To most of us it’s an exaggeration…a funny concept we tag onto our accomplishments to enhance how ridiculous it sounds. Somehow the notion of out-ranking or out-performing over 7 billion people is so unreal it’s automatically perceived as comedy. The Netherlands was 13th in the world in London 2012. UCLA is ranked 13th in the World out of all universities. But in Crossfit, the Sport of Fitness, the coveted spot of 13th in the world belongs to none other than 24-year old Spencer Hendel.
Over the past four years, Spencer has consistently out-ranked the majority of competitors at the Crossfit Games. Boasting a 300-lb. snatch and back squat and deadlift loads well over 500 lbs, Hendel has proven himself one of the strongest Crossfit competitors (wait for it) in. the. world. Weighing in at 210 lbs, Spencer has shattered any pre-conceived notions that Crossfit is a sport for medium-sized athletes. Hendel’s explosive athleticism has kept him in the mix since the Games were held at the ranch in Aromas. In 2013 we find him running a new box, taking on new life challenges, while still keeping his eye on the 2013 prize.
As he competes his way to his fifth consecutive regional competition, Crossfit NYC caught up with him during the Open to get to the heart of it all. In this two-part interview we discover the essence of a Games competitor, and uncover the reasons why even when you’re a sponsored, ranked Crossfit athlete, there’s nothing more rewarding than doing daily Crossfit training with your local community at the box.
It’s going good. I’m sitting right where I need to be. Nothing special, but the workouts have been going good.
There seems to be two schools of approach among the elite Crossfitters in the Open. There’s the people who want to win the world, and the people who just know what it takes to get to their regional.
I’m more on the side of just getting to the regionals. Once regionals comes around, it’s kind of like the big dogs come out to play.
Out of the Open workouts that you’ve done, were there any that you enjoyed more than the others? You’re a big fan of the snatch. Was 13.1 a good experience for you, or was 13.3 better because it was a repeat and you could improve vs. last year?
I actually did not like 13.1 as much as people would think. I mean I like the snatch as much as anyone else, but I’m just not a fan of the workout. My quads were burning the whole time. The burpees weren’t helping, and the power snatches were affected by those as well. My favorite so far was 13.2. The weight wasn’t much of an issue. It was just really, “how fast could you go?” It told me a bit about how my father’s programming has been going. I was able to push myself the whole ten minutes and just not stop, which was what I was hoping to do. Regardless of how many rounds I got, I just didn’t want to stop. It tells you a lot about your programming. If you have to stop in a workout like that it’s going to really affect your score.
My engine is usually a problem, pressing on the go button. Especially in something that involves running. Running is a huge problem for me so I’ve been working on that a lot.
What do you do to open up your endurance?
It’s definitely a lot of repetition. Like today I ran some 400s. I’m kind of lucky. I have a hill out in front of my gym. The street we’re on is at an incline, so I run hills a lot. I just try to increase the suck factor and get comfortable with being in a shitty situation. Hopefully it works. I know that Matt Chan used to have issues with endurance and running, and he spent a good chunk of his year last year working on running and endurance, and look at him now…he’s the second fittest man in the world.
When you hit regionals, is there a group of familiar faces each year, or has it changed every year in terms of who you’re struggling to beat?
For me it’s been different because I’ve moved around region-wise every year. This will be the first year that I’m repeating regions. I think the first time that I ever did this I was in the Mid-West in Ohio. Then the second year I was in Florida in the Southeast. The third year I was in the Mid-Atlantic, and last year I was in the Northeast. So this will be the first year I’m repeating. I do intend on seeing some familiar faces…obviously my partner Austin Malleolo and another Games competitor Daniel Tyminski, and a few other guys that I competed against last year that gave everyone a pretty big run for their money. So it should be another tough year.
When you go into Regionals is there any specific game plan? You know the workouts ahead of time. Do you run through them before you get to Regionals, or do you already feel prepared for the movements?
