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From the Road

I have trouble doing a structured WOD when I am on the road. In the past I have dealt with this by reverting to something simple. I may just run. That option is especially good for people who don’t otherwise ever run (this is not an excuse for you reformed “yoggers” to take it back up). I am bad at push-ups, so I might just do 150 push-ups and change how I get there (tabata, big sets with long rest, small sets with short rest, several max efforts).

Last week I decided to change it up. I crave the variety of CrossFit even when I am not in a great place to do it and few things give you as much variety as randomness. I went in with very little planned. I found a treadmill, some 35lb dumbbells, and a little open space. I can’t tell you exactly what I did because I don’t really know. I moved randomly from push-ups to squats to hill runs to sprints to sit-ups to front squats to dumbbell swings and back again in different orders. It felt good and I managed to keep up a decent level of intensity.

But beware. This cannot be a regular habit. We have seen time again that workouts without metrics fail in the end. This probably won’t make you in much better shape, but it will keep you from regressing when you are traveling. If you just have one night to deal with, go for it. If you are gone for multiple days, it is probably best to surround a day like this with more measurable work meant specifically to improve some area in which you are lacking. If only European hotels had high enough ceilings for me to practice handstand push-ups …

Travel and the Death of Fitness

In my experience, unpredictable routines are the death of proper fitness and nutrition. We spend years of our lives trying to establish a healthy routine. For many who read this blog, it finally happened when they found CrossFit, were berated into cleaning their kitchens of junk food, and found a time to hit the gym or their garage 5-6 times a week.

Same Squat Time, Same Squat Channel

You’re in a groove, getting fit, looking good, feeling awesome, and then you go to a conference. At the morning session, you are treated to pastries and maybe a little fruit. No protein to be seen. You go out to lunch with colleagues and have a basket of chips placed in front of you and nearly all of your meat and veggie dishes include beans and rice. The dinner reception is passed appetizers of pastry dough wrapped around some unidentifiable but delicious filling and an open bar.

Your immaculate kitchen? Gone. And notice I didn’t mention an hour or two for the gym. I use the example of the business trip but a trip home to see the family (and the food you loved as a kid that your mother would be devastated if you didn’t eat) or a vacation can be exactly the same.

It is hard NOT because there are no options. There are. Some may involve funny looks from co-workers, but so be it. It is hard because you RELY on your routine. In fact, it is reasonable to say that your routine is not a result of your new found devotion to fitness, but rather your fitness is the result of your new found routine. Break the routine and watch all of your discipline crumble.

I write this to you from a plane … and plane with flight attendants that brought around warm gooey cookies. As I stared at this cookie (something I would never eat at home and don’t have in my kitchen) I wondered why it seemed so reasonable to eat it here.

I am not a food Nazi. I believe in appropriate forays into beloved, if unhealthy, culinary delights. But an airline cookie? One I will be served again on the plane ride home. Totally not worth it. Yet, here the cookie sits. So instead of eating it, I decided to write a post on how to deal with a loss of routine when traveling and the subsequent poor habits that develop.

I see three basic strategies.

1. Strive for perfection.
2. Overcome and adapt.
3. Hold on for dear life.

I would love to hear how other people do it, but what I have found works best for me is a combination of the three. I pack as much food as I can, stay in hotels that are either close to CrossFit gyms or at least have a passable fitness facility in the hotel, and avoid going out to eat. Inevitably, while this is what I shoot for, I fall short. If there is a punch-line to this post it is the following

DON’T LET A LACK OF PERFECTION BE YOUR GATEWAY TO THE ALL YOU CAN EAT PIZZA BUFFET AND HOTEL ROOM PORN!!!!!!

Fall back to strategies two and three. You can’t pack your food? Find a grocery store. You can’t find a grocery store? Order a salad. Use this as your opportunity to go for a run if there is no gym. Use it as your opportunity to stretch and do handstands. DO SOMETHING!

One of the last trips I took resulted in midnight Subway run with a 6 inch double meat chicken breast sandwich. I was tired I slept through my gym time and ended up doing a 4 minute Tabata push-up routine in my room. That is pretty feeble, yet better than 98% of most travelers. Don’t be in the 98%.

