Wednesday, September 29, 2010

My experience with Crossfit - part 3

After my successful bout of weight training, I decided to take a break from it for the summer. My training partner is interested in competing as a Crossfit athlete, and I promised him we would work on it for three months over the summer.

There's plenty of skill required to be good at Crossfit so it makes sense to practice it. It's hard enough to get a solid back squat going, but Olympic lifting is an order of magnitude more difficult. Difficult to the point that many have criticized Crossfit for not taking it seriously enough. There's also jump rope double-unders and muscle ups to deal with. Both require serious athletic chops, but also are difficult skills to master.

I was a little apprehensive. Would I be starting back at square one with my Crossfit after basically ignoring it for eight months? You would think so, but it didn't work out that way.

I was happy to find out that I was pretty much at the same place I left off. My times in the WODs were about what they were when I quit. The exception being that I no longer had to scale my weights. I was able to do most of the workouts with the prescribed weight.

No doubt I lost some metabolic capacity during those eight months, but the gains in strength offset it. Plus, if you've ever done heavy squats then you know how taxing they are on your cardiovascular system. As it turned out, I had been getting a decent metabolic workout during that off time.

The other benefit of the approach is that it is comparatively easy to improve metabolic conditioning compared to acquiring strength. Once I started Crossfitting, I improved rapidly. In three months I shaved a whole minute off my best Helen ( 3 rounds of 400m run, 21 kettlebell swings, 12 pullups) time - from 12 minutes to 11 minutes. Now those times are not fast, but the improvement is pretty nice. And I was able to crush my goal of 11:30.

Even better, that 12 minute pre-strong me performance literally crushed me for a week. I dragged my ass around, slept poorly, and didn't do any workouts at all during that time. The 11 minute time was just another day at the gym. It sucked (it always sucks), but an hour later I was fine. I continued my workout program in the following days with no ill effects. The improvement was even bigger than the time difference.

To be honest, the Crossfit program I used this time around was not put together as a normal mix. I only did one real metcon a week and only three total workouts a week. The other two workouts were doubled up strength sessions like a 5-5-5-5-5 overhead press combined with a 1-1-1-1-1 deadlift. For example, you would do sets of five presses and try and work up to a 5 rep max on you last set. Likewise, for the deadlift except only singles. Generally in classic Crossfit programming, one of these workouts would be the complete work for a single day, but I did two.

Compared to classic Crossfit programming, which is generally 30-40% strength training I did 80%. In spite of the relatively infrequent metcons, I made great progress. I also got stronger which was a little bit of a surprise since my goal was simply to maintain my strength. It was a very productive three months. The difference between this and the previous Crossfit cycle was stark.

What did I learn? Quite a bit.

Lesson 1: Metcons are strong medicine - you have to respect them. If you can make quick progress doing just one a week then just do one a week. It's easy to overtrain them assuming you take them seriously. Of course at some point you have to do more to get better, but make sure you need to and have the capacity to do it.

Needless to say, I disagree with the Crossfit main site programming. Maybe, just maybe, it's appropriate for a really high level athlete. But for an average Joe it is not realistic. The Crossfit retort to "just scale" the workouts leaves me cold. That doesn't address the main issue, which is too much volume.

Lesson 2: I'm relatively old for this shit so my recovery it not what it used to be. I have no recollection in all my previous athletic pursuits of feeling beat to hell like I have since I started training like this. One silver lining to all this (and let's not pretend it doesn't suck ass) is that you have to be efficient with your training. If recovery is in short supply then you have to make the most of what you do have. I don't fuck around in the gym. Everything I do is part of a plan and has a reason for being there.

Lesson 3: Crossfit is not for beginners. I wasted 8 months trying to gain capacity as a beginner and having nothing to show for it except a lot of unnecessary suffering. If strength is the foundation of all athletic endeavors then jumping into Crossfit without a good strength foundation is akin to trying to build a house on sand (remember that old nursery school song?). You can't build anything substantial because the foundation won't support it.

