“Old Man Sanders”

Matthew Sanders was out for abs.

“I’m gonna get all these abs,” he thought, taking a few final puffs of his second cigarette and making his way to CrossFit Minneapolis for his first introductory class almost seven years ago.

“I’m gonna get more abs than anybody knows.”

The workout looked simple enough: sit-ups, push-ups and ring rows. Piece of cake for a guy who benched and curled three times a week at the local LA Fitness—or so Matthew assumed.

“It literally took my breath away,” he said of the workout. “I was dying on the floor, and I was like, ‘I love this so much—I can’t wait to come back.’”

Matthew, 40, lives in White Bear Lake with his wife, Christa, and their three young children. He earns a living transporting tanks of carbon dioxide to bars and restaurants across the Twin Cities—hit him up for the low-down on the best and worst watering holes—and calls himself a “worker-man.” And before CrossFit, he had the lifestyle to match.

“If you had the idea of a laborer—what they would look like—that was me,” he said. “I smoked, I worked hard outside, I drank pop, I ate chips (and) candy bars. …Then I’d come home and I’d have a couple of beers.”

At the time, he thought he was making healthy choices. After all, he only smoked American Spirit—which markets itself as “natural”—and had just one 32-oz. Coke a day. Still, when a Facebook friend posted pictures of his brand-new washboard abs and credited CrossFit, Matthew knew he had room to improve.

In January 2012, Matthew joined the 6-a.m. class at CrossFit Minneapolis. He couldn’t do a pull-up without a thick green band, and his clean maxed out at around 135 lb. Since then, he’s cut the junk from his diet and ditched the cigarettes, and today he can power-clean 250 and do Fran as prescribed.

“I spent months not doing anything Rx and there’s still things that I can’t do Rx, and that’s part of what I love about it,” he said. “You don’t ever get to that point where you’re doing everything perfectly, and there’s always a place to be learning and getting better and challenging yourself and growing.”

As Matthew’s performance inside the gym improved, so did his life outside of it. “When I did my job before CrossFit, I would come home exhausted,” he said, noting that the tanks he hauls all day weigh from 80 to 115 lb. each. “It’s really easy to do my job and move poorly and hurt yourself because you’re lifting heavy things and you’re always on your feet. (CrossFit has) given me a lot of confidence to do my job really well.”

But Matthew found more than fitness at CrossFit Minneapolis and CrossFit St. Paul — he found a community.

When Matthew and Christa moved from California to Minnesota 13 years ago, they spent most of their free time with Christa’s family and old high-school friends. CrossFit, Matthew said, was a chance to meet new people and make lifelong friends of his own.

“You can be in a class with a mother of two or someone who has grandchildren, or a college student or even a high-school student,” he said. “It’s all over the place, and I love the community.” That community continued to support Matthew as he moved through what he calls his “stages of fitness.” The competitive 6-a.m.-ers pushed him to go faster and lift heavier. When he switched to the gym’s former sister affiliate, CrossFit St. Louis Park, he bonded with other CrossFitting parents whose top priority was staying healthy for their kids. These days, you can usually find him at the 11-a.m. class at CrossFit St. Paul, where he throws down with his fellow “clowns.”

“When I first started … I wanted to be the fastest and the strongest, and now I’m able to enjoy the community more and enjoy the friendships I’ve developed,” he said. That’s not to say Matthew doesn’t care about his fitness. It’s just that now, he measures it in something other than abs.

“When my dad was 40, he was not doing the kind of things that I’m doing,” Matthew said, adding that he loves to hike, bike and snowboard with his kids. “So I go out and do these things and I don’t think, ‘Am I gonna be tired?’ or ‘Is this gonna be too hard?’ (CrossFit) has given me the confidence to go do whatever activities I really enjoy and not be worried about my physical health, my stamina or my strength.”

“I’m 40, but I don’t feel 40.”

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