Monday, July 31, 2006


Today, I did a full-out, honest-to-God back lever.

I was psyched. Successfully performing a back lever requires full-body muscular tension, starting in the core and radiating through the limbs. Developing this tension is a function of recruitment.

As we train, we learn to effectively use a greater portion of our existing muscle mass, recruiting more muscle fiber into action. The vast majority of trainees can add strength and power without adding an ounce of additional muscle by learning effective muscle recruitment.

Our basic exercises are full-body movements. The squat, the pushup, the pullup, and the handstand pushup all require bodily involvement from the toes to the top of the head. To paraphrase Dan John: If you don't think the pushup is a full-body movement, have your training partner poke you in the ankle with a fork next time you're doing a pushup. I bet you won't complete the rep, despite the "lack" of lower body involvement.

To generate tension and additional strength in the legs, start at the toes. Use them to grip the floor. This is very similar to making a fist with your hand. I first learned this technique as a martial arts student and instructor during the late 1980s, and was reintroduced to it by Mandla Nkosi in the course of our kettlebell training.

Gripping the floor, combined with a slight outward rotation of the knees, will create tension in the calves, quads, hamstrings, glutes, adductors, and abductors. This tension will make squat variations, cleans, snatches, and deadlifts much easier.

To generate tension throughout the torso, take a deep breath and hold it prior to the concentric muscle movement. This will establish a natural belt around the abdomen and allow you to control a greater load. On the eccentric movement, go through your sticking point, and slowly release the breath. If you release too quickly, you'll fall victim to a whole lot of iron plummeting to earth. Don't do this. A properly tensioned torso is critical to nearly every movement I can think of, from squats to heavy overhead presses.

Generating tension in the arms and back involves complementary movements. If you're working with weight, grip the handle as tightly as you can. Squeeze the life out of the bar. This will cause tension in the forearms, bicep, tricep, and throughout the shoulder girdle. Now, pull the shoulders down into the socket. This will cause the lats to fire and the shoulder girdle to tighten further. Properly engaging the back will connect your torso and legs, making you one effective piece.

The hardest part--relax your face. There's no point in looking like a high-colonic victim if you can avoid it. Despite the tension throughout your body, try to maintain a tranquil mindset. This starts with a relaxed face.

Try these methods, and find what works for you. Tinker with your breathing and body position to find the combinations that produce the most tension.

Be sure to maintain proper form throughout any and every movement.

Practice creating tension in all your movements, even when it's seemingly unnecessary. This will give you greater body awareness, and the ability to recruit muscles at will. Recently, I've had quite a bit of trouble recruiting my lats during pressing movements. I'm remedying this problem by pulling the shoulders down and teaching my brain what the flexed lat should feel like during a press.

A good coach is invaluable in diagnosing and treating muscle recruitment problems. In my case, Neal Thompson has been a savior.

The ability to generate tension will make you globally stronger. You'll make bigger lifts without spending significant time on mass building efforts.

Three-by-three rep schemes and working one-rep maxes will aid your recruitment skills, because they require significant tension generation for any amount of success. As you practice the heavier lifts (deadlift, squat variations, clean and jerk), you'll find new ways to generate strength from your existing muscle base. Tension will become second nature.

If you'd like to work on tension generation or any other skill in person, just drop me a line. I'm happy to help. Mandla is a veritable expert on the topic--you can contact him via his website or through me.

Go faster!

Picture from the back lever tutorial on There is a lot of great information on performing various gymnastic skills at this site--check it out.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Pyramid of Love

While you were sleeping, we were running, throwing, and swinging.

We had enough Crossfitters at the Pond today to start our own football team. Eleven athletes representing Crossfit Boston and Crossfit Topsfield made the trip to Jamaica Pond for the workout I've dubbed "Pyramid of Love".

It starts hot and heavy and ends painfully. The title seemed appropriate.

It took Dave Picardy all of 8:10 to finish this one. Clearly he needed to be handicapped.

On the way home from Crossfit Topsfield yesterday, I made a detour toward Home Depot. 100 pounds of sand and one session of Arts & Crafts later, I had two 50-pound sandbags. They made their debut appearance on Sunday.

After a few 100 meter sandbag races, I added a twist. Sledgehammers.

Racers cleaned the sandbag to their shoulders, sprinted to the tire, slammed out 10 swings, and returned to the start, sandbag in tow.

Sam and Jo had the best race of the day, head-to-head all the way. The races were a great way to work explosive speed and hip flexion, but everyone was too busy having a good time to notice they were developing athletic ability.

A little practice with the AF bar, and we called it a day. As always, we drew quite a lot of attention from passers-by, and had a blast doing it. Thanks for coming out, guys.

Go faster!

Thursday, July 27, 2006


Can you say chipper?

This week, Again Faster is ripping through a gauntlet of pushing, pulling, sprinting, and swinging.

For time:

10 Dynaball Clean & Throw
200m Sprint
20 Pullups
200m Sprint
30 Sledge Swings (15 left, 15 right)
200m Sprint
20 Pullups
200m Sprint
10 Dynaball Clean & Throw

This workout will test your strength, speed, and power. It'll also give you new respect for the term "work capacity". If you're new to Again Faster and Crossfit, you'll do the workout at half-volume. Trust me.

As always, we meet at Jamaica Pond. We'll be at the pullup bars at 8:00 a.m., regardless of the weather. The bars are on the west side of the Pond, directly across from Prince Street. Come check us out!

Photo courtesy of

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Con Game

Moving weight is not purely physical. Confidence plays a huge part in determining the success or failure of a lift.

Today, we were working on the Jerk at Crossfit Boston. Before you can jerk the weight overhead, you have to get it to your chest--you have to clean it. Several athletes missed their cleans at heavier poundages.

The didn't miss for lack of strength or extension. On each failed attempt, the bar came to chest level or higher.

They failed because they lacked the confidence to pull themselves under the bar. Physical ability had nothing to do with it, evidenced by the fact that these folks are more than capable of front-squatting the poundages they were working with.

