Laughter and the Dragon: The Reinvention of Chris Duffin

East of Humboldt County, in the Trinity Wilderness of the Pacific Northwest, Chris Duffin heated river water in a jug to bathe. He was a child then and, in his own words, “a different level of poor.”

His story goes beyond poverty. During Chris’ developmental years he was exposed to crime, drug abuse, and murder. Eventually, he and his siblings were taken into the custody of California social services. But he labored on. Through the trials, Chris stayed focused and disciplined. He trained and studied hard, turning himself into a state-caliber wrestler in high school and, ultimately, the school’s valedictorian.

These trials and many more, along with the story of how he overcame them, can be found in his book The Eagle and the Dragon: A Story of Strength and Reinvention.

Today, Chris Duffin is one of the strongest people on the planet. He has multiple records under his belt, including a recent world record set by squatting 1,000lbs for 3 reps. His near-superhuman strength is matched by his professional success. Chris is owner or co-owner of multiple companies, including Kabuki Strength, Build Fast Formula, and BearFoot Athletics. He has been a guest-educator and keynote speaker at a variety of conferences and universities, and appeared in countless podcasts and articles online. His success is unquestioned and, as he describes it, informed directly by those obstacles he was able to overcome.

“Your life is not defined as much by your environment as it is by your actions and responses,” said Chris on a recently recorded episode of the Good Athlete Podcast.

Though his past influences his current life, it does not define it.

Chris is no stranger to challenge. He calls out to it. He welcomes it into his life while constantly imagining ways to push his body and mind to the next level – closer each time, he assumes, to his potential.

Through his journey he has felt stress, but he is not afraid of it. Without stress, without challenge and ambition, growth is an impossibility. “It’s the SAID principle for body and mind,” he noted.

SAID is a well-know term in strength circles, an acronym for Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demand. If one trains to run far, their body will accommodate running long distances in order to meet the demands of that specific stressor. If one trains to lift heavy weight, the body will do the same.

The same is true for the mind. If one exists in a constant state of comfort, avoiding challenge and stress and fear, then growth is impossible. In a state of constant comfort, one’s character, resilience, and mental strength atrophy much like an unused muscle.

That is, of course, if recovery occurs alongside the stress. For both body and mind, this is an essential principle. The formula is simple: Stress + Recovery = Growth. Too much or too little of either with limit growth.

Too much of what looks like recovery (rest) can have a negative effect. Too much stress is equally detrimental. A deep understanding of that balance is why an enormous component of Chris’ world-record strength exists in his ability to recover from grueling workouts.

Leading into his quest for 3 squat reps at 1,000lbs, Chris would often perform 6-9 repititions per workout over 900lbs. That sort of intensity and volume demands serious recovery. He admits that there are days he can barely walk out of the gym. His number one recovery tool? Sleep.

Sleep is my number one priority, no doubt.” If he does not sleep well, Chris admits that his entire process is thrown off. It can not only interrupt important hormonal production, but interrupt the rest of the day’s routine, “especially if I have to duck out and take a nap.”

His second most important tool for recovery is movement. “If you have to roll out every time you go to the gym then you’ve missed a huge opportunity all week,” said Chris, citing the idea that limping around all week with tight hips is a sure way to limit recovery. He advises people to spend time alleviating the compensatory patterns caused by tightness and soft tissue damage. Move well to heal well.

The final piece to Chris Duffin’s recovery plan eases both physical and mental strain: laughter.

That’s right, one of the strongest, toughest, most intense people on the planet, with tattoos telling the story of an arduous life sprawling across his densely muscled frame, likes to wind down from a day of multiple repetitions with nearly 1000lbs on his back with a good laugh.

I’ll just put on a funny movie,” he says, “laughter is key.”

Turns out, the laughter strategy has well-documented benefits. No science is needed to understand just how enjoyable laughter can be from a psychological perspective, but there are physical implications as well. When you laugh, especially if you can laugh with your peers, you might be kindling endogenous “feel good” hormones. Laughter on its own has the ability to relax the body and even boost immunity.

So he laughs. And he breaks world records. It’s a balance worth considering.

Chris acknowledges that he is a different beast under the bar, but like an ancient warrior, when the battle is over, “you have to take off the mask.”

The more you challenge and strain under the bar, the more you need to recover. The more thoroughly you recover, the healthier your soft tissue and nervous system will be, which translates to the ability to strain again during the next workout. It’s a cycle. It’s a continuous process of reinvention.

This dynamic is at the heart of Kabuki Strength and all of Chris’ pursuits. It’s tattooed across his chest.

Ouroboros is the ancient symbol of a dragon or serpent consuming its own tail. It is the symbol of destruction and creation, of reinvention, of the continuous cycle of renewal. In might serve as the perfect metaphor for Chris’ life.

He challenges himself more than most, but only because he focuses on recovery more than most. The trials of his life could have broken him – instead, he grew. He is a constantly evolving version of himself. He embodies the process of growth.

It’s the only life he knows.

Chris advises others to approach challenge with optimism, without backing away from the fear that often accompanies it, and with the healthy recognition that one is separate from their circumstances.

Referencing difficult situations in one’s life, Chris urges people to acknowledge that “that’s not who you are, those are just the things you have to deal with.”

The way you respond to what happens to you determines the value of what happened. The difference between an opportunity and a setback exists in the way we respond.

Environments matter. The circumstances one deals with over the course of a lifetime, traumas included, with undoubtedly impact the way we function as human beings. But with the right mindset and work ethic, we are capable of dealing more than we might imagine.

We can reinvent ourselves. We can reach incredible heights. Chris Duffin inspires us to do exactly that.