Last year the Northeast was the last region to go, which was nice and not nice at the same time. We had a lot of time to suffer watching the other people go. So we had a lot of time to go over the same movements over and over again. Once you know the movements it’s like “why train any other movement?” But this year we’ll find out the movements and actually the Northeast is the first region to go. I almost like that better because then no one else gets a chance to practice those movements, and no one can specialize. Just show up and see how far your training’s gotten you.
Do you just train at your box? Is your Dad still doing your programming?
Yeah. Dad’s still doing the programming. I’ve coined it “The H.A.M. Plan.” It’s all over Twitter and Facebook. It’s actually a Google spreadsheet and I post the HAM plan for everyone to follow, and for everyone to see what I’m doing. If anyone else wants to follow it or wants some workouts off of my plan, so be it. It’s kinda cool.
Yeah it seems like you’re now associated with a new term in Crossfit. What exactly is H.A.M.?
Oh man…well I couldn’t say it better than Jay-Z and Kanye West. They have a song out called “H.A.M.” In case you’re not a fan, HAM simply means “hard as a motherfucker.”
So how does it apply to Crossfit, and namely you?
It was last year…Austin and I had just started listening to that song every single time that we worked out, and we just started saying it over and over again. I guess Austin stopped saying it and I kept saying it, tweeting it and doing everything with it. I guess I’ve kind of become known as the…
…the HAM man?
…the HAM man with the HAM plan. Just goin hard all the time.
With Regionals coming up and everything do you still go HAM every time?
Every time. Doesn’t matter. Year-round.
A lot of people seem to be clandestine about their training methods leading up to the Games and it seems to feed into this scorching competitive atmosphere that’s emerged, especially over the last two years. Are you just keeping yourself out of that bubble on purpose? Does that help you focus more to not buy into getting an edge on everybody?
I just think it’s cool. Crossfit’s a unique community in the sense that the majority of people just care. I’m probably not going to compete for the rest of my life. I mean I definitely plan on retiring at some point. I just think it’s cool for people to look at what I’m doing, and look at what other athletes are doing. I know that I’m not the only athlete who puts out their workout schedule or what they do. I just think it’s cool for those people who have hopes and dreams of possibly making it to the Games, or just competing in general. You don’t have to go to the Games. You can go to the Garage Games or local competitions. It’s cool to see what the “top athletes” are doing. I guess I appreciate everyone who looks up to me and who gives me support, so it’s almost like a thank you to those people who show me Love. So I’m gonna show you Love back.
Do you send videos to your father or does he just tell you what to do?
He just gives me the workouts and I just do them. When it comes to lifting, I’m generally a good mover. But when it comes to running and endurance stuff it’s just a matter of me doing it. He’ll call me every day, making sure that I’m doing what I need to do to stay on track, making sure I’m getting my running in or rowing, biking or whatever my endurance training may be that day.
You’ve talked about your body type and how it relates to your training. It’s interesting because people have been picking apart the top ten finishers at the Games to find the median body type of an ideal Games athlete, or if you were going to win the Games, what type of body do you need… you pretty much defy those rules. How have you navigated around that physical “limitation”? It doesn’t seem to limit you in any way…
I mean, personally I think that I’ve always loved competition. I’ve just generally always been an athlete my whole life. I mean my dad played for the Miami Dolphins. After he retired he went to coaching college football. So as a child growing up I was always around his college football players and always in the weight room and always watching them do their thing. So just growing up I was always around athletes and as I grew up I was always active, I was always playing something… To go into that obstacle course last year…I think that’s why I did so well. The course wasn’t about lifting. It wasn’t about doing handstand pushups, and it wasn’t about running. Could you jump over some objects, and do whatever it took to get from point A to point B and I think that that kind of stuff plays to my advantage. Whether it was an obstacle course or whether it was the killer cage two years ago, I mean I was just another athlete playing on the monkey bars, just doing it.
It seems like between you and Jason Khalipa, you were both dispelling the myth that you need to be of a certain body type. You are both freakishly strong and defy the physical rules.
I do agree that there are some body types that definitely help in certain movements…you know, pull ups and those body weight movements. Those shorter athletes with shorter limbs definitely excel in those body weight movements. Being a stronger athlete obviously helps you in those heavy-lifting situations.
