Saturday, July 28, 2007

The New Again Faster

Again Faster has moved! Please visit our brand-new site at Be sure to update your bookmarks with our new address, and check out the retail store. We stock everything you need to outfit your home gym or CrossFit facility at prices that won't break your wallet.

Of course, we've still got the blog going. You can access it by clicking the "Articles" link on the main page of the new site.

If you have feedback on the new site, I'd love to hear it! Just drop me a line at

Thanks for reading Again Faster!

Thursday, July 19, 2007

A Hierarchy of Functional Movement

One of the basic tenets of the CrossFit method is a reliance on functional movement. Simply, this means that movements with limited real-world application have no place in our programming.

For this reason, we eschew biceps curls, triceps kickbacks, leg extensions, and almost any movement that requires you to put your butt in contact with anything. These movements have little bearing on reality. When fate calls on you to sprint down the block, pick up a fallen pedestrian, and hump a mile to the emergency room, you’ll find that all the “arm days” in the world won’t make you equal to the task. On the other hand, a strong deadlift, a decent squat, and a large dose of metabolic capacity would let you pass this hero test with flying colors.

Those of us who’ve been thoroughly exposed to CrossFit have a strong intuitive concept of functional movement. We know it when we see it. Our reality-based acid test begins and ends with an instantaneous assessment. If a movement is quick, powerful, and performed over a long range of motion, it’s probably functional. If it’s slow, weak, and truncated, it’s probably not.

As useful as this black and white characterization of movement may be, it is entirely too limited to apply to serious athletic training. After all, most athletes begin their careers performing slow, weak movements over a limited range of motion. Only through years of coaching, practice, and hard training do they become quick and powerful. It would be unfair to assume that our beginners are engaging in non-functional movement simply because they’re slow or temporarily limited.

The evolution from beginner to athletic stud follows a predictable path—a hierarchy of functional movement. Here, I’m going to describe that the hierarchy, using the barbell movements as a framework for explanation. Barbell movements lend themselves to easy description, and serve as great examples of the progressions inherent in functional movement. Nonetheless, the concepts presented here are not limited to barbell exercises—with a little creativity, they can be applied to nearly any type of movement as a gauge of athletic progress.

On the first tier of functional movement, we find two example exercises: the press and the back squat. Both are full-body, multi-joint movements, criteria that must be satisfied before I’m willing to call anything “functional”. Further, they are performed while standing. This third criterion may or may not be necessary to call a movement “functional” (depending on the person you ask and their fondness for the bench press), but I lean toward its inclusion.

The press begins with the barbell resting across the front deltoids and the athlete’s hands just outside shoulder width. Using only the elbow and shoulder joints (and the attendant muscles, of course), the athlete presses the bar overhead to full lockout, followed by a return to starting position along the same path. This movement has several features salient to our discussion. It is performed slowly, it involves two comparatively minor joints, and it covers a small range of motion. These features place it at the bottom of our hierarchy. Taken together, they indicate relatively low power output, a measure that I put forth as the ultimate arbiter of functionality.

Power output is equal to force multiplied by distance divided by time. For the sake of a good visual, it looks like this:

Power = (Force x Distance)/Time

We know that the press is performed slowly, so time is a large number in our power equation. Conversely, distance is small, as the press only covers a few feet. Force is also small, as the muscles and joints employed in the movement are relatively small, compromising the amount of force that can be generated. When time is large and force and distance are small, the resulting power output is also small.

Contrast this with the back squat. Like the press, this movement is performed slowly and involves two joints. It covers a similar distance in a similar amount of time. Unlike the press, the joints involved—the hip and the knee—are prime movers. These are major joints surrounded by large muscles capable of moving tremendous amounts of weight.

This changes the dynamic of our power equation substantially. Because the muscles surrounding the hip and the knee have a large cross-section, they’re capable of generating a lot of force, substantially increasing power output when compared to the press. For this reason, the squat is more functional than the press, although it belongs to the same two-joint, slow-moving family. As a reality check, we squat and stand dozens of times every day, but we’re less often called upon to push heavy objects overhead. This colloquial check of “functionality” meshes nicely with our theoretical definition.

The second tier of the hierarchy brings the push press and the squat clean. Like our first tier movements, both are full-body multi-joint movements performed from standing. The push press is exactly like the press, except the movement is initiated with the hip and the knee rather than with the shoulder and the elbow. The athlete holds the barbell across the front deltoids, dipping and driving with the lower body. Momentum from this motion is transferred through the torso into the barbell, sending it skyward. As the barbell elevates, the athlete presses upward, locking out the bar overhead. Upon completion, the barbell is returned to the starting position.

