Zack George came top of the UK in the 2020 CrossFit Open, and 26th in the world.
However, as a child, George said he was “massively overweight,” eating fast food five times a week.
The professional athlete and CrossFit gym owner told Insider that his dad offered him a PlayStation as an incentive to lose weight, which kickstarted his fitness journey.
George now trains twice a day, six days a week, and he still has to keep his weight in check.
His best piece of advice to others is to “run your own race.”
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As a child growing up in Leicestershire, UK, Zack George was, in his own words, “massively overweight,” eating huge bags of candy and McDonald’s five times a week.
Two decades later, however, and he’s earned the title of the fittest man in the UK, having beaten all other Brits at the 2020 CrossFit Open.
George told Insider how he went from overweight child to where he is today, how he trains now, and his advice for others looking to get fit.
George’s dad promised him a PlayStation if he lost weight
As a young boy, George loved his fast food, routinely eating McDonald’s every day after school.
“I loved sweets, chocolate, and anything like that, I just had a ridiculous diet really,” he told Insider.
But after seeing his weight creep up, George’s parents decided to offer him an incentive to shift some pounds: A PlayStation 2.
“I got to the age of 12 or 13 and my parents thought, ‘Right, we need to do something here or else you’re going to get older and older and keep getting bigger and bigger, and it’s going to be a lot harder to try and change things.’
“At that time I really wanted a PlayStation 2, so my dad said, ‘OK, I’ll make you a deal: if you lose some weight, then we can get you a PlayStation 2.’
“I was like, ‘Amazing!'”
So the first step was cutting down on junk food, no longer having his daily McDonald’s and big bags of Haribo.
George says it was quite easy to lose the weight initially, so before long he was rewarded with his PlayStation.
“I was ecstatic about it,” he said.
A life-changing seminar led to a love of fitness and team sport
Despite having lost weight, George didn’t really have much interest in getting fit until he went to a mindset-changing seminar by life coach and motivational speaker Tony Robbins.
“Up until that age, I just wanted to lose weight to get the PlayStation,” he said. “I didn’t really care about doing it for myself.
“But that seminar was a really big turning point where I actually decided I wanted to lose weight for myself and to get fit for me, rather than needing any sort of external gift.”
He started playing more sports like rugby and squash, and health and fitness soon became a passion.
“It was just quite a big shift mentally because I knew I wanted to do it for myself rather than just so I could get something from it. And then we started to really get into health as a family,” George said.
As a teenager, George played sports to a high level and started looking after himself better in all ways to help with his performance.
“I think a lot of people who know me now just assume I was a really fit kid and have always been in good shape but it’s the complete opposite really,” he said, adding that people are always surprised when they see photos of him from when he was “massively overweight.”
“I think it always motivates people because obviously, I’m not a naturally thin guy, I do have to work on it with diet to stay in shape.”
It was love at first sight for George and CrossFit
After leaving school, George went on to get a personal trainer qualification from Loughborough University.
He didn’t discover CrossFit, however, until his dad saw a clip on YouTube that he thought his son might find cool — it turned out to be the 2013 CrossFit Games.
“I just thought it was mental,” George said. “People were doing all sorts of crazy stuff: swimming, doing muscle-ups, handstand walks, just an unbelievable array of fitness skills.
“I just loved the look of it. You’ve got to be strong, you’ve got to be fit. It really appealed straight away. As soon as I saw it, I thought, ‘That’s what I want to do. I want to get to the Games.'”
It took about a year for George to start CrossFit training properly because he couldn’t find a box (CrossFit gyms are called boxes), and at the time he owned a commercial gym.
But George was spending hours and hours watching videos online, and ever since has been “absolutely mad on CrossFit and the community.”
So much so that George decided to leave his gym and open his own CrossFit affiliate, CrossFit BFG in Leicester, in 2017.
This year, George was crowned the fittest in the UK
After a few years working hard at the sport, George was starting to make a name for himself — he came 6th in the UK at the 2018 CrossFit Open, and had earned himself the nickname of “Silverback” due to his ability to take his mindset to a new level while competing.
At this year’s CrossFit Open, however, George took the top spot out of everyone else in the UK, which also placed him 26th in the world.
And it was no mean feat.
The CrossFit Open spans five weeks: A specific workout is released every Friday morning, the competitors can them complete it as many times as they want over the weekend, filming their efforts with a qualified judge present.
You submit your score on Monday and then wait for the next workout.
If you win a workout, you get one point. If you come 20,000th, you get 20,000 points. The winner is whoever has the fewest points at the end.
The scoring system means one bad workout could cost you greatly, which had happened to George in previous years.
“But that’s why I love CrossFit, he said. “You’ve got to be good at so many different aspects. You can’t have any weaknesses.”
Most years, coming 26th in the world would have qualified George for the CrossFit Games.
But due to the coronavirus lockdown, a few months ago it was announced that this year’s process would be different, and only the top 20 athletes from the Open were invited to the Games, due to take place this Fall.
