CrossFit for the Masses

If you want proof that anyone can do CrossFit, look no further than ABC's “Extreme Weight Loss.” Trainer Chris Powell has used CrossFit to bring broken people back from the brink. We sat down with him to hear the details of his own fitness journey.

Jordana Brown January 10, 2016

Chris Powell believes passionately in two things: the ability of the human mind and body to transform and CrossFit. He came by these beliefs over the course of a long career in the fitness industry and now entwines them to great success on ABC’s Extreme Weight Loss, the show on which he and his wife Heidi Powell guide morbidly obese people through what they call a transformation journey, a grueling experience that involves a lot of exercise, learning an entirely new way of eating and dumping a ton of emotional baggage.

The result is that people who once could barely move lose close to half their bodyweight — often upward of 150 pounds — in the span of a year. And at the center of that process is CrossFit. CrossFit is very much at the center of Powell’s life, too, but it wasn’t always that way. His own fitness journey began in high school.

I was without a doubt the tiniest kid in school growing up, and we’re talking from kindergarten through high school. I didn’t hit my growth spurt until junior year of high school, and that lent itself to a fair share of bullying and created image issues for me when I was growing up. But it really made an impact when I tried out for football my sophomore year. I loved football more than anything, but I was the smallest kid on that field by at least 25 or 30 pounds, and within two weeks, those kids quickly let me know that I was not going to be a part of their team. It was my first year at a new school, we had just moved, and I wanted to be part of that crowd, I wanted to be popular, I wanted to play the sport that I was so passionate about. So my parents would drive me to camp every day, and every day I would come home just beat up. I spent half my time at football camp on my back, looking up at the sky trying to count the stars. After two weeks of that, I quit. That’s something I still regret to this day — that I quit football. On about the third day of school, I came home and all the furniture was cleared out of our living room and there was a weight set right there in the middle of the floor — and the TV, thank goodness the TV was still there. So I found creative ways to sit on the weight set and watch my favorite television shows for a couple of weeks until I was like, Well, I might as well give this thing a try. I found myself underneath the bench press, you know, struggling to get the bar — just the bar — up. After a couple of weeks, it became a challenge. I tried to do five. I’d try to do eight and then I’d try to do 10. And sure enough, it became easier and easier, and then the challenge became how much more can I do every single time and it just became this progressive overload. It was wild because after about two months of that, I was looking in the bathroom mirror, you know, scrawny 10th-grade kid, and I’m flexing in the mirror and I saw a muscle. And that was it.

Even though I was still small in stature, I felt empowered because it felt like all my power had been taken away from me, and that’s what gave it back to me. I realized if I work hard, yeah, I might still be the smallest kid out there, but I can be the strongest and I can be the fastest and I can be the most explosive. And that’s when everything began for me.

So from 14 years old on, I was passionate about everything fitness. I grabbed all the different muscle magazines. I didn’t know any of the actual science behind it, but I knew gym science, so I could tell you how to get bigger biceps in 24 hours and, you know, all the 'catchy' stuff. But nevertheless I’m reading this stuff and I’d pick up just tidbits of information, and after a while, working out at home just didn’t cut it anymore. I needed more weight. So I started working out in the school gym after school with all the football players after the season ended. Before you knew it, they were coming to me, asking me, “How do I increase my bench?” “How do I run a faster 40?” “How do I increase my vertical jump?” So, without realizing it, I started training when I was 15 years old. I was just the go-to guy because I would tell them about what I had read in the magazines. That’s what started everything. Every single day after school, my parents would pick me up an hour and a half, two hours after school ended so I could get my time in at the gym, I could do my work, I could train some other people and then I could get home. It was my passion, but I didn’t even realize it.

Whether he realized it or not, Powell followed that passion to college, pursuing a Bachelor of Science degree in exercise science and kinesiology at Arizona State University. He also continued to train people while in school, despite planning for a career as a commercial pilot. The furloughs and firings that followed 9/11 thwarted that plan and delivered Powell right back to the gym, where he got a job as a trainer, eventually founding his own personal-training business and opening his own studio. And then CrossFit happened.

Fast-forward to 2008. “A buddy of mine, another trainer at the studio, told me he was finding these awesome workouts online and told me to check out CrossFit.com. It was about May 2008 and he and I jumped on the site together. He pulls up this one workout and he’s like, “Check out this workout right here. You just do 21 reps, 15 reps and then you do nine reps. It’s super easy!” I was like, “What, a superset? That’s it? Just three sets of each one? OK, no problem!”

