstated) the group Banting7DayMealPlan in 2019, which promoted the CrossFit-approved low-carb, high-fat diet, Glassman deleted CrossFit’s Facebook and Instagram accounts and published a blog post damning the tech giant. He’s sicced his CrossFit constituents on any reporter, scientist, or layman who doesn’t wholeheartedly agree with his agenda. And it’s not just outsiders that get him riled up; he has unleashed on those inside the CrossFit community as well. In 2012, an affiliate owner criticized a nominal choice by the company on a CrossFit message board, and Glassman chimed in to revoke his affiliation, though he later walked that back.
“There are whole communities, they just hate my fucking guts,” he tells me later. “And, you know, that’s something I’m proud of. Why? ’Cause they’re losers. They’re fucking idiots. Obvious idiots.”
Glassman was a teenager living in the suburbs of Los Angeles when he first started developing the foundation of his high-intensity strength and conditioning program. Despite a childhood bout of polio that left him with a permanent limp, Glassman was always a natural athlete. In high school, after he took up cycling and joined the gymnastics team, he found that he needed both cardio and strength training to excel but questioned the usual practice of separating the two. This was the era of bodybuilding that favored machines and fragmented workouts, hitting the legs one day and the arms another. But Glassman believed that segmented training leads to segmented ability, that the magic of fitness happens when you mash cardio and strength up into a medley of intense bursts of exercise that favor functional movements like stepping and lunging. And thanks to his dad, Jeff Glassman, a literal rocket scientist, the younger Glassman was used to quantifying everything around him—including construction nails, which his dad made him measure to the exact millimeter in order to teach the lesson that “nothing counts if you didn’t measure it,” as Jeff told me. Glassman incorporated this quantification into his workout regimen, making measurement a pillar of CrossFit’s foundation.
It’s possible that that’s not what Jeff had in mind during his lessons. But Glassman didn’t really want to do anything but train and coach. In the 1990s, after dropping out of six colleges, he began working as a personal trainer in Los Angeles, where he became known for peddling his seemingly eccentric exercise methods. Instead of the usual workouts of biceps curls and an hourlong slog on the stationary bike, he would have his clients run backwards on the treadmill and lift weights, all while competing against each other for the fastest time. He was intense, and maybe a little contrarian, but his clients were impressed. Glassman’s ex-wife and CrossFit cofounder Lauren Jenai, one of his first clients in Santa Cruz, California, says she felt like she’d never worked out before training with Glassman. “I had just spectacular results,” she says. “My body started changing quickly.”
As Glassman’s reputation as a highly effective trainer grew, gym owners didn’t always approve of his methods. “Greg would be pushing the edges as to the etiquette of the gym,” says Jimmy Baker, a CrossFit affiliate owner who started training with Glassman in 1998 at Spa Fitness Center in Capitola, California. He remembers hearing stories about Glassman’s clients dropping weights (a big no-no) and using the equipment in unconventional ways. But even though Glassman left every gym he worked at, his ripped disciples always followed him out the door. “The ease with which I could go a mile and a half down the street and take everyone with me was just amazing,” Glassman says. When he parted ways with his last gym, in 2000, Baker and another client gave him their credit cards and told him to open his own establishment. He taught classes under the CrossFit name in a jujitsu studio before opening his first official “box”—CrossFit lingo for gym—in a converted auto shop a year later. Around this time, Glassman and Jenai launched CrossFit.com to post the method’s free foundational Workout of the Day, or WOD, which quickly attracted fans all over the world. Soon after, two trainers from Seattle approached Glassman to open their own box.
In 2007, one of Glassman’s friends hosted an event on his ranch in Aromas, California, where a few CrossFitters made the WOD into a competition—or “[ran] around trying things,” as Baker put it. This was the start of the CrossFit Games, now a major international event that has aired on ESPN.
With word-of-mouth proliferation and zero marketing, the company grew from that small garage in Santa Cruz into a worldwide phenomenon. There are now an estimated 15,000 CrossFit gyms in more than 150 countries. The business is structured in a Glassman-approved libertarian fashion—each box is independently owned and operated, with little say-so from CrossFit HQ, for a $3,000 yearly fee—and it’s become the largest fitness chain in the world. Though the company’s revenue figures aren’t public, Forbes estimated in 2015 that CrossFit pulls in over $100 million a year. Glassman sums up this success simply: “I didn’t want the first box. The first one wanted me, and that’s true of number 15,000.”
