Monday, October 30, 2006

Peter’s Kill and The Lost City

We woke up at 4:30 on Saturday morning, leaving the sanctuary of home for the biting cold of pre-dawn October.

We loaded ropes, harnesses, and packs into the back of the car. I was headed for paradise, traveling along side John, Marcia, Sam, and Nick.

The caffeine obliterated any thoughts of sleep as I hacked at my laptop, calling up images of our last visit to the Shawangunks. Pictures of gorgeous gray fault-block and a cobalt blue sky flashed across the screen. Sam and I looked through every picture in my library, recalling a summer’s worth of workouts and climbs.

Every click was met with a new image of friends and family. Again Faster suffer-fests, Crossfit Boston’s new digs, outings to the Quincy Quarry—a lifetime’s worth of adventure condensed to six months of photos.

The hard colors of the city melted into reds and browns as we drove west, speeding through a pink dawn toward New York. Unable to concentrate on my writing, I gazed out the window at the emerging day, Sam half-asleep on my right shoulder. The sun was bright and constant, promising everything I’d come to expect from our trips to the Gunks.

We turned off the New York State Thruway just before eight o’clock. The Near Trapps loomed over Route 44, inspiring a sense of majesty and awe. We drove under the access bridge, foregoing the Mohunk Reservation for a path less traveled.

Just southwest of the Trapps, Minnewaska State Park holds Peter’s Kill, a lesser known cliff band buried in the bright deciduous forest. Unloading our gear, we layered thermal underwear under heavy fleece jackets to fight the breeze.

Sunshine erupted from behind gray clouds as we moved into the forest, offering a respite from the cold. By the time we reached the base of the cliff we had shed our outerwear, enjoying the natural windbreak of the dense underbrush.

John had gone ahead to set our anchors, and we scrambled along the base of the cliff looking for signs of our leader. Nick dropped a case of water along the path, forcing him to stop. As I called for him to hurry up, John bellowed from the top of the wall:


Two gray strands fell from the sky, hitting the ground a few feet from Nick’s location. Fortune had guided us in.

I pulled on my harness and pumped my feet into my rock shoes, smiling at the sound of their vacuum fit making good contact with my heel. The rush of escaping air held the promise of solid footholds all day long.

I tied in at the bottom of “Captain’s Log”, threading the rope through my harness. The 5.4 climb was riddled with horizontal cracks, providing a nice start to the day. My holds were secure as I scaled the face, my movements slow and easy. The anchor came quickly, and I was lowered to the forest floor unscathed.

The second climb of the day was significantly more daunting, a 5.7 route with a tricky crux move. "Kling-On" starts with an irresistible overhanging ledge about six and a half feet off the ground. In a nod to my Crossfit training, I kipped into the ledge, a hard pull catapulting me to support on top of the rock. I stood up and surveyed the remaining face.

Three-quarters of the way up, a block of white rock bulges over the route. It requires the climber to make a non-intuitive move, shifting into the corner to secure a left foothold before going up and over.

I lost my grip three times at the apex of the climb, saving a fall only through some very lucky reach-and-slap attempts at a deep, shelf-like handhold just above the crux. My heart was hammering as Sam brought me down, my nervous system refusing to acknowledge the safety afforded by the top-rope.

On the ground, I watched Marcia tackle “Under Kling-On”, a 5.9 rated route that starts hot and heavy and ends with a whimper. The second move is a contortionist’s nightmare, asking the climber put left knee to chin in order to secure a foothold across the rock. This is a stretchy, physically demanding move, but it comprises the entire challenge of “Under Kling-On”. We each completed the route quickly, a bunch of 5.7-5.8 climbers smoking a 5.9 climb. We wondered, loudly, as to the adequacy of the rating.

Like most gymnastic performances, a climb is remembered (and rated) for its hardest move, the rest of the route cast into obscurity.

While Sam, Nick, and I took turns climbing the Trekkie wall, John had negotiated the use of another party’s gear. “Reach Around” was just around the corner to the climber’s left, a pumpy sixty-foot route replete with two overhangs and a nasty crux move. It's a sustained pitch, and very hard on the arms.

I belayed for Marcia as she moved to the crux, a right-facing overhang with a blind handhold to the inside. Unable to perceive the route, Marcia traversed right to a blank face, frustrated at the lack of holds.

