Jason Khalipa: Relentless

From training for the CrossFit Games to breaking new ground in the world of business, Jason Khalipa knows how to move in only one direction: forward.
By Mike Carlson, NASM- CPT, CFL1,

Jason Khalipa’s CrossFit journey can be traced with a tape measure. The very first facility he trained in was 400 square feet. The first box he opened was 1,200 square feet. At the time, the recent college graduate insisted on signing just a six-month lease. Like Hernando Cortés burning his ships, Khalipa wanted to leave himself no choice but to charge forward. Sure enough, six months later he moved into a 3,000-square-foot property that soon grew to 8,000. Then came more boxes, and like children’s heights notched on a kitchen door frame, they went up, as well. First 1,000 square feet, then 4,000 square feet and then 25,000 square feet.

Today, NorCal CrossFit, the flagship of Khalipa’s empire (which also includes NorCal CrossFit Santa Clara, NorCal CrossFit Mountain View and the soon-to-be-opened NorCal CrossFit Redwood City) is a supermarket-sized 30,000 square feet. There might be two boxes in the world that are bigger.

That’s how Jason Khalipa thinks: bigger. Ever since he kicked in the CrossFit doors at the 2008 Games as a 20-year-old wunderkind, “big” might be the best word to encompass the expansive Khalipa persona: big guns, big smile and big plans.

“I stay up at night wracking my brain over how we grow the company while at the same time keep what we have and make sure it is best for employees and members,” he says. In response, Khalipa has hit on an idea that promises to grow not only his own interests but also the entire CrossFit brand. It is a daring, forward-thinking business plan he calls Corporate CrossFit.

A Businessman Is Born

It’s no secret that CrossFit was born out of the gap between service and results that came to be the institutional calling card of commercial gym chains. CrossFit is often thought to be the diametric opposite of Globo gyms, with their impersonal rows of cardio machines and isolation-exercise apparatus. But allowing yourself to be defined tends to enforce limitations, and that’s not how an entrepreneur thinks. That’s not how Khalipa thinks. Instead of railing against the old business plan of the big-box gym chains, Khalipa has used it to grow his own empire. In high school, he took a job working the front desk at a major gym chain and soon became enamored of the amount of money the sales force was pulling down. He wanted in. The owner of the gym, a businessman named Joe Gigantino, recognized the charisma and extroversion of a born salesman and began to mentor Khalipa in the art of the deal.

“It was good that I learned how to sell, but I wasn’t confident in what I was selling because I could tell that for some people, the Globo gym was not going to be the best way to get results,” Khalipa says. “I took that mentality of how to sell and I brought it to CrossFit. The thing about CrossFit is that it’s a phenomenal program. But even though CrossFit sells itself, it doesn’t hurt to have someone who knows how to sell it, as well.”

Something else about commercial gyms impressed him: the convenience of multiple locations. Managing a dedicated training regimen around a workday and its attendant professional obligations has been a hectic juggling act for athletes since the first Olympiad in ancient Greece. Khalipa knows that it’s common for gym rats to join a facility near work so they can sneak in a lunch-hour session or hit it immediately after they punch out. He wants to apply that convenience and availability to the four boxes he runs in traffic-impacted Northern California. That’s why the 800-plus members of the NorCal CrossFit gyms can train in any of the boxes at any time.

Developing a Different Box

Several months ago, Khalipa built and staffed a small CrossFit gym on the grounds of a Bay Area electrical company called C.H. Reynolds. It began as a simple boot-camp-style class, with Khalipa bringing all the gear to the company property two mornings a week. The response from the 38 employees was so potent, C.H. Reynolds’ human resources department decided to invest in its own equipment. Khalipa put in an order to Rogue Fitness, and the first corporate CrossFit box was born.

“As far as I am concerned, the goal of Corporate CrossFit is to grow and expand the CrossFit brand as much as possible without diminishing the quality of the coaching,” Khalipa says. “We want to expand and grow but never forget that it is all about the coaching. I need to continually check myself. More and more opportunities present themselves, but we need to offer quality coaching or we risk tarnishing our reputation.”

