An easy mistake to make when you see a guy at the top of his game is to assume his success came easily – that his progress followed a continuous, upward trajectory. It’s rarely so. Scratch that. It’s never so.
Take Rob Forte. His record stamps him as Australia’s best CrossFit athlete. He’s placed first in three of the last four regional qualifiers for CrossFit’s annual world games – and was second the other time. In this corner of the world, Forte rules.
And yet, rest assured that over the years he’s collided with all the same obstacles you have: disappointment, staleness, self-doubt. A case in point: how he felt after early encounters with CrossFit superstar Rich Froning.
“I’ve thought of Froning as a freak many times – he’s done things few others can do,” says Forte, who’s chatting between duties at the CrossFit gym he runs in the Melbourne suburb of Frankston.
“I remember watching him do 30 snatches at 102 kilograms, and the first and last reps looked the same. It was amazing how quickly he could do it and how well he moved under fatigue. That was three years ago and I’d still struggle to match his time.”
Closing on 30, Forte reckons he’s a work in progress. His fitness story, rather than being a victory march, is a series of stages, each of which prepared him to be a better athlete. Try viewing your progress the same way. And then start looking forward to the best years of your life.
2003-09 TRAINING LIKE ARNIE
Forte took up weights at 17 alongside schoolmates. They wanted to get stronger for footy, while he was into motocross so less in need of bulk. But what boy – what male – doesn’t like adding muscle?
He got hold of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s The New Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding and let it guide him, though he did a lot more benching (hard but fun) than deadlifting (plain hard).
“Bodybuilding training is a good place to start, but it’s not the be-all and end-all,” says Forte, who found he derived more satisfaction from circuit-style workouts and punishing runs. He wanted to be fitter, to run further and faster, and to have data that showed he was improving. “Sure, you get data with bodybuilding in terms of the size of your biceps, but that wasn’t something that motivated me to keep training.”
The question is, what motivates you?
2009: CROSSING OVER
While watching The Biggest Loser, Forte and his dad wondered whether Commando Steve Willis was really a commando or pretending for the show. A minute’s research revealed the ex soldier was an early adopter of CrossFit.
Soon after, Forte’s dad saw a guy in a Subway wearing a CrossFit T-shirt and asked him whether there was a box nearby. There was. Before long father and son were training there – and liking it so much that both invested in Melbourne boxes – Forte’s in Frankston, his dad’s 30 kilometres away in Dromana.
Forte believes adopting the key principles of CrossFit – targeting all aspects of fitness; favouring functional, compound exercises over foo-foo isolation moves; sprinting rather than jogging – have been the making of him, and would do wonders for most guys.
He has, nonetheless, drawn on bodybuilding staples to improve at CrossFit, in which the snatch and clean and jerk are the centrepieces. “If you just keep snatching and snatching, your improvement is going to peter out,” says Forte. The answer: squatting, going ever heavier as you get stronger. “Increasing your squat will increase your snatch, your clean, your jerk . . . it’ll increase everything,” promises Forte.
2010: TAPPING PALEO POWER
Forte accepted a caveman-diet challenge six years ago, thinking it would be over in a flash. “I’ve been eating that way ever since,” he says “All my main meals are meat and veg.”
He used to tuck into grains and thought wraps and subs were healthy enough. But looking back he was tolerating frequent headaches and bouts of bloating – ailments he doesn’t experience anymore on a diet sans grains, dairy and legumes. “I haven’t been to the doctor in six years,” he says. And his energy levels for training? Never better.
“My advice would be to try it, to be strict for at least four weeks, and if by the end you’re feeling the benefits, great. You’ll probably want to keep going.”
2010-2012: NAILING THE DEADLIFT
Forte has long excelled at any CrossFit exercise that tests endurance. But it’s the old story: you’re only as strong as your weakest link, and for Forte, that’s been strength.
“That’s because I didn’t really do deadlifts before CrossFit,” he explains. “Strength takes time. That’s been the biggest thing I’ve needed to work on. Still is.”
Forte suggests you learn from his workout blunders, though to be fair to him, these were made as a teenager while winging it with buddies. “Our training was mostly upper body, and if I did deadlifts it was with a very light weight,” he recalls. “I didn’t understand that when deadlifting you can move serious weight.” He gets it now: he’s built up to a 233kg one-rep max.
Get deadlifts into your program, he urges. As well as making you stronger, they’ll reveal any mobility issues you may have. “Say your lower back pulls up sore every time you deadlift,” says Forte. “Well, most likely your hamstrings and glutes aren’t activating. They’re not doing what they should do, and that carries over to everyday life. It’s a wake-up to call to iron out those weaknesses instead of ignoring them.”
2013-PRESENT: KNUCKLING DOWN
Forte knows progress starts with attitude and is forever fine-tuning his own. You’re going to have deflating experiences in the gym, he says – times when lifts go wrong or your strength isn’t there for some reason.
“Most people will see these as bad moments. I don’t,” he says. “I see them as opportunities to improve and get a better result next time.” He searches for an example. “Let’s say I’m snatching and I’m supposed to hit my max (currently 122.5kg) but I’m way off. Nowadays, I tell myself, ‘That’s okay – it’s going to come’. I just keep at it rather than getting upset with myself and letting the disappointment carry over to the next part of my workout or into the next week.”
He carries this mindset into life. There are no setbacks – just chances for self-examination that could accelerate personal development.
“If I’m in the car and running late and people are driving slow, it’s my fault. I didn’t allow enough time to get to where I needed to be. Put it back on yourself.”
Whether training or competing, Forte feels he has an advantage over most guys – an off-the-charts pain threshold. And those times when he is suffering . . . he has something to draw on then too.
“Everyone asks me, ‘Do you even hurt during a workout?’ I definitely do, but hiding it is something I’ve always done.” When he hurt himself as a kid, he would internalise the pain. “I’ve really tapped back into that attitude this year. I’ve been more willing to hurt, more often.”
As statements go, it’s as clear and simple a way forward as you’re going to find.
MAKE YOURSELF AN IMPREGNABLE FORCE
Lift your game with this brutal 3-stage session
STAGE 1: Squats
6 sets of 4 reps
Stand with your feet hip-width apart, the barbell resting on your upper back, your weight on your heels. Lock your core and push your bum back as though you’re sitting down, descending until your thighs are parallel to the floor. Drive up to the starting position.
STAGE II: Power clean into front squat
1 of each, then 2-2, 3-3, 4-4 up to 10-10
Assume a deadlift position, with the barbell touching your shins. Keeping your chest up and back neutral, stand up. Keeping the movement continuous, forcefully extend your hips and use a shrugging motion to bring the bar up under your chin, sinking into a partial squat in the process.
You’re now ready to perform the front squat, for which you observe the same imperatives as for the squat
STAGE III: 400m run/military-press superset
Run and 18 presses, then run/15, run/12, run/9down to run/0.
For the military press, grasp a barbell under your chin with a grip slightly wider than shoulder width. Keeping your back straight, drive the weight above your head until your arms are fully extended.