What CrossFit Kids is teaching children about exercise and nutrition.8 min read
This is an installment of Good Fit, a column about exercise.
I took my first CrossFit Kids class when I was 10 years old, the summer between fifth and sixth grade. I remember a circuit that involved situps and running around cones, facilitated in the parking lot outside the CrossFit “box” my mom went to. I was immediately hooked. In part, I’m sure, because it was fun—the instructors were kind and encouraging, the other kids nice. But more fundamentally, because of what I hoped it would do: make me thin.
CrossFit itself is famously controversial, even when it’s just adults in question. Its critics argue that the workouts, which encourage participants to complete complex weightlifting movements as quickly as possible, are injury minefields. Die-hards say that this caricatures CrossFit, and that the mistakes of some coaches aren’t representative of the whole community.
At a more fundamental level, CrossFit founder Greg Glassman has described CrossFit as “a religion run by a biker gang”—and CrossFit the company historically appears to have incorporated the worst elements of both. Glassman stepped down as CEO and then sold CrossFit in 2020, following deeply racist comments about the murder of George Floyd, which themselves intersected with a corporate pandemic response defined by both dismissiveness and ignorance of science. (Glassman also faces allegations of workplace sexual harassment, which he denies but which were thoroughly reported by the New York Times.) Those crises set off a domino of CrossFit gyms’ disaffiliating from the brand—and the company, under new leadership and ownership, now faces the challenge of charting its future.
The controversy surrounding CrossFit’s exercise philosophy and the brand’s serious culture problems are even more pressing when you take into account the CrossFit Kids program, which has been a part of the company since 2006. The aim of the program is to provide “a physically and psychologically fun and safe space for kids to socialize while supporting a healthier lifestyle,” Nick Pappas, a CrossFit Kids seminar trainer (aka a trainer who trains trainers), said in an email. More than 3,500 CrossFit affiliates offered kids programs as of 2018, and that year there were 407 grade schools registered as affiliates, the company told me. Participants range in age from 3 to 18.
When I started CrossFit, the classmates who called me fat behind my back—and the adults who tried to subtly suggest various exercise routines to me—had already convinced me that I needed to lose weight. At CrossFit Kids, that was never explicitly the goal: The instructors talked about healthy lifestyle choices and the mental benefits of movement. But it was impossible to separate the kids’ classes I took from my underlying shame, vulnerability, and deeply rooted fatphobia. The atmosphere of the classes certainly did not dispel the idea that a central goal of exercise was to have a particular body shape: Adults at the gym discussed macros and the calories they were burning on the rowing machine, and swapped anecdotes about fellow gym-goers who had come in overweight but now wore size 4 Lululemons. During yearly CrossFit Open competitions, they showed videos of pro CrossFitters without an ounce of body fat.
For me, this environment was magnetic: I went to every class my parents would take me to, bought a situp mat to use at home, went on long walks around my neighborhood during my free time, and began tracking calories on an app, trying to keep myself under a strict limit. That summer, I lost 30 pounds.
The praise and surprise from teachers, coaches, and random friends of my parents taught me an important lesson: Under no circumstances could I stop what I was doing. For the next seven years, I didn’t. I graduated from a CrossFit Kid to a CrossFit Teen, snatching and push-jerking and kipping my way through adolescence. I earned medals from CrossFit Teens competitions, as well as a tear in the cartilage of my hip socket from overuse. I moved into adult classes.
Because it was my first serious encounter with exercise, CrossFit has shaped the way I approach fitness. In an effort to better understand how, I decided to read the 154-page CrossFit Kids training guide, which is available for free online.
The training guide, a CrossFit Kids bible of sorts, first came out in 2011 (about three years after I started CrossFit) and is now on its fourth edition. It’s paired with the CrossFit Kids Starter Curriculum, a 269-page resource full of sample workouts and games. This is important because, while trainers have some flexibility, CrossFit generally follows a clear, top-down structure—it’s not like, say, your local yoga studio, where instructors design their own routines.
The guide starts by walking through the fundamental logic behind CrossFit: Our ancestors ate varied, unprocessed foods and were constantly moving, whereas we eat Cheetos and sit behind a screen all day. CrossFit, then, “is one component of how to change the behaviors of adults, in an attempt to reverse our maladaptation to our current circumstances.” (Is a 10-minute pullup and clean circuit really a close approximation of a hunter-gatherer lifestyle? Don’t think about it.) CrossFit Kids, the guide continues, is an attempt to “break the cycle” and “reduce Exercise Deficit Disorder and poor lifestyle choices”—before 3-year-olds have a chance to grow up into Cheeto-munching, scrolling adults.