Note the features of the push press: it is performed quickly and involves four joints—the hip, the knee, the shoulder, and the elbow. It also covers a slightly larger distance than the press. Referring back to the power equation, we see that these factors indicate a higher power output than the press—time is reduced, and force and distance are increased. Therefore, the push press is theoretically more functional than its first-tier cousin. Again, a quick reality test confirms our findings: a movement that allows you to boost comparatively more weight overhead is certainly more useful in day-to–day life than its less-loaded counterpart.

Like the push press, the squat clean is a quick movement involving four joints. The barbell starts on the floor with the athlete in a quasi-crouch behind it, hands just outside shoulder width. The athlete deadlifts the bar to mid-thigh and explodes violently upward, simultaneously extending the knees and hips while shrugging the shoulders. She then pulls under the barbell, landing in a full squat with the bar racked across the shoulders, and returns to standing.

The squat clean covers a large distance very quickly. The bar moves from the ground to shoulder height in scarcely more time than it takes to complete a push press, and the dynamic nature of the movement allows the athlete to lift absurdly large loads. This combination of speed, distance, and load indicates a very high power output and a correspondingly high degree of functionality. The real life utility of the movement supports this contention—the squat clean allows otherwise unmanageable loads to be shouldered and carried, a benefit with nearly limitless applications.

The third and final tier of our hierarchy represents the highest level of functional movement, containing the snatch and the clean and jerk. Like the preceding exercises, these are full-body, multi-joint movements performed from standing. They take the critical traits of the second tier exercises—quickness, load, and range of motion—and push them to the limits of human capability. Each uses the hip and knee to transfer the load to the shoulder and elbow, and moves the barbell through the entire range of motion available to the athlete.

The snatch is very similar to the squat clean, but the barbell does not stop at the shoulders. Instead, it is brought overhead in one swift movement. Taking a wide grip, the athlete deadlifts the bar to hip height, explodes upward, and pulls herself under, catching the bar in the bottom position of the overhead squat. She then returns to standing with the bar overhead.

The speed of the movement is comparable to that of the squat clean, but the barbell covers a much larger distance. The load lifted is smaller, amounting to 70-80% of that of the squat clean. Greater distance and lesser load combine to put the snatch on par or slightly ahead of the squat clean in terms of power output, indicating greater or equal theoretical functionality according to our hierarchy. A quick reality check throws this finding into doubt—would anyone snatch something from the ground to overhead when given an alternative? An examination of the final movement in the hierarchy, the clean and jerk, answers this question with a resounding “No!”

The clean and jerk begins with a squat clean, bringing the barbell from the floor to the shoulders. The athlete then pauses before launching the bar upward using a dip and drive. As the bar travels vertically, the feet are split fore and aft, and the athlete pushes under the barbell, catching it at arms’ length overhead. The athlete then recovers, bringing the feet side-by-side with the barbell at full extension.

The clean and jerk is slower than the snatch due to the mid-movement pause. Taken out of context, this might indicate a lower power output for the former movement. In actuality, the pause allows the athlete to handle a much larger load, overcoming the power-robbing effect of the delay. The effect of the larger load, combined with the fact that the barbell travels further due to the shoulder width grip, results in a higher overall power output than the snatch and indicates higher theoretical functionality. Using a reality-based definition, the functionality of the clean and jerk is undeniable. It allows an athlete to take a tremendous load—as much as three times bodyweight—and boost it overhead. Again, the applications are only as limited as your imagination.

Throughout the hierarchy, I’ve been hammering three core concepts: speed, load, and range of motion. In general, high-speed movements performed under heavy loads over a complete range of motion represent the apex of functionality, and should be held up as the end goal of athletic development. Getting to this point requires a measured progression through the hierarchy, gradually increasing speed, load, and range of motion according to the readiness of the individual athlete. Exercises should always be chosen that maximize these variables—multi-joint over single-joint, large joint over small joint, fast over slow.

CrossFit has taken most of the guesswork out of proper exercise selection. Indeed, “functional movement” is a watchword within the programming, and the majority of our exercises exhibit qualities indicative of high power output. Not surprisingly, these movements are easily transferable from the gym to the street, passing our final test of functionality. It isn’t hard to imagine a scenario in which ability to lift, throw, run, climb, and jump powerfully might be desirable or even necessary. In fact, some of CrossFit’s most demanding adherents live this reality every day. They pass the hero test regularly,
serving as living proof that non-functional movement has no place in a results-driven program.

EC Synkowski of CrossFit Boston drives under a split jerk.