“What the hell are you doing? Get back over there!”

My gentle encouragement did the trick, and Marcia moved left and through the overhang with minimal effort. After some contemplation she made the final move over a smaller roof to the anchor, ending a solid half-hour of climbing.

I tied in for the same climb, confident of my ability to make the top. Ten feet up the book, I realized the climb was not going to be an afternoon stroll. All hands and no feet, I pulled my way to the crux, grabbing a juggy hold just inside the dihedral. Securing my right, I threw my left hand to the top of the overhanging formation. Gripping hard, I cast my other hand up and pulled over the crux.

Standing on the ledge, my arms were shaking uncontrollably. I joked with the climbers on the ground, waiting for the tremors to stop. They did, but I was too spent to continue. After several attempts at the final move, I asked John to bring me back down.

It would be the only climb that beat me, a 5.7 with an obvious finish. The next climber stood in the same spot I had, perplexed by the ending sequence. I told him how it went, teaching a move I’d been unable to complete.

“There’s a left-facing flake with a great thumb. Pull on it and put your right hand in the horizontal crack below the roof. You’ve got to do it fast.”

I’d failed because of hesitation, conducting an impromptu experiment in prolonged isometric holds. Not surprisingly, gravity lasted longer than my grip, and I fell off the wall. The climber made the anchor.

John climbed the face next, moving up and around the overhang with little fuss. Like Olympic lifting, technique is the primary determinant of success in rock climbing. Physical condition takes a back seat to coordination, agility, and accuracy, traits developed through practice. John’s decades of experience on rock have given him these traits.

Abandoning “Reach Around”, we moved east. “TP” and “Genuflect” are perfectly parallel, located on opposite sides of a small box canyon to the right of “Under Kling-On”. The stone forms ninety degree angles everywhere, exhibiting symmetry out of place with the bramble of the surrounding forest.

Both climbs warrant a 5.6 rating, rewarding the patient climber with adequate holds all the way to the top. After a moderately difficult start, “TP” devolves into a ladder of horizontal cracks. It was a nice break from the grip workout of “Reach Around”, and I felt fluid and relaxed for the entire climb.

Genuflect is similarly perfunctory and unmemorable, a thirty foot fault-to-crack climb with no awkward moves. One by one, we polished off the wall, clearing our gear to seek a new challenge.

While Marcia, Sam, and Nick packed up, John and I hiked down the Peter’s Kill Trail, ropes and slings in tow.

We went a quarter mile west, scrambling to the top of a low face to secure two top-ropes. “Left Block” and “Right Block” were aptly named, two cracks in a stack of gray fault block on top of a mound of fallen rock. With “Seams Like Fun”, the three routes ranged from 5.4 to 5.8, progressing in difficulty from left to right. We ran static-to-sling anchors above “Right Block” and “Seams”, leaving “Left Block” unclimbed.

Sundown comes early in the forest. The sun descended through the tree line as we climbed the short routes, bringing a forgotten chill back to the wall. We climbed in the waning light, hands and feet sore from the demands of the day.

Sitting on a large rock, Sam and I ate a Spartan dinner of macadamia nuts and protein powder, our outerwear pulled from our backpacks. The red, green, and gold of the forest took a dull sheen, and the sky turned from bright blue to grey. We moved to leave Peter’s Kill, a monumental day of climbing behind us.

We reclaimed our equipment from the block, cramming ropes and leads into impossibly small bags. Two hundred feet of hiking put us back in the parking lot, face-to-face with the first signs of civilization we’d seen in over eight hours.

Gridlock traffic greeted our trip back to New Paltz, a reminder that our choice of venue was well-informed. Hundreds of cars stretched to the horizon, taillights blinking, yet we had only seen one other group all day.

An hour later we were gathered around a table at Barnaby’s, celebrating Nick’s birthday with steaks and a round of Oktoberfest. Relaxed and thoroughly spent, we made a fateful choice.

“Tomorrow, we can go back where we were, or we can go to another place. You have to hike to get there. The Lost City.”

John’s pronouncement was understated, but we understood the implication right away. Of course we would hike—the mere thought of a place called “The Lost City” smacked of adventure. We decided without dissent, finishing our meal under the soft lights, wondering what The Lost City held in store.

