Five years ago Jon “Big Red” Christenson (aka The Bearded Bell) awoke from a medically-induced coma to hear two words that would transform his health, and his life, forever: morbidly obese.
Although Christenson was a skilled athlete his whole life (baseball, hockey, football, etc.), poor eating and drinking habits had ballooned his weight up to 300lbs. He was 25 years old and not really dealing with his weight.
Then, while on vacation with his wife Breanna, he fainted. Breanna noticed a bump on the back of his head, thought it might be a concussion, so they went to the ER. After two hours in the ER, Christenson had his first seizure and went into a postictal state (an altered state of consciousness caused by an epileptic seizure) and was put into a coma so the medical professionals could run some tests.
After four days of tests, a doctor woke him up from the coma and told him the reality of his condition. He had epilepsy and his body was morbidly obese. At that moment, Christenson understood the fragility of his health.
Over the next five years, Christenson transformed his body and his life. He is now incredibly fit at 205-210lbs.
However, what is perhaps most inspiring is not just that he dropped the weight, but he did so while pursuing exactly what he always wanted to: He immersed himself completely in the practice and philosophy of martial arts.
Christenson just competed in his ninth Amateur Fight, competing in both kickboxing and Muay Thai. He is now a holistically fit human with strength, endurance and fight technique training along with nutrition, mobility and customized self-massage practices. Read on to hear his truly inspiring story and philosophy on becoming the person you were always meant to be…
Early Life: Not Quite Loving the Typical Team Sports
Jon Christenson grew up “big boned” with a Norwegian grandmother feeding him and his brother lots of sugary baked goods. Coming from a background of fear around not having enough, she wanted to ensure her grandsons had plenty. Although Christenson was active and athletic, the habit of sweets and carbs packed on extra pounds.
He also grew up enjoying athletics, but never quite able to do what he really dreamed of. Instead of joining a karate dojo as he longed to, he did baseball with his dad and brother. As he moved toward his teenage years he played hockey and then football. Although he enjoyed certain aspects, he never really felt invested in these sports and a longing to study martial arts kept returning to him.
Christenson’s parents regularly told him if he’d apply himself more to these other sports, they’d consider the bigger investment of martial arts training. But he just wasn’t excited to do the barbell workouts and drills for football or hockey practice to take his athleticism to the next level. So he never got the green-light to study fighting.
When Fate Stepped In… and Taught Him to Fight
By chance, after high school ended, a friend asked Christenson to help him train for an upcoming amateur jiu jitsu tournament. He immediately agreed and they got to work.
“We had a bunch of mats thrown down in the garage,” recalls Christenson. “Him and I started training, and that’s when the bug bit me. I was 17 years old and I knew at that moment that martial arts and combat sports was something I was made to do.”
Christenson loved to think tactically about how to position himself and unlike previous sports he had studied, he felt 100% engaged while learning about fighting. It wasn’t about violence, it was about the craft of it.
“I’ve never really been in a street fight–never sought out violence, I don’t like violence like that,” he shares. “In a street fight I would choose to run away because you never know what somebody has on them. So I don’t condone violence in that way. But I’ve always been intrigued about how human interaction in that sense works.” This inspired him to up his game on the physical side of things. He got focused on getting in better shape.
Because Christenson wasn’t so into “typical barbell stuff,” he got a 35lb kettlebell and did two exercises with it: a deadlift and swing. Even with this remedial training which Christenson refers to as “me and my friends beating each other up,” he excelled quickly. He chose to join his friend competing in a Pankration tournament (which is like MMA without head strikes or a fight cage), and placed third.
Gaining Momentum While Being Weighed Down
Now in his late teenage years, excited to finally have begun training in combat sports, Christenson bounced around to several different martial arts gyms, gaining more training and practice. Yet he wasn’t quite finding his home in the combat sports world. And despite his increasing enthusiasm and skill in martial arts, he was still pretty physically heavy.
Around this time Christenson was 6’ and about 285lbs, carrying most excess weight in his gut. It was a contradictory situation. “I was in shape and felt good for how I felt at the time,” remembers Christenson. “I had no comparison of being ‘in shape’ like I am now. So as far as I knew I was in the best shape I’d ever been in.”
