Putting the Cross into CrossFit – Alex Anderson

Alex Anderson, a household name in the CrossFit community, opens up about brotherly rivalry, preparing the Games and why Jesus is such a integral part of his life both on and off the competition floor.

Alex, the Open is upon us – are you going to use that as your way of making it to the CrossFit Games?

Yeah, the Open is very important for me. As you are probably aware, there have been a lot of changes recently with The CrossFit Games now with no Regionals which kinda stinks and it’s hurt a lot of athletes including myself. I definitely wouldn’t consider myself to be the best Open athlete in the world. There are so many guys out there who crush the Open and have killer engines – I can be good but it really does depend on the workouts. I usually banked on getting to the Regional’s and giving it all in there. Now, it’s a little different this year, so my full focus is on the Open and I will be giving it 100% to try and get into that top 20 which will take care of all of it!

You entered Wodapalooza, how would you sum up your experience there?

My season hasn’t gone great so far actually. I went to Dubai in December and I threw my back out in the first event. I’ve got a lot of back issues, I’ve been dealing with those for a long time. So literally within the first 15 seconds of the first workout, we were doing double kettlebell snatches and I threw my back out so bad – the worst I’ve ever done it. I could barely walk for a couple of days, so that was pretty defeating.

So I came back and got as healthy as I could with lots of rehab and I decided that I would go for Wodapalooza. I think I got a bit over excited and I should’ve sat that one out too and rest up for the Open, but I went down there and gave my best effort. I got 11th place which obviously wasn’t the goal – the goal is always to get podium, but man, there is such good competition wherever you go and whilst it wasn’t my best performance ever, there are a lot of good guys competing. It was a big fun competition so it was all good.

Let’s talk about how you originally got into CrossFit and where that journey started for you.

My Dad was actually the first person I knew to do CrossFit. Me and my older brother Zak, we always played sport – he wrestled at college and I played football. So we worked out really hard together and we did everything we thought was right. We got really strong, we loved working out and during both of our senior years someone told my Dad about CrossFit as he was really into fitness too. They told him to do the Open as they thought he might do really well and so he was placed in the Masters category, being 55. So he qualified and went to the Games and me and my brother Zak went out there to watch him and he actually won the whole thing. His first year of ever competing and he won it! He’s an incredible athlete and he just crushed it. Zak and I were finishing up our athletic careers in college, so we both decided to give this CrossFit thing a go as it seemed pretty cool.

In my first couple of years, I was busy working so I decided to go team for 2012 and 2013 and in the latter year, our team took 5th place at Regionals but back then only the top 3 got to go to the Games and so we just missed out.

After that, I decided I would go individual and so 2014 was my first year, I took 8th place which I was happy with, but obviously it meant I still didn’t make it. Then, in 2015 they made the super regions where I qualified as they then allowed the top 5 to qualify, I took 3rd place that year. Thankfully, I’ve made it back every year since!

You’ve come from the famous Anderson family, what’s that like from a competitive standpoint? Do you train together? Is there a lot of tension or is it all good banter amongst you brothers?

There’s plenty of competition for sure! My parents have 5 sons and 1 daughter, so there is a lot of smack talking for sure amongst us. We actually all live in separate places so we never really got to train full-time together, which would have been cool. I’m up in Knoxville, Tennessee, my brother Zak is in Atlanta whilst my brother Jacob was out at college whilst training down in South Georgia.

So we do get together every once in a while, Atlanta Georgia is where my family is from so if we are all home for one reason or another, we will all train as brothers. My brother Zak, he was the first of us kids to make it to the Games in 2013 and he took 10th place – a stellar rookie year for him. He’s actually been pretty banged up since then with injuries and been unfortunate, but he still trains really hard.

Me and Jacob were able to compete with each other and against each other at a lot of competitions in Grid. That was a cool little competition we used to do travelling around the country and compete against other teams, so that was fun to be in the same team as him. Obviously, it’s always a dream to compete with your family and I’m so happy I got the opportunity to be on team with both Zak and Jacob at some point – it was a huge blessing.

Do you feel like that was a specific moment where you made it into the limelight within CrossFit?

No, for me there wasn’t a specific moment. I have just slowly chipped away over the years. I’ve trained hard, I’ve worked hard and I did all I can to make my name be known. I don’t think there was one specific moment. As I said before, my first year at the Games, I took 13th place, my second year I took 11th place, my third year I took 8th place and last year I ruined the trail by taking 13th place – I was hoping to keep on getting better and better but it’s all about plugging away at it, trying to improve myself and continually grow as a competitor and as a person.

Tell us a little bit about how you programme and also how you like to train. Whether that be on your own or with a specific training partner, what does that look like for you?

My coach and programmer is CJ Martin from CrossFit Invictus, he’s amazing. He’s one of the best programmers in the world and I think everyone knows that. I’ve been really fortunate to be with him and take on board his wisdom and experience since my first year in 2015 at the Games. My brother Zak was with CJ before and that really helped me get to know him a bit more. To be honest, it’s really nice to have someone programme for you as you can go into the gym and do what has to be done.

