For many of us, keeping ourselves in some sort of shape is a massive part of our day-to-day lives. Of course there are different levels when it comes to fitness and indeed shapes that we actually get into. One man who stands out from the crowd in both those departments is Zack George. Earlier this year he earned the prestigious title of fittest man in the UK after beating some seriously fierce competition in the 2020 CrossFit Open.
To get to this elite level has taken some seriously hard yards. As a child Zach was very overweight, habitually eating large amounts of fast food and sweets. But an incentive of a Playstation 2 from his Dad in exchange for some weight loss was the catalyst Zack needed to begin what was to become a lifelong passion for fitness and the sport of CrossFit.
We spoke to Zack recently about his brutal 6 days a week training regime, his fitness journey and his key CrossFit goals.
The MALESTROM: Tell us about how your fitness journey began?
Zack George: I was very different as a kid, I was very overweight and didn’t really like doing many activities. Very different to how I am now. I was overweight till the age of around 12/13. I did like some sports and was good at squash and tennis, but I got tired very quickly with being so big.
My Dad sat me down and tried to make me lose weight quite a few times. He said I had good potential at a few sports and that I didn’t want to waste it. He offered to buy me a Playstation 2 to give me some incentive to lose weight, because I was desperate for one at the time. So we made a deal that he would buy me the console if I lost some weight. I said I thought that was a good idea and we started tracking it.
I’d eat around five McDonalds meals a week, huge bags of Haribo every day after school, other sweets and chocolate every day. So, I decided to cut that down and not eat as much rubbish in the week. After a couple of weeks I managed to lose some weight and to get the PS2. It was a good feeling that I’d lost that weight, but even better feeling that I got the PS2!
At that stage I was just losing weight to get that result, but a couple of years later we went to an Anthony Robbins seminar, he’s a motivational speaker, I must have been about 14 at that time, that was a massive shift for all of my family especially me, because that was the first time I wanted to lose weight just for myself. I didn’t need an external gift or anything else to want to do it, after that seminar I wanted to do it for myself.
So, from that point I really started to get into fitness, I was doing home bodyweight routines and really started to watch what I was doing with food and nutrition. Then I started to get heavily into rugby playing for Leicestershire, I became a very sporty kid. I was playing squash and tennis at a decent level, in fact all sorts of sports. I carried on into my late teens and became a PT when I left school at 18. I wanted to help people in fitness in the way that I managed to sort my life out. At that time I was just doing general kettlebell fitness, then my Dad showed me this sport called CrossFit when I was 24.
TM: So it was your Dad who introduced you?
ZG: Yes. He’d seen it on YouTube. He sent me the link, it was the 2013 CrossFit games highlights. I just remember watching it and the competitors were just doing all sorts of crazy stuff, swimming, muscle ups outside of the pool, doing handstand walks. I just thought what is this? Straight away I knew I wanted to one day compete at the games, cause it was the first sort of sport I’d seen where you could use your fitness in a different way to any teams sports, or individual sport. It was just so different.
TM: For those that don’t know maybe tell us exactly what CrossFit is…
ZG: CrossFit is a mixture of weight lifting, gymnastics and body weight movements. There’s two elements to it, there’s the CrossFit sport side, which is a variety of different aspects of fitness. We focus on running, swimming, gymnastics, which might be ring muscle ups, handstand walks and then you’ve got weight lifting. So, clean and jerk, the snatch and loads of different exercises that spin off from those two.
Then you’ve got the community side of CrossFit, which is all the CrossFit affiliates around the world who do CrossFit as a training methodology. That’s just to generally improve people’s health, so it’s not just about how you look, it’s about how you move, trying to educate people on the nutrition side, not just the weight side. It’s a great training methodology and the community that I fell in love with for the past six or seven years.
TM: Is that one of the biggest draws for you, that there is this close knit community where you can share information like that?
ZG: One hundred percent. If it wasn’t such a community feel I don’t think I would have stuck with it for as long as I have. Because when I first walked into a box, I originally went to CrossFit unit 22 in Northampton, just straight away you feel part of the family. That’s one of the key aspects that makes you keep coming back every single day. Because it’s not like a normal gym where everyone has there headphones in and don’t speak to anyone, you literally look forward to going to the boxes and socialising with friends and training with your friends.