There are several ways to boost your confidence and succeed at heavier lifts. This confidence is the fuel for setting personal records and achieving new athletic milestones.

First, forget how much weight is on the bar. Approach every lift like you're moving a 12 ounce pvc pipe. If you can trick yourself into forgetting about the weight, confidence won't be an issue. You won't "know" how much you're moving, so you can't be intimidated by it.

Second, exude confidence. Walk up to the bar, grab it, and go. The more time you spend with your hands on the bar and the bar on the ground, the more time you have to psych yourself out. I actually talk to the bar. More precisely, I swear at it.

"You're coming with me. I'm gonna rip you off the ground."

It might seem a little drastic, but it works. You're more likely to believe what you're saying if you articulate it verbally. Human beings have a propensity to maintain a position once they've expressed it publicly, regardless of the evidence.

Witness the last argument you had when you were wrong and you knew it. You probably didn't retract your position immediately. You might not have retracted it at all.

Express your position loudly and publicly: "I'm gonna rip you off the ground!"

Set yourself up to win. Tell everyone in the room you're going to make the lift. By doing this, you're setting up a positive expectation. When everyone else expects you to succeed, you'll expect you to succeed too. You'll develop confidence.

Using these tricks may not be natural for you. You may be the stoic type. In this scenario, let your love of humility go. The confidence you express will permeate the room. Every athlete on the floor will be more confident because you're more confident, and you'll be able to feed on their energy. This cycle is self-sustaining and very powerful.

There is no place for self-doubt in the gym. Recognize this simple fact, and you'll walk in the door ready to set PRs.

Picture of me, several PRs ago, courtesy of Neal Thompson.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Turn Off the Lights

A Review of "Lights Out: Sleep, Sugar, and Survival" by T.S. Wiley and B. Formby

By EC Synkowski

Diet and Exercise

Did you just roll your eyes? I would have. I'm not sure how many more articles I can take that claim "whole grain" pasta and strapping on a pedometer are the keys to being healthy. Everyday it seems there's some new workout or "superfood" that will save us from cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. We get it. Just eat right and exercise and the rest is up to genetics.

After reading "Lights Out: Sleep, Sugar, and Survival" by T.S. Wiley and B. Formby, I disagree.

Wiley and Formby claim that sleep, foremost, controls your health. Sleep has a role in preventing cancer, heart disease, type II diabetes, and even depression.

Huh? It's not just about ditching the donuts and running 3 times a week?

It turns out diet and exercise are just pieces of the puzzle.

So Why Sleep?

All of your actions are controlled by hormones. Hormones interpret what's going on in the environment around you (e.g. light, temperature, danger), triggering biochemical responses in your body. This includes your first line of defense against disease, your immune system. In darkness, your body produces melatonin and prolaction. Melatonin is the most powerful antioxidant in your body (you don't have to eat spinach!), and prolactin is essential for normal T-cell and natural killer cell function (destroys harmful foreign cells).

Their activity is directly tied to the time of day. To have melatonin and prolaction, you need darkness. The more you're awake, the less time your body has to prevent disease. Our society has extended daylight with electricity, 24-hour businesses, and cities that never sleep. In return, we have lost our natural and most powerful mechanism to combat disease. Sleep.

How Much Sleep?

I would guess that many of us consider 8 hours the benchmark level of a "good night's sleep". Many of us get by on much less.

The authors recommend at least 9.5 hours of sleep a night. Why? Remember, sleep (darkness) equals melantonin and prolactin production. The less sleep we get, the shorter the duration of the immune system response.

And why 9.5 hours? Because 6 hours of prolactin secretion in the dark is necessary for NORMAL immune system function. Prolactin, however, doesn't come on until you've had 3.5 hours of melatonin secretion. Now, I know what you're thinking. "So, really, I just need 3.5 hours of sleep. We just need to trigger the prolactin production and we're set?" Yes, you’ll get your prolactin production, but it comes while you're awake.

So? Prolactin also affects your diet. More on this point later.

What’s the simple rule for sleeping? Sleep according to the sun. Summer (June-August), means shorter nights - about 8 hours. Winter, however, you can sleep up to 14 hours! I'm not sure how feasible this is for many of us— the book says sleep as much as you can without getting divorced or fired. Remember, 9.5 hours in the dark equals normal immune system function.

How Powerful is Light?

So maybe you get 9 hours of sleep if you include the few hours dozing in front of the t.v. before going to bed. Is that good enough? Unfortuntely not.

Studies have show that a very small amount of light can disrupt melatonin and prolactin production. For example, the light from a single candle was enough to promote tumor growth in rats (Dauchy et al., 1997 as cited in Wiley and Formby, 2000). In our society, avoiding light completely is virtually impossible. Try to make your bedroom a cave with heavy shades, and turn off anything with a digital display.

What About Diet?

It turns out, most of Americans have a skewed concept of what real food is and what's healthy. Luckily, the CrossFit recommended brand of "diet" is on target. Protein foremost, and don't worry about naturally occurring fats, such as those found in nuts, olive oil, and avocados.

Carbohydrates (yes, even those in vegetables) promote an insulin response. Too much of an insulin response leads to fat storage and cholesterol production. This is not triggered by protein or fat alone.

Since the dawn of agriculture, 10,000 years ago, the authors state our diet changed from 90% protein to 90% carbohydrate. They trace our epidemic of type II diabetes primarily to carbohydrate overload and decreased sleep. The essential amount of daily carboydrates is very small: 25-45 grams total. That's it. Look on your protein bar wrapper--a single snack comes pretty close, right?

What does that have to do with light? Recall prolactin, which is produced after 3.5 hours of melatonin secretion. If you've had a short night (6 hours), this means you wake up and you're producing prolactin while you're awake (instead of while you’re asleep). Prolactin suppresses the signal in your brain that tells your body you're full. In other words, a short night means you're going to feel hungry and crave (and likely, consume) carbohydrates.