To think that one of the biggest fitness trends started as a fluke and grew by the force of its own obvious superiority is a compelling story. It’s also one that Glassman likes to push as he oscillates between his idea of what modesty sounds like and his less filtered smugness, two modes that often overlap in confusing and telling ways. Although Glassman told me several times that he never wanted to run a chain of 15,000 affiliates, and in fact gives credit to others for this impressive growth, he also repeatedly referred to those independent offshoots as “my gyms,” despite the fact that he has no ownership or direct influence over any of them. And while he says CrossFit is not about elite athleticism, he also tells me he loves “making gods and goddesses out of mere mortals.” At times his phrasing becomes especially bold. “I take credit for this like I chiseled them from stone myself,” he says. “I feel like my name should be on the bottom of their fucking foot.” Humility is a relative concept when you’ve literally changed the world—or at least believe you have.
A week before the games, I meet Glassman at his home outside Santa Cruz, where he lives with his second wife, 35-year-old Maggie Robinson, the youngest three of his eight (soon to be nine) children, and their two dogs. The big house sits on 16 acres off a long, tree-lined road in a gated community. When I arrive, it’s chaotic and full of people. Christie Mountain—Robinson’s brother’s girlfriend and the family’s personal assistant—is simultaneously showing Glassman cement samples for the driveway repaving project and helping Robinson write down questions for a potential nanny who will arrive soon. The youngest child, Riley, is roaming around in a Grateful Dead T-shirt, playing with a music box.
The walls of the house are stark white and towering, the ocean view and sparse furnishings accented with sealike abstract paintings and family portraits taken on the beach. Glassman, on the other hand, presents a less polished image. He’s dressed in an old zip-up hoodie, a T-shirt, and jeans, his graying wavy hair swept back beneath a backward baseball hat. Scruffy and not exactly a mass of muscle, he looks more like a guy who enjoys a good burger than any CrossFit buff or business mogul. But when he speaks, this air of unpretentiousness dissipates. In a spacious breakfast nook off the kitchen, Glassman and Robinson interview the future nanny next to a large whiteboard scrawled with CrossFit notes—half-erased ideas for workouts and rest-day posts for the website, the latter of which are always a poem or a painting or a short story, something for the mind. During the interview, Glassman can’t seem to break his habit of orating. At one point, he stands up from the table to announce that he has figured out why his youngest son wants to wear the same outfit every day: “He wants to be in control.”
Perhaps in his son, Glassman was recognizing a quality of his own—certainly, he’s attempted to direct the narrative around his own empire. As CrossFit ballooned into an international sensation, an undercurrent of negative press dampened its reputation. Reports surfaced about the potential dangers of the workout, along with rumors of its cultlike following. At first, Glassman brushed off the criticism. He even seemed proud of CrossFit’s intensity. “It can kill you,” he told The New York Times in 2005. “I’ve always been completely honest about that.” But he stopped being so blasé in 2013 when the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA), which licenses physical trainers and issues scientific guidelines around fitness training, published a study from researchers at Ohio State University claiming that 16 percent of CrossFitters ended up injured. Though compared with other forms of exercise, this number is arguably modest—runners, for example, experience an injury rate of 46 percent—CrossFit’s official response was to call the study fraudulent. “We recognized almost immediately that this wasn’t just a single paper but part of a much larger campaign to both harm the reputation of CrossFit affiliates through baseless and false claims and also to leverage that mythology about CrossFit being dangerous, to restrict both CrossFit affiliates and the commercial sector,” says Russ Greene, CrossFit’s former director of government relations and research. “That was an existential threat.” It sued the NSCA for false advertising and unfair competition, alleging that it was part of an attempt to edge CrossFit out of the fitness space because it was threatened by the company’s growth.
CrossFit’s response had all the classic signs of a baseless conspiracy theory. But Glassman and Greene ended up being right—at least about the falsified data. An investigation revealed that the journal’s editor-in-chief, William Kraemer, forced the study’s author, Steven Devor, a professor of exercise physiology at Ohio State, to add in fake injury data. The study was retracted, and Devor resigned from Ohio State. And in December, a federal court in California ruled in CrossFit’s favor. Judge Janis L. Sammartino found that the NSCA “deceived and continue[s] to deceive the public and consumers regarding the safety and effectiveness of CrossFit training,” and ordered the organization to pay CrossFit a $4 million terminating sanction after determining that it interfered with the lawsuit’s discovery process. In a statement, the NSCA said it “does not agree with the findings or conclusions in the December 4, 2019 Order. The NSCA is analyzing the Order in detail, and considering all of its options.” (The NSCA declined to comment on the 2013 study, CrossFit’s initial complaint, and Devor’s resignation. Neither Kraemer nor Devor replied to requests for comment.)
