“…about four or five months after starting CrossFit, we were doing strict pull ups and one of the Real Cypher Bros said I looked “jacked.” Who, me? I’m definitely not jacked, but I was pretty psyched about the compliment anyway. Despite being in my mid-30s, I’m in the best shape of my life. That all feels pretty good.”
Congratulations to Chris, our Cypher Athlete Spotlight for December 2015!
Cypher: What is your athletic/fitness background?
Chris: Minimal/average. I have never felt like an athlete, but I’ve been relatively active for most parts of my life. I grew up in the Puget Sound area of Washington State, and had endless hours of outdoor activities–biking, hiking, boating, just messing around on the beach. For a few years during the winters, my best friend and I took the ski bus up to the mountains every Saturday morning. (Now that I think about it, the social dynamic of the ski bus had quite a few similarities to CrossFit: catch up with buddies on the ride up to the slopes, take a group class then ski on your own, then talk on the ride home about which runs were the best and what you were going to try next time). In college and during my 20s, I had oscillating levels of commitment to the gym, and stuck to light-moderate workouts…no free weights, just the machines.
Cypher: What is your occupation?
Chris: I am the Chief of Staff of Berkeley Lab. I support scientists who are working hard to make the discoveries necessary to invent the energy systems of the future.
Cypher: How did you first hear about CrossFit and CrossFit Cypher?
Chris: My decision to commit to CrossFit was pretty sudden. I was at the airport in Washington, DC at the end of a work trip in July 2014. I had just met up briefly with an old friend who lived in the city. We had kept in touch since I moved to California, but I hadn’t seen him in a few years. Well, the dude was now a wreck, inside and out. I learned that he had developed a severe drinking habit that started most mornings with a spiked coffee and continued throughout the week with boozy lunches, dinners, and happy hours with his clients. I reflexively made a pledge to him that I would also give up adult beverages if he would go get professional help (I kept that pledge, btw). So, a few hours later, I was sitting there on the carpet in the airport trying to get my phone charged up, feeling pretty nostalgic for the way things had been a decade earlier. Seeing what had happened to my friend prompted some introspection–how I was neglecting my own health through pretty weak exercise and very poor consumption habits. While I was waiting for the plane, I saw on Facebook an update from another friend with an impressive picture after about six months of hard work at a CrossFit gym in Miami. I called him up and asked how CrossFit worked, how he had managed to balance the time commitment with his career. After talking to him, I decided I would give CrossFit a try and did some quick research on the internet about options here in the East Bay. After work the next day, I went straight from Berkeley to Cypher. So it took about 24 hours from the moment I first gave it serious consideration to when I went to sign up.
Cypher: Describe your first day participating in a CrossFit workout. Do you remember what the WOD was? What was it like, and what were your thoughts when you left the gym?
Chris: When I arrived at Cypher to check it out, I mistook the first person in the doorway (Ben) as the coach. I think it must have been in the final minutes of the first WOD of the evening. It was pretty hot outside for the Bay Area. Inside, there was some fun music going and fit people looking happy and sweaty. Some people were lying on the floor next to their barbells and other people were still going at it, with Mauricio and other athletes cheering them on. Ben pointed me toward Leslie, who helped get me signed up, and I stayed to watch the next WOD from the couch. There was a lot of energy in the room and I was ready to give it a try.
When I came back to participate in my first class, Molly showed us how to do back squats, front squats, and a few other things. We mostly worked on form and how to avoid injury, but did try out the weights. My max that day for the back squat was just 40 pounds using one of the little PVC bars (nobody laughed!), and I remember feeling very sore the next day. I think my PR for five reps of back squats is a touch over 200 pounds now, so I’ve come a long way and am excited about making more progress.
Cypher: What has been the most challenging part of CrossFit for you?
Chris: Committing the time in the first place was definitely the hardest part. The most challenging WODs for me involve holding the bar above my head (overhead squat, jerk, snatch, etc.). One thing I really appreciate is Mauricio’s ability to recommend the right amount of weight to attempt and how well his recommendations fall in the range of pushing my limits while also being achievable.
Cypher: What has been the most rewarding part of CrossFit for you?
Chris: I feel like I added a whole new dimension to my life. CrossFit is something that I look forward to doing every day, it’s what I think about when I first wake up in the morning. I love doing the work and the high I get from doing WOD that combines a variety of weights and cardio, especially when we do it for time and with a partner. Another thing that has become really important to me is the set of friends I’ve made at Cypher and just being part of a community outside of work. There are some really impressive, quality people here.
Cypher: Talk about your favorite CrossFit achievement/milestone. What was that moment like?
Chris: It’s hard to pick just one milestone. There have been many great moments, like when I finally figured out how to perform a basic power clean, or got the kipping pull-up to work. I’m not the most coordinated guy, so when something like this “clicks” for me, it is a good feeling. I’m still working on these, like everybody else, but I feel really good about the foundation that Cypher has helped me to develop.
Cypher: What sort of changes have you seen in your body, health and fitness since starting CrossFit?
Chris: Well, I am definitely a lot happier with my body than I was when I started. It’s been a huge change. I also feel a lot better and sleep a lot better. According to the data from my scale, my body fat has come down from over 18% in July of 2014 to around 12.5% (…asymptotically approaching my goal of getting to under 11%). I’m not sure how accurate the scale really is, but the long term trend is in the right direction. So, this is probably going to sound vain…about four or five months after starting CrossFit, we were doing strict pull ups and one of the Real Cypher Bros said I looked “jacked.” Who, me? I’m definitely not jacked, but I was pretty psyched about the compliment anyway. Despite being in my mid-30s, I’m in the best shape of my life. That all feels pretty good.
