In the Gym with Rudy Nielsen, Elite CrossFit Coach

For some, exercising is about more than just looking good. We caught up with Rudy Nielsen, one of the world's most successful CrossFit coaches, to talk about training to become the fittest in the world.
In the Gym with Rudy Nielsen, Elite CrossFit Coach

Photos by David Tao

In 2008, “competitive CrossFit” was something of a misnomer, and when it came to testing their merit, the CrossFit elite were mostly restricted to backyard brawls and cross-gym showdowns. Five years later, CrossFit boasts corporate-sponsored athletes, an ESPN TV deal, and an Open competition with more than 110,000 athletes competing globally. Come July, the world’s best will duke it out in California during the Reebok CrossFit Games, where the fittest man and woman will be crowned and handed $250,000 for their efforts.

And while CrossFit’s newfound success is a far cry from its early days as a sport, some familiar faces still dominate the scene. One such person is Rudy Nielsen, owner of Virginia’s Outlaw CrossFit and the mastermind behind The Outlaw Way, a freely available strength and conditioning program he writes for competitive CrossFitters. Rudy has trained some of the world’s fittest people, but it’s his work bringing “the sport of fitness” to the masses that landed him on our list of 15 must-read trainers last July. Since then, Rudy and some of his athletes have held seminars from Iceland to Australia to give Outlaw enthusiasts some face time.

Greatist's Chief Research Officer David Tao met up with Rudy at his most recent New York City seminar at CrossFit Virtuosity in Brooklyn. It was Saturday, and Rudy was breaking down the snatch — one of the two Olympic lifts and a foundational movement in CrossFit. After an afternoon of picking apart technique and telling people to spend lots of quality time in the bottom of an overhead squat, Rudy sat down — without a barbell overhead — to talk about the future of competitive exercising.

When you teach a seminar like this, you’re dealing with a range of athletic abilities and CrossFit experience. How do you factor that into your teaching?

Basically what we do is we try and break movement down to its grassroots, simplest form. We’ve tried to take what we feel are the two most important aspects of the sport, which would be weightlifting and gymnastics, and we’ve tried to teach those from the absolute elements up. It’s weird because it translates to beginners and to high-level athletes. I actually show video analysis that is one of my top athletes that had probably two of the worst lifts of today’s entire session. The beauty is that if you take a novice and you teach them good habits right away, they end up getting better quicker and there ends up not being bad habits there to have to overcome.

How long have you been involved in CrossFit, and how has your role in the community evolved?

I got involved in 2005 and opened my affiliate in 2006. I kind of grasped onto the competitive aspect of it right away. I was a two-sport athlete in college and always considered myself more of a coach than an athlete and always leaned in that direction. When I first started CrossFit, the competitive aspect was what drew me to it. As the sport progressed, my role progressed, and we had success with a few of our athletes at our affiliate before I even coached anyone outside of my gym. We sent four athletes to the Games before I coached anyone from outside the gym, and it just sort of snowballed once I started publishing the workouts to my site and that sort of got a grassroots following. And it just sort of exploded after that point.

As far as moving forward, I’d like to have a team, as in a team that trains together year-round, like the MDUSA weightlifting team. I’d basically like to have the CrossFit version of that. That’s so I can take athletes who are focused on the sport and who want to improve and then eliminate all the extraneous things from their lives so they can focus on training.

So having a whole team of professional CrossFitters?

Yep, I think that’s how you really push the envelope of the sport.

What’s the next stage for the sport, and do you think its growth has plateaued at all?

I think more and more corporate sponsorships and interest will come. The more money that comes, the more exposure that comes, the more great athletes will come to the sport. The more mainstream websites that do articles about us, the more obvious exposure we’ll get. I think that something like skateboarding and the X Games — that’s a model we’ll likely follow. That has never plateaued, and I think that’s where CrossFit is going to go.

I think that the “fad” stage is gone. Now we can really get to the nuts and bolts of how to grow the sport and make it better.

Are the days of CrossFit hobbyists being able to compete on the biggest stages coming to an end?

They already have. All the top people right now are affiliate owners or coaches or have some sort of job that allows them to be in the gym all day, basically. That’s the prototype now, because that’s a guy who can be in the gym all day long and still earn an income. There’s more and more money coming into the sport for sponsorships, and I think that’ll continue. I’d like to see it continue. These guys are working out for sometimes three to four hours a day, every day. They’re on the same schedule Lebron James is on. I think the thing that will help that is more popularized and well-thought-out local and national competitions throughout the seasons, not just the CrossFit Games. The X Games have all sorts of competitions around the world that allow athletes to travel and make an income for themselves and for their sponsors.

What are some common misconceptions about CrossFit that you still run into?

Tons. Things like: We do 45 minute workouts that make you go to the hospital. We do thousands of pull-ups. We do high-speed Olympic lifts with bad technique. We don’t know what to do from a programming perspective. We’re just throwing stuff against the wall.

The Outlaw Way considers itself a strength and conditioning program based in the sport of CrossFit. We don’t even consider ourselves a general physical preparation program or anything like that. Our gym version would be, but the actual Outlaw Way is meant as strength and conditioning for CrossFit athletes, to make you better at the sport. The season is absolutely planned out. It’s programmed year to year; there are all sorts of percentage waves. Everything that would be there for a collegiate level strength and conditioning program is there.

Also, we have amongst our athletes some of the best Olympic Weightlifters in America. We had six women finish top five at the American Open, so as far as technique goes, we’re pretty good. There are common misconceptions that developed when the sport first started, and we don’t feel like we’re a part of any of those. I think people need to understand that the safety level with this exercise protocol and the fitness we’re developing is the best in the world.

The coaches in the sport right now are some of the elite level running, swimming, and weightlifting coaches in the world. The only difference between what we do and what a collegiate-level strength and conditioning program might do is that we’re not big wusses and we’re not afraid to teach the snatch. We’re not afraid that our athletes are going to get hurt because we actually know how to do the lift, unlike a lot of people in the strength and conditioning community who say it’s dangerous because they don’t know what they’re talking about.

Quick predictions for the Games?

I want to make predictions so bad, but it’s tough. I believe that there will be a couple of surprises.

I will say this: I’m very happy about the progress of my athletes right now and the place they’re at.

Have you tried CrossFit, and are you taking part in this year's CrossFit Open? Let us know in the comments below, discuss in our new communities, or tweet the author @d_tao.

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