Crossfit king James Newbury has fought his way to the top of the toughest fitness competition in the world. Use his lessons to reach your own physical peak
Shafts of morning sunlight are throwing rectangles on the black rubber floor of We Are Play, a functional fitness space in Sydney’s Inner West. Working up a sweat in one of these illuminated polygons is James Newbury, Australia’s No.1-ranked Crossfit athlete, who’s knocking out a series of single-arm clean and jerks with a 30kg dumbbell. Whether by chance or because he likes working out with the sun on his face, Newbury’s chosen spot for round one of his morning WOD is particularly apt: in the lead up to next month’s Crossfit Games (Aug 3-6) in Madison, Wisconsin, few athletes in Australia have a brighter spotlight on them.
Which is okay because it’s unlikely few would be as physically and mentally prepared for their moment in the sun as the 26-yearold from Adelaide. This is a man who feasts on physical punishment, has competitive instincts forged in the crucible of sibling rivalry and sports a confidence in his body’s ability to perform under pressure that rivals Conor Mcgregor’s.
“Knowing I can do whatever is thrown at me in a sport where I’m competing against other people who all think they’re going to be the best fires me up,” says Newbury, who wears his strawberry blonde hair in a top-knot like a modern Viking warrior. “That’s what helps me close the gap on that 300kg deadlift or that sub five-minute mile.”
Your goals may not be as colossal, nor the spotlight as intense as what Newbury’s about to experience. But if you’re looking to post new benchmarks in strength and conditioning there are few men as qualified to help get you there as one who has worked as hard at pushing the limits of his physical potential as Newbury has. PREPARE TO BE HUMBLED
Walking into a midday Crossfit session back in 2011, it’s fair to say Newbury had a pretty high estimation of his physical abilities, born from a childhood steeped in competition. The second oldest of six kids, he’d spent his school days locked in a constant battle to top his older brother of 11 months in everything from soccer to Little Athletics. “Competition was ingrained in me,” says Newbury, who’s found another patch of sunlight outside the gym. “I don’t like to lose.”
At 13 he took up rugby league, eventually captaining the Australian Affiliated Schoolboys side. That prompted a move to Brisbane, then Sydney where he tried to break into league’s professional ranks. He was playing A-grade for Wentworthville when a mate suggested Crossfit as a supplement to his on-field training.
Newbury practically sauntered into the box that day, confident that with his storied athletic past, a WOD with a class of jokers in knee-high socks wouldn’t pose too many problems. Call it pride before the fall. Newbury does.
“Back then I was scoring over 15 in the beep test, deadlifting 200kg,” he recalls. “And then I went into the box and did that session and the girls were flying past me,” he laughs. “I remember sitting in my car afterwards and I was like ‘what just happened?’ It put me in my place.”
Newbury’s competitive coals had been stoked. Ever since he’s had a keen appreciation for the transformational power of physical eviscerations.
“If I haven’t been humbled in a while I get anxious,” he says. “I’m not satisfied unless I’m doing something that tests my ability to keep going.”
Been a while since you last had your arse handed to you? It’s probably time you put your ego on the line, reckons Newbury. It could be a lunchtime run against a mate with a superior aerobic capacity, or taking on a fitness class comprised of unfamiliar movements. In the wreckage of your ego, Newbury says, you’ll find the determination to get better.
STEPS NOT STAIRCASE
Beyond the competitors’ occasional penchant for eye-catching socks (Newbury’s feature anime characters), Crossfit and golf wouldn’t appear to have a great deal in common. One thing they do share: in both pastimes you compete against others while also waging war with yourself. To that end everything Newbury does in the lead-up to the Games must serve a simple objective: to help him do his best.
“It’s all I think about,” he says. “If I can do my best every day until the Games I’ll go into the event extremely confident.”
If that sounds simplistic that’s because it is. But it’s taken Newbury years to drill down to such a singular focus. After finishing in or just outside the top 10 at the Regionals each year since 2012, he came second in 2016, qualifying him for the Games in the US for the first time. There, after targeting a top-10 finish he came in 24th.
This year Newbury sought purity of purpose. To treat every training session and every WOD as a single step on a larger journey. “A whole year’s worth of work went >
into those 48 minutes at the Regionals,” he says. He finished first.
Regardless of whether your goal is to run a sub three-hour marathon or punch out a 150kg deadlift, each session you put in should stand alone as a building block that’ll help get you there, Newbury advises. Only in achievement do your goals become whole.
WORK OUT, THEN WORK IN
We’ve all heard the knock on Crossfit. It’s a physio’s wet (if rather unimaginative) dream; pushing heavy loads at intensity puts your body under incredible strain.
Newbury’s had his share of setbacks, including a knee injury that hampered his 2015 campaign. Indeed in his early days his competitive streak and Crossfit’s capacity to absorb it were a lethal combination. “Back in 2012-13 I was I just like ‘let’s train, let’s train’ and I was wondering why I was hurting or why I was fatigued.”
Newbury hadn’t yet learned the importance of what he calls “working in”. “Working in is as much a part of getting stronger and fitter as working out,” he says.
More than just a catchy name for recovery, working in, Newbury insists, puts greater emphasis on drawing energy inward and reframes rest as a competitive advantage. “Now when I know I’m due for a rest I know that’s where I get my benefit,” he says. “That’s where I’m increasing my capacity. I think it’s just as important as the workout. That knowledge allows me to do well.”
So, just as you might leave the gym after a workout with your “swole on”, basking in the warm glow of your achievement, you’d be advised to walk out of a massage parlour or ice bath smug in the knowledge that the depth of your chill is what’s really fuelling your next PB.
Ask Newbury about his pre-crossfit body and he breaks into a broad smile. He was at least 8kg lighter and sported a kick-arse aerobic engine – his 3k time was under 10 minutes. He was, he says in hindsight, one-dimensionally fit. “Before I thought fitness was solely about how fast I could run 3k,” he admits. “Now I look at fitness across the 10 modalities of Crossfit and how good I am at each one. It’s still about how fast I can run 3k, but also; how fast I can swim 1k, how much can I back squat? My fitness is 10 times better because I’m better in 10 different areas. I’d be a better footy player now than I was then.”
One area that required particular attention was his Olympic lifting. Problem was he didn’t much care for it, far more comfortable with Crossfit’s cardio and gymnastic movements. “A 5-7k trail run is very exciting to me,” he says. “Lifting not so much. But I came to realise, if you’re not working on your weaknesses you’re not really getting better.” And in terms of your all-round capacity, you’re not getting fitter.
BREATHE TO SUCCEED
Like any major athletic event, success in the Crossfit Games involves harnessing the adrenaline spike that comes with the noise and energy of a large crowd cheering you on. Just as a boxer might punch himself out by going too hard in the early rounds, one of the perils for the Crossfitter is to get caught up in the moment and blow yourself up early in a WOD.
That’s why in the minutes before an event Newbury’s sole focus is his breath. “I know the only way I’m going to be able to get through this is if I breathe,” he says. “I hear all the noise but only for a second then it’s back to my breathing. It’s my number-one go-to when things get serious.”
Whether you’re on the starting line of a 10k or crouched over a bar contemplating a deadlift, you’d be wise to focus your mind on the mechanics of your respiratory system. That way, Newbury says, you give yourself the best chance of capitalising on the work you’ve put in.