That’s not all. A short night also shortens the production of melatonin, which promotes the signal in your brain that you're full. Again, a short night means you're going to be hungry.

And Exercise?

I knew I loved this book when they slammed LSD (long, slow distance). As if you haven't heard it enough from Again Faster (, here it is again: get off the treadmill, get off the elliptical, get off the damn machines!

Yes, exercise lowers blood sugar (insulin levels), which then decreases your production of cholesterol. This is good. But, excessive exercise (think LSD running) triggers a cortisol (stress hormone) response.

Why would you be running for an hour? Your body interprets your actions as a reaction to danger or stress, producing cortisol. Cortisol triggers insulin, that is, it releases blood sugar. Too much insulin makes you store fat and generate cholesterol.

Light also triggers a cortisol (and therefore, insulin) response. If it's light outside or around us, we have to be ready to react. Staying awake in front of the TV promotes a similar hormonal response to running ad nauseum on the treadmill.

Go to bed.

Sleep Controls Mental Health, Too?

Big time. We've all heard about the importance of serotonin and dopamine to mental happiness; there's a balance between the two neurotransmitters for normalcy. What happens when one is too high? Chronically high seratonin, for example, is a downer, with symptoms such as withdrawal and defensiveness. Why would you have chronically high seratonin? Because seratonin levels match your insulin levels (think carbohydrate overload).

And how does sleep fit in? Melatonin (produced in darkness) is made by using seratonin. Therefore, sleep reduces serotonin. When serotonin is too high, sleep will reduce levels and remove the "downer" symptoms. The authors point out that's why the most effective anti-depressant medicines actually just re-instate normal sleeping patterns.

Who Should Read This Book?


The book is a less than 10 dollars from Amazon and takes a few hours to read. About 1/3 of the 350 pages are endnote references and the bibliography.

I couldn't possibly review all the different effects of daily and seasonal light and dark cycles on health, diet, and behavior patterns. Nor could I review all of the recommendations and life-changing suggestions the authors provide. While the book can have an "all-knowing" tone at times, the message is so powerful that this tone can be ignored.

Despite the detailed biochemistry, the book reads like a novel—-not a textbook. And thankfully, it repeats the most important information, so don't be intimidated.

I read this book as a recommendation by Robb Wolf in the CF Journal on Recovery, Issue 29. Wolf earned a BS in Biochemistry, worked as a researcher for the author of
The Paleo Diet, and was named a CrossFit Coach, a designation reserved for those who’ve made exceptional contributions to the Crossfit method. Wolf says he recommends this book more than 100 times per year.

You should read this book if you:

Consider yourself knowledgeable about health, want to prevent cancer, eat healthy and exercise but can't lose weight, have considered or are on Prozac, have a family history of Type II diabetes, do excessive aerobic exercise, crave carbohydrates at night, have used medication to help you sleep, need an alarm clock to get up, consider "low fat" food healthy, are a vegetarian, or fall asleep with the t.v. on.

That included you, right?

Disclaimer: The information presented here serves as a summary of the book, and should not be considered medical advice. Consult your physician before adopting any discussed suggestions. This author and Again Faster are not responsible for any liability resulting from the use of this review.

Cited Reference:
Dauchy, RT, et al. Light Contamination during the Dark Phase in “Photoperiodically Controlled” Animal Rooms: Effect on Tumor Growth and Metabolism in Rats, Laboratory Animal Sciences 47, no 5 (October 1997): 511-518.

Photo courtesy of Simon & Schuster

Monday, July 24, 2006


Thanks to Brand X Martial Arts for inspiring this article. Brand X is a constant source of great information, and an excellent member of the Crossfit Community.

Often times, we get caught up in the "winning" aspect of Crossfit. We strive to beat our last time, beat each other, or beat some elusive benchmark. This is a wonderful thing. It allows us to maintain intensity and motivation, and it imparts the desire to succeed. Make no mistake--these are valuable qualities inside and outside of the gym.

The problem comes when we sacrifice form in the name of "winning".

A few weeks ago, I was at the Crossfit MetroWest grand opening, mid-way through a team relay race. I was the anchor.

When I got to the box jumps, Neal was there. I jumped and landed on the box, extended, and stepped back down. He said, "Doesn't count. You're not loading to jump--you're just springing up from the calves." I tried to incorporate his point, but it was slowing me down. Why load if I can get up there quicker? Why doesn't he get a bigger box if he wants me to load?

I resumed my springing as I watched Tara bear crawl to the next task.

"Doesn't count."

Neal made me do four or five more box jumps. I may have sworn at him. Loudly. When I got to the kettlebell swings, Tara had a few seconds on me. I picked up the 1.5 pood and started swinging.

"Swing from the heels. Doesn't count."

"Doesn't count."

I was pissed, because now I was losing. As the anchor, I was letting down my entire team. I'd just squandered a huge lead. Damn Neal and his damn bullsh*t.

I was mad at the wrong guy. I should have been mad at me.

Using correct form is essential to athletic progress. You can do half-depth pushups all morning long, and cut your Cindy time by 3:00 doing so. Alternatively, you could push your chest to the deck on every rep, and be 1:30 off your personal record. Obviously, the second scenario will have greater long-term benefit, but your ego will suffer.

Let your ego go. Pursue perfection.

The endless pursuit of perfection is known as virtuosity. The virtuous athlete attempts to bang out the hundredth rep with the same intensity and attention to form he/she paid to the first rep.

Next time you squat to parallel, don't get your chin over the bar, or don't extend your thruster, tell yourself it doesn't count. In the end, you'll fly by the five guys in the room who are beating you with suspect technique.

Sorry I swore at you, Neal. I didn't mean it.

Go faster!

Photo of me minus a tan courtesy of Dave Picardy, Crossfit Topsfield. I think he photoshopped it...

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Have a Heart

Patrick started working out with Again Faster a few weeks ago. This article is entirely his creation, for which I'm very grateful. He's got a ton of heart, and he gets better and better every time out. I hope you enjoy his perspective.