Friday, July 13, 2007

How to Use Chalk

Chalk is a very valuable thing in the gym. It allows us to grip the ungrippable. Despite management’s unmitigated understanding of this fact, CrossFit Boston has been without chalk for two weeks.

Imagine an industrial accident at the Johnson & Johnson baby powder factory, and you’ll have a good idea of what the gym looked like after our run-in with “Murph” a few weeks back. Ghostly white palm prints covered the floor is dozens of places, made of that singularly goopy combination of chalk and sweat that requires sandblasting to remove. A nice radius of ultra-fine chalk granules completed the effect.

Imagine cleaning that mess with a half-destroyed sponge mop, and you’ll understand my motives for non-replacement.

Resentment aside, it was a stupid idea. In fact, it was the kind of idea that tort lawyers love. Two nights ago, a good friend and fellow CrossFitter landed on his head after slipping off the pullup bar, going skull-to-irrigation box before crying quietly in the corner. Feeling thankful for his lack of a concussion and the negligence clause in our membership waivers, I spent a whopping $10.50 on a pound of chalk. After removing a used band-aid and a discarded mouthpiece from the repurposed buckets, I added a few blocks of Bison Magnesium Carbonate.

We now have chalk.

What we don’t have is a decent understanding of how to use it. Unlike sex, money, and good friends, it is possible to overdo chalk. The propensity to dip both hands in the bucket, coat them like soon-to-be-fried chicken, and throw them at some fitness apparatus seems like a club sport here at CrossFit Boston.

Ladies and gentlemen, I am here to save you from yourselves. A little bit of chalk goes a long way, and there is a proper way to use it. Chalking your entire hand, from the wrist to the fingertips, is not it. Have you ever gripped anything with the heel of your hand? If so, you’ve overcome the nuisance of the opposable thumb, and I’d like to have a few words with you about an endorsement deal with Again Faster.

The only part of your hand that requires chalk is the part that contacts the bar. This area starts just below the base of the fingers and continues up to the third knuckle. Take a block of chalk, put it on your calluses, swipe upward until you hit your fingertips, and stop. Put the block of chalk down. Now, take your non-chalked hand, rub it against the chalked one, and go about your workout.

You will now be able to grip the ungrippable, and my homicidal tendencies will remain in check for the duration of your training session. Maybe.

Picture of CrossFit Boston after the chalk incident, courtesy of Okay, it might be a picture of a meth lab with inadequate safety protocols, but who's counting?

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Don’t Suck

I have a very annoying tendency, as does the rest of the gym-going, supplement-taking, hard-charging public. When I find something that works, I quit doing it.

I can’t claim the credit for recognizing this phenomenon, but I may be the all-time supreme practitioner. In the last month, I’ve managed to stop every habit that leads to good athletic performance. I’m not eating well, I’m sleeping six hours a night, I haven’t stretched a lick, my masseuse doesn’t remember my name, and I train twice a week. In other words, I’ve taken everything that works and turned it on its head.

What’s worse, my excuse for doing so is lame. Please hold the sympathy cards—I’m spending twelve hours a day running a CrossFit gym. The weirdness of this phenomenon deserves some mention. I’m spending sixty-plus hours a week in the gym and getting less fit. Seems odd, doesn’t it?

They say the first step to recovery is recognizing that you have a problem. For me, recognition came in the form of a missed 155-pound power clean. Not only did I miss it, it hit me in the chin on the way up. Luckily, Sam was the only other person in the gym, and she wasn’t watching at the time.

I knew things were getting bad, so I decided to do what any rational person would do. I strapped on a 20-pound vest and had a go at “Murph”. Running two miles and performing one hundred pull-ups, two hundred pushups, and three hundred squats in an hour is not a good idea. I don’t care what they told you.

Fast forward a week, and you’ll find me lying on a foam roller with a look on my face that would be right at home on the mug of a wounded bullfighter. The knots in my legs have literally pulled my left hip out of the socket, and I’m walking like a duck with vertigo.

The lesson is simple: there are a few things that lead to fitness, and a whole bunch of things that will turn you into a big pile of useless. If you stumble upon those things that work, keep doing them. Eating right, sleeping nine hours a night, stretching regularly, training on a schedule, and getting the occasional deep tissue massage are all on that list. Drinking coffee like there's a shortage, sleeping like a PTSD victim, and eating 200 calories a day are not.

There are other things that work. In fact, there’s a whole bunch of them, but they’ll usually be variations on a theme that can be boiled down to a few words. Practice squats, snatches, cleans, sprinting, and gymnastics, and follow up with rest, nutrition, and a healthy social life. You will not suck. Guaranteed.

If you continue these practices indefinitely, you might even qualify to run a CrossFit gym. Anyone looking for an internship?