Why You Need to Show Up to Heavy Days


I am sure I have written this post before, but I will do it again because it needs repeating. DON’T SKIP HEAVY DAYS!!!!!!!!!!!!

How strongly do I believe this? The ALL CAPS doesn’t make that clear? Well, I believe it enough that I haven’t written a blog post in more than 6 months and here I sit, writing a blog post after 90% of the gym decided not to show up to Thursday’s Snatch session. I am sure a few of you had excuses like it was your rest day, Thursdays are for happy hour (everyone knows that), or you were brought to tears every time you sneezed from Tuesday’s sit-ups. Some of these are sort of valid (not really).

However, I have a sneaking suspicion that many people skipped it because they are Metcon Queens or they are bad at the Snatch (which is akin to saying someone skipped a workout because they are out of shape). They think CrossFit is all about high rep bodyweight work with the occasional row and thruster thrown in.

WRONG!!!!!!!

There is a decent argument to be made that, in addition to the very broad concept of “intensity,” CrossFit’s primary contribution to fitness was turning previously disorganized weight lifting routines into heavy, functional, progressive Weight Training (and introducing a generation of meatheads to a lift other than the bench press).

I will skip some of the more philosophical reasons you should want to get strong (being strong is awesome, muscle wasting is one of the primary indicators of death, you will live a longer more functional life, it makes your ass look much better than a skinny runner’s) and stick to things you people seem to care about, namely, that it makes you better at all the things you want to be better at.

We don’t have you do 95lb thrusters in Fran or 135lb snatches in Isabel for no reason. It is because when you can move that much weight in that little time (we are shooting for under 5 minutes in those workouts) you produce a stimulus in your body that is EXTREMELY potent. It cannot be replicated with lighter weights in the same time domain. The power and intensity you can produce when you are strong enough to move that much weight that fast is one of the reasons we have heavy days. The snatch is a potent exercise that develops speed, strength, balance, flexibility, and power. How much better shape would you be in if you were proficient enough with the lift to do 30 in 3 minutes? The answer is A LOT. Now, if you are proficient at the lift but not very strong, how much better shape would you be in if you could do 30 at 135lbs in 3 minutes? A LOT MORE.

The bottom line is that you become proficient at the lifts and then stronger in the lifts by coming on days when we have dedicated time to practice them, get coached, correct flaws, and push the limits of your ability in 1 to 5 reps. Showing up for all the metcon WODs without showing up to lifting days is like continually taking practice tests while not spending any time to get a better handle on the material you are being tested on. Then you wonder why your scores don’t improve.

If I can’t get you to come to these days despite all the reasons I listed above (nice ass) and you would be bored if I tried to explain why for health and fitness reasons strength may be the single most significant measuring stick, then come in for the selfish reason that it will make you better at the things you DO care about. Your times will go down, you will do more reps, you will complete the WOD RX’d. And if you insist on thinking that the longer and nastier the METCON the better fitness you are achieving just remember that 1) you are wrong and 2) being able to do that METCON with heavier weights will make it that much more brutal.

Le Tour


This is not a fully formed blog thought, but I wanted to throw it out there. I love the Tour de France. Stop laughing and/or sputtering in anger because you remember when I told you to stop doing long slow distances endurance activities. Part of me enjoys watching anything that is the best people in the world competing on the world’s biggest stage. Part of me is astounded at what these guys do in the same way I am impressed with a sword swallower. Part of me respects anyone who is willing to nearly disfigure their body for their sport.

All that aside, what I find fascinating is that some of the most successful cyclists are sprinters. These aren’t the guys who will ever win the overall race, but they will win stages of the race that are over 100 miles long! Right now the man in the race with the most stage wins (4 as of this time) was previously the world track sprint cycling champion. This is not like when you talk about a marathoner who has a good kick at the end of the race. It is more like finding a guy who used to be a 100m champion in track and field who decided to start running marathons and won by outsprinting everyone in the last few hundred meters. They had to survive the first 25.9 miles before they could do that.

