It’s the classic boy-meets-box story, told by CrossFitters everywhere. While suffering a bout of exercise ennui, the kind that comes after 30 years of trying and eventually discarding every workout program and diet ever created, a personal trainer decided to give CrossFit a try. He had been hearing about it for a couple of years, and a brief serendipitous encounter had left him intrigued. So he did what every other CrossFit newbie in the world does: He went to the box closest to his house. The rest is history.
Or would be, if the subject of this particular tale weren’t Bob Harper, network TV star, New York Times best-selling author, the most famous personal trainer in the world, known for kicking the obese asses of contestants on all 14 seasons of NBC’s The Biggest Loser. Even so, his reaction to that first workout was the same as everyone else’s: “I went in there, got my ass kicked, and it was love at first sight” Harper says. “I have been going ever since.”
So far, so familiar. But then there’s the admission that marks the point at which this story departs from the conventional: “It has completely changed my whole approach to the athletes I work with on my show,” Harper muses.
This season, Harper has been using CrossFit almost exclusively when training his Biggest Loser team, the members of which range in age from 13 to 51 and are all morbidly obese and intensely deconditioned. In the process, Harper has brought the Sport of Fitness unprecedented exposure, introducing it to the 6 million viewers who tune in every week. But he’s also trying something no one else has — betting that the formula of intense functional movements is just as effective on someone who weighs 450 pounds as it is on someone who weighs 185. “I am the guy who gets fat people thin. I know everything about getting weight off people,” Harper says. “The way I approach CrossFit with this demographic, it works. I have been making it work.”
Before Harper could share his new infatuation with his Biggest Loser team, he had to achieve a certain level of proficiency with it. Even though he has been a fitness professional for his entire adult life, he began his CrossFit journey about two steps shy of square one. “I came into CrossFit as a fucking vegan!” he says, laughing. “I felt like I had lost all my strength. The Olympic lifts, powerlifting and gymnastics were so incredibly difficult for me. But I’m the kind of guy who welcomes a challenge.”
Harper immediately called “3-2-1-Go!” on the entire CrossFit methodology. He became a regular at the box where he took his first class, the athlete factory known as Brick Sport Performance Training in West Hollywood, Calif. The vegan ideology was quickly swapped out for the Zone diet, a plan he believes jives perfectly with his genetics and activity level. He hired Brick trainer Michael Casey as his private Olympic-lifting coach to shore up his weak spots. And in April 2012, he took the Level-1 Trainer Course.
“His cardio was good, and he moved pretty well. His basic foundational movements were pretty good,” remembers CrossFit HQ trainer Katie Hogan, who coached Harper through the course. “But he didn’t have his pull-ups down very well, and his barbell movements were pretty sketchy at the beginning. He’s come a long way since then.”
Hogan should know. Every week, Harper texts her videos of his lifts to get her input. Harper recently snatched 170 pounds, a PR that is 5 pounds short of Hogan’s best, which he is chasing madly. “I text her all the time to say, ‘I am coming for you, Katie!’” Harper says. “I just love the fact that I am chasing Katie Hogan.”
Olympic lifting has become a near obsession for the trainer. In the same breath, he refers to it as his weakest aspect of CrossFit and his favorite. The focus on technique, rather than a number, resonates with a guy who has taught millions of people to focus on the journey rather than the destination. And like a master chef who sometimes just wants to sit down to eat someone else’s cooking, he relishes the role reversal of being the student rather than the coach.
“I love being coached. I really believe that if you get to a point in whatever career you’re in and you feel like you have learned everything there is to learn, you need to change your career,” he says. “But when people coach me, I demand that they step up. The coaches at my box know that I am watching, that I am critiquing, but they know that I am a willing participant.”
Coaches at other boxes are learning the same lesson. Harper tells the story of flying into St. Louis late one afternoon for a meeting. Looking to shake off the road weariness by getting his sweat on, he found a box close to his hotel, called about doing a drop-in class and then showed up. The nervous coach, ready to hand over the reins, sidled up to Harper and asked, “What do you want to do?” Harper replied, “I want you to tell me what to do.”
But back on the Ranch, the sprawling rural compound where Loser is shot, Harper remains the one calling the shots. And once he felt comfortable with the modality, he began to transition the way he trained.
Bringing CrossFit to prime-time television was a slow process — and a complicated one. Harper began gingerly, when he put his season 13 team through a very-scaled-down “Fran.” He sprinkled some Rogue Games Boxes throughout the set and then let it marinate. (The interwebs briefly came alive with indignant CrossFit faithful gasping, “Is Bob Harper stealing CrossFit?” but the controversy quickly died down.) “It was the first time Middle America, especially the audience I have, got a taste of CrossFit. Everybody was like ‘What is Bob doing now?’” he says.
That was only the beginning. By the time season 14 began filming, Harper had been doing CrossFit intensely for 18 months and had completed that Level-1 Trainer Course and an Olympic-lifting seminar with famed Olympic weightlifting coach Mike Burgener. And it wasn’t just his mindset that had changed. After the first episode filmed, producers sent notes to the set: “What is Bob Harper doing for his workouts? He looks fitter than ever.” Harper had always been lean, but it was obvious that he had added some cold steel under his form-fitting T. It was time to escalate the plan.
