It’s hard to imagine the man in these pictures—a Men’s Health cover model, elite CrossFit athlete, and UK’s fittest man with a 210kg back squat and 19:20 5K— once being an overweight teenager, insecure about his body and unwilling to make sacrifices for a healthier life.
“I was overweight and ate sweets constantly,” Zack George reflects in his Men’s Health UK cover interview. “I’d have fast food six times a week. I was quite sporty and had good co-ordination, but I’d get tired and out of breath easily. If my mum parked too far away in the supermarket car park, I’d complain, because I was too lazy to walk.”
“The biggest thing, for me, was how conscious I was of my own body. My school had swimming lessons on Thursdays. I used to pretend to be ill, so I wouldn’t have to take my top off.” When he was 13-years-old, George asked his dad to buy him the console, and they struck a deal: Eat more healthily for a month and he’d get one.
“Instead of being active, I was stuck in front of a screen. But I carried on looking after my diet. By the time I was 15, I started wanting to lose weight and didn’t need an external reward.”
This was when George started hitting the gym. “I didn’t know what I was doing,” he recalls. “I’d try to go as heavy as I could every day: stick as much weight on the bar as possible and curl it as many times as I can. Whoever curls it the most wins. It was just me and my mates having a laugh. Weirdly, now, I pretty much do that for a living.”
When ankle injuries forced him to hang up his rugby boots at 18 — previously, he represented Leicestershire at rugby and became a sport captain at school — George went to college and became a qualified personal trainer. For five years, he taught six kettlebell group sessions a week, while running his own fitness classes out of his parents’ house. Again, his father provided a new stimulus for growth.
“He knew how competitive I was and always thought I’d become a professional athlete,” says George. “He’d seen this video of a 2013 Games event with swimming and bar muscle-ups. There was this shot of [CrossFit icons] Rich Froning, Jason Khalipa and Matt Chan standing at the side of the pool, and they looked as jacked as hell! I didn’t know what they were doing, or why they were doing it. But it looked cool.”
Naturally, George wanted a slice of the CrossFit pie for himself and signed up for Battle for Midlands — a local functional fitness competition. ““There was an event with a lot of toes-to-ring. Everyone was doing them unbroken, so I figured I should, too. But I couldn’t get my feet to the rings. I had no experience. My strength, my basic movements and fitness were fine. Anything technical was not.”
He continued to train hard, on a schedule of 14-hour days, six days a week, running fitness classes and squeezing in two workouts of his own at the gym he then owned with his sister. His body and mind were being crushed under the weight of his ambition. Then Harmeet Singh, a CrossFit athlete and coach who had just moved to Leicester from Dubai, walked in during one of George’s CrossFit sessions.
“He saw me strict-pressing 100kg and said, ‘I’ll coach you and we’ll train together.’ I told him my goal was to get to the Games. He said, ‘If we sort your technique and get your capacity up on the gymnastics side, we’ll get there.’”
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Fast-forward to the 2019 CrossFit season, which scrapped the Regionals for a system with three routes to the CrossFit Games. The most direct was to become a national champion, the athlete ranked first in the Open in any country with at least one affiliated CrossFit gym. For George, buoyed by his success the previous year (he qualified through the Open for the 2018 European Regional), winning in the UK was the golden ticket he’d been waiting for.
The 2019 Open started well. George won the first workout and finished as runner-up in the second. The third test was announced: 200ft dumbbell overhead lunges, 50 dumbbell box step-ups, 50 strict handstand press-ups and a 200ft handstand walk. There was a stumbling block in the middle, one that George had not foreseen. He tripped. “I didn’t know strict handstand press-ups were my weakness,” he says. “I hadn’t prepared properly. I didn’t even get to the handstand walk before the 10-minute time limit was up.”George’s scores on the UK leader board in 2019 were two firsts, a second, a fourth and a 168th.
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That failure would have been enough to derail most of us. But for George, it was an opportunity: he saw his weakness as a chance to reach for new strength. For the 2020 Open, he dropped to 96kg. He’d become a lot better at handstand push-ups, too, but the UK championship was a three-horse race, with Elliot Simmonds, the then-UK’s fittest man, and David Shorunke in close competition. When the third test was announced, it had handstand press-ups right in the middle of the workout.
George didn’t blink. His time was seven minutes and 36 seconds and he won the UK Open by a single point. Now, he could start training for the CrossFit Games, to compete against the best in the Alliant Energy Center in Madison, Wisconsin. He was excited. He was ready.
But he didn’t make it. Because of the pandemic, the event in Madison couldn’t take place. In 2019, there were 500 competitors across all the divisions and 80,000 spectators. Reductions to those numbers had to be made to ensure that everyone was safe. Spectators were banned and the masters, teenage and team competitions were dropped.
The national champions were next, cut to further limit numbers. But George’s reaction wasn’t to rage on what might have been. Instead, he took the positives and used them as motivation to go into the 2021 season even stronger.
“My goals are to win the UK Open again and finish in the top 10 worldwide. I want to be the highest-ranking British male athlete there has ever been. And I’ve got a book deal I’m excited about. It’s called Start When Others Stop. It’s a mantra that can have so many meanings – like starting on a fitness journey in middle age, when others think, ‘What’s the point?’ What you learn [from training] can transfer over to every area of your life – from your job to your family, friendships and relationships. Take a simple running workout: You’ve got 10 sprint intervals to do and, even if you really want to, you don’t sack it off after the seventh or eighth. The more you do what you set out to do, the easier it becomes. It snowballs. And you begin to love it.”
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