He started taking college courses in career tracks that were interesting, but not his true passion. He also started dating his future wife Breanna (Bre). Now in his early 20’s, working in restaurants to make expenses and eventually becoming a bartender, Christenson’s weight rose to 320lbs.
He continued to be athletic, but felt physically uncomfortable and knew something needed to change. By switching to a strict paleo diet, with general exercise and workouts from Jeff Martone (who is considered one of the “founding fathers” of the kettlebell movement), Christenson got his weight down to 240lbs.
Lighter and leaner, thinking he’d “figured it all out,” Christenson went back to his old eating habits and his weight ballooned back up to 300lbs.
Around that time, at about 25 years old, Christenson and Bre went on vacation, driving up the California coast to Washington state. Then came the random fainting, the bump on the back of his head, and that fateful hospital visit where he was put into a coma to undergo tests for four days.
“When they woke me up from the coma and they told me about what had happened, I distinctly remember this doctor saying that I was morbidly obese. At that point, I lost it. That was the final moment where I knew I had to change, or things were going to end poorly. So we came home from that trip and I got really serious about my diet again. I knew that it was a lifestyle change that had to happen.”
When Christenson returned home, another twist of fate brought him much closer to his heart’s calling toward martial arts: he found his first official Muay Thai gym and “fell in love.”
Responding to Life’s Calling… Finally
“Muay Thai or literally Thai boxing is a combat sport of Thailand that uses stand-up striking along with various clinching techniques. This discipline is known as the ‘art of eight limbs’ as it is characterized by the combined use of fists, elbows, knees, and shins.” (Wikipedia)
Muay Thai was a much truer fit for Christenson than other martial arts he had studied, and his motivation to train surged.
“Even on the days I didn’t want to go, the second I stepped into the gym I was like I know I’m here for a reason and I know that this is what I’m supposed to do. I loved the culture of it.”
Christenson graduated college with degrees both in administration of justice and as a sign language interpreter, which he enjoyed, but it wasn’t enough. “Once I started Muay Thai and got into that gym, I knew that was my calling… I was just feeding the meter doing what everyone thinks you should do: getting a degree, going to college, when I knew in my heart that I just wanted to be in a gym and better myself at this craft.”
With the passion for Muay Thai compelling him forward, and the wake-up call of that hospital visit fresh in his memory, Christenson started to build health on all levels. He upped his game in strength and conditioning training using a kettlebell and picking up many more techniques from Kelly Starrett‘s WOD (workout of the day). Plus he got dead serious about diet and nutrition. He oriented his training toward regularly participating in Muay Thai and Kickboxing competitions.
Discovering Self-Care to Enhance Athleticism
While Christenson did what he had to do to earn a living so he could keep studying Muay Thai, Bre entered massage therapy school. He naturally became her guinea pig to practice on and with.
She educated him on muscle behavior and various self-massage techniques using the Thera Cane, foam rolling stick and a regular foam roller, plus lacrosse balls. These helped address muscle tension and his historically tight shoulders (which were exacerbated by driving and using digital devices).
At the time, Bre and Christenson cobbled together some solid self-care strategies. But they didn’t know that there were whole systems designed for self-massage until they came across the Roll Model Method therapy ball kit at a studio where he was working out one day.
“Wait, why are these balls different sized?” Christenson recalls asking. “My coach said to check out the Roll Model Method book. I brought it home and my wife and I thumbed through all the techniques and totally geeked out. It was this AHA moment–this is exactly what we’ve been talking about! This is amazing.”
When Breanna presented the analogy of needing to regularly floss and care for your teeth in order to make annual dental visits “as painless as possible,” the need for self-care really clicked for him.
“Oh, I don’t have to wait until everything hurts, then get a massage,” Christenson recalls saying to Bre. “I can take care of it when it just kinda hurts, and I can essentially stop it from hurting. I can make sure everything is fresh. She was like ‘exactly.’”
As Christenson has integrated the therapy ball work into his fitness regimen he has found it particularly useful for shins, ankles, calves, hamstrings, gluteal muscles, triceps and shoulders.
