Secrets of the World's Best CrossFit Box

Tommy and Bobbie Jo Hackenbruck have found the key to success with their CrossFit gyms in Utah.

Tommy Hackenbruck

Photo Courtesy of CrossFit, Inc.

Bobbie Jo Hackenbruck vividly remembers the day her doctor looked her squarely in the eye and said, "Don't even even think about trying to run a marathon." The advice came following a back injury she had sustained during her soccer career at the University of Utah.

"I played soccer growing up and I always had tight hips that led to some back pain," she says.

A collision during a match led to a bulging disc, and Hackenbruck's back problems escalated. After college, she moved to Bend, Oregon, with her husband, Tommy Hackenbruck, whom she met at school. Tommy started at middle linebacker for the Utah squad that won the 2005 Fiesta Bowl.

Both Hackenbrucks had too much athletic energy to leave behind with their college days. In Bend, Bobbie Jo was driven to overcome her back problem and begin a career in endurance athletics. She worked at a corrective exercise clinic—in part for the selfish reason of wanting to get an edge on rehab—and tried a variety of programs, including yoga, physical therapy and Pilates, to boost her return to sports.  "I tried everything," she says. Tommy coached youth football and attended Tae Kwon Do classes.

A Life Changer

Their lives changed the day Bobbie Jo dropped into a nearby CrossFit gym in search of some extra work.

"I had been a D-I athlete, so I was pretty cocky about it. I didn't think it would be very tough," she recalls. "The gym owner asked if I'd ever tried CrossFit, and I hadn't."

The workout stunned her. "I thought, 'What on earth was that?' And then I thought, 'My husband would love this.'"

As the Hackenbrucks knew intimately, a rather expansive conditioning divide can separate a soccer player from a middle linebacker. At 6'1", Tommy  had played football at a weight of 227 pounds. Agile and quick, he also had enough power to Back Squat 485 pounds. Such athletic capacity did not fit well with the endurance orientation of his wife. Bobbie Jo remarks, "We would get in big fights out on a hike or mountain bike ride, because he'd immediately start cramping up."

Bobbie Jo was right about CrossFit, though. Tommy instantly loved it, and both were surprised by the results. While developing and honing Tommy's strength and power output, the high-intensity metabolic conditioning of CrossFit training burned down his overall mass by nearly 20 pounds, unleashing a dimension of athleticism that had previously eluded him: endurance.

"He got really strong," says Bobbie Jo. "But all of a sudden he had endurance. He could run."

CrossFit also surprised Bobbie Jo in her pursuit of full rehabilitation. She took her time learning the movements and performing the workouts—against the advice of the director of the clinic where she worked—taking care not to aggravate her back problem. In time, she increased the intensity. One day, she performed the CrossFit workout "Nancy"—five rounds of a 400-meter run followed by 15 Overhead Squats.

"I couldn't believe how good I felt," she says. Her post-collegiate athletic résumé now includes winning a Spartan Race and competing in the 2011 CrossFit Games.

Tommy Hackenbruck has become a pioneer in the emerging sport of CrossFit. He finished second in the 2009 CrossFit Games and ninth in 2010. But it's in recent years that Tommy and Bobbie Jo have become part of CrossFit Games history. Their gym, UTE CrossFit, won back-to-back Reebok CrossFit Team competitions in 2012 and 2013. The defense of their 2012 championship came during CrossFit's high-speed growth, when the number of affiliates approached 10,000 worldwide.

Traditional Rehab vs. CrossFit Training

One of the reasons the Hackenbrucks opened a CrossFit box was that Bobbie Jo compared the client results at the corrective exercise clinic where she worked (at a cost of $300 to $400 per month) to what she witnessed CrossFit members achieving. She says, "No one was really getting fit at the corrective exercise clinic. I thought, 'These people are paying a lot of money and not getting any real results.'"  Inspired in part by Bobbie Jo's rejuvenated health, the couple invested their future in the program.