The NSCA lawsuit accelerated CrossFit’s obsession with uncovering corruption in the health and fitness space. Around 2013, Glassman, Greene, and a handful of CrossFit employees started investigating sports-training organizations in earnest, reporting on the NSCA and the American College of Sports Medicine’s (ACSM) ties with the soda industry. (They found that the NSCA was partly funded by PepsiCo., and they criticized a partnership between the ACSM and Coca-Cola.) CrossFit soon went all in in its fight against the ACSM, NSCA, and Big Soda, publicly voicing support for warning labels on sugary drinks in California and working with its on-staff lobbyist to facilitate conversations with lawmakers about why federal contracts shouldn’t go to the NSCA. By taking on the greedy, manipulative, and willfully deceptive mainstream health system, CrossFit cast itself as the keeper of truth. The company—along with its fearless leader—became something of a martyr, the underdog just trying to make America healthy while corrupt fat cats lined their pockets with the exorbitant cost of chronic illness.
In 2017, CrossFit launched CrossFit Health and hired Jeff Cain, cofounder of American Philanthropic, a fundraising consultancy for nonprofits, as CEO to handle the day-to-day operations of the business. An overhaul of the company’s image began in earnest that same year and included a major redesign of the CrossFit website in 2019. Images of bulging CrossFit competitors were replaced with average people just trying to get in shape: instructional videos show older adults doing tricep dips off a vintage kitchen counter or raising bags of dog food off the floor. Normal people, functional movements, total health—that’s the new CrossFit brand. (Cain resigned from the CEO position for unexplained reasons during the reporting phase of this story. He declined requests for comment.)
But if you’re still wondering exactly what CrossFit Health is, join the club. While Glassman projects confidence about his ambitions, the initiative seems to lack a clear objective. The website proclaims that CrossFit Health is “an investigation into the ills of modern medicine and the wilful [sic] abuse of the public’s trust in science,” a line Glassman reiterates repeatedly. But what exactly does that mean in action? Past coverage in Men’s Health and Vox has stated that the company is amassing an army of doctors to prescribe CrossFit and that Glassman is working to completely overhaul the American health care system. But in the world of health care reform, CrossFit Health has barely made a splash. When I reached out to three health organizations to get their take, most had not even heard of CrossFit Health, and all declined to comment. Unlike the American Health Association or the Commonwealth Fund, CrossFit Health is not a nonprofit or a foundation. It’s not even an independent arm of the company. Instead, it’s something like a collection of individual motives and ideas clustered beneath a mission statement that I hear Glassman rattle off so many times, I could recite it in my sleep: “We sit in unique possession of an elegant solution to the world’s most vexing problem.” The vexing problem, of course, is chronic illness and a broken health care system. The elegant and optimal solution is CrossFit—its workouts; its preferred diet of meat and vegetables, nuts and seeds, some fruit, little starch, and no sugar; and a commitment to unearthing the truth behind mainstream medicine and health research.
Glassman isn’t wrong in his assessment of America’s health problems. According to a 2019 Harvard study, nearly half of all American adults will suffer from obesity by 2030. Another study, published in 2018, found that 70 percent of deaths in the U.S. are caused by chronic illness. In Glassman’s mind, the answer is simple: “Off the carbs, off the couch.” It’s widely accepted that exercise and nutrition are fundamental to overall health and the prevention of illness, and there’s even evidence that type 2 diabetes can be reversed by cutting carbs and exercising. But that doesn’t mean, of course, that CrossFit is the only answer. Katie Heinrich, director of the Functional Intensity Training Lab at Kansas State University, has run several studies that show CrossFit workouts can reduce fat and increase muscle. But is CrossFit the superior workout, better than all the rest? “I wouldn’t say so,” she says, adding that it doesn’t mean it’s not a good option for some. The same goes for the CrossFit-approved high-fat, low-carb diet. Jedidiah Ballard, an osteopathic emergency physician at the Augusta University Medical Center in Georgia, has said it is, at the very least, better than the standard American diet. But like the workout, it might not be great for everyone. There’s also evidence that carb-restricted diets might not be the healthiest choice (after all, carbs are a major source of energy) and that eating loads of red meat is not only bad for the body but for the environment, too.