When you look at these guys, they don’t look like the climbers. They have quads as big as my waist. Though a little narrow shouldered, they have some muscle in there arms and chest. This is a kind of endurance training I can get behind. Be in good enough shape to finish with the pack over a long distance, but be strong and powerful enough to sprint at 90% of what a dedicated sprinter sprints at the end. Be a sprinter who survives the long ride, not an endurance runner who picks up the pace at the end.

I’m Back!!!


It has been a rather long time since I have posted anything. Despite having no one to blame but myself, I will blame being gone at training for four months followed by a month of reacquainting myself with my family and friends.

Through this time I have experimented (sometimes of my own accord and sometimes by necessity) with a few different training techniques, many of which I plan to write about. I have also had a bit of lifestyle change that requires me to travel an inordinate amount of time. Maintaining my fitness and nutrition in this new environment will be a challenge, but I am ready to take it on.

More than full fledged post, I just wanted to let everyone know I am back and give them an idea of what I plan to write about over the next few weeks.

1. Fitness tests and why they fail.
2. How working out every day made me slower and weaker.
3. Fitness and nutrition on the road.
4. Why skipping lifting days shows a lack of moral fiber .

I am considering doing a travel log as well for how I eat and exercise on the road. If any of the rest of you have any interest in that, let me know.

So stay tuned. I won’t make people wait another year. And if you have anything you want to hear about, please let me know.

Erika Tells Her Story

(A guest post from Potomac CrossFit Coach, Erika PCF.  She chronicles her fitness journey over the last several years.  A pretty amazing story.)

Aaron’s recent post about plateaus and progress inspired me to write something similar.  I talk to tons of women in our gym that just can’t wait to get that first pull up or do the benchmarks rx’d….and no matter how many times I tell them that we’ll get there, they’re still anxious.  Bad past pictures be damned, I want to let all the Crossfit women out there know that we all start somewhere.

Growing up, I was pretty athletic.  Lettered in 3 sports in high school, was a competitive dancer, and believe it or not….I didn’t hate running (with the passion I do now).  Stayed fairly active in college and knew my way around the weight room better than most….though I’ll cop to performing forearm curls, leg presses, and squats that in no way reached acceptable depth.  I didn’t know any better.

 Then, I got my first job after college….and got lazy.  And soft.  Fast forward a couple years – I had a membership at Results (yep, still working those leg presses) and started running again.  Somewhere along the way, I decided I wanted to run a half marathon, and it just so happened that the guy I started dating was training for a marathon…and dabbling in this thing called Crossfit.

 Long story short, Aaron and I ran the Marine Corps Half Marathon in September 2006, he ran the Marathon while I ran the 10k in October….and we both decided we were over running shortly thereafter.  Somewhere in early 2007 he convinced me to try this Crossfit thing, and I must admit, like many of you guys, I. WAS. FRUSTRATED.  I mean, I ran a half marathon…I was in pretty good shape….but those damn pull ups and push ups and crazy things called cleans, well, they kicked me in the ass.  I hated being bad at things, so I’d occasionally do workouts with Aaron, but only on the days where it was some movement that I could perform without looking like a complete idiot.  I liked that I was slowly getting stronger (and slightly less uncoordinated), but I did NOT like still sucking at some things.  Okay, at a lot of things.  To borrow from Aaron’s lingo, this was Phase I – when I started, I had zero pull ups, maybe 3 real push ups (though range of motion was probably suspect) and I think I deadlifted around 135.  On a good day.  I let the frustrations get me down, and I needed a change in attitude.

Summer 2007

After about 6 months of dabbling in this CF thing, I decided I wanted to be good.  I no longer cared if I looked like a fool….I’d been watching videos (we never went to an affiliate, just did CF on our own in the Pentagon gym) and those chicks named Annie, Eva and Nicole were hot.  And fantastically strong.  I wavered between being pissed (and sad) that I couldn’t do the things they could, to wanting to be like them.  I decided to do something about it, and started taking my training a little more seriously — which happened to coincide with the time Aaron started actually training other people and talking about maybe opening a CF gym of his own some day.  Hello, Phase II.

