James Crossley – aka Hunter – tells Abi Jackson why these days it’s about ‘nourishing rather than annihilating’ his body.
If you went to high school in the Nineties, there’s a good chance Gladiators was one of the highlights of your weekend, or at least your Saturday night telly viewing.
“It’s a shame how television has changed,” says James Crossley – aka Hunter, one of the beefy athletes on the iconic ITV series. “Gladiators was such a great competitive show. If you think back to a Saturday night: Gladiators, Blind Date, Baywatch – what a great night of viewing that was.”
As for being part of the series – which saw contestants battle it out against Hunter, Wolf, Jet, Lightning and co. in a range of crazy challenges, like bashing each other off podiums with giant pugil sticks, racing up walls and trying to out-swing each other in the dreaded ‘Hang Tough’ – Crossley says: “It was an incredible time. It’s strange because at the time, you’re just loving it and lapping it up, and I was 19 – you don’t look forward and think, ‘One day I’ll be this age and looking back on this’.”
The past year-and-a-half has perhaps given us all a few moments of nostalgia and reflection, though. Crossley, now 47, still feels grateful for the “many opportunities” Gladiators gave him and more than two decades on, his life still revolves around fitness.
The bodybuilder physique hasn’t exactly vanished. However, Crossley is now mainly focussed on helping people aged 40-plus with their fitness and wellbeing and runs online coaching as well as a range of training packages. He says there’s a lot more balance to his own training these days, and the journey hasn’t just been a physical one. “The spiritual strength is kind of growing now more so, rather than the biceps,” adds Crossley, who has also taken up gong baths after being inspired by their benefits on a trip to Bali.
A balanced approach
Two things that have played a part in this body-mind evolution lately are the didgeridoo (“I’ve been playing for about seven months”) and yoga. Crossley decided to qualify as an instructor when lockdown hit – although yoga is something he’s dipped in and out of since Gladiators.
“Because I was very unathletic and really struggled with the events, as I was basically going from being a bodybuilder to being an athlete, I had to massively change my training,” recalls the York-born fitness pro, who got into bodybuilding while still at school and was Teenage Mr England by 16, qualifying for Junior Mr Universe by 19.
Bulging biceps alone weren’t going to cut it. If Crossley wanted to win something like Gladiators (which he did) then he needed agility and mobility too. Yoga helped, and in more recent years he started getting even more into it. “My girlfriend is a yoga teacher as well, so that’s another reason I edged into it, we like to travel and do retreats when we can. And when lockdown came, work came to a halt and I just needed to keep busy,” he says.
“I was teaching Strongman for 10 years and picked up so many injuries; torn biceps, both my wrists blown, dislocated shoulders,” adds Crossley, who smashed the Dinnie Stones world record in 2018 (basically lifting giant boulders). “It was a natural time to switch when lockdown came, there was no Strongman competition. I moved away from [just] the strength stuff and went into yoga and mindfulness alongside the strength, so it was more about nourishing the body rather than annihilating it.”
Nourish, rather than annihilate!
‘Nourishing rather than annihilating’ is a core part of Crossley’s ethos these days. He says his motivation for doing the yoga instructor training was mostly for himself originally, but it’s an ideal fit alongside the other packages he offers clients. He’s especially keen to highlight the benefits of yoga for people who might not automatically think it’s for them – like middle-aged men who don’t think they’re bendy enough, and perhaps don’t have much variety in their regimes.
“I’m not flexible, and I know a lot of men are massively intimidated [by yoga] and they’re the people who need it most, especially men my age, over 40s,” says Crossley. “Certain moves just won’t suit our bodies. But the great thing about yoga is that it’s your practice, it’s not about what the person next to you is doing. It’s about finding your practice and what works for you. I use a lot of props, bricks and bands.”
Being super-focused and competitive is part of Crossley’s nature and has brought him great success. But he’s also been mastering the art of listening to his body and finding balance.
“I’m the king of overdoing one particular skill, and I am so aware of how this can cause damage from repetitive injury,” he says. “Putting your body in different movement patterns is definitely the best way, especially if you’re ageing, because you get imbalances and they get magnified as you get older. So, if you can incorporate flexibility, mobility and some strength somehow in your programme, then that’s ideal.”
Find what works for you
The breathing and mindfulness side of it is something he’s grateful for too. Crossley is big on taking care of his mental wellbeing, and admits he’s struggled with traditional meditation. “I’ve got a very chatty mind. I’ve been trying to meditate for years and really struggled with it. But everybody’s different. It’s about finding what works for you, one size doesn’t necessarily fit all,” he says.
For him, gong baths and sound baths (and now the didgeridoo!) were a great fit, which inspired him to learn these skills too so he could incorporate them more into his own practice and offer them to clients. With yoga now on the menu as well, these days Crossley is all about embracing variety, and keeping strong alongside “nourishing” and “relaxing the body and mind”.