But Glassman is not about to reconsider his beliefs. One of the tenets of CrossFit Health is the total distrust of mainstream health research, which makes it easy for him to dismiss any scientific evidence that counters his views. Over breakfast in Santa Cruz, he cited a well-known 2015 essay from Dr. John P.A. Ioannidis at Stanford that claims the overwhelming majority of published research findings are false. When I ask him if he plans to fund studies that would prove the efficacy of CrossFit or its nutrition plan, he tells me: “I don’t need a study. It’s my freak show.”
Still, he is pulling as many medical professionals into this freak show as possible. After discovering that some 20,000 physicians were practicing CrossFit across the U.S., Glassman created a trainer-certification course specifically for doctors. That evolved into a mini-conference series featuring antiestablishment scientists that support Glassman’s views on health care. Though Glassman says the plan was simply to get these doctors to network with each other, a large portion of them have become converts, calling themselves the Derelict Doctor’s Club (DDC). Shakha Gillin, a pediatrician, said the DDC doctors “are now getting our patients better from what we’re learning.” Tom Siskron, a urologist and the owner of a virtual CrossFit training platform, told me, “Greg Glassman and CrossFit saved my passion for medicine.” Last year, Glassman launched the CrossFit Health Conference, a one-day seminar for medical professionals and other interested parties the day before the CrossFit Games. This year some 200 health-truth seekers gathered at the Monona Terrace Conference Center in Madison to hear lectures from other health professionals on the disconnect between a diet pushed by public health officials and a diet backed by scientific evidence, the “great cholesterol con,” and more.
Glassman made sure to mention several times to me that he stands to make no profit off CrossFit Health. He offers the health conference to doctors for free and is spending millions on litigation and lobbying against the ACSM, NSCA, and Big Soda. But it’s hard to imagine he’s not hoping for a return on investment. Convincing the world you have the ultimate answer and getting medical professionals to recommend it to patients doesn’t seem void of monetary gain. Although Ballard, the osteopath, says he agrees with CrossFit’s skepticism of mainstream health science, he’s unconvinced it’s all for the benefit of public health. “A massive for-profit organization like CrossFit has more effective marketing in being controversial, hitting viewpoints hard, and giving black and white answers,” he says.
In other words, Glassman has found a way to keep the intensity of CrossFit’s contrarian image, while presenting it as a shiny, health-forward package—and he doesn’t deny that that’s lucrative. “We sell the truth for a living,” he says. “And it’s highly profitable in an age of mass delusion.”
On the first morning of the games, hundreds of ultrafit athletes line up for the opening ceremony. Before all 489 of them take a lap around the field wrapped in their country’s flag, Glassman makes his way down the line, shaking as many hands as he can. He steps out onto the field and waves to the cheering crowd before his security guard leads him to the VIP lounge. On the way, an attendee leans over a small barrier, yelling, “Coach! Coach!” Glassman reaches out and grasps his hand. “It’s an honor,” his fan says, then asks for a selfie. When he’s done, another muscled man leans over the fence for a selfie, and then another and another, a chain reaction of adulation lining his way. For all of Glassman’s dismissal of the games, it’s clear he’s loving this. I say as much. “Oh, of course. It’s a lot of fun,” he says, before retreating to his glass box above.
After spending three days with Glassman, I’m tempted to believe that if he has changed so many lives, he must be doing something right. What he preaches has to have some real-world value. It’s this thinking that prompts me to let three doctors drag me to my first CrossFit workout in Madison during the games, where I perform burpees and rowing reps until I’m pouring sweat and can’t lift my arms. It’s what leads me to pose for a post-workout photo with a water bottle hovered over my open mouth as if I’m “drinking the Kool-Aid,” as the doctors put it.
Back home, though, I mull over Glassman’s immutable commitment to skepticism. Embedded in the CrossFit brand is the belief that we should always question the established order. So I have to ask: Is a multimillion-dollar company claiming exclusive access to the truth not part of the established order? If I drink the CrossFit Kool-Aid, shouldn’t I question the ingredients?
I’m still grappling with this a few weeks after the games, when Glassman asks me rhetorically, “Are we dangerous? Or do we sit in possession of an elegant solution to the world’s most vexing problem?” My own unsatisfying opinion is some conglomeration of both, neither, and who knows. But I’m not sure Glassman cares what I, or anyone else, thinks. He already has his answer. Anyone who doesn’t believe it is just another obvious idiot.
Lead Photo: Carlos Chavarría