 Fast forward to the spring/summer of 2008, or what I’d like to call Phase III.  I’d been actually trying to get better, had worked my way up to some kipping pull ups, and I think completed my first “real” Fran….in about 10 minutes.  We linked up with Brian and Dan, who were working toward opening an affiliate, and we started working out with them at park WODs.  This was the first time I’d ever done CF with anyone else (besides Aaron)….and I came to the realization I need to step up my game.  I started training harder.  And decided that some day I wanted to be good enough to help others progress and that I liked the idea of becoming a trainer.

Summer 2008

I’ve said this before, but the first major breakthrough in my CF career came when I “got” pull ups and my DL surpassed 200#.  Things started clicking, I could do most WODs as rx’d, and I was first among the women in this crazy new affiliate we just helped open. 

PCF started growing, we started getting new members – some of which were women – that again made me kick my game up a notch.  I started having people to compete with, and that made me a better athlete.  By 2009, I was pretty good at most things, could do almost every WOD as rx’d (aside from those stupid HSPU and muscle ups), and I really started looking and feeling strong.  I liked where I was at, but had my sights set on being competitive after going to my first competition (Regionals in 2009) and realizing there were still tons and tons of women out there hitting it harder than I was.

Phase IV involved me dialing in my eating (this is where I really started to see differences in my body composition….who knew I would ever be able to see my abs in my 30’s?!) and training smarter.  Which led to me actually getting that elusive muscle up, a 1.75x bodyweight DL, etc.  Which led to me placing 17th in our three state Secional, qualifying me for Regionals.  I was thrilled….but knew I still had a way to go in order to get where I wanted to be.

So, here I am – roughly three years later.  I’m finally attacking my weakness (PCF Fast Runner’s Club, anyone?), working on a strength cycle, and focusing on oly lifting in order to dial in my technique.  In the course of that time I’ve gone from zero pull ups to having muscle ups, a 135# DL to a 300# DL, and to looking and feeling better than I ever thought was possible.  When I started, I didn’t know what the hell a clean and jerk was, and certainly did not have the strength to perform one at 95#….. I just this month PR’d Grace (30 clean and jerks at 95) with a 2:41.  I recently PR’d my 5k at 25:25, which is down from about 30:00…in my running days.  I’m certainly better at 33 than I was at 23, both in terms of my overall health/endurance and body composition.

And here’s the real beauty of the situation: no matter where you are in your CF journey, or what your end state goals are, there’s always someone one step behind that looks up to you and uses you as their rabbit.  You may not think so, but trust me on this.  Likewise, I know each of you has someone that you look to for times and weights you should hit when you step into the box.  And you know what?  Both of those people are going to be standing there cheering you on every step of the way….right along with the rest of us.  Embrace the ups and downs, the people that chase you and the people that you chase, and use that energy to make you better.   To all you PCF women (and men) that think that you’ve hit a plateau and are frustrated….stick with it.  With a little hard work and practice, you’ll achieve things you never thought were possible.  And I promise to be there to help you every step of the way.

My Five Year CrossFit Anniversary and Dealing With Plateaus Pt III

Here is what we have covered so far.  CrossFit can produce amazing transformations in people.  I have been doing this for 5 years and gone from a skinny runner, to a Level 2 CrossFit Trainer who has coached hundreds or thousands of people and program for one of the most successful CF gyms around, all while making enormous improvements in my own fitness.  How we get there is different for everybody, but if your programming is decent, you eat and sleep right, and you practice what you want to improve (even a little) you can keep getting better for a long time with no special programs or coaching.  That is my advice to the 99% of people who ask me about breaking through plateaus. 

For those who have been doing CrossFit for years, eat right, sleep right, have learned intensity, and practice skills in their warm-ups, a time may still come when you hit a plateau.  This post is for you.

Having experimented myself with some more radical interventions and having watched many others do the same, I tend to be a minimalist.  I will start with something that keeps you as close to our traditional programming as possible and slowly move you away as you become more and more advanced.