The next morning we hiked toward our destination, no more knowledgeable than we were the night before. The thin, grey cover of dawn had given way to bright sunshine, illuminating the forest in a wave of yellow and brown. The High Peter’s Kill Trail turned to bog, our walk restricted to a twelve-inch wide platform over the muck. We traversed a stream, leaving the lowland water for a thick carpet of leaves.

King’s Lane continued upward into the forest, a wide thoroughfare through the trees. John stopped in the middle of the trail, gesturing off into the woods.
We would hike in without a discernable path—The Lost City was directly North.

The smooth expanse of leaves gave way to large boulders, densely packed on the forest floor. They ranged in size from filing cabinets to buildings, closer and closer together as we moved up the hill.

My pack slowed me significantly, 50-plus pounds of rope and water tugging ceaselessly at my back. The cliff came into view as I crested a huge formation of fallen block, appearing almost white in the intense sunlight.

I dropped my load with relief, waiting for the others to catch up. Reassembled, all five of us headed for the cliff-top, crawling through a cave-like structure to access a thin pass up the side of the face. Wearing rubber-soled Adidas, I checked every foothold before placing my weight, my pulse racing at the thought of a hard fall.

A breathtaking view awaited us at the top, the autumn foliage extending to the horizon without interruption. It was unquestionably gorgeous, the type of sight that makes a man feel totally and utterly insignificant.

We set two anchors as a front blew in from the West. The sun appeared in fits and starts, the temperature alternately climbing and plummeting with each passing cloud. I was glad for my thermal layers as we descended, my fingers growing cold in the morning air.

Our climbs were unnamed, the product of a local desire to keep The Lost City lost. The left-most climb was a combination corner and crack, while the right-most climb was a deep fault that persuaded the climber to move ever-further into its folds.

John, Marcia, and Nick took turns on the corner route while Sam and I scaled the rightward climb. Sam tied into the rope, shedding her jacket in anticipation of a difficult effort.

The first ascent of the day is always taxing, and Samantha moved slowly up the rock. She was intermittently swallowed and released by the yawning gap in the cliff, finding holds anywhere she could.

She made the anchor without a fall, pausing at the top to take in the view behind her. I lowered her hesitantly, giving her time to negotiate the tricky lines of the rappel.

Back on the ground, we switched roles. With Sam belaying, I buried myself in the climb. I wedged further and further into the cliff as I moved upward, relieved at the relative safety of the rock’s embrace. Negotiating the climb required me to shift my weight constantly, seeking hand and foot holds on both sides of the fault. I pumped hard with my arms, pulling against the sharp rock.

The silver glint of the anchor came into view, and I called to be lowered without surveying the scene around me. I immediately regretted my oversight, resolving to bring my camera to the top on the next climb.

Nick was coming off the corner when Sam and I wandered over. The sky was clear and endless above his head, strikingly beautiful against the bright yellow leaves of a nearby tree.

The route was deceptively difficult, hard despite the help provided by the square intersection of two sections of rock. The top of the pitch was slightly past vertical, demanding repeat pull-ups to make the anchor. Despite a year of climbing, I hadn’t yet learned to optimize my footholds, and my arms were paying the price.

Standing on a ledge at the top, I turned to take a picture, pulling my small digital camera from its holster. The trees went forever, dappled with sunlight in a two-hundred degree panorama. My leg vibrated against the rock as I recorded the scene, my muscles refusing to relax on my high perch.

Directly ahead, the backside of the Trapps was silhouetted against the clouds, a small depression indicating the path of Route 44 through the Shawnagunks. We'd left behind every sign of man's influence, save this notch.

John set a new anchor thirty feet left of our second climb.

From ten feet back, the face had a single, lonely crack and no discernable footholds. I walked up to the rock, unbelieving. Sure enough, a climb materialized—a ridge on the right, a skinny foothold on the left, and a long reach to safety.

Sam and I stood at the bottom, choreographing every move, positive that we were looking at the hardest climb of the day.

She pushed her hands into the crack, making her first move toward the top. Ironically, the penalty for a fall is higher when the climber is closer to the ground—due to rope stretch, a three-foot drop could result in a broken ankle.