(However, following the recent allegations of racism and misogyny within CrossFit HQ, the future of the company and the Games is currently unclear.)
George is still incredibly proud of his achievement though, saying it felt “amazing” to win the UK Open.
“It’s been a dream of mine for seven years to get to the Games. And then to finally achieve it … At the start, because I was so focused in my training and I’d prepared so well for the Open, afterwards it was a massive come down and I felt really demotivated.
“I didn’t feel how I thought I would have felt, but I think that’s just because there were so many emotions involved and such a stressful five weeks.
“But a month or two later, when it really sank in, it was amazing to have worked for something for so long and to finally achieve it.”
He now trains twice a day, six days a week
As a professional athlete, George trains twice a day.
His morning sessions are typically cardio-based fitness, which could be anything from a 40-minute long bike session to short, intense running intervals.
In the afternoon, George will do his second session of the day, which is typically a 2.5-hour workout focused on gymnastics and weightlifting.
“That’s when I do all my clean and jerks, snatches, back squats, all that sort of strength work,” he said. “And then on the gymnastics side, it’s movements like chest to bars pull-ups, toes to bars, ring muscle-ups, handstand walks, all the skill elements.”
Sunday is a rest day, where George will do some form of active recovery like a swim.
“I typically train at a very high volume but it works for me,” he said.
He still has to watch his weight
George’s favorite exercise is thrusters, which is where you’re holding a barbell (or dumbbells) at shoulder-height, you squat down, and then as you drive up to stand, you press the bar above your head.
“It’s so painful because it’s working every part of your body,” George said. “But I like simple movements where I can just grind through.”
If you follow George on Instagram, you’ll also notice that he does a lot of burpees in his workouts. The main reason for this is that, at six feet tall and around 100kg (220 pounds), he has to keep his weight down — being a few kg lighter, he said, makes a huge difference when it comes to competing.
“If you do a lot of thrusters constantly, you’re probably going to have some sort of knee pain because it’s just quite an aggressive movement, but you could do burpees every day and not get too much of a repetitive strain injury, so it’s a great move for fitness and to keep my weight down as well,” George said.
Although his size works in his favor when it comes to strength, it isn’t ideal for all aspects of CrossFit.
“You don’t get many athletes my size, I’m a very heavy CrossFit athlete, so I’ve just had to work very hard on the fitness and gymnastics side, because I know that’s always going to be my weak point,” George said.
George is his own coach
Unlike the vast majority of professional CrossFit athletes, George doesn’t have a coach — he trains himself.
That doesn’t mean he’s working out alone though, and in fact, he believes training with others is key to his success.
“We turn my training session in the morning into a group training session so I’ve typically got eight to 10 people with me, and I have two training partners who I train with every evening too,” George said.
“It makes such a difference. Training on your own, trying to push yourself, is very tough.
“I’m lucky that I’ve got different people in my gym who can all beat me at different aspects, which keeps me on my toes and allows me to keep progressing. It’s great to have people to compete with.”
It’s particularly unusual at competitions for an athlete not to have a coach, but George said he has plenty of people around him to tweak his technique when needed.
Lockdown has posed challenges
Like everyone else, George has had to modify his training during the coronavirus lockdown. But unlike most people, as a gym owner, he was able to take lots of equipment home so he could carry on training as best as possible.
“I was just trying to stimulate as much of the same training intensity as in the gym,” George said.
“It was hard, but luckily I managed to keep it up. I made sure I stuck to the exact same training times as my usual day, which made the transition to lockdown training easier.”
And now, as a professional athlete, he’s allowed to be training back in the gym again.
“Before that, it was a tough transition, but I think I managed it quite well.”
He’s waiting to see if CrossFit makes any meaningful changes
While many CrossFit gym owners have disaffiliated from the brand following recent allegations of misogyny and racism within the company’s HQ, George is waiting to see what happens.
CrossFit founder Greg Glassman recently resigned as CEO and was replaced by Dave Castro, but George believes this isn’t enough to save the company because Glassman is still 100% owner, as Business Insider reported.
If the company doesn’t do something about this though, George will join the growing number of gym owners disaffiliating from CrossFit.
He isn’t worried though.
“The members come to our gym because of the coaching and the community aspect, not because it’s called CrossFit,” George said.
But the athlete, like many, spoke out about his disappointment with the company, saying he felt “let down.”
Run your own race, George says
At 29, Zack George has been on quite the journey from when he was a child.
His number one piece of advice for others wanting to get fitter? Run your own race.
“With social media, you can get very caught up with people looking perfect, but social media is people’s highlight reel,” George said. “It’s always their best lifts or when they’re the best shape.
“You might see someone lift a certain weight and want to get to that level really quickly, but it’s taken that person maybe five years to get to that level.
You don’t need to train like an athlete if you’re not an athlete, so don’t beat yourself up about it, he said. The key is to be consistent, because that’s how your fitness journey will last a long time.
“Run your race, take your time, and make sure you’re enjoying the process and doing it for the right reasons, for yourself,” George said.
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