Anybody who trains with me is doing a Starting Strength program for at least 6 months unless they have an extensive strength training background. Just for the record, your average commercial gym rat would not qualify. In spite of all the time these guys spend doing concentration curls and lat pulldowns, 90% of them are still beginners.

Thus ends the Crossfit saga. They'll be more later since I will be starting another Crossfit cycle in November. I will also be trying to lean out and get my body fat down to 10% (currently around 13%). Should be interesting, and you, gentle reader, can get real time updates on how it's going right here.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

My experience with Crossfit - Part 2

It was October of 2009 when I decided to pull the plug on my Crossfit program. I had been trying to follow the main site ( WODs (Workouts of the Day). They were hard - probably too hard at my level. And I was still scaling. (Scaling is when you reduce something in the workout, either the weight, the time, the number of reps, etc. Usually, you reduce the weight.)

In the meantime I had heard about the Starting Strength program by Mark Rippetoe. At the time, Mark was the weightlifting subject matter expert associated with Crossfit. He had written several articles for their online journal and was considered their go to guy for questions about how to squat, deadlift, and overhead press. They've since had a falling out and Mark is no longer associated with Crossfit.

After reading the Starting Strength book, and his other book called Practical Programming for Strength Training, I decided I just wasn't strong enough. (Note: these are two of the best strength books available - I highly recommend both) Mark asserts that strength is the foundation for all athletic endeavors. It made sense in my case. Something was holding me back in Crossfit. I had already noticed that all the hard core, high performing, Crossfit guys I knew were already strong before they started Crossfit. So I decided to just worry about getting strong and come back to Crossfit later.

Marks program is breathtakingly simple. There are two workouts that alternate. The first day you squat, shoulder press, and deadlift. The second day you squat, bench press, and power clean. You workout two to three times a week. I worked out twice a week being an older dude.

For each exercise you work up to your goal weight and then do three sets of five reps (except the deadlift where you do one set). Every session you add five pounds to your last working weight. You eat a lot and sleep a lot when you aren't working out. That's it.

If you do it right, it starts out easy. But it get's hard fast. At a certain point, 3 to 9 months later, you can't do the program anymore. Your body can't keep up. Congratulations, you're not a beginner anymore! You've also likely added 20 - 40 pounds of muscle and are literally twice as strong as you used to be. If you started out squatting 135 pounds you're now likely squatting 275.

Now my experience was not "classic" as far as Starting Strength goes. I was not a skinny teenager, and I had already been Crossfitting for a while so I was not a complete beginner. I started my squat at 185 pounds and started working up. By the end of the year I was squatting 255 for three sets of five. It started getting really hard. I made it up to about 275 and couldn't continue. It was frustrating since you want to keep getting those fast gains, but at the same time I felt a sense of accomplishment. I was a hell of a lot stronger. I had gained 15 pounds of muscle.

I switched over to Rippetoe's intermediate program for a while. I eventually hit 315 pounds for a single set of five. Then I returned to Crossfit. This time I was a lot stronger. And this time the results were much different.

Stay tuned for part 3.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

My experience with Crossfit - Part 1

It was November 2008, and I was 39 years old. The realization that I was going to turn 40 in a few months was sobering. I knew I was out of shape. I vowed to get in shape before I turned 40, but didn't know what to do.

I had already been playing with the idea of creating a multi-discipline workout regime. My idea was to combine karate, yoga, and weight training. But how to do that in a sensible way eluded me.

I was reading about how the actors and stunt men from the movie "300" had trained. I followed the trail and eventually this led me to Crossfit. I was amazed. Someone had already taken my idea except using sprint training, gymnastics, and weight training - Still very similar. But all the hard work in developing the program was done. The workouts seemed impossibly hard. I had to try it.

So I went to Crossfit One World, in Union City, CA, and signed up for their introductory classes - they required three one hour private sessions before they would turn you loose in the group classes. I knew I was out of shape, but my first class put it in sharp relief.

We started with squatting. Everybody starts with squatting. This was really hard. I lacked flexibility. I lacked conscious control of my back muscles. I lacked leg strength. We did several sets of unweighted squats, just trying to get the technique down. After about 20 minutes I was gassed. My legs were rubbery and burning. To finish off the session my trainer suggested I try the "Cindy" workout - as many rounds as possible in 20 minutes of 5 pullups, 10 pushups, and 15 squats. I did one round, and didn't finish the second. I was dizzy and nauseous.

