Eat More. Be More.

Feature Friday: Interview with Joe Hancuff

While most of this site so far has been a chronicle of my journey, I’m not the only one out there getting results. Early on I decided that I’d like to showcase other athletes and regular people making changes to their lifestyle as well. About 7 weeks into my workout program, my coach sent me a picture from Facebook of a guy that looked just like me 10 months earlier. We had a similar build, shaved head, and goatee.

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His name was Joe Hancuff and he had made one crazy transformation in that short time. His transformation picture on Facebook went viral and within a few days, the folks from Crossfit headquarters had contacted him for an interview.

He later earned an invite to try out for the new National Pro Fitness League. He has gone on to get his Crossfit Level 1 certification, was a judge for the 2014 Regionals, and is in the progress of opening his own place. Over the last 5 months, we’ve exchanged comments on social media, Facebook messages, and emails.

When I decided to profile others, Joe was the first guy that came to mind. He graciously agreed to an interview.


Welcome to Feature Friday

NSB: How about a quick personal bio?

Joe: I’m an IT guy turned CrossFit trainer based out of Columbia, Maryland focusing on getting my gym, Serenity Strength and Movement, open and running to help others do as I have done and reclaim their humanity. I’m 34 years old, married father of 3. Through CrossFit and fitness, I have found my true calling in life.

NSB: And how long has it been since you started your transformation?

Joe: As of the day of this writing, 1 year, 3 months, 23 days and counting.

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NSB: You were featured on the front page of the Crossfit Games website. How did that happen?

Joe: I had looked at myself the mirror every day since I had started CrossFit and yes, I saw change. But the actual CONTRAST of that change hadn’t been made apparent to me until I’d seen some photos of myself from a local throwdown and one of my co-workers had dropped a photo of myself around 350 lbs from a conference 18 or so months past.

Once I realized how much I’d changed, I knew that I had accomplished something special. I knew that not only had I changed my body but I grew my character as well as a result of constantly and consistently doing things that were hard. I made a collage type photo that showed before and after and posted it to Facebook. It went viral almost immediately.

The photo received more than 1,000 likes in short order and several hundred shares on, and eventually outside of, Facebook. A representative from CrossFit HQ shot me an email four days after I’d posted the photo asking if I’d like to tell my story since not only had I lost all that weight, but because I was also actively pursuing the CrossFit Games and was, at that time, setting up for the first Open workout.

NSB: So your picture went unexpectedly crazy. Describe that experience?

Joe: When I originally posted that photo, I didn’t expect the response I’d gotten. I had posted a 3 month photo back after I’d started CrossFit where the results were pretty dramatic even then. The fact that the photo went viral and I had managed to share my story in just 4 simple frames humbled me so and made me realize that my effort was not just for me but for everyone else too. It made me truly realize what my calling in life is: to help others do as I have and reclaim their humanity.

NSB: How often do you train?

Joe: Typically 6-days per week often with 2 or more Metcons, plus strength.

NSB: What motivated you to get started and what keeps you going?

Joe: Well as has been said before, people come for the content but stay for the community. Honestly, I was tired of being a big heavy guy. I was tired of not being able to sleep, not being able to move in certain ways and not being able to be a good example to my girls.

The daily motivation that keeps me going and getting stronger is largely due, in no small part, to my fitness family that helps to keep me motivated and on point. The camaraderie is like nothing I’ve ever experienced before and I attribute much of my success to the person next to me as well as the coaches that quietly keep me strong.

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NSB: Did getting started intimidate you and how did you get past it?

Joe: The most intimidating thing for me was the fear of failure as I had tried several different methods of getting back in shape and have failed at every one for various reasons. Getting past that required me to change my thinking. Instead of focusing on aesthetic goals such as losing inches or pounds, I focused more on what I could do and found that those goals come more often and they are many. As soon as I realized I could do something that I couldn’t before, I was hooked and there was no keeping me out of the gym to achieve other goals.

NSB: What has been your biggest success to date?

Joe: Some might say my weight loss, but honestly, I think that’s a happy side-effect of becoming a stronger person inside and out. My biggest success is actually finding my calling as someone who can help others who have felt as I have; lost and hopeless and feeling stuck with the way their body is, unable to break the cycle of poor nutrition and lack of movement. It was a hugely emotional struggle for me and to some degree still is. Having grown my character and not just my body is probably my biggest success.

NSB: What was it that led you to Crossfit?

Joe: After having failed out of a number of other fitness programs, I knew I needed to get back to basics. The only other time I’d had any success with fitness was during my time in the Marine Corps. Then I had to do my work outs because I was getting screamed at to do so. Someone was dictating every move I made.

I figured since I obviously didn’t have the discipline in my body or my mind to do that, I needed that back again. CrossFit closely resembles what military folks affectionately refer to as “getting smoked.” It was the closest thing to my military experience I could find and that was the primary attraction.