“I must be getting crazy, Jon, because I’ve actually been looking forward to this workout all week.”

This is how I started my Again Faster Sunday. This affliction is nothing new to the people reading this. It’s the thing that gets you up at seven in the a.m., lacing your sneakers, throwing on your Again Faster t-shirt, and getting your heart rate up.

Unless, it’s raining. Then, not so much.

Four of us showed up this morning for Jon’s deck-o-cards workout:

Use a full deck of cards, with each suit signifying a specific exercise. A queen of heart falls, you do ten burpees. A six of clubs means you do six pushups. Diamonds are squats and spades are pull-ups. Pretty simple.

On the rain soaked grass beside Jamaica Pond, we commenced. Within minutes I was feeling the full extent of the workout. Damn burpees. The third card was a four of hearts. The fourth was the ace of hearts. The fifth? The king. Of hearts.

And it’s here that I confirmed my original assertion that I must be getting crazy, because when that last king fell, I actually laughed.

A brief background check.

I’ve spent most of my life playing sports and lifting weights. You know every time Jon complains about people doing curls at the gym? Yeah, he’s complaining about me. I’ve spent years doing bicep curls and bench presses and lat pull downs and accomplishing very little.

It wasn’t because I thought this was the best thing to be doing. I liked what the curls did for my biceps, but the fact of the matter was, I’d still get winded climbing up a long flight of stairs.

Thing is, I’m a bit lazy.

You’ve read on this website about how so much of this whole thing is about how it’s necessary to convince your mind that your body can take more than you think it can. I’d be lying if I said I was there yet. I still take a break between sets if nobody’s looking. But those breaks are getting shorter.

Mainly because Jon started screaming at me.

Back to the workout. The beauty of the cards is that you have no idea what’s coming next, which means you can’t dread what you still have to get done. The mental block that might tell you to skimp on a set of pull-ups because you have so many more to do is gone, because unless you’re counting cards, you really don’t know how many more you have left. You do what you have to do, then you do what’s next. And then the deck’s done.

Jon, Sam, me, and Colorado resident Alyssa hauled through the workout in about 30 some-odd minutes. Jon and Sam ripped through it with their regular enthusiasm. Alyssa can run for hours on end in Denver’s altitude and she pushed through, finishing with the new goal of getting herself to do more pull-ups. Myself, I started struggling with the pulls and burpees at the last quarter, but I got it done.

Two months ago?

I’d still be laughing every time I heard somebody say burpee.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Mobile One

I ignored flexibility for a long, long time. I didn't stretch, and I didn't think I had to, because I listened to the experts who said it wasn't necessary.

There is a lot of disagreement in the athletic community over the merits of enhanced flexibility. Two seemingly incompatible facts that all sides seem to agree on:

1.) Static stretching pre-exercise weakens the muscle's ability to produce force.

2.) Moving weight through an increased range of motion requires more work, leading to increased strength and power development.

If static stretching reduces my strength, I shouldn't do it. If I need to develop an increased range of motion to produce more power, I need to stretch. What's an athlete to do?

The answer: dynamic stretching and mobility drills. These are not your typical sit-on-your-butt-and-reach-for-your-toes exercises. They are intended to move your muscles and joints through their entire range of motion. You will reclaim a lot of the flexibility and mobility that life has taken away, without the weakening effects of static stretching.

There is a time and place for reducing the power-generating ability of a muscle through static stretching. When you have a muscle imbalance, such as the hamstring/quad imbalance often seen in distance runners, it makes sense to stretch the stronger muscle (the quad) pre-exercise. This brings the agonist and antagonist muscles into balance.

Dynamic stretching is stretching while moving. The feet are not still, and you're standing. This is much more natural than static stretching--you're essentially practicing the skill of moving your body through it's natural range of motion, rather than forcing your body to contort unnaturally. We often do these drills at Crossfit Boston to loosen up the legs, arms, hips, and shoulders prior to the WOD.

High-knees: The athlete runs in place, bringing the knees as high as possible on each stride. The ball of the foot makes contact with the ground. The arms pump in opposition to the legs, pulling backward with every stride. This exercise enhances mobility in the hips, knees, shoulders, and ankles, and flexibility in the hamstrings and quads.

Butt kicks: Similar to high-knees, the athlete leans forward slightly, attempting to hit him/herself in the butt with the ankle on each stride. Arms pull backward. This stresses the hamstrings, and works all the same joints listed above.

Horizontal skip: The athlete attempts to launch him/herself as far as possible across the floor, generating power by pushing the knee upward and outward, while throwing the opposite arm outward at a 45 degree angle. Upon landing, the other arm/leg combination is used. The horizontal skip stresses the glutes and calves, and helps develop explosive power and coordination.

Vertical skip: This time, the athlete is trying to get as high as possible with each leap. Instead of the knee and opposite arm projecting at a 45 degree angle, both are launched straight up. Again, we're stressing the major movers of the leg, along with the calves. Every major joint is engaged throughout this exercise.

Grapevine: This exercise stresses hip rotation without excessive rotation of the lower back, teaching the athlete to move the pelvis independently of the spine. This skill is critical for power generation during rotational movements such as pulling and throwing.

The athlete turns perpendicular to the direction of travel, feet parallel. The rear foot crosses in front of the front foot, and plants. The other foot steps back out to parallel, and plants. The rear foot then steps behind the front foot and plants, and the crossed foot steps to parallel. The hips rotate during the sequence, but the torso remains perpendicular to the direction of travel. This exercise is done facing both directions.

Broad jump: The athlete starts with his/her feet parallel and shoulder-width. The butt sinks back, the knees bend, and the arms are loaded backward. The athlete projects forward at a 45 degree angle, extending the knees, hips, and arms. Mid-flight, the knees are tucked under as the athlete prepares to land, feet parallel and shoulder-width.

The broad jump requires tremendous coordination and develops explosive ability throughout the hips and legs. It enhances flexibility in the hips, quads, hamstrings, and glutes.

