Rich Froning Jr. is astonishingly modest. The lack of ego is conspicuous — suspicious even — coming from a guy who has the physique of a superhero and the title to match: “Fittest Man on Earth.” Epic blowhards have been born out of a fraction of the bragging rights Froning possesses, but the 24-year-old Tennessee native manages to stay grounded even as his star continues to rise.
It wasn’t always that way. “Pride goes before a fall” is the popular paraphrase of the Bible verse Proverbs 16:18. Froning, a devout Christian and avid Bible reader, might say that’s an apt description of himself heading into the 2010 CrossFit Games. A relative unknown, Froning tore through the competition and was poised to win the competition when his arms gave out during a rope climb and he fell 18 feet to the floor — and all the way to second place. With the fall, the pride was gone. “At the 2010 Games, I wanted to make my friends proud, my family proud, other people proud of me,” he says. “And I fell off the rope.”
Froning returned to the games in 2011 with several hundred rope climbs to his credit, a reinvigorated Christian faith and “Galatians 6:14” tattooed on his chiseled torso. Froning can quote the verse word for word: “May I never boast in anything except for the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ which has been crucified to me, and I to the world.”
“I wouldn’t say that God made me win in 2011, but the spirituality of it has helped me be stronger mentally,” he says. “Physically, you can only go so far, and the rest is mental.”
It’s fitting that a Bible passage graces Froning’s body because his metabolic system has undoubtedly been touched by God. In a world of hyper-trained athletes, Froning stands out for the sheer volume of exercise he performs in one day. Most trainers and athletes espouse quality over quantity and mutter platitudes like, “Less is more.” For Froning, more is more. He regularly completes three WODs a day, as well as powerlifting, monostructural intervals and Olympic lifting sessions. He can’t remember the last time he took a full day off from training, and by his own admission, he has never heard of an athlete who trains as much as he does. “I don’t know what it is. To be honest, I feel worse if I don’t do a ton of volume,” he says. “My thing is, I can’t sit still long enough to do nothing. I will tell myself to take it easy one day, but then four or five workouts later, I’m like, ‘Oh, OK.’”
Froning graduated with a degree in exercise science and until recently worked full time as a strength-and-conditioning coach for his alma mater, Tennessee Tech University. He can speak eloquently about block periodization, overtraining syndrome and glycogen replenishment — though the concepts just don’t apply to him. Even before he found CrossFit, when he was studying for his physical education classes, he remembers thinking that he didn’t fit any of the conventional training wisdom he was reading about.
Most world-class athletes are on a periodized plan that meticulously lays out their workouts at least several weeks in advance. Froning, who does not have a coach and prefers a team of dedicated training partners, only has the barest of ideas on how he will train each day when he wakes up. The met-cons in particular are a blank slate. He goes purely by instinct, waiting to see how he feels on a certain day before programming his sessions. He is an enigma even to himself.
“None of it really makes sense,” he admits. “If I looked at this a few years ago and you told me this would work, I would have said, ‘You’re an idiot.’”
The best explanation Froning can give for being such an athletic aberration is to point to a combination of nature and nurture, genetics and upbringing. His mother’s parents were farmers, and both sides of the family placed a high value on hard work. His father used to invent chores for his children rather than see them be idle. Competition came easily to him. He is one of 30 first cousins on his mother’s side, 25 of whom are boys, and more than one went on to get athletic scholarships to Division 1 schools. His 21-year-old cousin, Darren Hunsucker, recently started CrossFit and is one of the only athletes who can keep up with Froning’s volume.
But there’s one more factor that undoubtedly contributes to Froning’s stunning success: He benefits from an ability to brutally assess and tackle his own weaknesses. After the rope-climbing debacle of 2010, Froning shot up a rope at the 2011 Games and sent the message that Rich Froning would only ever be caught by a mistake one time. When he started CrossFit in June 2009, he could snatch 155 pounds. At the 2012 Central East Regionals, he snatched 275 pounds to win the snatch ladder event.
“I figured out how to get stronger every year, with the help of the people I have around me,” he says. “I have some guys who are stronger than me, so I try to keep up with them on the strength stuff, and I got some guys who are faster than me, so I try to keep up with them. It’s a pretty good little team we have set up here.”
For his part, Froning doesn’t fret over the fact that he single-handedly contradicts most of the strength-and-conditioning advice that is handed out all over the country by some of the greatest minds in the industry. He is able to put it in perspective by drawing on his faith. “I figure that God gave me a gift, a physical gift, and I should thank Him for it and do whatever I can to glorify Him in what I do,” he says. “That is where it all came from, and it has grown from there.”
