Why the Fitness World Is Full of Monkeys (And How to Stay Safe)

Sometimes when I look at the interactions in the fitness world, everyone turns into monkeys squabbling over bananas.

A former colleague of mine, Ben Blom, had this interesting way of describing human interaction in terms of primates. In meetings, he would lean over to me and describe the “monkey” interactions. “There’s so-and-so beating his chest showing his alpha maleness.” “Now so-and-so is offering him a banana to placate his alpha-ness.”

People up high in the tree would throw shit at the lower level monkeys. It was an interesting view of the world and sometimes it does seem like the fitness world is a series of monkey tribes.

CrossFit Bashing

Nothing seems to get monkey tribes more excited than when someone writes an article critiquing CrossFit. I have unintentionally walked into that tribal battle (e.g., see Russell Berger, a CrossFit employee, liken my analysis to calling CrossFit a pedophile). And from the outside, there are always opposing tribes ready to bash the head of CrossFit.

A rational approach would advocate that criticism might improve a fitness tribe. “Hey, my tribe does this, maybe you would like it.” But people have a lot invested in their tribes. CrossFit, for example, has changed many lives, built long-lasting friendships, made careers for people, and improved fitness. Critiques are seen as an attack on all tribal affairs. Rationality does not come easily. Early CrossFit tribesmen were kicked out for not getting along with other alpha tribe members (e.g., Robb Wolf, Greg Everett, and the first-time CrossFit Games winner, James Fitzgerald).

This phenomenon is not only related to CrossFit. You can see it in many different fitness fields. I see it in different kettlebell tribes. Tribe members come and go and sometimes join the neighboring tribe. Ten years ago, it was HIT Jedis who were the strange new tribe.

In-Groups and Out-Groups

Let’s get a little more technical before Russell Berger thinks I am calling him a monkey. In-group and out-group behaviors are well researched. Some of the initial work in this area was done by a Turkish researcher name Muzafer Sherif.

One of Sherif’s most famous studies involved him taking a group of twelve-year-old boys to summer camp. None of them knew each other before the camp. They were put into two random groups, the Rattlers and Eagles. Each group had a separate camp space and initially was unaware of the other group. The groups stenciled their group names on their t-shirts and made a flag with their name on it (seems similar to our t-shirts showing our tribal affiliation).

“What is interesting about this camp is that none of the kids knew each other before it began. Group identification formed within a few days.”

But this was not a normal summer camp. Sherif arranged a series of activities to test his theories on group behavior. The first phase was the competition phase. In this phase, the two groups played competitive games where only the winners received prizes. The groups started calling each other names. The Eagles escalated the conflict by burning the Rattler’s flag. A day later, the Rattler’s ransacked the Eagle’s cabin. Eventually, the researchers had to physically separate the groups.

When asked about the other kids at the camp, the boys rated their in-group members higher than out-group members. Attitudes about other camp-goers became associated by group affiliation. Individuals were seen as being only a member of their group. (I bet you know how this goes. Have you ever been lumped into a fitness group? “Oh, you do…”)

What is interesting about this camp is that none of the kids knew each other before it began. Group identification formed within a few days. The artificial groups led to us-versus-them conflicts. Now, imagine having more time and investment in a group and how that adds to group affiliation.

The researchers planned a second phase to see whether they could reduce this conflict. They designed tasks where the boys would have to work together. One task was to fix the water, which outside vandals “must have destroyed” (coming together to fight another outsider is a great technique to reduce intra-group conflict). As a result, the boys came together as if they had a new identity that included both groups.


This topic of in-groups and out-groups is more serious than how “my fitness tribe is better than yours.” We see it play out in race relations, religious, and ethnic conflicts. Rodney King once asked the question, “Can we all get along?” The answer to this question is much more complicated than what is discussed in this simplistic article. However, one aspect of the answer lies in how we shape the context of the situation.

The take-home from Sherif’s classic study is that environmental factors determine whether we come together or we compete. When we are put in a competitive situation about what method works best, then, of course, my tribe is best. We see this currently played out in the debates about CrossFit, but it’s nothing new. These arguments about which method is best have played out in different fitness areas and across time. These tribal battles exist because the context for the participants is that there must be a winner and a loser (similar to how the boys felt when they were pitted against each other).

If we change the environmental context so that all groups want a common goal then we will come together just as the boys in summer camp did. We are already striving toward an end goal of better strength, conditioning, and fitness. Now, how do we frame the situation with that common goal?

You’ll Also Enjoy:

1. Sherif, M., Harvey, O. J., White, B. J., Hood, W. R., & Sherif, C. W. (1961). Intergroup conflict and cooperation: The Robbers Cave experiment (Vol. 10). Norman, OK: University Book Exchange.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

Leave a Comment