Joint mobility exercises are aimed at enhancing the rotational range of the joint by breaking down barriers to movement--calcifications, connective tissue misalignment, and fluid build-up. I've recently done some joint mobility work with Mandla Nkosi at Boston Kettlebell, and the results have been great. Some of the drills I've learned:

Hips: The pelvis is moved through its entire range of motion, tilted anteriorly, moved leftward, tilted posteriorly, and moved rightward. The rotation is then reversed. Moving the pelvis independently of the spine is critical to proper technique in the squat, the highpull, and the kettlebell swing.

Knees: The knees are moved through a full 360 degree arc, with the hands placed on the lower thigh. As the knees loosen, the athlete gradually sinks downward, maintaining the range of motion. The feet move along with the knees, ensuring that the knee is activated instead of the ankle. To accomplish this, the athlete pronates and supinates the feet in sync with the knee rotation.

Shoulders: The arms are rotated forward and backward, either together or in opposite directions. The athlete exaggerates the movement to obtain maximum benefit.

Lunge switches: Assuming a front-lunge position, the athlete moves between a left-foot-forward and a right-foot-foward stance by rotating on the balls of the feet. Ideally, the butt stays at the same level throughout the lunges and transitions, and the back stays at this level or below. This exercise works the hip joints, the knees, and the pelvic floor.

Mobility drills can be applied to every joint, including the head and neck and the elbows. I'm still exploring the discipline. That said, I've found that mobility drills have given me greater range of motion in my squats in a very short period of time.

If you're a Crossfitter, you know that squatting is the foundation of all the Olympic lifts and their subparts, as well as a critical component of many metabolic workouts. Enhancing squat depth will allow you to derive increased benefit from every squat you do, in terms of strength, power, and metabolic development.

I used to believe that the squat would take care of itself, given enough time and dedication. Seeing the results I've gotten from joint mobility in the span of two weeks, I've decided that a little help never hurt anybody.

If you find that your range of motion is not adequate to perform squats correctly (ass-to-ankles, lordotic arch maintained, torso vertical, weight on the heels), it's time to consider dynamic stretching and joint mobility as concrete solutions. Many of the athletes I work with would benefit from this training.

Mandla Nkosi offers joint mobility training at the Crossfit Boston facility at very reasonable rates--the athletic payoff is worth the 7 Frappucinos it'll cost you to participate.

I ponied up, and the time-to-maturity of my squat has been greatly reduced as a result.

If you'd like a more in-depth explanation of any of the movements in this article, shoot me an email, or stop by the Facility. You can always join us on Sundays at the Again Faster Workout Series, although I can't guarantee you'll have much time for mobility!

Go faster!

Photo from

Thursday, July 20, 2006

House of Cards

This weekend, we're stealing a page out of Michael Latch's playbook. Latch runs Valley Crossfit in Los Angeles, and he's making a name for himself as a top-notch workout innovator.

Others have used this workout scheme before, but none made it quite as Crossfit as Latch.

We're going to use a deck of cards to randomly generate one gigantic set of sets.

Here's how it works:

Each suit has an associated exercise.

Hearts: Burpees
Diamonds: Squats
Spades: Pullups
Clubs: Pushups

Each card has a number on it. Face cards are 10, Ace is 11.

Shuffle and pull a card. If we pull the Ace of Clubs, everyone does 11 pushups. Two of hearts, everyone does two burpees.

Beginners will do half the required reps, unless they're feeling brave. Veteran Crossfitters--sorry, guys. You're in for the whole deck.

See you Sunday at 8:00 a.m. at Jamaica Pond. We'll meet at the pullup bars on the west side of the Pond. As always, newbies are welcome! Bring plenty of water, sunscreen, and as much intestinal fortitude as you can muster.

Go faster!

Photo courtesy of

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Recover Again Faster

I first published this article in early May. The advice it contains is as applicable as ever. I believe that active recovery and proper nutrition are a huge part of the performance puzzle--incorporate both, and you'll become a better all-around athlete very quickly.

Recovery is the missing ingredient for most new trainees. Pay attention to it early and often. If you train with me, this won't be the last time you hear this.

Recovery from intense exercise takes effort. Watching Season Two of 24 while eating half a gallon of ice cream does not provide much in the way of recovery. You will not become Jack Bauer by osmosis.

I'm constantly trying to find ways to recover from my workouts faster. I want my muscles to feel fresh, my balance to be on-point, and my coordination to be top notch. This never happens simply by taking time off.

In my limited experience, there are several things you can do to control your rate of recovery. The faster you recover, the faster you'll add strength and speed. You'll make a ton of progress by packing more training into less time.

The most important recovery tool you have is sleep. Sleeping has a restorative effect on the mind and body. It's a period of time where our bodies attempt to fix all the damage we did to them the day before. There is some evidence in the psychology literature (which I'm too lazy to look up--find it yourself) that lack of sleep has tremendous physiological impact, including increased cortisol levels, and eventually, death. Lack of sleep will mess you up. And not in a good way.

All kinds of things screw with a good night's sleep, but I think the most henious offender is alcohol. If you get hammered on Saturday night, you're not going to set any PRs on Sunday. I don't care if you sleep for 15 hours.

Go to bed well hydrated, with some protein and some fat in your stomach. It'll give your body the fuel it needs to fix all the messed up sh*t you did to it. Workouts like Fight Gone Bad (check section 4.2) are going to tear down muscle fiber and leave you in a really deep neurological hole. Ho-hos and Cheetos are not going to help you climb out of it.

Nutrition is the second most important factor in stimulating recovery. Three words--don't eat junk. Organic vegetables and lean meat have always given me the most benefit for my money. Make sure you're getting enough protein, fat, and carbs to support lean body mass. Under-eating is one of the worst things you can do as an athlete. If you're operating at a calorie deficit, you're not going to pack on muscle. Your progress will stall like a 16 year old girl driving a stick shift. If you're going to workout more, you're going to have to eat more.