If you look at what kind of events are in the Games…it’s a lot of gymnastics movements, whether it’s pull ups, handstand pushups, muscle ups, rope climbs, pushups, squats, and so on. You multiply that over an entire weekend and there are always those people that defy the rules. I think those are the people with engines. They can push beyond those limitations.
With the exception of a few people, you’ve been at the Games consistently more than anybody. Did you attend in 2008 when Khalipa won, or did you attend just when you got into the games the following year?
My first Games was in 2009. I actually started Crossfit, and started competing in Crossfit because of Jason Khalipa. My dad showed me Jason in the 2008 Games on the computer. He looked like a big guy and so you know I thought to myself, “hey…Jason is a big guy…I’m a big guy. Maybe I have a chance at this.” Little did I know when I got out to California, Jason was a lot shorter than me. He is still a very large individual muscular-wise, but he looked a lot taller on the computer. He was a whole head shorter than me.
Going into this season are there things that you’re going to approach differently that you may have done last year? Obviously there were some workouts you absolutely crushed, and there were some workouts that you didn’t place as high in. Are there things you took away from that experience that are going to change your training?
Honestly I think that if I can, if I can get my endurance up more and be able to run a little bit faster without having to use much effort, I think I would be a lot better off. You’re not going to run a whole lot in the Games. But I think if I had been a better runner in the triathlon I would have placed a little bit higher, moving up a few spots in the standings. Same thing with that track triplet…being able to run a little bit faster on the track obviously would have helped me as well.
I’ve been trying to work a little bit more on endurance as well as my infamous weakness of body weight exercises. So chest-to-bar pull ups, handstand pushups, pushups, ring dips…stuff like that. I actually have a spot in my gym that I set up. Every time I walk by I do five handstand pushups…strict, no kipping. I just started it last week and I think I totaled almost 400.
Did you have a certain number of strict handstand pushups before you explored kipping or did you go right into kipping?
I went right into kipping. Even in competition to this day I would go right into kipping unless it was a short number of handstand pushups…like five. I’d rather save my shoulders and save the rest of my body for other movements, rather than just get smoked by not kipping handstand pushups.
Getting back to the Open, there are some members of our gym who come up with a question every year…and it’s a legitimate question. “Why should I do the Open?” What would your message be for somebody who says, “I know I’m not going to go to the Games. What’s the use? This costs 20 bucks. What am I going to get out of this experience?”
It’s not about the Games. For me, Crossfit’s never been about the Games. I’ll give you a story to answer your question. The other day I had been working with this guy on getting his kipping pullup. I had been just exhausting every cue that I could possibly throw at him and nothing was working. Finally I threw out a cue that rang something in his mind that gave him that perfect kipping swing…just a perfect swing that allowed him to connect with the extension of his hips and the pull of the arms and voila…got his first kipping pullup. That put the biggest smile on my face and just it didn’t matter if I had been there for 24 hours that day and was just exhausted. It was amazing.
I would just say do it and have fun. The Open’s all about having fun and incorporating as many people as possible, and everyone just coming together. That’s what the community’s all about. I would say if you don’t want to do it for yourself, do it for the better of your community. Do it for the others around you.
Last year at the Open I saw people that had no intention of going to the Games…no intention of anything like that. They were doing the snatch workout and just had never snatched. They could have been at 75 pounds , they could have been at 135, they could have been at 165…but I saw so many people PR their snatch in that workout and so many smiles…so many hi fives going around the room just because somebody had PR’d their snatch. It was the coolest thing ever. So I guess my overall answer for you is community. It’s about you being involved in a community and being involved with the people around you. It’s something that brings everyone together unlike anything else.
This is interview Part I of II. Spencer Hendel can be reached on Twitter at @Spec1414. You can also access his “H.A.M. Plan” training spreadsheet here. After the conclusion of the Open Spencer now sits in 12th place in the Northeast, solidifying his spot in the 2013 Crossfit Games Regional Competition.