Me in November After a Radical Intervention: 220lbs With PR's on Every Power Lift.

Me in May After Trimming Back Down from my Radical Intervention: 200lbs with a PR in Muscle-Ups.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 Phase 1

Structured Warm-ups: Many people just need to raise body temp, mobilize joints, and warm-up to the RX’d weight before they do a workout.  That’s fine, but you can accomplish those goals while improving on weaknesses as well.  Your warm-up will no longer be random, I will give you what to do and it will likely be periodized and structured to allow you do a great deal of volume while making improvements.

Example 1: You have bad overhead strength that appears when you try to overhead squat and snatch.  While your squat and clean have gone up consistently for two years, your OHS and snatch have stalled for the last 6 months.  This is probably a result of poor shoulder mobility and stability, and lack of integrated whole body strength (a phrase I just made up and which Dan John once referred to as “Dad Strength).  Here is your program which is done in place of the warm-up of the day and in conjunction with the workout of the day.

Mobility Work Can Solve Some Strength Problems

  1. Shoulder mobility drills every day: foam roll upper back, LAX balls in the upper thoracic, shoulder pass throughs, OHS with PVC against the wall.
  2. Snatch Drills two days a week: from 45-95lbs depending on the drill and your strength, Burgener warm-up, snatch balance, hang squat snatch.
  3. OHS/Shoulder Stability two days a week: hand stand holds working toward a press to handstand and 3 sets of 4-8 reps at a moderate weight of slow tempo OHS (5 sec down, 2 sec pause, 1 second up).

Moderate to light weight will ensure that you are fine to do the regular WOD.  These movements will simultaneously warm you up and improve your skills without taking a lot of time.  High volume combined with better mobility will fix a lot of problems and the moderate weight OHS will provide just enough intensity (when done at tempo) to produce adaptation but won’t be so heavy it wears you out.

Phase 2

A new progression: People can advance for years adding 3-5lbs to the bar almost every time they train.  Eventually they cannot support that kind of progression and stall.  For these people we begin a slower periodized progression.  Mark Rippetoe has a couple of intermediate programs he recommends including the Texas Method to achieve this.  We have had some success with Jim Wendler’s 5-3-1.  A number of these will work for most people, the point is that you are no longer a beginner who can just throw weight on the bar, do your work and improve.  You need to plan, oscillate the weights up and down, de-load at certain times, and progress in steady but smaller increments.

Many of our Female Clients Find they Need to Embrace Strength Training to Overcome Years of Endurance Work ... I hate Spinning.

Example 1: At Potomac CrossFit we squat once a week.  At the very beginning people just throw weight on the bar and set 50lb PR’s.  A few months in progress slows down but they can add 5-10 lbs a week.  When we notice this slow down or stop (and we check to make sure you are eating and sleeping right) we might switch you to Wendler.  You will still squat with the class every week, you will just be doing a very specific program based on certain percentages of your max.

Phase 3:

Prefer your weakness over your strength: If you have a long training history with a specific method of exercise or are just naturally talented in some areas but not others, you can probably afford to prefer or replace days that focus on your strengths with days that focus on your weakness.  Again, I will start by keeping you as close as possible to original programming and slowly move you away.

Example 1: If you have a strong squat but a weak overhead squat and Example 1 did not work, I may have you warm-up to your back squat work with heavy overhead squats.  This will hurt your back squat number, but that is a strength and you are trading that training stimulus for work on OHS.  If that results in over training the squat, I would replace the back squat with the OHS until it comes up to par.  I would also consider replacing every other deadlift workout with an OHS workout as I find you don’t need to DL as much as you might think to improve.

Example 2: You used to be a runner.  However, you suck at rowing.  Replace running with rowing in WODs.

Example 3: It will not always be as clean as replacing one kind of squat with another kind of squat or changing running out for rowing.  If you are a strong runner but weak, it may be best to replace running days with heavy lifting or oly practice.  Similarly, if you are a former power lifter, you can probably afford to switch out some deadlifts with power cleans, or even bodyweight work. 

