Five Things You Need To Know About CrossFit

Bloody clowns and dead soldiers are all in a day's workout

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Joanne Rathe / The Boston Globe / Getty Images

Maureen Becker and Dan Dougherty do burpees during a warm-up in a class at Crossfit New England, in Natick, Mass.

CrossFit, the high-intensity exercise regimen that has spawned its own ESPN television event – you may have noticed the CrossFit Games — is exploding. At the end of 2012, CrossFit had some 5,000 gyms worldwide. The company expects to pass 10,000 this year.

In the January 20th issue of TIME, you can find an in-depth story on the CrossFit craze, and the controversy surrounding the workout. Before signing up for CrossFit, here are five things you need to know.

1. Its Most Intense Workouts Are Named After People Who Died In War
CrossFit’s most difficult workouts are named in honor of members of the military and first responders who died in the line of duty. An example of a “Hero” workout: the Murph, named for Navy Lieutenant Michael Murphy, who was killed in Afghanistan in 2005. The Murph is a one-mile run, 100 pull-ups, 200 push-ups, 300 squats, followed by another one mile run, completed as quickly as possible.

Don’t worry: the Hero workouts aren’t assigned all that often, maybe at the top of the month. The core benchmark workouts have female names, like Cindy: 5 pullups, then 10 pushups, then 15 squats. Repeat this cycle as many times as possible in 20 minutes.

She’s mean too.

2. Its Mascot Is A Vomiting Clown
His name is Pukie.

3. Another Mascot Is A Bloody Clown
If CrossFitters overexert themselves, they risk getting rhabdomyolysis, a condition where muscle fibers break down and can cause serious kidney damage. Rhabdo cases are pretty rare: one researcher surveyed 132 CrossFitters, and found no cases; another surveyed 733, and found three cases.

(MORE: This Exists – CrossFit For Toddlers)

CrossFit acknowledges the risks, and stresses that its trainers shouldn’t push too hard. The company has written about rhabdo on its website, and has even adopted another cartoon mascot: Uncle Rhabdo, an exhausted, bloodied clown attached to a dialysis machine, with a kidney and his large intestine lying on the floor. “People look at that and they get offended and say, ‘You guys aren’t taking this seriously,” says CrossFit spokesman Russell Berger. “And the whole point – it’s supposed to get people’s attention. The last thing we want is somebody who’s uneducated or unaware of this condition giving themselves a serious case of it.”

4. It Takes On The Government Over Twitter
Most corporate Twitter accounts are bland product-pumping machines. But CrossFit founder Greg Glassman is a staunch libertarian, and the company uses its platform to broadcast his views. For example a recent missive from the CrossFit twitter account quoted a Financial Times interview with author and theorist Nassim Nicholas Taleb: “We have too many bureaucrats in power … Corporations are more responsible.” Another tweet: “Should the government be able to ban you from growing vegetables in your own front yard?”

His philosophy is reflected in the CrossFit business model: gyms are affiliates, not franchises subject to excessive control from corporate headquarters and state franchise laws. Owners pay an annual fee, now $3,000, and keep the revenues. “You’re in charge,” Glassman said in a 2012 interview posted on “Remove everything between you and your success that isn’t essential. I mean, that’s a beautiful thing.”

5. They’re Like Jehovah’s Witnesses
If CrossFit isn’t a cult – some CrossFitters embrace that label, others reject it – it’s at least exercise evangelism. Joshua Newman, co-founder of a New York City CrossFit gym, or “box” as its known in the CrossFit lingo, captured it perfectly:” “Are we the Jehovah’s Witnesses of exercise? Sure, that’s a fair tag. But there’s a difference. Jehovah’s Witnesses ring your doorbell and proclaim the good news. With CrossFit, it’s more like Invasion of the Body Snatchers. ‘You used to be my friend. Now all you want to do is talk about your dead lift. What has gotten into you?”

Click here to join TIME for as little as $2.99 to read Sean Gregory’s full story on CrossFit.