At 24, Brian Jaffe got a job in the entertainment industry, sitting behind a desk all day. In just a few short years, his physique was not what it used to be.
"I got out of shape," says Jaffe, now 28. "I was at a job that didn't allow me enough time to work out, and so I was determined to do something about it."
A friend suggested CrossFit, and Jaffe signed up. There he met Zee Brod. Within months, they were hooked on the training, which combines Olympic weightlifting, gymnastics and aerobic exercises into workout routines that change every day.
And after a year of going to the gym together, the two hatched a plan to open their own CrossFit gym. "We had that mind-set that we gained from CrossFit, which is, 'OK, anything is possible,'" says Jaffe.
Not everyone who starts CrossFit will go on to open an affiliate. But many, like Jaffe and 29-year-old Brod, who own Cave CrossFit in the Mid-City neighborhood of Los Angeles, find that what begins as a workout quickly turns into a lifestyle.
"It was life-changing for me," says Brod. "This is what I want to do all the time."
The exercise phenomenon that is CrossFit began in 2000, launched by former gymnast Greg Glassman. The CrossFit name is trademarked, and workouts are designed to be short but extremely intense. Some, such as one that combines front squats, push presses and pull-ups, are performed at all affiliates worldwide (in 2012, there were more than 5,000 affiliates). Affiliates are free, however, to make up their own programming as they see fit.
It isn't surprising, says California-based sports psychologist Casey Cooper, that the program is so attractive. With workouts that change every day, a focus on creating community and the way that CrossFit's can-do attitude bleeds into other parts of life, it's a near-perfect replica of what science already knows about incentivizing human behavior.
"As a business model and a training model, [CrossFit] has taken a page from the notebook of psychological motivation," Cooper says. "It's almost like they have this empirically validated form of training. They've taken what works and created a workout model from it."
Sense of community
"Control the movement," he says. "Do it right!"
Brad Levine, 34, joined the gym last September and says that part of what keeps him coming back is the feeling of going through such a grueling workout with friends.
"We'll be texting each other after class, talking about the workout," he says.
"Lots of people see the CrossFit Games, but what you don't see is that community aspect," says 26-year-old Rich Froning, who has won the top prize of "fittest man on Earth" at CrossFit Games in 2011, 2012 and 2013. "Everybody working out, the shared suffering, the camaraderie of people working out together."
Cooper notes that by encouraging participants to get to know one another, CrossFit has stumbled onto several key motivational factors.
"It is a combination of accountability and self-esteem building," she says. "You have positive reinforcement from people who you can feel a sense of bond and kinship with. That is very reinforcing to self-esteem and self-worth."
Crossing over in life
For Jaffe, like many CrossFitters, the mind-set that he's gained from pushing himself in the gym has bled into other aspects of his life.
"CrossFit toughened me mentally," he says. "It made me realize that I'm becoming so elite in my fitness that I'm settling and not living up to my potential in other areas of my life."
Yumi Lee, a co-owner of Reebok CrossFit LAB, says that she sees clients change their lives once they become part of the gym.
"They start rescheduling around CrossFit classes," she says in an email. "They also reschedule their lives around the classes their new friends are taking to they can work out together."
Levine adds that by making positive changes in his fitness routine, he's noticed positive changes in his eating and social habits as well. "I'd rather stay in on Friday nights than go out to bars, so I can come in to the gym on Saturday morning."
Taking part in other organized sports can have that effect, Cooper says. "Communication goes up, confidence goes up, skills go up, along with character building and self-esteem."
Of course, the primary goal of CrossFit is getting participants into their best physical shape, and those who commit tend to see results. Lee credits those results to the program's ever-changing daily routines.
"CrossFit is based around constantly varied, functional and intense workouts," she says. "This means you never plateau, you move the way your body is meant to move and you work as hard as your body will allow."
Members' success, she adds, is often due to their dedication to setting goals and sticking with them. "CrossFitters are fanatical about tracking their progress," Lee says.
But losing weight and building muscle aren't the only physical benefits. Many of the exercises mimic real-life movements, like squatting or lifting heavy weights. The idea, says Brod, is to be better able to manage life's daily physical demands.
"You can play with your children now, you can go on hikes, go bike riding — anything. Take that out there and go explore life, have a good life," he says.