Certain activities leave me needing more recovery than others. The Olympic lifts and their subparts (Snatch, Clean and Jerk, Clean, Deadlift, all the Squats) take the most out of me. A true max effort on any of these lifts wallops the hell out of your body. A less neurologically taxing workout, like a speed-strength scheme (i.e. more reps at 50% 1RM) following a max effort day leave you ready to rock until your rest day comes up.

If you can alternate the type of demand you're putting on your body, you'll be able to get in more work. For instance, you could do speed work one day, max effort stuff the next, and a simple metabolic conditioning workout on the third day. You might hit the same muscle group over and over, and even do the same exercise with different loads, but you're asking your muscles to do different things. You'll recover from these workouts quickly, given proper sleep and nutrition.

I'm always experimenting with new ways to recover. The foam roller is next on the list of things to buy and use. I've tried contrast showering, but I've found that ice and compression is the most efficient way to reduce post-workout swelling. I haven't tried massage yet, because Boston is not the cheapest place to find a qualified stranger to rub you down. Nonetheless, if you can find an affordable masseuse, give it a shot.

These ideas aren't earth-shattering, but recovery takes effort. If you want to make progress in the gym, you'll need to pay attention to what you're doing outside of it.

Picture of Bill taking active recovery too seriously, courtesy of

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Riding for a Reason

Erik Balsbaugh has been Crossfitting for about eight months. He's been crazy a lot longer than that.

On August 20th, Erik is going to embark on a 6000 mile bike ride. His co-pilot on the mission is Jon Natkin. They're going to ride from Jackson Hole to Key West, on a route they only could've gotten from Mapquest.

They'll cover most of the West Coast and the entire Southern United States.

Erik and Jon aren't doing this just for the hell of it. They're raising money for Reach Out and Read, a national non-profit dedicated to promoting youth literacy through parental awareness. They're seeking to raise $1 for every mile they ride.

Education is the tool by which the poor escape poverty. It is a key determinant of economic success, and education is impossible without literacy. Erik and Jon know this, and they're doing something about it.

If you have the means, please donate to their cause. You can direct 100% of your donation to Reach Out and Read, or you can send some cash to support Erik and Jon as they try to stay alive in the Arizona desert.

Good luck, guys! Again Faster is behind you!
Running Hot

Last night, Mandla issued a challenge. I was sweating profusely, having gone through a set of Cossack switches in the 90-degree heat.

"I've held it for eight minutes," he said enigmatically, his tone humble.

Eight minutes of anything doesn't sound like a long time on its face, but I know better. Eight minutes can feel like eight hours under the right circumstances.

We were about to meet the right circumstances.

With Mira on my left and Jaime to the right, I assumed the swing stance, feet twice shoulder width, toes slightly turned out. My shoulders were firmly in the socket as I pulled my pelvis into a posterior tilt and sank down into the stance, following Mandla's example.

"Hold for a minute."

The difficulty of the exercise creeps up on you, starting with slight tension in the abdomen and the hamstrings. The burn intensifies, and travels to the quads. Your body commands release, the nervous system decrying the insanity of the exercise by firing uncontrollably. Our minute felt like hours. The space-time continuum was ripping and tearing as I sat back, trying to remember to breathe.

I tried to think happy thoughts. My mental image of birds, meadows, and streams quickly turned into spikes, chains, and Inquisition-era torture devices.

Sweat cascaded down my arms and legs, forming a puddle beneath me. It was pooling around my shoes when Mandla called time. I stood up, my legs running hot with lactic acid.

They were beginning to unwind when he spoke again.

"You made that look easy," he said, addressing Jaime. "Let's try it for two minutes."

We assumed the position. The burn came quickly this time, settling in my thighs. I pressed my hands out in front of me, exaggerating my breathing as I fought to maintain control. This time, I failed. At 1:20, I stood up, letting out a guttural cry and reeling backward.

"Back down, Jon."

I checked my feet and sank down. My body refused to cooperate with my efforts, and I rocketed out of the stance after a few short seconds.

"Back down."

Mira and Jaime hadn't moved, a couple of rocks surrounding a pogo stick. I resumed the hold, slightly embarassed at my repeated failings. At two minutes, we stood. Mira had fire in her eyes.

This was not my first contest of will.

Athletic progress requires that we pit our minds against our bodies, pushing beyond our current physical limitations. In Crossfit, the contest is not to remain still, but to continue moving. When the last round seems impossible, you have to push through, fighting the urge to quit.

Through this process, you retrain your body to accept escalating physical demands. Your breaking point moves further out into the distance, until it is so far away that you have trouble reaching it.

The body has built-in governors. We are born with an aversion to physical discomfort and pain--our bodies are programmed to avoid harm. Touch a hot stove, and your reflexes cause your hand to recoil in milliseconds.

During exercise, your body tells you it's uncomfortable. Then it screams. Your muscles shake as they endure stress, and then they refuse to work at all. Unfortunately, your body doesn't always know what's good for it.

When we override our innate control mechanisms, our bodies are forced to adapt. Lactic acid ceases to act as a brake as your muscles become more adept at using it for fuel. Muscle contractions become more forceful as your nervous system recruits more muscle fibers with each signal. You develop endurance and strength.

Through repeated breakdown and rebuilding, your muscles become larger. Exercised in the correct energy pathways, they generate tremendous force in a short period of time. You develop power.

My contest of will was over for the night. We practiced the swing, the one-armed deadlift, and good mornings, stressing body awareness and moving the pelvis independently of the legs.

As I watched, Jaime and Mira went through a grueling set of cleans and presses.

In the short time that I've worked with Mandla, I've seen significant improvement in several areas. The most obvious is flexibility. Prior to beginning joint mobility and kettlebell training at Boston Kettlebell, I was extremely static throughout my hips and lower back. I couldn't drop into the hole in any of my squats, and my hamstrings were very tight.

I've trained with Mandla four times. I can drop into the hole easily. Although I have a long way to go, it's kind of ridiculous how effective he's been.