Picture is me on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, shortly before I started to suck. For a look at the evil that is "Murph" with a 20-pound vest, check out Sammy and the CF Boston Crew grinding it out. Needless to say, Sam has none of my fitness problems.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Welcome to the OTC

I recently spent four days and three nights at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, where I was fortunate enough to observe the Resident Weightlifters in action. They are awesome. Their overwhelming athleticism is irrefutable evidence of the value of Olympic weightlifting, and provides instant incentive for any coach to include it in his or her programming.

Successful performance of the Olympic movements requires a large load to be moved over a long distance very quickly. High levels of strength, speed, and skill are brought to bear on a barbell, a controlled explosion that results in otherworldly amounts of weight being locked out overhead.

I thought I knew what this looked like. I've watched hundreds of videos of elite weightlifters at all levels of international competition, but pixels cannot to justice to the speed with which these guys move under the bar.

Natalie Woolfork, a 63-kilo lifter with more than a few American Records under her belt, gave an unscheduled clinic in the clean and jerk. She moved 105 kilos like she was throwing around a training bar, exhibiting great balance and timing through all of her lifts. To say I was impressed would be a criminal understatement.

I've read myriad criticisms of the US Team, including implications that they don't train hard enough to shine on the world stage. I'm calling bullshit. The sessions I observed on Friday were absolutely electric, and most of the athletes were only lifting around 80%. These guys spent the a.m. session power cleaning, squatting, jerking, and high pulling, and came back six hours later to perform the competition lifts. There were 100-pound women in that room working harder than any 200-pound firebreather I've ever seen. Casey Burgener was jerking 220 kilos like you and I do 95-pound thrusters. These guys are not taking it easy.

Inspired, Dave Picardy and I hit the platforms on Saturday morning for some technique work. We worked through our three-position snatches and three-position cleans, hammering good extension and a hard pull-under over and over again. We never even touched a bumper, and I was sweating my ass off.

Over the last three weeks, I've worked with four Oly coaches, ranging from a Club Coach to an Olympic Team Coach, and not a single one of them was worried about how much weight I had on the bar. It all boiled down to perfect technique executed with flawless consistency.

Removing the ego from weightlifting is a hard thing to do. Your worth as a lifter is indelibly connected to your total. Taking the necessary steps to ensure that technique is perfect before piling on the weight requires a heavy dose of humility. Nonetheless, I have no doubt that my totals will go up as my technique gets dialed in.

I can't get you in the OTC, and I can't give you the inspiration that the residents gave me, but I can impart two lessons: humility and speed. Don't worry about how much weight you're moving, and get under that bar as fast as humanly possible. The latter involves the rapid firing of the hip flexors in conjunction with a hard pull on the barbell. If you're letting gravity win the race to the floor, you're not going to make your lifts. Go faster!

Here's a quick look at Casey Burgener, Natalie Woolfolk, and a whole bunch of OTC Residents. If this doesn't make you want to grab a barbell, I don't know what will.

All photos and video by the author, courtesy of the fine people of USA Weightlifting. If you'd like to get involved, give the National Office a call at (719) 866-4508 or find your local club at

Friday, May 18, 2007

A Few Truths

The following list stems from my recent successes and failures as an athlete and a coach, and I hope you find it useful. Because it is my list, it is more for me than it is for you, but there is no harm in sharing.

1.) It is always possible to work harder. Not necessarily longer or more often—just harder.

2.) If you try to accomplish everything, you won’t accomplish anything. Pick a single goal, and dedicate yourself to achieving that goal.

3.) The further you go from your home gym, the more likely you are to run into someone who is faster, stronger, and more powerful than you. Travel, and bring your humility.

4.) You must surround yourself with those who share and support your goals. If your friends scoff when you leave for the gym at 5 a.m., get new friends.

5.) You cannot coach yourself. “Coaching by mirror” is a great way to know what a movement looks like and a horrible way to know what a movement feels like.

6.) You need to analyze your training, qualitatively and quantitatively. If you don’t know why you’re doing what you’re doing, stop doing it.

7.) On a related note, human beings are capable of rationalizing anything. If you go looking for proof that you’re on the right track, you’ll find it.

8.) Easy fixes are few and far between. If it’s easy, chances are it’s incorrect, incomplete, or both.

9.) It is human nature to get where you want to be and immediately stop doing the things that got you there. This is a fantastic way to stay right where you are.

All lessons can’t be bright and cheery. Get rid of the crap that’s holding you back, and have the courage to realize that a healthy dose of self-criticism can go a long way toward making you a better athlete. We all need a kick in the ass once in a while.