NSB: What do you love best about the Crossfit community?

Joe: Full circle. Full circle is something that I’ve realized will happen to all of us and it’s what makes CrossFit so special. I was once the heavy guy finishing dead last in a workout. Instead of relegating myself to just being the one last done with the clock still running and everyone milling about, I was instead surrounded by people genuininely invested in my completing the workout. Genuinely supporting me every rep, causing me to push a little harder than I would have otherwise, allowing me to transcend my previous limit and emerging a new person with new found strength.

Fast forward to now. I actively find those that are struggling such as the new folks finding themselves dead last in the workout with the clock still ticking and I pay it forward to them, supporting them through every rep, letting them know that they’re not alone and never will be.

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NSB: What does your diet look like / how do you eat?

Joe: During the majority of my weight loss, my diet was primarily a combination of Zone and Paleo with intermittent fasting. I get asked this question a lot and I find I’m actually somewhat hesitant to answer it. Simply because I’m not a nutritionist, but I am a man of science. I had found a combination and eating schedule that worked well for me and my specific metabolism.

When someone asks me how they should eat, I give very general recommendations based on how most peoples’ bodies work. I invite them to experiment with their nutrition. Currently, I have a generally clean diet. Admittedly not nearly as clean as when I was in the peak of my weight loss. I control my portions and still try to zone out my foods. I stay far away from alcohol and other superfluous foods that won’t support me in my goals or may affect my performance.

NSB: What is your biggest weakness?

Joe: My weaknesses are still many. I think my biggest weakness is my mental game. Something I’m constantly focusing on during workouts. The will-power to go harder and go that extra effort is harder to find when my performance is already as good as it has been, regularly putting me on the top of the whiteboard.

That being said, the more major weakness that may not be my biggest, but more important, is in the kitchen. I’ve always been infatuated with food. I find that it hasn’t gotten any easier to avoid rationalizing crushing a pizza and a 2-liter because I had a shitty day at work. As I tell anyone who’ll listen: I can workout all day long with ease, but my real battles are won in the kitchen.

NSB: How do you overcome that that weakness?

Joe: Focusing on my long and medium-term goals helps keep me on track both in my mental game and my food weaknesses. I spend a lot of time trying to help others do as I have and as my Sifu says, “He who teaches, learns twice.” With that, I find that by helping other people, I am also able to remind myself of the things I convey and that keeps me on point.

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NSB: What is the one piece of gear you can’t do without?

Joe: This is a hard one. I just glanced in my bag. I’d have to say it would be my lifting shoes. Anything that requires a squat just doesn’t feel right without that solid platform beneath my feet. A close second would be my wrist wraps as I have hyper-flexible wrists, anything overhead can be painful without the additional support.

NSB: If someone asked you what is most important to getting in shape, what would you tell them?

Joe: My initial response would just be congratulating them on making the choice in the first place. I think motivation is what gets you started but discipline and consistency is what will get work done. Most importantly, there is no shortcut to fitness. You do the work, you will get the results. It’s that simple.

If it was easy, everyone would do it. In hindsight, I find that it’s the choice in the first place where most people fail. Sure they’ll want to get into shape, but they don’t actually make the choice and take that step. My favorite person is the person who first sets foot in your gym; the day-one person. They are the most energetic of anyone as their motivation is high and little do they know they walk into the gym already victorious because they made a choice.

My job is to help them understand why they made that choice in the first place and help them build strong habits in not letting that choice be their only victory. But those types of people came into the gym already with everything they needed to be successful, it just has to be brought out.

NSB: Any other thoughts you’d like to share?

Joe: I still find it strange to be somewhat of a “fitness celebrity.” I don’t feel at all special or like I’m doing anything that nobody else can. My wife used that term fitness celebrity when the article from HQ blew up and I received thousands of emails and messages and hundreds of friend requests on Facebook and other social media.

I suppose it’s that people can relate to my story. I was the guy with the stressful job and busy schedule and kids to deal with and homework to help with. I was the guy that literally ate for comfort. I haven’t ever been what some would call athletic. I was captain of the chess club in high school.

I’ve made it my mission, however, to ensure that this new-found opportunity would not go squandered and I spend a large amount of my time personally responding to people who’ve asked for help or motivation. Building these effective relationships so that they can do as I have and, in turn, help others do as they have.

I feel like my purpose is to be a humble steward of motivation and inspiration and to remind everyone that they are never and will never be alone in their journey.

NSB: Joe, congratulations on your transformation thus far and thank you for your commitment to helping others pursue their dreams. And thank you for sharing your story with us here.

If you’d like to follow Joe you can find him on Facebook (The Fitness Philosopher), Instagram, and his website.

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