Thankfully, that was the worst day I ever had doing Crossfit. I've been plenty uncomfortable in many workouts since then, but have never been to the point of puking.

I began doing Crossfit regularly with the goal of eventually maintaining a three on, one off (three days working out followed by one day resting) schedule. I never got there. Although I made quick progress the first three months, I made almost no progress the following 8 months. I was plagued with nagging injuries and over-training. Some days, after doing a workout, I would lay in bed exhausted, but unable to fall asleep. My body was in shock, twitching and tremoring, and my mind was racing. I just couldn't make it work for me.

So after 11 months, I gave up on Crossfit and started a new program. I'll talk about it more in part 2.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Our Friends the Plants - Part 1

There's a certain weirdness about ethical vegetarians that somehow plants are put on this earth to be eaten while animals were not.

I assure you, no plant "wants" to be eaten any more than a shrimp or chicken does.

Plants want to protect themselves but they have a problem. They can't run away. They literally have to stand their ground.

So what do plants do? They harden their bodies, they use thorns or spikes, but mostly they use chemical warfare - natural insecticides and toxins. Poison oak is one great example. Nobody messes with poison oak.

This is why cooking was such a boon to early man. Among other things, cooking breaks down toxins and renders inedible food, edible - like potatoes and beans. But even so, some of those toxins remain so you get a dose of it every time you eat those foods. Fruit is the exception since the plant is using you, yes using you, to spread it's seeds. Note that the seeds themselves are usually not edible.

So it's a little naive to think that plants don't mind being food. In fact, they're doing everything in their power to avoid it.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

What is Functional Strength?

I mentioned functional strength in my introductory post, but what does it mean?

Simply, it is strength that allows you to do things.

But let's step back for a moment and talk about what it isn't. It is not "body building". Body building is focussed on form. Each body part is sculpted to it's aesthetic ideal. So what's wrong with this approach? Well nothing, if you want to shave you body, cover yourself in oil, and pose for other people. If you want to be functional, then we have problems.

The first problem is training muscles in isolation. Your body is a system. If you want to be functional you need to train it as a system. Functional training concentrates on movements, not muscles. For example, doing a movement like the deadlift works your legs, upper and lower back, and forearms (for gripping the bar). Doing an isolation exercise like a curl works your biceps. A deadlift is functional - picking up heavy shit is something the body was designed to do. A curl isolates the biceps in an unnatural way and develops it out of context with the rest of the musculoskeletal system. Isolation training is not functional.

The second problem is one of attention. People like the muscles they can see in a mirror - the pecs, the biceps, the abs, and the quads. The irony is that these muscles are not as functional as the one's you can't see in the mirror - the upper and lower back, the glutes, and the hamstrings. These are the muscles that help you the most in doing things that require strength. These unseen functional muscles are often referred to as the "posterior chain". "Posterior" being on the backside, and "chain" being a system of muscles that all work together.

Poor posterior chain development is one of the plagues of modern man. Sitting in chairs for 8 hours a day weakens these muscles and leads to knee and back problems. Sound familiar? Of course we all have to work our white collar jobs to pay the bills so everyone needs to train this area of their body. It wouldn't get any work otherwise. If you were to go to the gym and do some bench presses, leg extensions, and some curls, you basically missed the posterior chain entirely. You neglected the part of your body that needs the most attention by fixating on muscles you can see in the mirror when you're posing.

Functional training means training for function and not form. We don't worry about how we look. We worry about what we can do. Luckily for us, form follows function. If you train for function your form will be pleasing. You'll look healthy and in balance since you train your body in concert with the way it was designed. For example, racing cars are designed to be fast, but that demand for function makes for some pretty cool looking automobiles. The reverse is not true. Function does not follow form. If you set out to design the coolest looking car in the world it will not be fast. It may not even be usable.