Go faster!

Picture of a confident lifter in free fall, courtesy of

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

A True Maximum

Successful barbell training has several components. In addition to intelligent program design and raw strength, it requires mastery of technique. Without proper technique, force is not used optimally, and an artificial performance ceiling is imposed on the trainee.

All decent coaches know this, and thus spend countless hours drilling proper movement patterns into their athletes. CrossFit is no different. “Chest up, butt back, heels down” is a refrain that I repeat dozens of times every day at CrossFit Boston, whether teaching the squat, the push press, or the thruster. My athletes are equally likely to hear “knees out” and “track the toes” as they are to breathe heavy or need a drink of water.

These cues are directed at everyone, even the most advanced trainees. Proper movement requires constant repetition and reinforcement. In this cycle of correction and reinforcement, I sometimes lose sight of the next step—teaching the proper way to express maximal strength.

Once technique is sufficiently mastered, the athlete must learn to incorporate bodily tension into the lifts. A mechanically sound lift without ample tension is necessarily sub-maximal, as tension has a synergistic effect and will allow the athlete to move a relatively greater amount of weight. This happens due to some simple physical laws.

Force is produced through muscular contraction, moving from the core to the extremities. It must travel through the body before it reaches the source of external resistance—in this case, the barbell. Some of this force is lost as it dissipates into within the body, absorbed by lax muscles and non-contributing tissue. The remaining force travels through its primary pathway, the skeletal system, finally arriving at the barbell and causing movement. Obviously, we’d like to direct as much of the original force as possible to the barbell, minimizing the amount lost within the body and maximizing the amount of weight we can lift. This is achieved through hardening the tissue around the skeletal system through tension generation. When tension is maximized, the trainee is able to express the full limits of his or her strength.

Teaching athletes to create tension is relatively simple. We focus on five areas—the lungs, the abdomen, the butt, the hands, and the feet.

The first priority is creating a rigid torso, as all barbell movements depend on the torso in one way or another. The trainee is instructed to inflate the lungs while pulling the chest upward and outward in an exaggerated display of manliness. This is a practice the old-time bodybuilders refer to as “chest expansion”, and we can be thankful that they got one thing right. It turns the heretofore non-contributing lungs into an internal brace, replacing the liability of empty space with an asset capable of transmitting force. It also serves to retract the upper back, the usefulness of which becomes obvious after completing the subsequent step. The trainee then contracts the abdominal wall and the obliques as if anticipating a blow to the stomach. This completes the hardening of the torso, as the retracted upper back will now spontaneously fire off in concert with the lats, creating a rigid structure throughout the entirety of the upper body.

Next, the trainee contracts the glutes. Tension in the glutes will simultaneously cause the lower back and the hamstrings to contract, effectively creating a bridge between the torso and the legs and turning the body into a single unit. Note that this is only done with movements that begin with concentric loading, such as the deadlift and the press. It is self-defeating to contract the glutes prior to eccentric movements such as the squat or the dip portion of the push press, as a “tight butt” will prevent the hip flexors from doing their job and pulling the trainee downward.

The final piece of the puzzle is the limbs. They represent the last opportunity for force to be lost, and must be made as rigid as possible. This is easy. Simply crush the barbell with the hands and grip the floor with the toes. The arms, shoulders, and lower legs will all contract, surrounding the limb bones with fully hardened muscle.

This sequence of events, from inflating the lungs to gripping the floor, should only take a few seconds. At this point, the trainee is burning brain cells by the moment, inflated lungs depriving the brain of precious oxygen and contracted muscles causing blood pressure to shoot through the roof. It is imperative that the lift be completed as quickly as possible. Once past the sticking point, muscular tension should be held while the inflated lungs are slowly allowed to deflate, restoring the flow of oxygen to the body. This invariably happens toward the end of the lift, as leverages become more advantageous to the trainee, and the weight becomes easier to support.

For higher repetition efforts, it is necessary to generate and release tension in a cycle, so that maximum tension occurs at the same time as maximum exertion. This is fairly intuitive once the trainee is competent at creating and maintaining tension. Inevitably, those most skilled in this practice will have the best chance of performing multi-repetition efforts at a high percentage of one-rep maximum.

Like proper biomechanical technique, tension generation is a skill that must be learned, refined, and reinforced. Repeated practice will result in ever-increasing efficiency, allowing larger loads to be lifted. Trainees are often surprised by the difference that five minutes of attention to this matter can make. Formerly latent strength manifests itself in a rash of new personal records, and I’m decried for not giving up this “secret” sooner. Now you know. Next time, take a deep breath and ride it all the way to true maximum effort.

Go faster!