Cypher: What encouragement or advice would you give to new people coming in?
Chris: Stick with it and come as many days a week as you can. Nutrition is the other half of the equation, so don’t shortchange yourself from good results by coasting in this category. If you’re new, don’t be shy. Everybody at Cypher has learned a lot through personal trial and error, so ask the coaches and athletes about anything that is on your mind about the workouts, Paleo diet and nutrition, exercise equipment, etc.
Cypher: You have a pretty interesting and high stress job. Can you talk about it briefly and how you make time for the gym and your training?
Chris: My role at the National Lab is mostly related to helping the leadership group manage its affairs and being a utility infielder to get new research programs and facilities launched. It is the most rewarding job I’ve ever had, and humbling to be part of the team and our mission. Some of the current projects I am most excited about are in artificial photosynthesis as well as in a next generation of batteries that will allow grid-scale storage of energy from renewable, intermittent sources of electricity like solar and wind.
We are part of the University of California system and have close to 4,000 people on staff, including about 1,000 graduate students and postdoctoral researchers, and over 10,000 visiting scientists from around the country every year working on unclassified research. It can be easy to put all your energy into this great place and forget to take care of other things in your life.
Making time for CrossFit took a pretty big attitude adjustment on my part. Before I came to the Lab, I worked in the U.S. Senate for four years, the White House for three years, the and the Department of Energy’s Office of Science for another three years. I turned out to be a complete work adrenaline junkie and had been putting in 14+ hours a day nonstop since I got to Berkeley. To get myself to CrossFit every day, I really had to let go of my fear that my coworkers would respect me less if I went to the gym at a time of day that most people would consider it normal to go home. It felt like a huge gamble with my career and my role on the team that I care about.
The experiment has actually gone pretty well. I’ve learned how to operate differently, create some healthy boundaries at work, put more trust in other people, and still get things done. I think my coworkers probably appreciate that I have mellowed out in the past year and a half. At least I hope they do. I am definitely better able to deal with stress because I have this separate outlet through Cypher where I go work hard physically, detach completely from email and text messages, and spend some time with people outside of the science community. It’s kind of funny, at first I had intended on maybe just a few days of the week of CrossFit, just the days with the later evening class…now I go to the first class of the evening, pretty much every day.
Cypher: What are some of your hobbies, interests and/or talents outside of the gym?
Chris: Spending time outdoors, visiting my family and friends in the pacific northwest.
Cypher: You recently completed our Cypher Paleo Challenge, congrats! What are some things you learned from that experience? What advice would you give to someone considering trying Paleo for the first time?
Chris: Overhauling my food shopping and meal prep routine to change my diet has been very important. I dove in on this about the same time I started at Cypher, and have learned a lot over the past 18 months by trial and error and from others. At first it was a few variations on a small list of basic things. The Cypher Paleo Challenge gave me a window into what other athletes were doing, gave my own habits a healthy bit of peer review, and it helped me find new and better ways of putting together the meals that I eat each week. It’s easy now that I’ve gotten the hang of it, and actually a lot less work than what I was doing before.
So, I started very simple and boring, and moved to simple and a slightly less boring. But I keep it simple. If you work out in the evenings or have other commitments after work, you are going to be hungry and probably not in the mood to take the time to put together an elaborate meal before eating when you get home. So I guess my advice for those just starting out would be to look for ways of doing things that are very efficient from a time management perspective and find variety more in various combinations of simple things than in new and elaborate recipes.
Would it be TMI if I told you my basic meals? I have experimented with a few things along the way, but here is my current routine…
Breakfast: egg white scramble in the microwave and a green smoothie. The only thing that changes about this every day is the kind of fruit in the smoothie. I keep a variety of some fresh but mostly frozen tropical fruit on hand. The whole thing takes less than 5 minutes to cook and eat/drink.
Lunch & Dinner: turkey or chicken, quinoa, steamed vegetables with lemon juice and parsley. Maybe some avocado as well. I cook the chicken in batches or buy a pre-roasted turkey breast. I do the quinoa in a rice cooker on a timer and enough for a few meals. So the only thing I have to do most nights when I get home from the gym is steam the vegetables for 3-5 mins, squeeze a lemon and chop some parsley, and then put everything on a dinner plate and in a lunch container for the next day. Changing up the veggies, trying different kinds of quinoa, alternating poultry is enough to keep it interesting for me most days.
Snacks: not very often, but mostly only nuts and fruit. Occasionally a Clif bar.
The things I still eat that are not Paleo: I still haven’t kicked my diet soda habit, though I have scaled it back greatly. I recently started throwing oats into the green smoothies in the morning, which is not Paleo, but I don’t care. A cheeseburger or similar on a Friday night with friends is the other main loophole in my plan.
Cypher: What are a couple short term (3-6 months) fitness goals you have (ex. Back Squat X amount, get first pull-up/muscle-up, PR Fran, etc.)? How about long term goals (6-12 months)?
Chris: I’d like to add the bar muscle-up soon to the list of things I can do, and also make some more progress on the overhead squat. I’m considering doing a competition soon…I haven’t committed to that one yet.
Cypher: Any other thoughts or shoutouts?
Chris: You guys helped me change my life in many positive ways, so it’s hard to adequately express my appreciation. Thanks.