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In the Gym with Christy Phillips, Elite CrossFitter
When it comes to fitness programs, it doesn't get any hotter than CrossFit. Its popularity has exploded over the past five years, and its focus on functional movements performed at high intensity has attracted millions of followers worldwide. To coincide with its exponential growth, CrossFit HQ began hosting an annual "CrossFit Games" in 2007 to crown the "fittest" man and woman on earth. The event has since grown from a backyard brawl of workouts in the California desert to an ESPN-televised, Reebok-sponsored fitness extravaganza with open, online qualifiers that allow anyone to compete for spots at Regional competitions. The top three men and women from each region earn spots at the CrossFit Games, held every July at Los Angeles' Home Depot Center.
But making it to CrossFit's biggest stage is no easy task, especially with more than 100,000 people expected to sign up for this year's Open. Some athletes, however, have what it takes to make it back to California year after year. Christy Phillips is a four-time Games competitor and one of the world's best CrossFitters, finishing 11th place in 2012 after five grueling days of competition (her best-ever finish was 6th, at the 2010 Games). We spoke with the Washington, D.C. superstar to talk training, camaraderie, and competition. Check out the bottom of the article for details on Christy's favorite CrossFit workout, and see if you can beat her personal best time!
How did you get started in CrossFit?
I played basketball, lacrosse, and ran cross country in high school, and my lacrosse coach encouraged me to try out for the team at whatever college I was going to. I’m forever grateful for her doing that, because lacrosse wasn’t something I was crazy about, but she said she could see I had talent. She said, "What are you going to do, sit around and watch Oprah every afternoon at 4?" So I tried out for George Washington University lacrosse and was a walk on. That gave me my first introduction to a formal strength and conditioning program.
I liked the lacrosse, I liked the teammates and comraderie, but I found I liked the conditioning and strength work in the gym even more than the lacrosse. So after my freshman year I left the lacrosse team and changed my degree to Exercise Physiology and became interested in that field. By my senior year I was working as a personal trainer at a local gym and one of the trainers there introduced me to CrossFit in 2007. Despite having some sports background and learning about strength and conditioning, I couldn’t even do a pullup, and it took me 6 months of CrossFit strength training to do one. Every measure of fitness for me improved and is still improving ever since I started CrossFit.
And what’s your max set of pullups now?
When did you first start competing in CrossFit?
I started competing in 2009. My first big crossfit competition was the Mid-Atlantic Qualifier, six women from our region qualified directly for the games.
Do you think the increased level of competition in CrossFit has helped push your training?
Absolutely! Merely for the fact that it has given CrossFit more exposure, and so there are tons more amazing, fit females coming out of the woodwork and challenging the competitors from the Open to the Regionals to the Games. Each year, the increasing amount of people who are competing drives the level of training that you do day to day. It shows you what you should expect of yourself, because in 2009 we did one rep max snatch at the games. I snatched 110 pounds, and that was the most I’d ever done at the time, and now we see workouts asking women to snatch up to 120 rounds for many reps.
How has CrossFit changed since you first started?
One of the biggest changes I’ve noticed in CrossFit today is more of an emphasis on form and moving well. It's being humble enough to slow yourself down or slow your client down if you’re a coach. So sometimes stopping in the middle of the work out and saying, “Let’s fix it.” In the early days of CrossFit, it was "go as hard as fast as you can." That’s how I started it. What I’ve learned is that I’m able to do better than my previous 100 percent when my movement is better and when I have some awareness of my surroundings and have some control.
How do you balance training with your career and personal life?
I work as a school nurse. After I got my undergraduate degree I got a second degree in nursing [and] I work full time Monday through Friday at a boarding school for aspiring professional ballet dancers. My work/life balance and my work/CrossFit balance is fantastic. I think doing CrossFit as my passion and my sport rather than my full career helps me find the joy in it and not feel as much of the drudgery.
I typically train from 5 to 7 p.m. during the week, and on the weekends I’ll get a little more volume in and be able to do a 2 or 3 hour session in the morning and be able to go back and do another session later. I train 5 days a week. I also train with my boyfriend on the weekends, which is a lot of fun. Some of my closest friends are also my workout buddies.
Any big personal bests since the 2012 games?
I set a PR [Personal Record] recently for my clean. I’ve been really working on my lifts in general but specifically on the Olympic lifts. At a recent competition I cleaned 210 pounds, so that was a PR and got me really excited to go home and keep training in the new year.
What are your predictions for the 2013 CrossFit Games season? Any athletes to watch?
It was of cool last year how they used the final Open workout of 2011 as the final Open workout of 2012 so you could test your progress. I think that’d be cool to do again, because you establish benchmarks and then you retest them to see how you’ve progressed, so why not do that in the Open competition setting?
As far as athletes to watch, I’d have to say Gretchen Kittleberger, she’s my closest training partner and we’ll be competing against each other in the same region. Lindsey Smithhas a bit of a [personal] vendetta, she’s not happy with how she placed last year and I think that’s really driving her training. On the men’s side, Ben Smith. He placed 11thlast year, which is what I placed on the women's side. I was very happy with my placement — not satisfied, but happy. I think Ben felt pretty similarly, especially because he got 3rd a few years ago.
Okay, important question: What's your favorite CrossFit benchmark workout?
"Amanda." It's a workout in honor of my friend and a fellow CrossFit Games competitor, Amanda Miller. She and I trained together leading up to the 2009 CrossFit Games. Only a few months after the 2009 games, Amanda was diagnosed with melanoma. She passed away in April 2010.
It's a deceptively challenging workout because even though it is low reps, it combines two high skill movements and demands strength and muscular endurance. This workout came up again for me on the Sunday of the 2011 Regionals. Before the workout, I was in fourth place and in danger of not qualifying for the CrossFit Games. I won that event and it helped me secure 3rd place and a return trip California. I always think of Amanda when I do this workout. Her funny, caring, no B.S. personality made her a great workout partner and friend. I picture her watching this workout and being proud but also getting a kick of out all of us getting our asses handed to us by "Amanda."
Have you tried CrossFit or watched CrossFit competitions? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below or tweet the author @d_tao.
[Note: This interview has been condensed for content and clarity.]