The back flip is the most simple trick in the world,” says Carl Paoli, founder of GymnasticsWOD.com and one of the world’s first superstar CrossFit coaches. Paoli then breaks the movement into its component parts — a jump and a backward rotation. As he explains, 66 percent of the trick is accomplished by simply jumping into the air. Most of us are capable of that.
And suddenly, you start to believe it’s possible.
On display is Paoli’s uncanny ability to simplify seemingly complex movements, particularly of the gymnastics variety, and explain a progression that lets his athletes, viewers and clients understand how those movements can and will be completed. His male-model looks and easy on-camera delivery don’t hurt, but it’s his “You can do this” message, expressed in very simple words and shared via short videos, that has catapulted the 32-year-old Paoli to popularity in the CrossFit world, where athletes and coaches are always looking for an edge and the secrets to excel.
More of Paoli’s secrets will be revealed to the public on July 15, when he releases his first book, Free+Style: Maximize Sport and Life Performance With Four Basic Movements (Victory Belt Publishing, 2014),which he calls his “first expression of leaving a legacy.”
That legacy began when Paoli was 5 years old, when his family moved to post-Franco, newly democratic Spain, where his father began a career as a real estate developer. “It was really rough, particularly on my mom,” Paoli says of the move, which saw the family leaving their life in Northern California for an unfamiliar language and culture. They soon settled in Alicante, a large port city on the eastern coast, about 330 miles south of Barcelona. The move was relatively easy for Paoli, though he felt like an outsider initially and says he was, in general, a pretty anxious child.
“I’m not sure why I was scared of everything, but gymnastics gave me confidence,” he says. Paoli found that confidence, oddly, in an after-school gymnastics program run out of a tiny dingy gym that “smelled like feet” and was run by a woman who sat on a bench chain-smoking and barking orders at her pupils. By the time he was 8 years old, he’d been recruited by a competitive club in town and was on a circuit with the best boys in the country, sights set on the Olympics.
But at 16, while practicing triple front flips off a trampoline into a foam pit, Paoli over-rotated and broke his neck. Though he recovered to compete again, his gymnastics practice was never the same. “There was always this cloud over my head saying, ‘Be careful, this is really dangerous,’” he says. Still, he didn’t retire until age 19, after the Spanish National Championships, at which he captured a gold medal in vault and finished fourth in the all-around.
From there, Paoli began university, first studying environmental science and then marine biology. He also spent nearly a year as an exchange student in the National University of Singapore’s marine biology lab. He finished his five-year degree in four years and, like many a college grad, made his way to the Big City, in this case, San Francisco, to jump-start his marine biology career in the United States.
Paoli had some small successes, ultimately working as an “interpretive naturalist,” talking about the animals, operating the elevator and manning the touch pools at possibly the most touristy aquarium in the world — the Aquarium of the Bay on Pier 39. “It was a fun job but not what I thought I was going to be doing,” he admits.
During that time, Paoli also got the itch to coach, first at AcroSports, a circus and gymnastics gym, and then as a personal trainer at Equinox. He began learning about Olympic lifting — the clean-and-jerk and the snatch — and by late 2007, he discovered San Francisco CrossFit, which he was told coached weightlifting and some gymnastics. Owner Kelly Starrett, now of MobilityWOD.com and Becoming a Supple Leopard fame, offered him a job as a coach less than three months later.
“It was definitely Kelly who opened my eyes to what I was good at,” Paoli says now. The two also developed a common language around perfect movement, working out together and sharing ideas about how best to perform CrossFit skills. “Some of my biggest breakthroughs came when I was doing gymnastics with Carl,” Starrett says. Paoli had launched a new career, and with Starrett’s urging, began posting his now-famous short instructional gymnastics videos and daily workouts at GymnasticsWOD.com in November 2010.
“Carl’s an amazingly intelligent man,” says Diane Fu, a coach at San Francisco CrossFit and owner of FuBarbell weightlifting. “In the way he looks at things, breaks things down into progressions and movement — I haven’t met someone as gifted as him, and he inspires me to look at weightlifting differently.” His work isn’t just valued by his San Francisco coaches; he has become the face of gymnastics for the CrossFit community. Athletes around the world have learned kips, handstand push-ups, rope climbs and hundreds of other skills either for the first time or more efficiently than ever thanks to Paoli’s steady stream of instructions and tricks via Facebook, Instagram and his site.
Paoli’s newfound popularity came at a price, however. “I got caught up in being the very best coach in the world. I was obsessed with this thing and couldn’t stop,” he says. “I’d reached this place where I was recognized as an expert in the field, but it didn’t feel right because I hadn’t been taking care of myself.” Just before the 2013 CrossFit Games, Paoli was depressed and realized a change was in order.
Since June 2013, though working on the book, coaching at San Francisco CrossFit, running his Freestyle Connection seminars and consistently posting GymnasticsWOD.com videos, Paoli says he’s trying to regain balance in his life. “I’m learning to manage my time and make sure the work I do is quality work,” he says. “I feel better, but I still have a long way to go.”
Paoli now trains almost daily as a participant in San Francisco CrossFit classes, and for the first time in his career, he completed all the CrossFit Games Open workouts in 2014. In fact, he was traveling through Europe for most of the Open season, so he performed the five workouts in four different countries, including in Iceland, where he coached former CrossFit Games champion Annie Thorisdottir.
He has also cleaned up his diet, eating almost exclusively whole foods and supplementing with NutriForce Sports’ Om3gafort fish oil, Natural Amino and downing the occasional postworkout NutriWhey shake. And now that he’s back in the States, he has added a more artistic form of fitness to his regimen via break-dancing sessions coached by San Francisco B-boy Miles Pinneda (aka Milestone Breaks).
Free and Clear
Paoli’s main focus now is putting the finishing touches on his upcoming book Free+Style, which not only guides the reader through the pistol squat, handstand push-up, muscle-up and burpee but also demonstrates why humans move the way they do.
“My entire job is to make these movements accessible,” Paoli says. And relatable. He hopes the book will bring these technical skills to everyday life, allowing readers to see where a squat or handstand push-up or the movements related to those skills can apply to the reader’s daily life. “I want to show people things about these skills that they actually care about and how those relate to things that are important in their lives,” Paoli says. For example, learning to squat efficiently can transfer to pedaling a bike, while a burpee is the basic ability to get up in the morning and lie down at night.
The book will be paired with content at FreestyletheBook.com, expanding the gymnastics principles he has laid down for the past four years to the basic movements he’s describing and the progressions to get there. “They should be reading this book and feeling like they know it but can’t put it down because it’s full of epiphanies,” Paoli says. “It’s supposed to provide moments of clarity.”
That clarity for Paoli often comes during his CrossFit workouts, which he sees as an expression of freestyle movement in the form of strength and conditioning. “Freestyle is 100 percent of my life,” Paoli says.