So be functional. Train the big movements - the squat, deadlift, and overhead press. Then you'll look strong because you are strong.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Sardines: The ultimate snack food

One thing that is inconvenient about eating Paleo is that you can't really partake in convenience foods. Hot Pockets and Cup o' Noodles are not Paleo friendly in the least.

So what do you do when you want something portable and healthy?

Sardines to the rescue! Just open the can and enjoy. They are high in omega-3 fats and protein. Also, since sardines are plankton eaters they are not contaminated with mercury and numerous enough that they are in no danger of being over-fished. Win/win all the way around.

Oh, I see you crinkling up your nose. Ewww. Have you actually tried them? I was guilty of this as well. I tried a few different brands. I didn't like all of them, but I found I really enjoyed King Oscar "Tiny Tots" in olive oil - available at my local Raley's supermarket. I hear Trader Joe's has them as well.

To be truthful, they're not my favorite anymore. My #1 pick is now King Oscar Mediterranean Style. Holy cow is that tasty! The only downside is that they snuck in some sunflower oil along with the olive oil. It's pretty far down the list of ingredients so I guess I can compromise.

What's wrong with sunflower oil you ask? Stay tuned. I'll be talking about that soon.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Yet another use for bands

List A, List B

So here's two lists of lifestyle/eating choices.

List A
  • Low Fat Foods
  • Avoid Meat
  • Prefer Healthy Grains
  • Small, Frequent Meals
  • Low Intensity Exercise (like jogging) for at least 20 minutes
  • Prefer "Cardio"
List B
  • High Fat Foods
  • Prefer Meat
  • Avoid Grains of any Kind
  • Large, Infrequent Meals
  • High Intensity Exercise (like sprinting) for less than 20 minutes
  • Prefer Weightlifting
So which list is healthier?

List A represents the conventional wisdom and List B represents the "Paleo" lifestyle. Notice that in this example they are almost polar opposites. Could conventional wisdom be so wrong?

Stay tuned to find out.

Friday, September 3, 2010

New Cycle

After completing a very successful 13 weeks of Crossfitesque workouts (although still heavily biased toward strength compared to traditional Crossfit programming) we are starting a dedicated strength cycle. This cycle should last about 10 weeks. But we're going to milk it until the gains stop so it could be longer (booyah!) or shorter (just boo).

It consists of a two week block that repeats with escalating weight (except the dynamic effort sets which stay the same).

Note: This program is not appropriate for a beginner. It is intended for an intermediate strength athlete. Also, it probably wouldn't work well for an advanced athlete either. I'll talk about what constitutes beginner, intermediate, and advanced at a later date.

Week 1

Power Cleans 3x3
Shoulder Press 3x5
Back Squat 3x5

Front Squat 3x3
Split Jerk 5x1
C2 Rower (various intervals and distance up to 2000m)

Back Squat 1x3
Bench Press 3x5
Dynamic Effort Dead Lift 10x1 (30 sec intervals)

Week 2

Power Snatch 5x2
Shoulder Press 3x5
Back Squat 3x5

Overhead Squat 5x2
Muscle Ups 3 x to failure
Run (various intervals and distances up to 1600m)

Dynamic Effort Back Squat 10x2 (1 min intervals)
Bench Press 3x5
Dead Lift 1x3

Wheat is Murder

I wish I had thought of that catchy title, but Denise Minger did.

Great post on her blog where she takes the data from the China Project by T. Colin Campbell, the patron saint of veganism, and shows how wheat is implicated as the main dietary culprit of CV disease and not animal protein.

If you've got some time to kill, start at the beginning and read all the posts in chronological order. They're all good, and her interaction with Dr. Campbell is riveting as well as disappointing (in Campbell's case).


My name is Matt. I have a home gym on my patio. There's a small group of us (friends of mine) who work out there. I'm hoping they will post things here as well.

My main interests are functional exercise and healthy eating. Exercise-wise, I am heavily influenced by Crossfit as well as Mark Rippetoe's Starting Strength program. On the eating front I am a disciple of Robb Wolf and his Paleo Solution diet.

I intend to post the workouts we do as well as my thoughts on training and eating.