Depending on the individual, the specific manner in which each of these examples are implemented would look different.

Phase 4:

DEFCON 1: You have to pass a specific physical fitness test, you are about to run a race, you are competing in a weightlifting competition, or you are so painfully bad that all of your training on your weaknesses is undone with the smallest amount of additional work.  THIS IS RARE!  I have tried this twice and in both cases I think I would have been much smarter if I had tried one of the above options.  But it happens.  Understand that we usually are reducing your overall fitness for the sake of passing a test or winning a sport.

Jon PCF Runs an Oly Class for People Looking to Specialize a Little or Bring up there Weakness

Example 1: You want to compete in an oly competition.  With years of conditioning under your belt and a solid CrossFit foundation, you are in good shape but have stalled on your lifts.  A few months out we will cut your CF training by probably 80% and replace it with an oly progression designed to peak at competition time (or more than a few months depending on schedule and your competencies).

Example 2: You have to pass a PT test.  While you are very strong, the military has made the oh-so brilliant decision that being strong isn’t as important as being able to do 100 push-ups and run 1.5 miles in shorts and tennis shoes.  In order to spend sufficient time to make you competent at these movements we will need to sacrifice some of your training and put you on a few running and push-up progressions.  In the long run you would have done better by just doing CrossFit, but if you only have a month, you only have a month.  We work with what we have.

Nice Tat

Example 3:

You have been skinny your whole life.  Really skinny.  Maybe you are a recovering cyclist.  Your strength levels are so low you can’t practice many of the movements in CrossFit and scaling dramatically doesn’t seem to produce the stimulus or intensity that we need.  We have increased your food intake, but you shed weight so efficiently that small amounts of conditioning strips the muscle right off of you.  Radical intervention is required.  We might reduce your training volume and put you on a dedicated strength program and a LOT of food.

As I stated in Part II, 99% of you don’t need ANY of these interventions.  Of the remaining 1%, 99% of you don’t need to reach DEFCON 1.  Yet somehow I see people rush to this rather quickly.  This is a long journey and people need to be patient with results.  Don’t believe me?  Tell me your problems I will help prescribe a solution.  I’ll bet it rarely involves more than small tweaks to your programming.  Hit me with your best shot.

My Five Year CrossFit Anniversary and Dealing With Plateaus Pt II

plateau

Part I of this post was supposed to be an entire article about how to break through plateaus and some of my recent attempts at benchmarks.  Instead you were all treated to a walk down memory lane, some embarrassing pictures, and a reminder of how old I am.  So Part II will be a bit more substantive.

Read Part 1 of this series.

We are pretty lucky that CrossFit allows people to train and improve almost continuously for years before they start to hit really difficult barriers.  Nevertheless, we hit those barriers and eventually need to find a way past them.  If someone comes to me and says they have plateaued or hit a barrier to progress, I will run through a checklist.

Step 1: STFU

You: I have been here for 6 months and I still can’t do a pull-up.

Me: You started out on a black band that could sling shot a bowling ball to Mars, moved to a green band that could only sling it to the moon, started using smaller bands for higher reps, and now can support your weight above the bar and slowly lower yourself through negatives.  STFU.

slingshot

Step 2: Address the Obvious

You: I have been stuck using the thin red band for pull-ups for three months.

Me: You were on vacation for two weeks, started a new job that gives you four hours of sleep a night, and eat at McDonalds for lunch.  You really want me to “put you on a pull-up program?”  Sleep right, eat right, and tell me if you don’t improve.

Step 3: That’s what the Warm-up is for

You: I finally got a pull-up after I improved my eating, but I really want to get good enough to do them in a workout.

Me: Well how often do you work on them?  Only during WODs?  During your warm-up do a couple of pull-ups, do 3 sets of negatives, or do 5 minutes of kipping practice.  Do that for a month and come back to me.