I think that’s one of the biggest differences CrossFit has over any other gyms, that community aspect. And that follows all the way through to the top level of the sport. So, when I’m competing all around the world at different competitions, it’s just like meeting up with mates you’ve not seen for a couple of months. It’s a really good atmosphere to be around.
TM: Can you take us through your training regime. To get to the point that you’re at – as Britain’s fittest man – what does a typical training week look like?
ZG: I train twice a day every day apart from Sunday. This was pre-Covid, when everything was normal. I always train at 10.30 in the morning and then again at 5pm. The morning session will always be cardio based, so Monday through to Saturday. That will be a mixture of EMOTM style workouts. So, every minute on the minute you’ll do rowing, burpees, assault bike. Then one of the sessions will be a dedicated running session. That session will differ from long endurance work to sprint interval work. Then you’ve got competition style replication workout, their normally around 6/7 minutes. That’s really intense short bursts. So, it’s a wide range of training all of the aspects of fitness within CrossFit in the morning.
In the evening I’ll do weight lifting and gymnastics. So, again the weight lifting will be clean and jerk, snatch, back squats, deadlifts and then the minor Olympic lifts, so hang snatches, hang clean and jerks, all working on that strength. That’s followed by gymnastics, that’s normally EMOTM based, so again that stands for every minute on the minute, so for ring muscle ups, I might do six of those every minute for ten minutes. I’ll aim to progress that over the months and keep increasing the reps.
TM: How do you how do you monitor what you do? I guess you measure your progress very specifically…
ZG: All my weights and times for my workouts are written down. I’ll have a building phase of say a couple of months where I’ll try workouts and then go back to different workouts and re-try them again. The aim is always to get more reps or to beat my time. Obviously throughout the CrossFit season we have peaks that we aim towards. So for my season this year I was peaking for the open and then also was going to peak for the games as well. You always have certain competition that you want to peak for during the year and the rest of the time you just work on weaknesses and try to bring them up as close to your strengths as you can.
The only difference in the week is Wednesday afternoon where I’ll go swimming instead of my weight lifting session. That will be set by my swimming coach, he sorts all that program out. Then on Sunday I only train once and that would be a technical swimming session, so really light, nothing intense, just working on technique and efficiency in the pool.
TM: What’s your favourite side of things? Is there one element you look forward to over others?
ZG: Yeah. Personally I prefer the fitness side. I just like going to that dark place and seeing how far I can push myself in that fitness element. I think because I’m a lot bigger than a CrossFitter tends to, CrossFitters tend to be around 90 kilos, I’m around 98/99, so the strength side of things I’ve never really had to focus to much on as I can always sling weight around. But I’ve had to work a lot on fitness and gymnastics which has the main focus for me over the years.
TM: There’s been a debate going on in CrossFit over whether bigger, stronger athletes can be better. I guess your on the side that that can work for CrossFit?
ZG: I think there’s definitely a perfect size for CrossFit and that’s probably 5 foot 10 inches, around 91 kilos. That’s perfect. Obviously the shorter you are the faster you can do pretty much every movement. So, I’m definitely on the heavier side of things, but you just have to work around that and use it to your advantage and then just know that you have to work a lot harder on things like fitness and gymnastics because you’ve got to shift a lot more weight around.
Then when I’m peaking towards major competitions, a big aspect of that is working with my nutritionist and he’ll get me on a cut. So, I normally compete at 96 kilos, so, throughout the year I’ll hover around 98/99, then I’ll get down to 96 when I’m ready to compete.
TM: Let’s talk about diet. Obviously it’s now very different from the diet you had as a teenager. What does it look like in terms of calorie intake and the the the food that you have to put in your body to perform?
ZG: I can give you the exact macro…
- 3570 calories a day.
- 446 grams of carbs,
- 119 grams of fat
- 178 grams of protein
So, considering my size and how much I weigh, it’s not actually that many calories. That’s due to me just having the genetics where I can put on weight very easily.