It’s always been my dream to have a home gym where you can convert the garage or something like that, but it’s just expensive! One day maybe. I’m very thankful, because I have a great box here in Knoxville, it’s called CrossFit K-Town and they’ve been so good to me. They opened their doors to me since 2013 and they are such gracious hosts to let me train as much as I need. I’ve had a couple of training partners that have come and gone, I have a few right now which is cool but because it’s not full time as the other guys have full time work which takes precedence of course.

Honestly though, for most of my life I’ve trained on my own. I didn’t mind it at all, I’m actually a bit of a loner so for me it’s cool. I do think as an athlete you need to be able to workout by yourself. So many athletes are dependant on being with or around other people and they literally can’t workout by themselves. For me, I think you learn a lot about yourself in those moments and go to those deep dark places where nobody else is watching you. All great athletes will tell you, it’s about what you do behind those closed doors when nobody is watching that really counts. That’s definitely helped me throughout my career – having those moments where I was able to train by myself and go deep into that dark place.

Like I mentioned though, I have a handful of people I can train with so that’s really fun as well and I love their company.

What have been your experiences of the Games? From the outside looking in, it seems like the pinnacle, but is it really as good as it seems?

I think you’re spot on, it is amazing. Obviously you’re going to have a little bit of disparity because each year there are different regions and calibre of athlete and they’ve done a pretty dang good job of it. In years passed, it’s been the pinnacle of talent and whilst some athletes have been snubbed out of it, that’s life, you’ve got to compete against those in front of you and there are some amazing competitors out there.

The CrossFit Games is crazy. It’s 4-5 days of absolute hell. It’s kinda funny because you almost can’t wait for it to arrive and then you get there and it’s a lot of work. I wouldn’t say you’re miserable but it’s tough! I have an old body, so after day one I’m in survival mode until the final day.

Obviously you need to be at your peak of physical fitness during the games, but how much of it comes down to having mental strength?

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Light at the end of the tunnel

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Oh dude for sure! I think having the mental strength is almost more important that the physical side. I see plenty of athletes from all over the world who have all the skill-sets, these guys are so amazing but they don’t have that killer edge, that killer instinct and it’s so important. From a training perspective, it’s day in, day out stuff and that is tough on your body and mind. Sometimes it can be monotonous and it will hurt your body and it can be a real grind. You see some people might have a bad workout and their head is gone – you can sign them out. Responding to adversity is key because if you have a bad workout or a no-rep from a judge, you need to be able to cut that out from your mind and keep plugging away.

Mat Fraser often calls you out as one of the strongest guys in the sport. Do you feel like your strength is your biggest weapon going into competition?

Do you know what, not at all. In my very first year maybe, I was really strong and super healthy then too. For some reason, people still think I’m really super strong but I’m actually not. I guess because I used to be so strong people have that stigma attached to me.

I actually think I’m more of a well rounded athlete now and because I’ve got a little bit weaker. I guess my back injury also has a lot to do with it too and it dampens my strength gains which inhibits me from things like the Olympic lifts. So I really wouldn’t call myself a strength athlete, if anything, I don’t think I have any strengths any more! I couldn’t care less what gets programmed, I just want to go out there and give my best because I’m trying to be the best well-rounded athlete that I can.

It’s your day off! What does a rest day look like to you?

Thursday is my rest day. I will typically do some swimming and a sauna session. Then I’ll go to my chiropractor and get some treatment work done and catch up on some errands around the house. Every once in a while I’ll nip into the gym to do some zone one work or mobility stuff if I feel like it.

Sunday is my real rest day. Unfortunately, there’s always something to do around the house or preparing for the week but it’s the best day of the week for sure. We go to church in the mornings and I’ve just got plugged into a small group there which I’m stoked about too. Then I will hang out with my wife and just chill with her after church.

There seems to be such great in community in CrossFit, who would you say are your best pals in the sport?

CrossFit is a very unique sport in that the people you compete against are your buddies. I don’t know exactly why it’s like that but I guess you’re actually competing against yourself. In football you go hand to hand against your opponent, whereas in CrossFit it’s you against the clock for the most part. So whatever happens on the competition floor, it’s all on you, it’s not your competitors fault. That’s one element to it. Secondly, we all became Games athletes in the same way – we trained our butts off for it! There is a lot of travelling where you will train with other people and it’s conducive to train in other competitors gyms. This means you workout together to push each other and get better.

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The training was good today, but the food was better!

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A couple of my good friends are Mat Fraser – he’s a great dude! Also you’ve got Nicky Urankar. It’s funny because we actually had our first Games together. He then didn’t make it back for a couple of years and then we became buddies and he got back onto the scene in 2015. We’ve become great friends, he’s a solid family man who owns a couple of gyms too. Everyone out at CrossFit Invictus are amazing too, the guys like Rasmus and Garrett Fischer are all solid. There’s not many people who you don’t like to be honest as it’s such a good sport.

What does life look like after CrossFit for Alex Anderson?

