Learning to Breathe Fire

The Rise of CrossFit and the Primal Future of Fitness

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Learning to Breathe Fire: The Rise of CrossFit and the Primal Future of Fitness

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J.C. Herz

J.C. Herz

J.C. Herz is a four-time author and former New York Times columnist who's written for Wired, Rolling Stone, GQ, and the Miami Herald. As a serial entrepreneur, she's founded and worked with startups to design data visualization and predictive analytics products in national defense and health care, and has spoken at TED, SIGGRAPH, Game Developers' Conference, O'Reilly's E-Tech and Strata Conferences, The Aspen Institute, NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab, and universities from Stanford to the Ringling School of Art and Design. J.C. was a term member of the Council on Foreign Relations and was named a Global Leader for Tomorrow by the World Economic Forum. Her consulting clients include DARPA, Applied Minds, and assorted venture and private equity firms. Her most recent books are Learning to Breathe Fire (Crown Books) and A Dark & Dismal Flower, an interactive fairy tale for tablet devices, published by Coliloquy.

Book overview


One of the most illuminating books ever on a sports subculture, Learning to Breathe Fire combines vivid sports writing with a thoughtful meditation on what it means to be human. In the book, veteran journalist J.C. Herz explains the science of maximum effort, why the modern gym fails an obese society, and the psychic rewards of ending up on the floor feeling as though you’re about to die.

The story traces CrossFit’s rise, from a single underground gym in Santa Cruz to its adoption as the workout of choice for elite special forces, firefighters and cops, to its popularity as the go-to fitness routine for regular Joes and Janes. Especially riveting is Herz’s description of The CrossFit Games, which begin as an informal throw-down on a California ranch and evolve into a televised global proving ground for the fittest men and women on Earth, as well as hundreds of thousands of lesser mortals.

In her portrayal of the sport’s star athletes, its passionate coaches and its “chief armorer,” Rogue Fitness, Herz powerfully evokes the uniqueness of a fitness culture that cultivates primal fierceness in average people. And in the shared ordeal of an all-consuming workout, she unearths the ritual intensity that’s been with us since humans invented sports, showing us how, on a deep level, we’re all tribal hunters and first responders, waiting for the signal to go all-out.




"Filled with vivid characters, insightful observations, and mind-opening descriptions of a new kind of fitness regimen that is sweeping the country . . . Herz captures the joy of going beyond what you think are your limits and in the process becoming a new person."

-Bill Bradley, former US Senator and star of the New York Knicks


"This is about the gut-busting journey to the last rep, but it’s also about life."

-Chrisanna Northrup, New York Times bestselling author


"J.C. Herz expertly debunks many longstanding fitness beliefs and shows how high-intensity exercise can yield the greatest return on your workout investment."

-Dean Karnazes, ultra-endurance star, New York Times bestselling author, and Time Magazine “100 Most Influential People”


"Herz writes with sweep and depth about great characters, often racked with doubt, finding their limits and surpassing them."

-Kenny Moore, award-winning writer for Sports Illustrated, former American record holder in the marathon, author of Bowerman and the Men of Oregon, and co-screenwriter of “Without Limits”


"CrossFit is a phenomenon, both as a radical way to confer fitness and as a virally successful business. Herz tells both stories with exceptional insight—plus the inside lore of a dedicated CrossFitter."

-Stewart Brand, creator of the Whole Earth Catalog (and CrossFitter at age 75)


"Learning to Breathe Fire is one of those books that come along every generation or so that brings to life a sub-culture so vividly, so deliciously that it makes you want to run out now and become a part of it!"

-Charles Gaines, New York Times bestselling coauthor of Pumping Iron


"This is a book about digging deep, about kindling a spirit that allows us to push past our wildest expectations."

-Marshall Ulrich, Badwater-146 Record Holder and author of Running on Empty




Book launch party
Alexandria VA
DC Book launch party
June 10
Houston TX
book signing
June 11
Houston TX
book signing
June 12
Fitness Summer 2 Competition, Houston TX
June 18, 4:30pm-7pm
Palo Alto CA
June 19, 11am
San Jose, CA
June 19, 5pm-7pm
Santa Cruz
June 23-27
Carson CA (LA)
appearances and book signing at the MadFitter booth, in the Games Vendor Village
August 23, 9:30am
Fayetteville NC
WOD & book signing
August 29
Charleston SC
afternoon/evening event
September 27-28
Hyattsville MD
October 3-4
Boyd and Beyond Conference
Quantico VA


Learning to Breathe Fire
Learning to Breathe Fire
Learning to Breathe Fire
Learning to Breathe Fire
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Crossfit 101

Key terms

AMRAP: Abbreviation for As Many Rounds As Possible in a fixed period of time, e.g. "a 20 minute AMRAP of 5 push-ups, 10 pull-ups, and 15 squats."

Below parallel: A squat position in which the crease of the hip (the angle formed by the torso and upper thigh) is below the knees.

Booty shorts: Workout shorts whose minimal inseam blurs the line between exercise apparel and a swimsuit bottom.

Box: A CrossFit affiliate, so named because CrossFit gyms are fairly basic, un-renovated, often industrial spaces.

Box jump: Jumping from the ground onto an elevated platform, typically a wooden box (alternately, stacks of bumper plates, park benches, or picnic tables). Box jumps are typically onto a 20 or 24 inch box, although 30" box jumps are not unheard of. For this reason, Rogue makes a Swiss Army style box that measures 20 x 24 x 30 inches.

