Whether you’re into CrossFit or not, I find it pretty unlikely you haven’t heard of the incredible British athlete Samantha Briggs, also known as The Engine – or Biceps Like Briggs if you’re into social media. Sam has won the CrossFit games, being crowned as the Fittest on Earth in 2013; she’s won the Open qualifiers twice; and she recently set an indoor rowing world record of 500m in 1:33.4. Just this week she had the highest worldwide score for Open workout 16.3, with a massive 158 reps.
Even before I began CrossFit I was a fan of Sam’s – her ridiculous endurance engine and work ethic easily transfers to other sports, inspiring athletes beyond the box. I was super excited to catch up with Sam on her active rest day just before 16.3 was announced; we covered everything from how often Sam trains and how she measures progress, to who she rates for this year’s Games and how she sees CrossFit progressing in the UK.
Read on to find out what life as an elite CrossFitter is really like and what Sam’s top three tips for CrossFit progression.
How do you measure your progress?
When I came in you saw I had a laptop and a green book – that green book is actually my training diary. Everything I do all gets written down, any lifts I do are recorded, any workout, so if you repeat you can see if you’ve gone faster or done more rounds.
Do you still set targets?
Yeah.. It gets harder the longer you’ve been doing it, because progress is a lot slower – you reach your peak and PBs are just like a bonus, and a lot of the time are unexpected.
How often do you set new PBs now?
Last season I was injured so I’m just coming back from that, it’s kind of post-injury PBs, but there’s a few things I’ve actually been hitting lifetime PBs coming back.
You’ve had a back injury – what do you do to manage that?
What I’ve found works for my back is Pilates-type movements so I’ll do a really good warm-up, including mobilising the spine, a lot of back bends, then make sure my glutes are firing correctly so that when I’m lifting I’m doing it with the correct muscles and not putting extra strain through my back.
What moves do you do to fire up your glutes?
Single-leg stuff: deadlifts, lunges, squats. My right side fires quickly and efficiently – [my injury] went out to the left, so that cuts off the left glute, so when it’s bad it’s the left side that switches off. It takes a lot longer to get my left side activated and working.
How much time do you spend training each day, week?
Normally, my longest days are Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday – they’re my hardest days. Thursday is active recovery, so going swimming, working through mobility and activation. There’ll be step-ups, pause squats – not heavy, just using kettlebells. Then shoulder activation, like Turkish get-ups, farmers’ carries, overhead carries. So more like stability and activation. Friday is a long day again, then Saturday I finish around 2, 3ish. Sunday is another active recovery day so it’s a similar thing, except a row rather than a swim.
Do you ever have days off completely?
Very rarely. I feel worse after doing nothing. If I spend just two hours rowing on a Sunday I’ll feel a lot better on the Monday, ready to train.
How about when you were working full-time – how did you fit in training?
I was a firefighter, so I was lucky that part of the job is active and we had time to train. If we got called out all day the training couldn’t be done, but the nature of the job is that we’re active, and I used to cycle or run to work 90% of the time so I’d always get something in. When working nights I’d get a session in before and between the nights too.
So it was possible to work full-time and be an elite athlete too? (Hey, we can all dream, right?)
Yeah – it wasn’t until 2013 that I actually took time off. I loved my job – I did it for 10 years and I have absolutely no regrets. I loved being a firefighter.
How are you finding the Open?
Good so far. The first workout definitely a better one for me so I was pleased with that, then the second one I was a bit nervous about the last two bars but I surprised myself and came 22nd worldwide – and if that’s the heavy workout of the Open, I’ll take 22nd!
So even you were worried about the weight?!
I’m not exactly known for my strength – the last bar was 93kg and my all time best clean is 100kg, and recently I’ve done 95kg when I was fresh, so I was nervous about 7 reps at 93. I made sure I went as fast as I could in the first four rounds so I could do a rep then rest.
Which athletes are the ones to watch at the Games this year?
It’s always hard to tell because you don’t know they’re coming through until after the Open and Regionals, but so far I’ve trained with Sara who I think is gunning to go to the Games and win this year after narrowly missing out last year. Saying that, seeing how Katrin performed on the first two workouts – she smashed both, so that proves to me she’s not taking her title lightly. She’s training hard and worked on her weaknesses.
Do you think to be a sponsored CF athlete now do you need a large social media following?
I think to be a competitive athlete you have to be training full time now. In order to do it full time you need financial backing from sponsors, and in order to get those sponsors you have to be seen on social media.
What do you reckon about the growth of CrossFit in the UK?
It’s definitely growing, and the level of competitors is growing. I think it was proven last year that we had the first males to the Games – Europe has always been dominated by the Nordics, so to see we had Ste [Fawcett] and Phil [Hesketh] in the Games in the same year was fantastic. We just need a UK team there now.
What are your three top tips for progressing in CrossFit?
- Get a good coach. Your coach will watch you and point you in the right direction for what you want to progress in, and make sure your training is going right.
- Recover properly, especially if you’re working full time and training. You have to make sure you’re getting enough sleep and eating correctly, else your body won’t recover properly and you’ll end up run-down all the time.
- Have fun! We spend a lot of time in the gym. If you’re not really enjoying it, should you really be there?
Okay, final question – what do you do when you’ve had a shit workout?!
I try not to dwell on it. The number of days I’m in the gym it’s hard to be on it all the time, so as long as you’re still putting the work in and making progress – sometimes the progress isn’t as fast as you want it to be – but you’ve got to look at the bigger picture and think about where you want to be six months, a year down the line.
I hung around the box for a little while, hoping to see the Engine in action – but with it being the day before the Open workout, everything was pretty calm. I did get to see her give some muscle-up pointers to her boxmates (which of course came up in the Open the next day) which looked pretty effortless.
I’m excited to see how Sam performs this year and I’ll be rooting hard for her to put Manchester on the CrossFit map once again. Thanks so much to Sam and also TRAIN Manchester for letting me awkwardly loiter round like a Briggs fangirl. Least I kept my cool this time and didn’t freak out. Ha, ha…