The second episode of season 14, which aired on Jan. 7, was a full-on CrossFit-apalooza. Harper introduced his team to “Bob’s Box,” the outdoor CrossFit gym built specifically for them, and then put his team through a WOD. CrossFit Games champions Rich Froning, Kristan Clever and Jason Khalipa, as well as standout athletes like Hogan, Camille Leblanc-Bazinet, David Lipson and Becca Voigt, were on hand to act as guest coaches. Commercial sponsor contracts keep Harper from using the word “CrossFit” on the show, but the scene could not have identified more strongly with CrossFit had he screamed it from atop the Rogue Infinity Rig.
The editing of the show made it look like the contestants endured a simple 20-minute workout, when in reality they trained for almost four hours. (Dave Castro, director of the CrossFit Games, was on the scene and quipped that it felt like they had programmed a full day of Regionals for that one workout.) At one point, contestant Michael “Big Mike” Dorsey felt faint and might have passed out if Khalipa hadn’t steadied him.
“I saw him wobbling, and I sort of caught him and sat him on my knee,” Khalipa says. “I was like, ‘Bob! This guy is done.’ I thought we might have to call an ambulance.” Most fitness experts, along with plenty of CrossFit trainers, worried that Harper’s team would find CrossFit’s trademark intensity impossible to achieve, making the workouts ineffective and maybe even dangerous. Harper came over, looked Dorsey in the eyes, and then told him to get a drink of water and get back to work. Big Mike finished the workout. The fittest athletes in the world were stunned.
“I have been doing this for so long,” Harper says. “Jason thought he was going to die, but I know how far to go. I have that sixth sense. I walked over, and I was like, ‘Dude, you’re fine. You gotta get back up. We have a weigh-in coming up.’”
CrossFit trainers teach the concept of “relative intensity,” that threshold of mental and physical exertion that exists within each individual athlete. Too little intensity and no adaptation occurs, while too much intensity can be disastrous. Having a sense for those tolerances is the difference between a good trainer and great one. “That’s what Bob really excels at with this population. It’s what sets him apart from other trainers,” Hogan says. “He knew to keep pushing, when a lot of us got hesitant. We started to ease off at the end, and he came by and said, ‘They’re OK. Keep pushing.’ And he was right.”
What Harper is doing with his charges on the TV show aren’t watered-down WODs; it’s an entirely different expression of CrossFit. He employs novel exercises, such as the burpee on a box, that account for the altered physics and movement patterns of a contestant who weighs 500 pounds. Considering the stringent parameters of the show, Harper has developed a style of programming that is different from that of any other CrossFit coach. “There are times when I’ll have one week to work with my team, and at the end of seven days, we have to get on a scale,” he explains. “I can get them pushing some heavy weight early in the week, but then we spend more time on met-cons. We do a lot of med balls and burpees. Never underestimate the use of bodyweight and metabolic conditioning when it comes to burning fat off a person’s body.”
Harper’s concept is so fully realized that it’s more like a specialty course like CrossFit Endurance or CrossFit Football than an average On Ramp program. Would he ever launch CrossFit Weight Loss? “I’m actually toying with that idea,” he says. “I think there’s a big audience for that.”
At press time, The Biggest Loser was just a third of the way through the season, but preliminary results of Harper’s on-air CrossFit-obesity experiment were readily available. His team went an epic six episodes before losing a weigh-in, and its members had collectively lost a couple hundred pounds.
Ultimately, Harper is a TV star, and even a show as successful as The Biggest Loser is a slave to the ratings. So what happens when, during season 17, Harper gets a note from the producers that reads, “We’re tired of CrossFit. We hear Zumba is hot.”? “I have been on TV for 14 seasons. I know how it is. But at the end of the day, I am still the coach. I have a say in whatever I do when it comes to nutrition and the workouts,” he says. “I really believe that Greg Glassman and CrossFit have changed the landscape of fitness. I feel like CrossFit is going to be around forever, and it is something I will be doing for life.”
Five Quick Questions About CrossFit
Are you a fan of CrossFit as a sport?
Are you kidding me? I am obsessed with the CrossFit Games! I went to my first Games last year, and it was unbelievable. It was like the CrossFit Olympics. Who knew watching people working out would be so exhilarating?
When you trained with the Games athletes, what struck you?
I had a chance to work out with Rich Froning. He is not a human being. He is a machine. He is so strong.
Would you ever try to qualify for the Masters division at the CrossFit Games?
People keep asking me that question. I don’t know about that. I just want to get as strong as I can.
What is the CrossFit criticism you hear the most?
I always hear, ‘Oooh, isn’t CrossFit dangerous? Aren’t you going to hurt yourself?’ No, you aren’t going to hurt yourself at all when you’re moving properly. When done correctly, Olympic lifts actually strengthen your back.
What is your long-term goal with CrossFit?
I just turned 47. I want to make sure that when I’m 50, I’m going to be one badass motherfucker!