I’m trying to figure that one out right now actually! I don’t know. I have a college / university degree which I can fall back on. I’m not above getting a normal corporate job or anything like that, I’ll do whatever I need to do for my family. My wife is actually 6 months pregnant right now, so that date is fast approaching if she stays at home a little while we will need to cross that bridge when we come to it.

CrossFit and fitness in general has been such a huge blessing to me. I’d love to do all I can to still compete, remain relevant and do the best that I can do to connect with the community. Whether it be coaching, programming or even opening up a gym – it will be something like that but I don’t know what exactly.

Favourite Games workout?

My favourite one is from this past year, it’s actually the one I did the best in! I guess a lot of people would say that wound’t they! It was called “Chaos” where we didn’t know any of the movements. So I did that workout and myself and Cody Anderson finished in a second of each other when we did it. It’s funny because throughout the whole week we were in the same heats, next to each other in the lanes so you had the two Anderson’s next to each other the whole time. Everyone thinks we are related! For 5 years people have been thinking we are brothers or cousins and we just go along with it now!

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The end of Chaos.

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Least favourite Games workout?

My least favourite of all time was in 2016. We had to do ring handstand push ups. First off, not only was I horrible at it I really did truly believe it was not good programming. It was such a tough standard for the judges to keep to. Some athletes were bench pressing the rings away from them whilst others had to keep really vertical. It was tough. We had to do muscle ups to get up to the rings and because I kept on failing and failing, I think I did like 30+ muscle ups! That was a tough one – it was super messy.

How did you become a Christian?

I was really fortunate because I was brought up in a Christian family. My parents are the most strong Christians and they are just amazing people. I grew up in church and I just had a solid upbringing where my Mum home schooled us before we got into middle school. Just being in and around those genuine relationships was awesome. We were allowed to go off and play our sports like Baseball with other friends in our neighbourhood so it was a childhood I would never change for the world. But as I went through the public school system times got tough. A lot of temptations came my way and I messed up for sure but you know, despite all that, I never stopped believing in God. I made a lot of mistakes and did a lot of things I’m not proud of but I never fully walked away from God, I always came back and when I graduated from College and got plugged into CrossFit I saw there was such an amazing Christian community in there and that helped me a lot.

The best thing that ever happened to me was getting married. It’s tough being a single man in the single world, there’s a lot of temptation and I was really fortunate, I met my wife Katie a couple of years ago. I fell in love with her pretty quick and we got married and I can say it’s been the best thing that’s ever happened to me – it really helped invigorate my faith. I’m a step- Dad to a beautiful little 5-year-old now, so I’m the spiritual leader of the family which is a huge responsibility and one that I don’t take lightly. I still struggle though and a lot of issues I need to face head on, but having a wife and children gives your life such purpose. Whilst I know God is our true purpose and should be our focus, having a wife and a daughter has been so helpful for me. I am so thankful to God for having such a loving family.

How would you say your faith impacts you whilst you’re on the competition floor?

Just by trying to set a good example and be different. There’s so many good guys in CrossFit but there are also a lot of non-believers as well and so I’m not gonna say I never cuss, but there are obviously conversations which contain vulgar language and certain topics are brought up in conversation and I just want to be different and be that shining light in our sport.

Someone like Cody Anderson, he’s a great guy and a better guy than I am. He’s done a tremendous job at setting up some cool stuff with the Christian guys which I get involved in. You also have people like Nathan Bramblett, Jacob Heppner and Graham Holmberg who have sort of mentored me and I really look up to them at how they represent themselves and Christ. I’m continually trying to improve and work towards that – it’s cool to have those guys out there so I can look up to them.

Someone asks you who Christ is, what do you say?

First off, this is something that I’m currently working on myself in the fact that I’m trying to ready myself and be better equipped for these situations. It’s funny, I claim to be a Christian my whole life and yet sometimes I feel unprepared for these situations so getting involved in the small group at my church is really helpful for me. I really want to be better equipped to go out and talk to more people about Jesus.

Anyway, in relation to this question, I would just say, Jesus is our Lord and Saviour. He came to earth and died on the cross for our sins, He was the sacrificial lamb. We have an opportunity to serve God and follow Jesus because when we die we have that option to go to heaven which is the most amazing thing. Jesus is forgiving, He is our all and everything.

Do you have a specific verse or passage that encourages you?

I don’t really have that one verse like Rich Froning does with the Galatians tattoo! I always like Psalms 144:1 – ” Praise be to the Lord my Rock, who trains my hands for war, my fingers for battle.” I just like that verse and I like to relate it to CrossFit. I never served in the military, so I can’t say I’ve ever experienced real war but CrossFit is my challenge and I ask God to strengthen me as I go into battle. I’m not a soldier by any means but I’m a solider of the Lord for sure.

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So double dumbbell snatches are no fun

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To anyone who is exploring faith, why would you encourage them to delve a bit deeper?

Everyone is searching for something. There is a void there in all of us. I’ve been guilty of it too and I tried to fill it with CrossFit. It could be you’re looking to make more money or whatever it may be. Nothing will fill it. Period. Jesus is the only one who can fill it and He will fill it. The sooner we can figure that out, the better our lives can be.

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Smooth and steady

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