So we went to the local big-box gym, and I’m surprised we didn’t get kicked out when I dropped my 95-pound barbell on the ground and stumbled into the bench press because I literally thought I was going to pass out. That was about 10 minutes into “Fran.” It was the most horrific 12-and-a-half, 13 minutes of my life. And I had muscles! I looked like I could do a lot of damage, like I could put in some work. Sure enough, a quick couplet of 21-15-9 put me on my back for probably a good 30 minutes. It was just a whole new animal.

At the time, I had just finished my CSCS program through the National Strength and Conditioning Association, so I printed out the whole CrossFit philosophy from the CrossFit Journal and decided to try to poke holes in it from a scientific standpoint. After three days, I emerged from my cave, holding it up, like, “This is brilliant! Why didn’t somebody think about this earlier?” It’s fast, it’s effective, it gets a neuroendocrine response that elicits change from the body, it’s a massive stimulus for hypertrophy, strength, power, speed. And then, on top of it, it’s got the most important component of fitness ever, which is that it’s fun. It’s gamified, and that’s what changed everything. The moment you put metrics on it, it gamifies it. Whether you’re competing against yourself or you’re competing against other people, it makes it fun. Training became fun again. It just lit a whole new fire under me, and I’ve been hooked ever since.

Back in 2010, if you’d been doing CrossFit on your own for a while and were ready to level up, you’d go to the main site and see when — and where — the next Level-1 seminar was. That’s exactly what Powell and his wife Heidi did.

Level-1 seminars were few and far between. So we took a flight to Santa Clara, California, and we did our L-1 in NorCal with Adrian Bozman and Jason Khalipa and company. We had a lot of fun. Because CrossFit had yet to boom at that time, the whole crew from Headquarters drove over from Santa Cruz because it’s a 45-minute ride, so we were just hanging out with the whole Headquarters crew.

Meanwhile, Powell was in production on a new TV show, the idea for which was sparked by his experience rehabilitating a 600-plus-pound man named David Smith. Smith had reached out to Powell in 2003, when Powell was appearing as a fitness expert on Good Morning Arizona, and his plight struck a chord with Powell, who ultimately helped Smith lose upward of 400 pounds. Smith’s before and after photos, posted on Myspace, went viral and resulted in significant media coverage, including a TLC-produced documentary about the pair. Called The 650-Pound Virgin, it caught the eye of a Los Angeles production company, which recruited Powell to create a new weight-loss TV show. The show, now called Extreme Weight Loss, chronicles the Powells’ efforts to assist morbidly obese people in losing weight. One of the most critical ways in which the Powells do that is by introducing participants, on day one of filming, to CrossFit.

After 30 days of intensive training on-site with the Powells, participants return to their homes, armed with training and nutrition programs, a weight-loss goal and a membership to a box in their hometown.

What we do on the show is not weight loss. It’s rehabilitation. And in rehabilitation, it’s really important that individuals who are looking to change their lives change their environment because they’re surrounded by triggers — huge social cues that can be dangerous slippery slopes for them. The beauty of doing what we do is that as soon as we start working with an individual, we say, “Let us introduce you to something called CrossFit.” And we’ve done this from season one.

The thing is, in the weight-loss journey, people need gratification. They need to know that the effort they’re putting in is paying off. But the human body changes in slow motion. A lot of times, if you’re fixated just on that number on the scale, you get so up in your head and it makes the process so long and drawn out because what you see on the scale totally dictates how you feel for that day. But what if the scale didn’t move but you just PR’d in your back squat or your 500-meter row or you just did 12 rounds of “Cindy” in 20 minutes or a four-minute “Grace”? CrossFit helps us with that paradigm shift. The participants stop focusing on just being skinny and start to see the beauty of being fit.

But without a doubt, the most important aspect of the whole thing is the community. These individuals are changing their lives, and a lot of them are changing their social structure, as well, and CrossFit allows us to put them in with other health-minded people, other people who want to focus on increasing their quality of life and their well-being, just like these individuals did. And that’s the reason I love CrossFit so much — the camaraderie that’s built and the friendships and the brotherhoods and the sisterhoods and the family that’s there when you walk through those doors.

For more from Chris Powell, including his favorite CrossFit exercises and the secret to achieving lifelong transformation, go to theboxmag.com.


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Jordana Brown