“Shins take a lot of damage through kicking and being a shield, which limits ankle mobility. I do lots of rolling along the sides of the calf, around the shin and ankle. I often put two Alpha balls underneath my hamstrings. I do sitting pigeon with a ball under gluteal muscles… or on a desk under my triceps.”
Christenson favors taking the Alpha twinset everywhere “because it’s the broadest amount of pressure outside the Coregeous ball. So it allows me to warm stuff up without getting too sore—I can do the most with them.”
And he does mean everywhere. Christenson works at a family-owned business. The family who had originally hired him to train one of their kids now all take lessons from Jon, and love to support his passion for fighting.
“Depending on the day, I will hit most every part of my body while I’m at work because if I’m at a desk, I have to be sitting answering the phone and doing different stuff, I’m gonna use that time to work on whatever mobility I can. Even sometimes I’ll put a ball in a door jamb and work on my shoulders and traps.
“My bosses completely support me. Sometimes I’ll be kneeling behind my desk, working on my shins and clients will come in and ask ‘oh do they not allow you to have a chair?’ Then one of my bosses comes out and says ‘no, he’s a fighter!’ And starts bragging.”
Jon “Big Red” Christenson’s Philosophy on Peak Performance
If you stop by any of Christenson’s social media channels, train with him live, or even have a conversation with him, you will likely be floored by his humility and positivity. Now weighing in at 205-210lbs, and fighting at 195lbs (“cruiserweight”), he and Breanna model a life which prioritizes education, passion, tenacity, self-care and optimism.
As we all know, overcoming past limitations and completely changing one’s life habits is no small feat. It often takes a complete attitude overhaul–a total paradigm shift. When asked what his strategy is for continually pursuing his own excellence, Christenson said “whether a win or a loss, my philosophy is don’t trust the highs, don’t trust the lows.”
“You can take the highs for what they are and they feel good, and take the lows and learn from them, but you gotta keep moving forward and keep working on yourself. So you can only fixate on as many negative things as positive to balance those out and get that yin and yang balance.
“The same for positive things–if you’re looking at a fight that you absolutely dominated or won, and you can pull out 15 good things, but you can only pull out two or three bad/negative things that you need to fix, you gotta find that balance. Pick out three of the good things that you really want to focus on, then the same thing with the negative things.
“I try to take this approach with as many things as I can. This way there’s positivity alongside looking at room for improvement. That helps you stay in the mindset that we are all students learning through our progress. There’s not necessarily mastery of anything outside of yourself. You have to constantly try and stay in tune with yourself: Having high expectations and goals while also realistically critiquing yourself.
“Having that balance of don’t trust the highs/don’t trust the lows, has helped me stay on the path–to not fall off and give up when things get hard. I turned 30 yesterday and I feel like I’m in better shape than when I was in high school. Personally, I feel the best that I’ve ever been today. Don’t trust the highs, don’t trust the lows keeps you moving forward. It keeps you humble and excited to keep on learning and growing.”
Self-Massage Techniques for a Competitive Fighter
Christenson’s self-massage practice is designed to maintain suppleness and mobility in his tissues and joints. But it’s also designed for economy of energy. On the days and hours leading up to a fight, he wants to be able to stay warm, without expending excess energy he needs when he’s in the ring.
Following are some of his top practices.
1. The Calf Kebab
Sandwich two Roll Model Method therapy balls on either side of your calf. pin a block above the top one, apply pressure and breathe deeply. Or wriggle your legs around to create a deep tissue massage to calf muscles.
2. The Shin Roll
Place toted therapy balls on a yoga block (or big book) and slide shin forward and back to massage into the dense muscle tissue beside the tibia bone.
3. Big Toe Mobilizer
Plug an Alpha ball against the wall, prop your big toe (first metatarsal) against it, and squish your toe into the ball. Contract/relax by pushing, then releasing pressure.
Thanks so much to Jon Christenson for sharing his amazing story with us here at Tune Up Fitness®. We hope that you have gained inspiration to reach for the peak of whatever calls to you too, and of course take holistic care of your body along the way.
If you are interested in connecting with Jon and you live in the Santa Rosa/Sonoma County California area, reach out to him through Instagram.
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