Some of the guide is a useful breakdown of how to teach young children the basics of exercise movements. Preschool participants might learn, for example, how to deadlift (without any weight) through cues to assume an “angry gorilla position,” an instruction that still comes back to me when I prepare to deadlift. Older kids add in real weight and learn more complex movements like front squats, thrusters, and push presses. And teen classes include scaled-down versions of the standard set of adult exercises. The guide acknowledges an “undercurrent of concern that children lifting loads is inherently dangerous” but argues that such concern “has been discredited by modern sports science.” Indeed, there is fairly good consensus that strength training, including just learning about form, can be beneficial for children, so long as actual weights are not introduced until around age 7, and after that, only light weights. At the end of the day, safety is dependent on how well instructors plan their classes and monitor their athletes. I was lucky to have good trainers who prioritized safety, carefully broke down movements, and gave me weightlifting confidence and skill that aren’t easy to access, especially for teen girls.
The food stuff is iffier. Trainers are instructed to incorporate nutrition education into their classes—children can be taught, for example, to associate foods with various kinds of nutrients via “plastic food replicas and teams shouting answers, all in an exciting game format.” Although the CrossFit Kids training guide specifically discourages calorie counting and “panacea” supplements, it recommends that “everyone optimize their own ratios … by weighing and measuring food” and repeats the CrossFit nutrition mantra, still prominently credited to Glassman on CrossFit’s main site: “Eat meat and vegetables, nuts and seeds, some fruit, little starch, and no sugar. Keep intake to levels that will support exercise but not body fat.” The guide also includes 40 pages of paleo recipes for things like “Pumpkin Nut Muffins by Primal Blueprint” and “Crockpot Buffalo Chicken Lettuce Wraps by Skinny Taste.” And while I can see the importance of incorporating general nutrition education into exercise programs (for example, protein is important!), the focus on no sugar, low body fat, and paleo muffins feels like an explicit, and dangerous, replication of diet culture propaganda. Not only can you have high body fat and be good at weightlifting, being heavy, including via a belly, can actually help with lifting.
Nonetheless, this exercise and nutrition regimen has produced an impressive star: After starting CrossFit at age 10, Mallory O’Brien won last year’s CrossFit Open at just 18 years old, becoming the youngest person to do so—and she’s a front-runner to win this year’s CrossFit Games. (You should probably watch this video of 17-year-old O’Brien clean-and-jerking 245 pounds.) O’Brien came to CrossFit as a competitive gymnast and trained with a private coach, so our experiences are very different—but we’re both roughly part of the generation that saw CrossFit Kids grow up, and grew up alongside it. Indeed, CrossFit recently pointed out in a video profile of O’Brien that she is among the first group of professional CrossFit athletes who started the sport as children.
There are also probably thousands of more attainable, real-world success stories of kids finding an outlet for their emotions and developing skills and community. If I don’t squint back at it too hard, I could perhaps even put my experience among them. I fumbled around for years in team sports before finding in CrossFit a place where I felt as if I belonged: It was the first time I had ever felt “good” at anything physical, because my progress was measured individually. Exercise became a habit, an escape, and even something I could find joy in. Two years after starting CrossFit, at age 12, I was fit enough to run a half marathon, my first of many such races.
Though I stopped CrossFit at 17, when I went to college and moved away from my beloved box, I kept running and lifting weights. I have CrossFit to thank for my relative comfort in the weights section of the gym, a place that (unless you, for instance, played college rugby or pledged Sigma Chi) is notoriously intimidating.
But I also walked away with a real, deep belief that my self-worth was tied to exercise—that there was such thing as a “correct” body, and that exercise is what would keep my body that way. I still feel enormous pangs of guilt every time I take a rest day, even though logically, I know that resting is a critical part of any fitness regimen. Sometimes I still can’t tell if I run marathons because I truly enjoy distance running or because I’m so programmed to believe that the best version of a sport is always the most “intense” version. I’m not sure I can blame CrossFit for these attitudes—perhaps I would have learned the same thing in track or ballet or basketball, as plenty of people do.
When I read the CrossFit Kids Training Guide, I felt desperate to find red flags, something I could point at to definitively explain my screwed-up relationship with my body. But mostly, the guide seemed like a replication of the tired narrative of “lifestyle choices” and diet culture that underlies a lot of the ways we talk about exercise. CrossFit might, per the founder, have a bit of a religion-slash-biker-gang aura around it—but what it transmitted to me about food and body fat wasn’t all that different from the standard cultural dogmas.
On my training runs, I occasionally pass a CrossFit gym. When I do, despite myself, I can’t help but notice that I miss it.
Read more installments of Good Fit.