What Motivates CrossFitters?

Burpees, wall balls, double unders, handstand push ups – what makes CrossFitters do what they do? A new study takes a look at what motivates the CrossFit athlete.

It’s obvious and uncontroversial to say that people have many different types of goals. Some people want to test themselves, and others are more interested in being the best. A program like CrossFit, which promises to create a jack-of-all trades athlete, speaks to a wide range of people with a variety of goals. In a study this month in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, researchers were interested in the goals and motivations of CrossFitters.

CrossFit focuses on developing a variety of physical attributes, and it also appeals to varying goal orientations. In the study, the researchers were interested in how people determined competence in various activities. Specifically, they wanted to know what yardstick CrossFitters used to measure their progress.

Looking at how people determine competence helps athletes to better know themselves and decide what programs or gyms to choose. It also helps coaches figure out how to get the most benefit for each of his or her clients. When it comes to measuring competence, people tend to judge themselves either on mastery or performance. People who are mastery-oriented judge competence based on their knowledge and technical ability of a given set of exercises. They tend to gauge progress against their own prior execution of the moves. By contrast, people who are performance-oriented judge their competence relative to other people or an otherwise external standard.

The researchers compared motivation in different groups of CrossFitters, including men and women. Men had higher performance-based concepts, where women were found to have greater mastery-based concepts. For women, the researchers noted a prevalent failure-avoidance strategy when it came to how they approached participation in the workouts. This means the women were driven harder not to fail in the mastery of a skill or a workout.

There was also a difference between subjects who were new to a CrossFit gym versus those who were established members. The newer athletes were more likely to be mastery-oriented. This is true in any athletic endeavor, but with a wide variety of moves to learn and some CrossFit-specific lingo, many new CrossFit clients are concerned more with getting everything down pat. But in time, the researchers found CrossFitters became more interested in competing against their peers. CrossFit offers a range of motivational outlets for these athletes, from leaderboards to events like the CrossFit Games.

The take home here, which applies to CrossFitters and non-CrossFitters alike, is to take the time when you’re first starting to learn the basic skills and culture, which will be your primary motivators, and try to focus less on what others are doing. As time goes on, re-evaluate and see if a different approach might serve you better.


1. Julie A. Partridge, et. al., “An Investigation of Motivational Variables in CrossFit Facilities,” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, DOI: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000000288

Photo courtesy of CrossFit Impulse.