If I was to have around 5000 calories I would put on good weight, so it would be muscle mass, but it’d just be too heavy for CrossFit. So, working with the nutritionist, that’s sort of the best combination that we’ve found, that we still perform to a high level and not be depleted, but still not putting on weight.
My days will always be the same, I always have porridge in the morning, roughly 100 grams. I’ll do my training session and then straight after I’ll have a protein cookie and a banana. When I get back I’ll have two pieces of salmon, 100 grams of rice and a mixture of vegetables.
Then just before my afternoon session I’ll have another 100 grams of porridge, do my session, after which I’ll have a creatine and a protein shake. Then for dinner my girlfriend would normally cook a variety of different meats throughout the week with either potatoes, rice or sweet potato and veg. So, it’s pretty regimented!
TM: How important are factors like sleep?
ZG: I think it’s one of the biggest underrated things for recovery. People don’t realise how important sleep is. I always make sure I have a nap for 20 minutes during the day and then I always get 9 hours sleep everyday. That makes such a big difference to be able to train at the intensity and volume that I do. Sleep and water are so important and very underrated.
TM: With motivation, obviously you’ve had that this goal to drive, but how do you stay so motivated? Is it the lure of titles or something else?
ZG: My ultimate motivation has been that I’ve always wanted to compete at the CrossFit Games. That’s been a goal for me for the past 6/7 years. Obviously, I achieved that this year, then with everything with Covid I’ve just missed out as they’ve cut the field down dramatically. So, that motivation is still there, it’s probably even higher than it was this year, because I achieved that goal and it still didn’t get to go to games.
The thing is just to carry on and just be even more aggressive this year because I was so close. That motivation is always there to compete at the games and once I have, it will be assessing how that motivation level is. Because once you’ve worked for something for so long and you achieve it you quickly find another goal.
At the minute it’s important to get to the games, but once I’ve done that it might be to get to the top ten of the games, then it might be top five and so on. I think you always find the goal that you want to work towards after you’ve achieved the other goals you’ve been working towards over the last couple of years.
TM: I don’t want to dwell on it, but you must have been gutted to not compete there with the current situation?
ZG: Yeah. I’m a pretty laid back guy anyway, but I think once Covid hit and everywhere was locked down, I sort of mentally assumed that something was going to happen with the games. I prepared myself straight away. They cut the field down to the top 20 in the open and the winners from the sanctional events.
I was 25th in the open in the world, so I was a couple of spots out. I made sure I didn’t dwell on it or get angry as there was nothing I could do. I still could potentially go depending on flight restrictions to countries. I’m currently one spot out because some people decline their spot, but I’m currently raring to go for next season. My sole motivation and goal is working towards next season.
TM: For those looking to get into to CrossFit, maybe they’ve got a good general base of fitness, what would you recommend as a good sort of jumping off point?
ZG: For anyone wanting to get into the sport, definitely contact your local CrossFit box. I think when people see CrossFit on social media and YouTube they see the top athletes competing, so they can get a bit intimidated sometimes, but when you go to a CrossFit box you realise the majority of people who do CrossFit are people who just do it for fun, because they enjoy it.
Contact your local box and they will guide you in the right direction and just join the classes, join in with the family, the community of whatever box is local to you. I’m sure you’re going to fall in love with it and it’ll be a new social part of your life that you’ll get into.
TM: What lessons have you learned from CrossFit?
ZG: I always advise people to run your own race. Because social media is such a popular thing and it’s such a big thing in people’s lives these days, you can get very carried away when seeing people on Instagram, which is pretty much peoples highlight reel. They only show the best of what they want to show. You could see someone doing a ring muscle up or a heavy snatch and it makes people think I want to be able to do that, but you don’t realise that person has trained for three or four years to be able to do that particular movement.
I’d say make sure you enjoy the process, because that’s the main thing. If you’re not enjoying the process and really getting into fitness or CrossFit because of your own personal goals, you’re never going to really stick to it. You’ve got to really want to do it for yourself. Just take your time and know that everyone’s journey is going to be different. Someone can pick it up very quickly and some people won’t. Just run your own race and don’t get carried away with what you see on social media.
Zack George, CrossFit athlete and the UK’s Fittest Man @zackgeorge
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