I encourage you to seek out new methods of training. The greatest thing about Crossfit is its adaptability. When we find effective methods, we incorporate the newfound knowledge into our programs. We know that adopting different styles, sports, and methods makes for more complete athletes, and we refuse to cling to dogma for its own sake.

If you're interested in Mandla and Boston Kettlebell, click on his link in the right-hand sidebar, or drop me a line. I answer all the Again Faster email personally, and I'd be happy to put you in touch.

Go faster!

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Crossfitting Faster

My eyes were pasted shut when the alarm went off on Saturday morning. I usually hit snooze, but the alarm never got another chance. My mind started buzzing with Again Faster ideas, and I jumped out of bed.

1.22 miles away, Sammy's dented Ford Focus held one AF bar, 50 T-shirts, three jumpropes, and a pair of focus pads. I was going on a mission.

I strapped on the Mizunos and downed a cup of Folgers. I threw my rock gear over my shoulder, and set off for the car in that half-walk/jog that people do when they're in a hurry but don't want to look like it.

Halfway down the block, I was running. I never was good at pretending to be slow.

At the garage, I stripped off my load and threw it in reverse. 45 minutes later, I exited I-95 at exit 50, speeding toward the home of Crossfit Topsfield. Two weeks ago, I'd promised Dawn a brand-new Again Faster Bar, and I was about to make good on my promise.

She pulled into the parking lot about 30 seconds after I did. I was holding 70 pounds of chain, two lashing straps, and the heart of the AF bar.

"Is that for me?"

She lit up like Molotov Cocktail. I love watching people get excited about new toys, but Dawn brings it to a whole new level. As I headed through the front door with the chains on my shoulder, she looked slightly jealous of my burden.

I outfitted Dawn and Dave with a couple of Again Faster t-shirts, and we buckled down for a go at "Barbara".

5 rounds for time:
20 pullups
30 pushups
40 situps
50 squats

I'd done Barbara once, back in February. She hasn't gotten any nicer since then.

Dawn finished her last round while the rest of us were still in the grips of round 4. Barbara requires substantial work capacity and loads of fast-twitch muscle fiber, and Dawn has both in spades. She's so quick, we can't get her on film.

Barbara was a good warm-up for the work yet to come. After a few deep breaths, I loaded up the convoy for the grand opening of Crossfit MetroWest. With Brandon hot on my tail, we sped over to Murphy Field in Natick.

Will Tagye brought together the whole Crossfit Crew for his MetroWest debut. Folks were there representing Crossfit Boston, Crossfit Topsfield, Kettlebell Boston, the United States Army, and of course, Again Faster.

It was an explosive combination of too much energy, 20 or so athletes, and a bunch of over-used fitness equipment. I felt bad for the equipment.

Mandla Nkosi led the group through kettlebell progressions, teaching the proper swing from the ground up. With a mix of hardened veterans and wet-behind-the-ears newbies, he did an excellent job tailoring his lesson to the audience.

As a walking poster-child for fitness, everyone listened closely to what Mandla had to say.

They lined up in drill formation and practiced the swing, one after another. Despite the fact that most people would call that the workout, we called it the warm-up.

Will had something a little more difficult in store for this group.

3 rounds for time:
20 Thrusters
20 KB Swings
20 Box Jumps
20 Goblet Squats

A goblet squat is like a regular squat, only harder. Cradling a dumbbell in his/her palms, the athlete does an ass-to-ankles squat. The weight gets real heavy real quick. I already knew that, so I let the other kids have their fun with this one. An hour after Barbara, I wasn't about to throw myself back into the Crossfit Crucible.

Yeah, right. With the first workout over, Will and Neal immediately set their sights on creating another heart-pounding circuit. It was team race time, and I'm no good at saying no to a race.

Before my better instincts kicked in, I found myself at one end of Murphy Field, staring at dumbells, boxes, kettlebells, and Dynamax balls. Dave, Josh, Brandon, Carolyn, and I were pitted against Will, Tara, Toby, Erik, and Catie in a two-round race to the finish.

MetroWest Mayhem

2 rounds, to the finish:

Sprint to the dumbells, 10 dumbbell thrusters
Walking lunge to the boxes, 10 box jumps
Bear crawl to the kettlebells, 10 swings
Broad jump to the Dyna Balls, 5 vertical throws
Sprint back to the start

Only one person from each team was on course at any one time, and there was a whole lot of yelling. There was also a little bit of psychological warfare. I heard "Four!, Four!, Four!" during my thrusters, but I could've sworn I was on number eight.

I don't think those guys were on my team.

Despite our best effort, Will's platoon beat us to the finish, taking home bragging rights and the first-ever MetroWest team title. For the second time in one day, I'd been beaten by a Crossfit Topsfield trainer. Thankfully, Tara didn't rub it in too much.

Despite her upbeat attitude, I plotted my revenge.

On Sunday morning, we met at Jamaica Pond for "Fight Gone Faster". The morning heat was beginning to burn the moisture out of the air as Sammy and I set up make-shift cones to mark the stations. The core Again Faster crew assembled in the shade to warm-up and go over the rules.

Fight Gone Faster

3 rounds, 5 stations, 1:00 at Station One, 1:15 to sprint to the next station(s) and bang out as many reps as possible, 1:00 rest between rounds.

Station 1: Jumprope
Station 2: Punching
Station 3: Burpees
Station 4: Push-ups
Station 5: Pull-ups

One rep counted for one point, and the score was aggregated over all three rounds. These athletes proved their mettle, turning in fantastic scores less that 24 hours after the MetroWest chipper.

Dawn: 1124
Dave: 943
Tara: 999
Toby: 1019
Thor: 840
Erica: 514
Nigel: 728
Polly: 787

Thanks for representing guys. These athletes were so intense that a Navy recruiter stopped by to see if he could pull any of them into service. It was a great testament to the level of fitness all of these athletes have achieved using sound principals and good nutrition, and I loved every second of it.

