Imagine doing “Fran” as a 30-minute AMRAP. Now imagine grinding through that ridiculous painstorm while 13 million people watch your every move, only you can’t let on to any of those millions of viewers that you are tired. In fact, you have to look cool when you do it, like Bruce Lee cool. And your movements can’t get sloppy. Everything must be executed with precision or the consequences could be catastrophic. One “no rep” could mean a career-ending injury for a friend who is literally putting his life in your hands. Does this sound crazy? Welcome to the world of WWE superstar Seth Rollins.
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At 6 feet 2 inches tall and 205 pounds, Rollins is on the small side for a sports entertainer. Lifting weights is an occupational necessity for Rollins, who regularly squares off against men who are 6 feet 5 inches tall and 245 pounds. In his biography Hitman: My Real Life in the Cartoon World of Wrestling, WWE legend Bret Hart describes lifting weights as a double-edged sword for sports entertainers. Early in their career, attacking the iron is a prerequisite to build the strength and the aesthetics the profession demands — not to mention the durability they need to perform 300 nights a year. But eventually all those skullcrushers, preacher curls and other bodybuilding-style isolation exercises begin to fray the joints they formerly protected. That’s where Rollins found himself four years ago. At just 24, his injuries were already piling up and he was suffering from a boredom-related case of gym burnout. That’s when a friend recommended that he try CrossFit. It was a revelation.
“I had never done anything where I was lifting and running all at the same time. It really changed everything for me,” Rollins says today. “The feeling I had during that workout mimicked the feeling of being in the ring, in a match 20 minutes deep and knowing I had 20 more minutes to go. So it was the perfect marriage for me of wrestling and fitness. I was hooked from the first workout.”
Rollins quickly came to realize that CrossFit was the optimal form of training for his profession. After all, CrossFit trains its athletes for the unknown and unknowable, a perfect description for the frenetic action in a WWE match. Even more important, CrossFit’s emphasis on mobility and perfecting universal movement patterns have made Rollins a fitter and healthier athlete, one who’s at less risk of injury. “A lot of the time, I find myself picking up bigger guys. And a lot of the ways guys get hurt is when they’re trying to pick up someone who’s bigger than they are. But if you apply the same principles you would do in a power clean to picking up a human body — spinal bracing, keeping your heels down, having a solid stance — you will find it’s a lot easier and a lot safer for you and your opponent,” Rollins says. “When someone is allowing you to pick him up, he’s putting his life in your hands. We are professionals and we are trained, but having that extra bit of training from CrossFit is helpful in that it makes sure that guys I pick up who are heavier than me get put down properly, as well.”
"Finding CrossFit changed everything. The feeling I had during that workout mimicked the feeling of being in the ring, in a match 20 minutes deep and knowing I had 20 more minutes to go. It was the perfect marriage of wrestling and fitness.”
Now that Rollins is feeling like his injuries have cleared up and he’s moving better than ever inside the ring, he’s trying to spread the CrossFit message to a new generation of athletes. He has opened a pro-wrestling school called The Black and Brave Wrestling Academy inside Quad City CrossFit in Moline, Illinois. Students in his school are required to do CrossFit as their strength-and-conditioning program. Rollins figures that if he can get kids started early in understanding the movement patterns of running, jumping, landing and pressing, they will be healthier and safer once they enter a professional ring — not to mention more marketable.
In the 1980s and early 1990s, professional wrestling was dominated by the massive physiques of Hulk Hogan and The Ultimate Warrior, muscle-bound performers who looked impressive but moved slowly and were out of breath by the time they reached the ring from their walkout. The current WWE, which is available in more than 650 million homes across 170 countries, calls for more action and a faster pace. Today’s performers have to be seriously conditioned but still pleasing to the eye.
In response, Rollins gave up clanging and banging the dumbbells in Gold’s Gym but doesn’t believe he sacrificed any of his physical marketability. “Guys like Rich Froning and Jason Khalipa are the new bodybuilders. The physiques they present, the CrossFit body, these are the guys who modern men want to look like,” Rollins says. “I think that CrossFit inherently creates an aesthetic physique that is applicable to everybody, as opposed to creating this superhuman physique that’s unattainable. If you train for performance, the aesthetic part will come along with it. CrossFit has changed the composition of my body, and I feel like I look the best I have ever looked.”
Indeed, the fact that Rollins is able to maintain six-pack abs with his travel schedule is a modern miracle. He struggles to stay true to the high-protein, high-fat, low-carb, low-sugar diet he prefers and says sticking to a Paleo diet with his lifestyle is impossible. He tries to eat as much real food as he can, but sometime the best he can do is a Wendy’s Baconator without the bun while he’s rushing through the airport to catch a connecting flight.
In January 2015, Rollins will travel to the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia for the WWE’s annual Royal Rumble event, a 30-man elimination match in which a fresh man enters the fray every two minutes and is eliminated by getting bodily tossed out of the ring. It’s grueling, mostly unscripted and highly unpredictable. In 2014, Rollins appeared in his first Royal Rumble and was in the ring for more than 50 minutes.
“You tell people it’s entertainment, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t take an extreme amount of aerobic and anaerobic capacity,” Rollins says. “We’re running and jumping and yelling at the same time, which is a completely different kind of element. And we’re landing on the mat, which takes the wind out of you. I’m telling you, the longer matches feel just like you’re doing “DT” [five rounds of deadlifts, power cleans and push jerks with 155 pounds] and you’re three rounds in. Your lungs are on fire and you can’t exactly see or hear straight, but you have to keep going. Your heart rate is exploding and you want to quit, but you know you still have a bunch more reps to do.”
The next year will be busier than ever for Rollins, whose star appears to be on the rise in the WWE after he won the pay-per-view Money in the Bank event last June. And like the last two years, he’ll enter the CrossFit Open and wonder how he’d do if he could fit it into his schedule. His coaches think Rollins is such a good athlete he could make it to Regionals and give a lot of competitors hell. He’ll still drop into a box two to three times a week in whatever town he’s passing through and add another T-shirt to his massive collection. Sometimes he’ll bring John Cena with him. (“He’s really into Olympic lifting,” Rollins says.) He laughs when he gets an incredulous response from an affiliate after he emails them about doing a drop-in.
“When I say I’m with WWE, they try to direct me to Gold’s Gym. They’re like, ‘Are you sure you don’t want to get your pec-deck on?’” Rollins says, laughing. “There just aren’t that many wrestlers who are doing CrossFit yet, so box owners are just going by what they know of us. But one CrossFit box at a time, I’m trying to change that perception.”