The success of Ute CrossFit has grown along with its success at the Games. The Hackenbrucks have opened two additional locations in the Salt Lake City area and have a total of 450 members.

Amid the various controversies surrounding CrossFit, what are some of the methods being employed at what arguably could be the best CrossFit gym in the world? "For one thing," says Bobbie Jo, "People are drawn to Tommy. I've never known an athlete like him. He has this weird and crazy drive to be the absolute best."

But Tommy's enormous drive to achieve, Bobbie Jo says, is not immediately apparent when you meet him: "He's very calm and low-key. Because of him, our gym is not the boastful kind of gym you hear about. He's not a coach who storms around huffing and puffing." In fact, adds Bobbie Jo, when Tommy returned from the CrossFit Games with his second-place finish, none of the members heard anything about it.

Regular CrossFit Training Compared to Training for the CrossFit Games

Bobbie Jo reports that CrossFit Ute has 400 members who attend for general health and fitness reasons and have little to do with the CrossFit Games: "They are the heart of your box and community. We try to keep the CrossFit Games aspect separate. Training for the sport of CrossFit is a completely different thing than real CrossFit."

Compared to regular CrossFit clients, who attend two to five one-hour classes per week, athletes training for the CrossFit Games follow a much more demanding schedule. Tommy Hackenbruck's training days during "heavy" times of the year—like the weeks leading up to the CrossFit Games in July—start off with an early morning endurance workout, like an easy one-hour run, swim or rowing workout. Then, on most days, his afternoon or evening workouts consist of 90 to 120 minutes of Olympic lifting and power lifting moves, often with heavy weight and with a particular emphasis on the shoulders. Over the course of a week, several hard met-con workouts are embedded in the plan—the high-intensity, no-rest circuit workouts CrossFit is known for—and at least one day per week is devoted to working on gymnastic movements and skills.

An examination of CrossFit Ute's programming clarifies the difference between CrossFit training and the CrossFit Games. According to Bobbie Jo, only about 10 percent of their members are involved in the Games programming, and those who are are either coming straight out of a college athletics program or have 4 to 5 years of CrossFit experience. "It's too much for anyone else," Bobbie Jo says. "Most would be broken immediately." CrossFit Games programming is extremely demanding in terms of time and focused effort, and the team takes only one week off per year, immediately after the summer competition.

Injury Prevention

The 40 people who are active in the Games program are encouraged to do their best to adopt Tommy's "secret" for preventing injury: the 1-to-1 Injury-Proofing Rule. For every one hour of training,  he spends one hour in recovery and restorative work.

"He gets in body work, he foam rolls, mobility exercises and the like," Bobbie Jo says. Part of that hour is also time spent in the ice bath. "After his morning endurance workout—even though it's at an easy effort—he takes a 20-minute ice bath." After his morning training and recovery, he works and coaches at the gym. Then he repeats the ice bath after his afternoon or evening workout.

The 1-to-1 training-to-recovery ratio has kept injuries to a minimum. "It's mostly either sore shoulders or a tired back or legs," Bobbie Jo says. When athletes start to experience excessive soreness, they are put on a bodyweight-only training program until they're back to 100 percent.

Tommy and Bobbie Jo continue to experiment with and refine the programming at their gym, adapting to the challenges of additional locations, more coaches and helping both the athletes in their general program and their CrossFit Games competitors excel.

Tommy has not stopped exploring his athletic potential. Before the 2013 CrossFit Games—at the age of 32— his weight was chiseled down to 210 pounds, and he had enough power to produce a 550-pound Back Squat, a 22:00 5K run and a 285-pound Snatch. With the 2014 CrossFit Open beginning in a matter of weeks, he'll soon be looking to see what other surprises CrossFit training may have in store.

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Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock

Topics: CROSSFIT | WORKOUTS | EXERCISE | ENDURANCE | CROSSFIT GAMES