Up to this point I have not changed your programming, added significant time to your workouts, or even greatly increased the amount of coaching you need.  In spite of this, I often have people in one of these three stages want to quit CrossFitting and start a gymnastics program just so they can do Fran RX’d.  This tendency is even worse amongst guys who come to me with barbell numbers that are lower than they would like them.  The words are different for those guys, but the sentiments are the same.  I want to stop CrossFitting and do a barbell program because my CrossFit Total is too low.  STFU, start eating and sleeping, and I usually don’t need Step 3 because at Potomac CrossFit we squat, press, and pull once a week.

However, here is a real life version of Step 3 that occurred in our gym with an advanced athlete.  Names have been changed to protect the innocent.sa-deadlift

S. Assassin: My deadlift just isn’t very good.  I think I need to start doing some dedicated work.

Awesome Coach: Ummmmm, we regularly deadlift on Thursdays and usually have a conditioning workout with deadlifts in it when we don’t.

S. Assassin: Thursday is my day off because I have to travel for work.

Awesome Coach: You are just now figuring this out?

Point is, the solution to this problem was, “maybe you should deadlift.”

Once again, I have run long.  But you know what, I’m ok with that.  Why?  Because 99% of you are in stages 1, 2, or 3 and can address your problems appropriately without special programs and intensive coaching.  So STFU, get to sleep, eat right, and get to work.  I’ll be back soon to sabotage my coaching career by writing an article for the remaining 1% of you that uses me and a few of our other athletes as examples.

(Editor’s Note: When I upgraded my blogging program I lost the personalized banner art.  There is, as far as I know, no connection between anything I say and the banners with bi-planes and old Japanese flags.  I am working to fix this).

My Five Year CrossFit Anniversary and Dealing with Plateaus Pt 1

I have told this story before:

Five years ago I was in Iraq.  I thought I was in pretty good shape.  I had been training for and competing in triathlons and lost a bunch of weight in the previous year as I started to take my running more seriously.  I had been a competitive runner in high school.

Skinny but I thought I was in shape.

Skinny but I thought I was in shape.

But I was weak.  I was soft.  I had little noticeable muscle tone. 

When I got to Iraq my running was limited to the treadmill and the occasional run up hill by our house that required me to suffer through dusty air and the need to carry a pistol with me the whole time.  Not surprisingly, I started running less.  I didn’t have a bike or a pool, so there wasn’t a great deal of other Tri training to do. 

One of the guys in the House showed me a website.  In 2005 there were fewer than 20 affiliates.  There were very few videos on the website and a few of the demos were a series of pictures rather than the high quality streaming HD stuff we see today.  Clearly, everyone on the website was crazy.  I mean, cheating pull-ups, using your legs to lift weights up over your head, rep schemes in the hundreds?  That’s insanity!  And I should know.  I have read the Internets before and EVERYONE agrees that is no way to work out.

But, in my boredom and competitive zeal, I finally agreed to do a workout.  I looked up what was on tap for that day and got to work.  Here is the link to my very first WOD.   You read that right.  My first WOD was Fran.  Looked easy.  I put 95lbs on the bar, placed a bench right behind me (I didn’t have a medball to lower myself to, so I replaced it with a bench that left me a good 3 inches above parallel) and got to work.

I didn’t know how to rack the bar on my shoulders.

I didn’t know how to move fast with a barbell.

I had never done a thruster.

I didn’t know how to kip.

I thought going fast meant not taking 3 minutes between sets.

It took me 18 minutes.

Remember, I had never been to a CrossFit gym.  I hadn’t watched hours of workouts.  I hadn’t read the comments.  I didn’t know what “fast” meant.  I hadn’t seen other people push.  I was impressed with my partner … who completed it in 12 minutes.

I started doing more workouts.  I kept up my running (I was training for a marathon) within a month my body started changing.  I was a skinny runner but now I had abs.  You started seeing muscles in my arms.  What the hell was happening to me?  I had exercised my whole life in a million different ways and this had never happened!  It had only been a month!  I was hooked.

Shoulders Fuller, muscles somewhat visible.

Shoulders Fuller, muscles somewhat visible.

That was Phase I of my CrossFit career.  Phase II was me changing the way I thought about CrossFit.  I started learning.  After returning from Iraq, I did run that marathon.  I kept CrossFitting and continued to see changes in my body, but I worked out at regular gyms, only paid a little attention to what I was eating, didn’t workout with a group, and never had a chance to compete.  I looked like an in shape but skinny distance runner.