Once again, we attracted a bunch of interest from the public (and the government), and we had a great time doing it. If you'd like to become a part of the Again Faster family, just drop me a line using the "Contact Again Faster" link in the right-hand sidebar, or stop by Jamaica Pond any Sunday at 8:00 a.m.

We welcome new members! Fitness at this level is not achieved overnight, but it is attainable for every adult out there. If you have the desire to work hard with a great community of quality athletes, come check us out.

Go faster!

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Fight Gone Faster

Once again, we'll be meeting at Jamaica Pond for an ass-kicking good time. This week we're doing a take-off on the infamous Crossfit workout, "Fight Gone Bad".

We're taking FGB and hitting turbo. Fight Gone Faster takes the traditional 5-exercise/3-round formula, eliminates the weight, and keeps you sprinting between stations.

For the entire workout, you'll have a partner. They'll be there to encourage you, make fun of your mama, and keep score. I'll pair you up.

Each round will last 6:00. You'll start at your assigned station, and work for 1:00. For every exercise that follows, you'll have 1:15 to sprint to the next station and bang out as many reps as you can. For all exercises, one rep equals one point.

The first station is the jumprope. Jumping rope develops work capacity, agility, coordination, and a mean set of calves. We're doing single-unders this time. This is a great opportunity to add to your score, so make it count.

The second station is the reflex pads. Your partner will hold the pad while you punch it as fast as you can, alternating hands. I did some reflex pad work at Ring Boxing over on Commonwealth Ave.--it's hard work, so I decided to steal it. You'll love it.

The third station is the dreaded burpee. This full-body exercise works every muscle you've got, and several you didn't know you had. It has no equal for developing explosive hip extension and massive work capacity.

The fourth station--the pushup. You should rack up the points here. Chest-to-the-deck, heads-up pushups are the only ones that will hit the score sheet.

The fifth station is the pullup. Only full-range pullups count. You can use the traditional overhand, underhand, or mixed grip, in that order. Jumping pullups count for 1/2 rep. We'll be doing these on the bars this time.

There will be three rounds, with a 1-minute rest in between rounds. For those of you who are wondering, I'll be taking my own medicine. Mass gain program or not, Fight Gone Faster will not hit the boards without my score on it!

We'll meet by the pullup bars at 8:00 a.m. on Sunday morning. This is another great opportunity to experience Again Faster and Crossfit-style workouts. We welcome new members and old friends with the same enthusiasm, so come check us out.

Go faster!

Ali photograph courtesy of

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Quit Now

Most days, I don’t ram the virtues of Crossfit down your throat. Today is not one of those days.

If you’re at a commercial gym, I want you to quit. Hell, you want you to quit. You just don’t know it yet.

Last time you were in Buff Joe’s Spandex-O-Rama, you were probably working out alone. You were listening to Kelly Clarkson belt out a tune somebody else wrote, and you kept losing the pull-up bar to some meathead who was using it to stretch.

It took you an hour to do a workout that takes 20 minutes because you had to wait to get the 30s from a pre-teen doing quarter-range tricep kickbacks. Screw that.

Quit now.

The transition isn’t easy--after my first Crossfit workout, I walked funny for a week.

Suck it up, Sunshine. Paying your dues is well worth the effort. Our methods will give you tremendous returns in motivation, work capacity, strength, and coordination.

Working out does not have to be a solitary slog through the machine minefield. There are future Crossfitters all over the country who are currently hooked to their iPod, standing on a treadmill, staring at a 5-inch TV, wondering why they’re not getting any better at anything.

The solution? Unplug all that sh*t. Come workout with people. All the computer programming in the world can’t replicate the motivation you’ll get from watching the guy next to you work harder and longer than you ever thought possible. In a few months, you’ll be competing at his level.

I tell my friends about our workouts.

“Today, we did Angie. 100 pullups, 100 pushups, 100 situps, 100 squats. Took about 25 minutes.”

This usually results in the “Holy Sh*t” stare. This is where your friend/girlfriend/mom/boss looks at you like you just told them that you believe euthanasia is a viable method of population control.

I love the stare.

The reason you get it is the numbers you just spat out. We think nothing of doing 100 of anything, because we do it all the time. Crossfit builds amazing work capacity quickly. There’s no magic trick involved. The human body can produce a staggering volume of work. Getting it to do so requires repeated attempts at doing more work than you did the last time out.

Try to do 100 pushups. You’ll end up breaking them down into multiple sets of 5 or 10 or 15. Next time you try, you’ll do sets of 15 or 20. A few months down the road, 100 straight pushups will just be a momentary respite from those nasty pull-ups, and you’ll thank God for every rep.

Your superhuman work capacity will transfer to every physical activity you undertake. Suddenly, running a 5k feels like the saddest little workout you ever did. Baseball doesn’t even seem like a sport, and football games are over before you get a chance to break a decent sweat. Your resting heartbeat will hover in the low 60s, and you’ll be able to hold sustained aerobic activity for hours.

You’ll also be stronger than you’ve ever been in your life. We practice the most effective lifts in the world—the snatch and the clean and jerk. Each of these movements is a full-body lift that requires power and coordination to complete. The weight goes through an unparalleled range of motion extremely quickly. This results in huge power output and work volume, and a whole boatload of strength. Check out “A Physics Lesson” for further explanation.

Coordination comes from all aspects of the Crossfit experience. You’ll learn handstands, kipping, dips, muscleups, and a myriad of other gymnastics skills. Spatial awareness, balance, and agility will result. You’ll be a more effective athlete in every sport you try, because the learning curve for new skills will flatten significantly—you’ll already have all the building blocks you need.

Crossfit is not easy. You’ll pay for your gains in sweat and skin. Nonetheless, you’ll get better week after week and month after month, with no end in sight. You’ll do it with a great community of athletes who live for every moment of endorphin-induced bliss, and you’ll love every second.

Call your gym and cancel your membership. Come out to Again Faster on Sunday mornings, or stop by any of the Crossfit Affiliates. We’ll show you what you’re missing, and I guarantee you won’t ever want to go back.