In true Khalipa style, he set his sights on bigger targets, the biggest, actually. Living in the tech hub of the world means that Khalipa has clients who work for companies that regularly appear on the cover of The Wall Street Journal. The members of CrossFit NorCal are more than happy to make an introduction to someone in their human resources departments, allowing Khalipa to do what he does best (well, second best, after squat clean thrusters): Go in there and sell. And sell he has. HGST, a major hard-drive manufacturer in the Bay Area, which employs 45,000 people worldwide and was acquired earlier this year for nearly $4 billion, recently signed a deal for a six-month pilot program, in which Khalipa and the NorCal CrossFit staff will train 2,000 employees at its two Bay Area locations. Negotiations are also in progress to build and staff CrossFit boxes for an extremely popular social network company as well as a ubiquitous Internet search engine company.

CrossFit has experienced exponential growth year after year for half a decade. Khalipa is not only on board but also is pressing his foot on the accelerator. But like an indie band that breaks into the pop charts, there seems to be a risk of the core fans feeling disenfranchised with the new status of their old favorite. After all, CrossFit was developed as a response to the failings of big-box fitness with its profit margins and bottom lines. Is the phrase “Corporate CrossFit” an oxymoron? Khalipa is not worried.

“I don’t think I’ll get any backlash, and here’s the reason why: What we are doing is progressing our own CrossFit. We aren’t diminishing it. We are not tarnishing it. This is the natural progression of business,” he says. “People want to go out and do things and grow and expand. It’s inevitable. People who are going to lead this industry will do it in the proper way, with the utmost respect for CrossFit. People can’t hate on that.”

Khalipa Workout Smash

Jason Khalipa typically trains once a day, Monday through Saturday. He has found that one long daily session seems to jive with his physiology and his schedule as chief business developer of NorCal CrossFit. (During his preparation for the CrossFit Games, he will often do a morning and afternoon session.) His workout is bro into three parts: skills, volume and the WOD.

Skills: The focus is often on Olympic lifting or gymnastics. One day Khalipa might work on his snatch technique and build up to 235 pounds. The next day could be spent practicing gymnastics movements like walking on his hands, handstands or rope climbs for 20 minutes.

Volume: The next chapter of the training session is devoted to increasing work capacity. A typical day could be a 315-pound back squat every 30 seconds for 10 minutes or 10 push-ups and two snatches every minute on the minute, increasing the weight on the snatch every five minutes.

WOD: The training finishes with some type of traditional WOD. Khalipa and company favor workouts of undulating duration that pair weightlifting with gymnastics. One day the WOD might take seven minutes, the next it could last half an hour. One recent workout was three rounds for time of 10 toes-to-bars and 10 power cleans of 135 pounds.

The Athlete Endures

Khalipa’s entrepreneurial streak runs wide, encroaching on almost every facet of his life but one: his identity as an athlete. After all, innovation won’t help you achieve four top-10 finishes at the CrossFit Games in five years.

“Jason has put in his work,” says Neal Maddox, owner of CrossFit X-Treme Athletics in San Jose, Calif., and one of Khalipa’s main training partners. “You can’t just go into CrossFit and be an amazing competitor. You have to put in your work. There are a lot of awesome athletes who do it. There are NFL players who do it, and they don’t go into the Games. It takes serious dedication and commitment.”

Six days a week a squad of athletes that includes Maddox, Garret Fisher, Alex Rollin and Miranda Oldroyd convenes on NorCal CrossFit for a workout. The programming is done by committee, and bizarrely it works for everyone with a minimum of bickering. Maddox and Khalipa are so in tune, in fact, that even on days they don’t train together they have been known to independently design nearly identical workouts.

“We like to lift heavy. We know what our weaknesses are, and we work on them, but we like to lift,” says Maddox, who won the Clean Ladder event at the 2012 CrossFit Games, while Khalipa took second.

Placing an emphasis on strength work and gymnastics seems to be paying off for Khalipa. With the exception of 2010 when he placed an uncharacteristic 16th (“Just a bad year,” he says), he has been a constant podium contender. It’s an impressive feat, considering how quickly the competition bar is rising. Most athletes who made the top 10 in 2008 have dropped precipitously in the ranks, many failing to even make it through the gauntlet of Regionals to qualify for the 2012 Games.

“I don’t think I have anything to prove to anybody at this point,” Khalipa says. “I have proven to myself and others that I belong in the CrossFit Games. Now I just want to get back on that podium.”

Before Khalipa has that chance again, he has a lot to do. First is a throwdown in London as the newly formed Team USA takes on Team Europe in the first-ever intercontinental CrossFit competition. After that is an appearance on NBC’s The Biggest Loser. His daughter Ava turns 2 soon, and there are always more NorCal CrossFit boxes to open, Level 1 seminars to conduct and multimillion-dollar companies to woo. Lots more road to cover as he keeps moving forward.

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