20080531 Park WOD from Potomac Crossfit on Vimeo.

Skinny in an empty gym

I eventually got certified and started training people.  I wanted to open my own gym.  Luckily, I ran across a few other folks trying to open their own gym in Arlington, and I decided I would try to join in.  The process of training hundreds (thousands?) of clients changed the way I thought about my own training.  By myself I tended to stick to what I was good at.  I was always first in a group of one, so I didn’t know how much I harder I needed to work.  I am not even sure I knew how much harder I COULD work.

That realization brought me to the end of Phase of II of my training.  Potomac CrossFit had started and grown to 50-100 athletes.  We had a few plates, half a wall of pull-up bars, and the fastest Fran time at the gym was 3:59 (that was my time, by the way, 14 minutes faster than I had done it 3 years prior).

Little Equipment, Few Clients

Little Equipment, Few Clients

Phase III, I realized, meant I had to start taking this shit seriously.  The gym grew.  I was no longer first of 1, I was in a group of ever improving athletes.  In programming for them I started realizing how many holes I had.  I realized where my weaknesses were and figured out I had to do more than just practice once or twice a month to get better.  I became much more serious about how I ate (read my food blog from last month) and I started competing against international competition.  There was nowhere to hide.

Competition Spurs Improvements

Competition Spurs Improvements

I began to take my weaknesses seriously.  I started periodizing and taking seminars in a desperate attempt to solve them.  My body started changing again as my diet improved and I tailored it to my specific goals.  I am constantly searching and experimenting, not only for my own fitness but for my clients.

Me after a mass gaining phase.  Go back and compare this picture to the first picture in the post.

Me after a mass gaining phase. Go back and compare this picture to the first picture in the post.

I am still in Phase III.  I don’t know what Phase IV looks like but I will let you know in another 5 years if I have reached it yet.  Potomac CrossFit has hundreds of clients.  We are packed with equipment.  When I started CrossFit I had an 18 minute Fran.  I just retested at 3 minutes flat.  I had a 115lb power clean.  I now have a 235lb power clean.  It took me two years to learn to overhead squat and snatch.  It took me two years to get a muscle-up.  Every once in a while a client comes to me discouraged.  A few people are way ahead of them in the gym and it doesn’t seem like they will ever catch up.  I have to remind them of where I started.  How many years it takes to become competent, much less good at this.  But look at the progress you’ve made DURING your journey and remember you have a lifetime left ahead of you.

This is going to have to become a two piece post.  I got a little long winded in what was supposed to just be an intro.  More to come on plataeus and progress.

Benchmark Update

I sound like a broken record when I tell people they need to work on their weaknesses.  It’s true.  Your biggest bang for the buck in terms of fitness and performance is almost always a result of becoming competent at what you are bad at rather than improving what you are already good at.

I don’t always practice what I preach.  I set two personal records in the last week, both in workouts I was already quite good at.

3 Rounds: 400m run, 21 kettle bell swings, 12 pull-ups in 8:06.

5 Rounds: 400m run, 15 overhead squats with 95lbs in 12:12.

Great news, right?  Yes.  However, running, moderate-weight lifting, and limited body weight movements is right in my wheel house.  But this is more than a confession.  I am not a complete sinner because my training leading up to this has been balanced and biased toward my weaknesses.  The body weight work I have been doing helped efficiency in my pull-ups for Helen.  Some higher rep air squat exercises combined with the high rep Wendler sets got me through the Nancy overhead squats.  In the same week I PR’d my one rep overhead squat with 225lbs (that is so-so, but I can’t get more over my head … yes, that’s bad).

None of these movements are hard for me, but improving efficiencies allowed me to maintain a higher intensity across the length of the workout.  This is how people improve.

Stay tuned as in the next few weeks I deal with workouts that do not play to my strengths.  Also forthcoming are some thoughts on nutrition on the heels of Robb Wolf’s seminar.