So You Want To Be A Functional Fitness Athlete?

A lot of Regional qualifier stories start with someone watching Regionals and saying to themselves, "When I come back next year, I don't want to be sitting in the stands." Since it's that time of year, I felt really motivated to explain what it took for me to make that happen in a good bit of detail. Rich Froning put it well when he said, "Walking into a gym and saying you will qualify for the Games is like joining a church basketball league and saying you are going to play in the NBA." 

Before you start to construe anything I say as negative or discouraging, I want you to know that I think you (Yes, you!) have what it takes to qualify for Regionals with enough time and effort. 

That said, the best things in life tend to be really, really difficult and really, really worth it. Being a successful functional fitness athlete falls into that category. I’m not here to toot my own horn (Well, maybe a little bit.) but I want to give you some solid perspective on where I was and where I am because chances are, my starting point is way behind where you are right now. I finished the 2015 Open in 16,762nd place while weighing 270 pounds. Yes. Over 16 THOUSAND men handed me an “L” that year:

In 2017 the South Central region had 13,000 men sign up for the 2017 Open. The Southwest had 8,500. Latin America had 20,500. Out of over 42,000 men, I qualified for the next level and ended my season in 23rd at the 2017 South Super Regional. Based on the results of this season, I can confidently say that I am one of the top 500 functional fitness athletes in the world.

I have scratched and clawed from being a bottom of the barrel athlete with aspirations to Regionals qualifier.

I know what it takes to get there and not the fairy tale version where you try for a few months and qualify without even knowing that Regionals is a thing like Mat Fraser. (What a jerk! Amirite!?) There are so many things I wish I had been able to learn the easy way. Instead, I had to use trial and error. I had to travel all over the country to learn in person, first hand, from Ben Bergeron, Chris Spealler, Matt Chan, Josh Everett, Kelly Starrett, and more to figure out what’s necessary to make this happen. That’s why I am here to help you get going in the right direction and hopefully avoid some pitfalls that got me. In my opinion, all 7 of the things on this list are not just suggestions but necessary for a normal person to go from the recreational functional fitness gym attendee to Regional qualifier. My approach for this article is to try to talk you out of going for this. If you read this list and still think, “Absolutely. I am ready to face all of that and everything that comes with it.” then you might just have a chance.

1.) Make sure this is what you really want.

Successful and effective people have above average self awareness. Their actions and words are aligned. They don't say things like, “I want to go to Regionals next year.” and ignore their nutrition or skip pieces of programming.

If you just want to be a really fit person that looks good with their shirt off, string together a few muscle ups and squat snatch the big 45 pound bumper plates, that’s one thing. It’s still incredibly challenging and depending on your gifts and level of commitment to the craft, it could take half a decade or more to accomplish that.

That said, if you’re a “normal” person (Someone who isn’t on the verge of qualifying just by walking into a gym and going to class most days.) and you want to step on the regional floor, you’re going to have to sacrifice a lot of your time and energy. However many of your daily comforts you’re imagining giving up right now, double it and then know it still might not be enough. What’s worse, it’s like digging a well by hand. Everyone’s journey will be unique. You don’t know when you’re going to hit water. How deep do you have to go? How long do you have to dig? The only answer I can give you is longer and deeper. You aren’t there yet so just keep going. To add insult to injury, you probably need to dig faster too! The bar is constantly being raised as the competitive field gets bigger and more experienced. If you've finished in the 100-500 range in your region the last 3 years, you need to do something different. It's likely their is one or more things on this list that you have convinced yourself isn't necessary or you aren't doing consistently. Be honest with yourself! Keep doing what you've been doing and you're going to keep getting what you have gotten. 

Make no mistake. You can do it. Don’t you dare give yourself an “out” from going for it because it’s “impossible”. I promise you, there is someone significantly busier and less genetically gifted than you that will do what it takes to make it happen. I just want you to fully grasp that it’s going to be a very long, hard, (and rewarding) road. There’s a 100% chance of blood and tears. You’re going to want to quit and you’re going to have to do countless things you don’t really feel like doing. Make sure this is what you want and make sure you know why you want it.

Otherwise, when it gets incredibly hard and overwhelming (and i promise, it will.) you’re going to fold and make compromises that will mold you into an athlete who simply doesn’t have what it takes to earn your spot when the Open rolls around.

2.) Hire a great coach and do what they tell you to do.  

It took me forever to figure this out because I am a coach. I don’t care who you are, you need a coach if you’re really serious about making this dream a reality. Not just a gym membership. You aren’t Rich Froning and you never will be. We all need an objective professional to evaluate our needs as athletes in order to maximize our potential. It’s possible, but the nice guy/gal who coaches your class probably isn’t the right fit for this job.

This could hurt some feelings and I understand that. You like and respect this person but developing a high level competitive athlete simply isn’t the primary craft of the average affiliate owner and they already have a ton on their plate. They aren’t likely to have the time and energy to give you the attention to detail you need here. You need an intimate one-on-one relationship with a full-time competitive coach who is helping you address the challenges you’re going to face in a customized and structured manner.

You need more than a cookie cutter program, a few coaching cues, and an occasional “You got this!” when you’re feeling beat-up mid-workout. Yes, you need those things but you also need your very own road map to success and a tour guide who has made the journey before. You should be having a conversation about every single piece of programming you do. You should be familiar with the intentions of the training cycle you’re on and be held accountable to every piece of programming your coach writes for you.

On the other side of things, if you’re already paying for access to competitive programing but don’t have a meaningful relationship with a coach to guide you through it, you need to fix that. Steven Willis of Go For Broke Fitness is my coach and I wouldn’t trade him for anyone in the world. Check him out if you want a coach you can actually talk to and work with.

