Body–Mouth Connection

Max Walter: “If you want to reach your goal, you need to ritualise it”

For Vienna-based CrossFit coach Max Walter, habits are the key to success. And as one of the leading Austrian athletes in this demanding sport, he should know: overcoming cancer changed his outlook on the importance of a healthy lifestyle. Now he’s enjoying life, teaching his trainees the right movements, and having fun.

We met Max at the CrossZone gym in Vienna’s ninth district, where the Viennese CrossFit community gathers at the distinctive Stadtbahnboegen: historical railway arches that have been imaginatively transformed into a vibrant training hub.

“The gym starts to get really busy around 4:00 pm – our three or four classes attract over 100 fitness fanatics,” says Max, while showing us the 1,500 sq m studio for functional strength training.

From volleyball player to CrossFit coach

Max has been into CrossFit since 2013. A certified CrossFit coach, he loves to improve himself and participate in competitions.

“As a child I played volleyball and football for over a decade. Coming from the countryside, there weren’t many other sporting options.

“In the army as a conscript I started with strength exercises and everyday bodybuilding. But I realised I needed to work on my breathing. So I sought something more challenging for the cardiovascular system. I found CrossFit and it was love at first sight – it was completely what I had been looking for.”

CrossFit is a branded fitness programme created by an American fitness coach, Greg Glassman, in 2000. It’s defined as a physical exercise philosophy and fitness sport, with high-intensity interval training, weightlifting, plyometrics, power-lifting, gymnastics, calisthenics, and so on. Training involves equipment such as climbing ropes, racks, gymnastic rings, medicine balls, and bars.

Exercise can benefit every life situation

Max studied sports science at university, where he coached his first CrossFit classes and kick-started his future career as a personal coach.

“I love working with people – the strong idea that you can change a life by coaching the right movements and bringing order. I can teach special skills and also pretty hard exercises, so participants can gain control over their muscles and apply this in everyday life.

“While CrossFit has become a widely recognised term, many trainers lack a true understanding of the underlying concept: it leverages a comprehensive harmony of movements rather than just being a challenging workout. And that’s what I’m trying to teach everyone – the wider angle.”

Although CrossFit is renowned as one of the most demanding training routines, the blue-eyed Austrian coach says everybody can do it:

“Many articles and blogs describe CrossFit as the toughest training – only good for professional athletes. But when every workout is supervised by a professional coach, progress can be scaled and basic movements introduced to eager beginners.”

Client health is the priority

Although CrossFit has become very trendy, it’s also courted controversy because of the high injury rates. Max highlights the coach’s responsibility to their clients:

“A coach needs to select the right pattern of movement for every person – as an individual. When exercises are too hard for someone, the coach needs to scale the workout. It’s constant work between the coach and client. It’s much more than: ‘OK, this is the workout, guys – let’s have fun’,” explains Max.

He adds that the hardest part of coaching is understanding people and working with them psychologically to avoid injury, exhaustion or lack of motivation:

“A good coach needs to control egos. Coaching is 99% psychological. Anyone can become a coach and train, but the hardest part is understanding people and their motivation. With the numerous reasons for doing sports, a coach has to identify that individual’s one unique motivation, not just mechanically make them do 20 reps and send them home.”

CrossFit – it’s the taking part

All sports have their training upsides and downsides. Max says he usually loves the routine, but really enjoys some movements more than others. “Like most people, I really don’t like burpees.”

An integral feature of CrossFit is about bringing like-minded people together and connecting them, reinforcing the sense of a strong group: “The CrossFit community is special. Wherever you go, you’ll meet someone you know, and newbies are always warmly welcomed,” says Max.

Max comes across as an overwhelmingly positive guy who loves what he does and derives meaning from his job and the people he works with – both colleagues and clients. He lives with his girlfriend and their dog, eats well, and loves to spend free time with his family, biking, or walking his four-legged friend.

A healthy lifestyle is no guarantee

As a coach and sports addict, Max had a clear idea of a healthy lifestyle, but everything dramatically changed with one diagnosis: “I was treated for cancer, and fortunately fully recovered. And the experience has totally changed my view about healthy lifestyles.

“It taught me that everything can change in a second. We think we have a healthy lifestyle covered – eating well, training hard – but ultimately it can be out of your hands.

“Since then I live for the moment: sleep, nutrition and some training is what you need for a healthy lifestyle. Even my spare time is spent on sport and training! Maybe not every workout will be a whole lot of fun, but it’s really important to enjoy the whole concept and approach.

“I used to write plans and focus on fulfilling them, but now life is a bit more freestyle, and I just want to enjoy that.”

Ritualise your activities

While Max has scaled back on 100% full-on training intensity, he still considers training a ritual: “Anything demanding success – in sport, work, or whatever – needs to be approached methodologically as a ritual. Failing this, motivation will fall away and it won’t be fun anymore – and it has to be enjoyable. If you like it, you’ll continue doing it.

“CrossFit coaching isn’t a 9-to-5 job, so maintaining a routine can be tricky. So I always aim to ritualise my own training – somewhere between 10:00 am and 3:00 pm.”

And Max adds another ritual he can’t imagine his day without: “Coffee! Certainly that’s the most ritualised thing in my life – I just love it!”

Photography by Welin Nagyova