People forget there was a time before The CrossFit Games was sponsored by Reebok, televised on ESPN and enough of a money-maker for elite athletes to become full-time CrossFitters.
James Fitzgerald, the founder of OPEX Fitness, had been a personal trainer and strength coach since the mid 90s when he stumbled on CrossFit.com’s workouts in 2005. Two years later, at the inaugural Games in ’07, Fitzgerald won it all. He took home $500, some of which went to celebratory pizza and ice cream, and a new interest in his training methods from the growing CrossFit world.
The demand for Fitzgerald’s Optimum Performance Training (OPT) methods (which officially became OPEX in October 2014) has since gone from three employees in a small Arizona office to one of the most recognized strength and conditioning coaching and coaching education programs in the world.
Below, Fitzgerald opens up on coaching tips, CrossFit’s massive shift, the future of OPEX and sifting through the B.S. in a social-media obsessed fitness world…
Athlete Daily: As a big proponent of data and individualized training, are you starting to see a shift toward people wanting to move better?
Fitzgerald: “Digging into numbers is so fulfilling for a coach. We want to fix shit and help people and the fixing shit starts with all that analysis.
We are past that honeymoon period where everyone can be a champion. There’s only a select few who can do anything and still get better. A lot of folks are starting to go, ‘You know what? I might need to spend time in this and gain this balance’. Which is ironically what CrossFit started doing. As opposed to reaching for a score or whiteboard or putting themselves against others with the Open.”
Athlete Daily: Or understanding the why behind doing certain things, like endless amounts of mobility.
Fitzgerald: “No one is asking any questions! Like, why do I have to do this to move around? All of my clients 20 years ago, everyone from pro hockey players to stay-at-home moms, no one had to do all of this [mobility]. If it’s for sport and it’s your full-time thing, OK it’s your job.
But if you’re sitting at an office or behind a computer screen, why are you doing this? It shouldn’t take you 30 minutes to mobilize to physically be able to squat. You should ask yourself why it’s taking so long to do this and stop wasting your time. And that, hopefully, will also all come back around again.”
Athlete Daily: You were around CrossFit before it became more of a mainstream sport. Could you even imagine this back in ’07?
Fitzgerald: “There’s an end game with everything. When I began, no [I couldn’t imagine this].
There was a glimmer, more and more people were doing the workouts, affiliates were happening and things were spreading.
I remember [when I won] sitting with my training partner Brett Marshall and telling him, ‘this is going to be gladiator style in Vegas with thousands watching in a ring’. And ironically, that’s what it looks like in Sunday night in Carson [Calif.]. That’s kind of what it’s turned into.
Where I’d like to see it move [to is] they need to create a really fine line between CrossFit as fitness and CrossFit as a sport.”
Athlete Daily: How much has the fitness landscape changed since you started in regards to perception and social media?
Fitzgerald: “I was doing personal training in 1995 and in 1995 your business grew or you failed. The reason why there was such a huge failure rate for trainers is because your retention wasn’t high. You were either a bad trainer or weren’t making any money. Geographically, you couldn’t put a marking thing online showing how great you are as a trainer.
People can’t look beyond the marketing aspect of it. What is perceived to be expertise in fitness is really a sour point for me.
It’s personal because I grew it up from the ground up so I knew how challenging it was to build a business. And it’s a challenge to show coaches about that hard work. But with that hard work you find the truth. And if you work hard and do it right and give people good shit, they will stay with you forever.
No one is bigger than OPEX and we have to realize we are not going to be the sexiest, we are not going to be dynamic and fast-moving and risky. It’s a balancing point for the brand to ensure we don’t try to be [something we are not].
You can put your ass or a private body part on Instagram and get 25,000 views. If that creates something for your business, some people have said, ‘Well we can get more likes for our business’. And we have always been like, ‘That won’t be us’. That’s been me and my business. We’ve always been like, ‘Fuck it, that’s not me, that’s not us. Maybe it will hurt us in the long run, but that’s my belief.”
Athlete Daily: What advice would you give to someone interested in pursuing the OPEX coaching program or just starting out in their coaching career?
Fitzgerald: “I ask new coaches to really fall in love with the process no matter where your athletes end up. Don’t go after recruitment strategies or trying to find talent because what you’ll see from that is [with] the most talented athletes, you aren’t going to learn much as a coach.
If you feel really good about that by attaching your name to a great athlete, you are not going to learn much and have much fulfillment.
I’ve worked with some people like that and also some people you’ll never know who have made massive changes in their journey. I’d ask coaches to go after that. At the end of the day, no one may know your fucking name but it’s the most fulfilling as a coach.”
Athlete Daily: Speaking of coaches, the backbone of OPEX is on training coaches over individual athletes. Why is that?
Fitzgerald: “When I first started, I could see things further down the road and I didn’t feel fulfilled unless my vision or ideas or teachings, if I didn’t share it with a lot of people. I saw an end point to doing it individually. I gained a lot of success in my own learning from my coaching practice. It made sense to help teach other coaches.
With coaches, it’s going to spread to millions and not thousands. And my vision is to make a severe impact on fitness. I have my own personal ideas on what that will look like, through our company and having OPEX gyms in the future is a reality. You’ll be able to exercise at an OPEX gym with an OPEX coach and they’ll teach you how to fall in love with fitness.
We’ve been consistent and I think for the marketplace having a consistent voice when others go up and down and in and out, that could be a unique position for us. I’m in it for the long game. I can’t see myself stop doing it or making a movement. I think that fits well with a lot of people.
I also understand marketing to the public is more powerful right now, but I have hope people will start to realize what is effective and what actually works and I think we will have a place when people find that truth.”
Athlete Daily: You’re also pretty vocal in long-term testing and research on the effects of functional fitness. (Fitzgerald has been gathering and researching data since 2007.) What’s the goal there?
Fitzgerald: “There’s a lot of answers to muscle contraction and aerobic work, but those models don’t carry over to varied activity all the time. These aspects of fatigue that people thought they had the answer to are based on endurance models. People they were studying were biking or running or just lifting in a lab. Now, people are doing all sorts of shit and going crazy for six minutes [in a WOD].
I don’t think anybody has a fucking clue what goes on when people do that. And the way I’m investigating it is looking at the blood, nervous system and respiration. And what we’re starting to see is it looks nothing like fatigue in other models. We are actually investigating it and no one else wants to touch it.
We are not measuring long-term results, [we’re measuring] what those results mean. Who was this person when they started? We’ve been looking at it. What does results even mean? You can scare the shit out of anyone and get results for a few years. What does that mean?
If you would talk two years ago most people would say, ‘Oh The Biggest Loser [show] that gets results,’ But 95 percent of them fail long term.”
Athlete Daily: So this is more specifically looking into what happens long-term from CrossFit.
Fitzgerald: “Exactly. And I think we’ll be the leaders in that [research] for a long time. I got more results with my physique with 10 years of dumbbells than CrossFit, but no one knew because I didn’t have a phone or Facebook. Bodybuilders really do get a bad rap. But I think that will all come back around.”