He writes me a custom program, goes over the purpose and intent of each week with me, reviews video of movements we are targeting for improvement, and is constantly fine-tuning my mental approach. Our programing isn’t set in stone. If my knee tendonitis is flaring up, we get on the bike instead of doing pistols. If we find a hole in my game, we develop a plan to fill it. Life is full of unexpected hurdles. I tell Steven when they come up and he tells me exactly how to get over them.

Find a great competitive coach and pay them what they’re worth to guide you.

3.) Be on a nutrition program all year long.  

If you want to be the best you can be, you need to have a really low body fat percentage. Period.

On top of that, and equally important, your body needs a steady stream of the right amount and kinds of fuel to make every single training day top quality. A solid nutrition program with easy access to a human being to help address the challenges you will certainly face is a necessity.

Your program should be applicable anywhere, always, and forever. Obviously I am bias but I make no apologies in my firm belief that my program is the best fit for most athletes. Consistency will make or break you here. This program is designed to make that happen. I think paleo is great for athletes. I think Zone is great for athletes. That said, in 6 years of affiliate ownership, I don’t know of a single athlete who has followed either for more than a six month period with serious consistency. If you’re doing this consistently and getting great results, keep it up. If you’re sick of starting a diet for a few weeks and quitting, I’d encourage you to try a program designed to be sustainable and effective like Macroholics.  

I will get you really lean, keep you appropriately fueled, and make sure you stay in the jetstream of adaptation that happens when you pair quality nutrition with world class programming. Building fitness here while being relentlessly consistent is like riding a bike downhill. You will gain momentum and before you know it, you’ll be flying past athletes that used to lap you in class workouts.

What’s equally important is I will hold you accountable 365 days a year. If i don’t see your daily screenshot, you’re going to get a text from me. If you don’t want someone to relentlessly hold you accountable to what you said was a goal of yours, don’t sign up for my program.

You need a coach and community just like you do for your training. Most of us wouldn’t be able to push day in and day out without our training partners. Nutrition isn’t any different. We have a community of athletes who are going to see your daily screenshots and share countless tips that are helping them be successful all year long in every situation and scenario imaginable.

We are going to adjust your program every single week to help you move towards your goals at the perfect pace. Your nutrition is the foundation of your fitness. According to Greg Glassman, success in this sport without a nutrition program is like being in a boat race with one oar. I don’t care how tough you are or how hard you train, eventually the people with two oars are going to pass you.

You don’t have to follow my program specifically but don’t tell me you’re a serious athlete if this still isn’t a priority for you. If you aren’t taking the first and biggest piece of your training seriously, then you aren’t serious about being the best athlete you can be. You can be really, really good without a nutrition plan. But make no mistake, you’ll never be anywhere near as good as you could be.

4.) Sleep a lot.

Set an alarm, not to wake up, but to get your butt in bed on time.

Sleep is a performance enhancing hormone cocktail. If you’re serious about it, you’ll make being in bed with all lights off (lights, TV, phone) 8.5 hours before your morning alarm is set. You might have to plan ahead all day. Job, kids, and other commitments can make this incredibly challenging. I get it. Make a plan to be in bed on time or wake up less recovered. This will take away from the results of your previous training session and your next training session.

5.) Follow a Mobility and Prehab program religiously.

“This is going to ruffle a lot of feathers but if you’re a competitive athlete, you are going to get injured. It’s not a question of if. It’s a question of when and how seriously.” -Ben Bergeron

It’s Murphy’s Law. Don’t expect to stay healthy pushing your body to the limit multiple times a day six days a week. You have to be proactive. Staying healthy in this sport doesn’t happen on accident.

You know what I do first thing every single morning before I start my programming? ROMWOD, Mobility WOD, Reverse Hyper, Crossover Symmetry, Hip Circle, and my customized prehab work written by Dr. Niraj Patel and Ryan Doss who are both doctors of chiropractics that are intimately familiar with the sport and know my unique needs and challenges as an athlete.

In my experience, everyone without exception who doesn’t do this stuff consistently while trying to pursue success in the sport ends up injured too long and too often to accomplish anything significant.

6.) Work on your mental game.

This might be the hardest one and there are countless pieces to this puzzle. I'm only going to address some big ones I have noticed are common among athletes.

A.) Focus only on what you can control.

That includes the things on this list and not much more. Training, nutrition, sleep, where/who you train with, and prehab.

You can't control how fit your competitors are. You can't control the judging in competitions or the Open programming. Any time or energy spent focusing on that takes away from the time and energy working on the things you can actually control that have positive impact on your progress. 

B.) Love the grind. Not the results.

If you’re only doing it for the end result, you’re probably not going to make it. If you hate every single day of training, but you love winning competitions, you're probably not going to make it. You have to love the daily process. Learn how to focus on and appreciate the present. Having lofty goals and being motivated by them is okay but it simply isn’t a good enough “why” for most of us to stay on a path that leads anywhere worth going.

For more on this subject I recommend reading The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and listening to Ben Bergeron’s Podcast.

7.) Surround yourself with like-minded individuals.

You need a community of people who have the same aspirations and appreciation for what it takes to make this happen. I have five other regional qualifiers I get to be around and train with on a daily basis. At the very least, you need people who support these aspirations. If you’re alone in this, good luck. I’m sure it’s possible but I have no experience in that realm. Without my wife being the most incredible and unconditional supporter in the world, the other necessary aspects of my life like my relationship with Jesus, being a father, and a business owner would have all fallen apart while trying to make this happen.

If you’re willing to make all seven happen for the next two years with consistency, you have a good shot.

Still interested? Then let's get to work.

David Barnett