A Day in the Life
The CrossFit main site programs workouts with a rest day between every three WODs. If Rich Froning Jr. followed this plan, he would be due for a day off every afternoon around 4 p.m. By midafternoon, he has usually finished his third Workout of the Day, and he’s not done yet. For the 2011 CrossFit Games champion, five workouts a day is business as usual, overtraining is an urban legend and rest days are nonexistent. Here’s a glance at the wall-to-wall workouts in a day of Rich Froning’s life.
7:30 a.m.: Wake up, read the Bible.
8:15 a.m.: Warm up on the Airdyne to get loose, then begin first WOD.
9 a.m.: Train a group of professional motocross athletes (and occasionally jump into their workout).
11:45 a.m.: A member of the Tennessee Tech football coaching staff comes over to work on some big lifts, like squats or deadlifts. Afterward, they complete a WOD that will include the lift that was just practiced.
3 p.m.: Practice Olympic lifts and then perform a WOD that includes the lift that was just practiced.
Evening: Do an interval workout on the Concept2 rower.
The Froning Home Gym
Home gyms are a huge part of CrossFit culture, but just as Rich Froning is unlike most other home-based CrossFit athletes, his home gym is different, too. With the $250,000 prize money he won from the 2011 CrossFit Games, Froning and his wife Hilary bought a house. They soon added a separate 600-square-foot structure that Rogue Fitness outfitted with affiliate-level gear, so Froning only has to walk a few steps from his front door to be in a world-class box.
“I have a group of guys who come over and work out. They train for free, but they have to put in their time. So I guess it’s not really free,” Froning says. “I have all ranges of guys. Some just started CrossFit a few months ago, and then some guys can push me on workouts, so it is pretty good.”
Is it hard to get an invite? “Nah, everybody is welcome,” he says.
The gym currently contains the following:
- pull-up bars for about six athletes
- two glute-ham developers
- two yolk/squat stands
- xix Olympic bars
- more than 1,000 pounds of bumper plates
- three sets of rings
- Atlas Stone
- truck tire
- two benches
- two Concept2 rowers
- Airdyne bike
- two ropes (hanging from a tree in the backyard)
- wall balls
- plyometric boxes
Rich Froning’s nutrition program is almost as unorthodox as his training. For as much volume as he has in the gym, he lacks volume on the plate. “I don’t have much of a diet,” he says. “I eat a lot of peanut butter and drink a lot of whole milk. And protein shakes are my thing. At night, I will eat whatever I want, but through the day, I don’t really eat that much. When I train guys, I tell them to eat clean meat and vegetables, and all that stuff. But when it comes to me, I don’t really listen to myself.”
The Journey to Cookeville, Tenn.
It’s not easy to get to Rich Froning. Thick in the middle of his training for the 2012 Reebok CrossFit Games, he was hesitant to come to our studios in Los Angeles or New York to do this photo shoot. Figuring that meeting him on his home turf could only further illuminate his mystique, I accepted the challenge and scheduled a breakneck visit during publishing deadlines.
Peter (our photographer), Patrick (our production manager) and I flew to Atlanta and headed to Tennessee the following day. To meet the “Fittest Man on Earth,” we drove three hours on a road that at one point cut through enormous rocks and at another wended through a town called Sparta. At each stop, we experienced true Southern hospitality.
By the time we arrived at the Froning house, Rich was already in action in the box he recently built in his backyard. We chatted amiably about the shoot, CrossFit, the Regionals, life and other things you talk about while the photographer sets up. I shared with him my positive experience of the South and mentioned the beautiful old rustic barns we had driven by. I asked whether we could get some shots in front of them. He assured me that all Southern hospitality ends when you trespass on someone’s property — apparently, there would be more than just photos being shot.
The shoot went very smoothly. We didn’t have to create any settings, and we focused on capturing Froning doing what he does best: hardcore workouts executed with perfect discipline, attitude and morals. Hearing him talk and watching him train, you could ask yourself what drives Rich Froning to this unparalleled energy? Is it his commitment to the sport? Or is it his passion to his faith? Or is it the charismatic personality that makes you feel you’ve known him for years after only a couple of hours? Perhaps it’s all of the above and some other unknowable element that makes Rich Froning the perfect athlete.