Burpee: Diving from a standing position into a push-up, then jumping up and clapping overhead - an aerobically taxing movement, particularly for larger or taller athletes.

Butterfly: A pull-up technique whereby the athlete uses momentum from the hips and continuous rotation of the shoulders to rapidly cycle through pull-ups.

Chipper: A workout in which all repetitions of one movement are completed before progressing to the next movement, as opposed to a rounds-for-time workout where a sequence of movements is repeated multiple times.

Clean and jerk: Pulling a barbell from ground to shoulders, then propelling it overhead with arms extended.

Deadlift: Raising a barbell from the floor to hip level, with full hip extension.

Double under: Jumping once, while a jump rope passes under the feet twice.

EMOM: Abbreviation for Every Minute On the Minute, i.e. doing a movement or series of movements every sixty seconds.

Fran: CrossFit's most dreaded WOD, consisting of 21 thrusters, 21 pull-ups, 15 thrusters, 15 pull-ups, 9 thrusters, 9 pull-ups. "Fran" was one of CrossFit's original "Girl" WODs. The rep scheme, 21-15-9, is recognizable to any CrossFitter as the shorthand recipe for metabolic misery.

Handstand pushup: Kicking up to a handstand, usually against a wall, bending arms until the head touches the ground (or a designated target), then fully extending the arms. Handstand push-ups are made more challenging by requiring the athlete to grip raised parallettes or put his hands on raised plates. They can be made easier by reducing the range of motion (raising the head-touch target) or using large rubber bands suspended from a pull-up rig.

Hang: Holding a barbell at hip height at the beginning of a lift, instead of raising it from the ground. Lifts from the hang reduce the distance a bar has to travel, but also eliminate the benefit of momentum generated by leg extension as a bar moves up from the ground.

Hero WOD: WODs formulated and named in honor of fallen soldiers, firefighters, or law enforcement officers.

Hopper: A WOD composed by drawing movements and repetition counts at random.

Kipping: Using momentum from the hips to complete a movement or augment power during a movement. Kipping is the CrossFit default for pull-ups, and can also be used to extend shoulder endurance on handstand push-ups. Kipping makes the body more efficient - a first principle of functional fitness. For that same reason, military trainers and old-school P.E. teachers disapprove of it.

Knee socks: Often worn, by men as well as women, during barbell WODs to protect the shins as a bar closely follows the vertical line of the body in a maximally efficient lift. Looking like a leprechaun is an acceptable trade-off when the alternative is bloody shins.

Masters: The "seniors" age division of a CrossFit competition - forty years old and up.

Metcon: A "metabolic conditioning" WOD that alternates strength movements with cardiovascular stress. For example, deadlifts and box jumps, or power cleans, double unders and pull-ups.

Murph: A Hero WOD in honor of Navy Lieutenant Michael Murphy, killed in Afghanistan on June 28, 2005. "Murph" is a mile run, 100 pull-ups, 200 push-ups, 300 squats (partitioned as desired), then another 1 mile run.

Muscle Up: An advanced CrossFit movement, wherein the athlete grabs a pair of rings overhead and pulls up to extend the arms straight down, with rings at hip level.

Nasty Girls: A CrossFit WOD made famous in a video featuring Annie Sakamoto, Eva Twardokens, and Nicole Carroll. 50 squats, 7 muscle ups and 10 power cleans (135 pounds for men, 95 for women), three rounds for time.

Olympic lifts: The snatch and clean and jerk

Overhead squat: Raising a barbell overhead with arms fully extended, lowering the body into a full squat with hips below the knees, then rising to a full standing position.

Pistol: A one-legged squat, so named because the outline of the body looks like a pistol - the extended leg is the barrel and the planted foot is the grip)

Power clean: Raising a bar from the ground to shoulders without landing in a squat

PR: Personal Record

Rx'd: As prescribed, i.e. doing a WOD without modifications.

Scaled: A WOD that has been modified with the substitution of less advanced movements, lighter weight, or fewer repetitions.

Snatch: Pulling a barbell from ground to overhead, with arms fully extended, in one uninterrupted movement.

Strict pull-up: A pull-up from a dead hang, with no kipping.

Squat Clean: Pulling a barbell from ground to shoulders, landing in a full squat and rising to a standing position with the barbell resting on the shoulders.

Tabata: An interval scheme consisting of 20 seconds of all-out effort and 10 seconds of rest, repeated eight times for a total of four minutes.

Thruster: Starting in a full squat with a barbell resting on the shoulders, rise up to a standing position with the barbell overhead and arms fully extended.

Wall Ball: A medicine ball, typically 20-pounds for men (14 pounds for women), thrown against a target on a wall (ten feet up for men, nine feet for women, although women typically use a ten-foot target in competition). The ball is caught as the body lowers into a full squat then explodes up to re-launch the ball to the target.

WOD: Workout of the Day, constantly varied.

All of these terms (and more) are explained in comprehensive detail on the CrossFit web site, www.crossfit.com




Author inquiries

Media requests, book signings, speaking

Official press release

Images: Author photo 1 · Author photo 2 · Book cover

Rebecca Marsh
Crown Archetype Publicity



Background photo: Arctic Warrior