She fell on her second move, hitting the ground feet-first and unhurt. We went over the sequence again, and Sam climbed. She cleared the second move, planting her right foot on an all-day ledge to the right of the crack. Knuckle-deep, she pulled upward.

Her foot slipped off a tenuous left-foot hold, and gravity took over. Weighting the rope, she leaned back from the face and pressed her back against a tree, relieving the accumulated strain on her arms and legs.

The third move beat her several times, each attempt forcing her to clamor into position for the difficult reach once again. Frustrated, she leaned against the tree, ripping her jacket off and staring intently at the rock.

She cranked through the opening moves on her fourth attempt, finding a new handhold slightly higher than her last elevation. A juggy right hand, the hold boosted her up to the first ledge and a long-awaited rest.

The unnamed route was unrelenting. Sparse holds required Sam to crack-climb, a type of climbing her amorphous slippers weren’t made to handle. Noticing the truncated corner configuration of the rock, I suggested she perform a layback, pinning her feet to the left-hand face with her arms fully extended.

This did the trick. Sam pulled through the rest of the lengthy route, plodding through ten meters of energy-sapping ascent. She grunted as she climbed, her exclamations a product of extreme exertion.

On the ground, she shook her hands out, angry at the difficulty of the climb.

Ten minutes later I attempted it, failing in many of the same spots. The first four moves drained my pulling power as I grabbed for the ledge over and over again. The layback reduced my already-fatigued arms to a mass of quivering tendons, my grip junked by the sharp crystals inside the crack. Groaning and grunting, I made the anchor, five or six falls marring the attempt.

My knuckles bleeding, I proposed we name the route. This honor is typically reserved for the first person to complete a pitch, but I’ve never been one to stand on decorum.

The sequence of events drove the nomenclature—“Tree Lean and Groan” was born. Nine days after the experience, my knuckles still bear the marks of that climb, pink and raw across the back of my hand.

Nick beat the hell out of "Tree Lean". He is enormous for a rock climber, tipping the scales at over 200 pounds. Despite his size, Nick has tons of strength, and the prolonged layback suited his abilities perfectly.

With almost no hesitation, Nick cranked up the route, topping out in half the time it had taken Samantha and I. With a mixture of awe and envy, I cheered Nick's tremendous effort, clapping as John lowered him to the ground.

We finished our adventure in The Lost City with an easy climb, scaling a cold corner of the face with minimal effort, enjoying a respite from the mental and physical trials of the day's earlier climbs.

Sam and I packed our ropes and slings, lingering to watch a young German woman attempt a difficult climb. She moved gracefully up the slick rock, holding onto thin air as she flew upward. Her route was easily a 5.10, far beyond our abilities.

My trance was broken as she fell, her belay rope snapping taut in the cold October dusk. We turned to leave, slinging on our packs for the hike back to civilization.

I concentrated on the boulders as we descended from the cliff, scrambling over and around mountains of fallen rock. It felt wrong to leave such a beautiful place--golden trees and a gorgeous blue sky promised that there would be other days like this, days where everything was perfect.

I moved purposefully but slowly, leaving The Lost City only out of necessity. Eventually the scree gave way to open forest, and we joined Nick, John, and Marcia on King's Lane.

We crossed the rushing stream, marking our passage from the dry highlands to the soggy wetland, stepping quickly across the wet stones. We moved single-file along the man-made catwalk, finally exiting to the parking lot at the base of the High Peter's Kill trail.

The weekend was epic, spanning twelve pitches over two days. I felt out of place as we drove east, the beauty of the Shawangunks giving way to the Berkshires giving way to concrete and gleaming metal. The hills receded as we approached the coast, zipping through the suburban enclaves of Wellesley and Newton, the wild plan of nature turning to the carefully-constructed schematics of man.

Reclining in a state of near-sleep, it struck me that I was fortunate to have such friends, folks who knew about the truly important places, places where time is only as important as your next adventure.

That night I fell asleep with a smile on my face, exhausted and elated from our journey. Crossfit was next on the agenda, and 4:30 promised to come quickly.

Go faster!

Ratings and names from the Peter's Kill area courtesy of "Peter's Kill Climbing Guide" by Robert Wilson and Jennifer Sauer. The Lost City is a figment of my imagination, and does not in fact exist. Looking for it is a waste of time, much like yoga or anything involving a Swiss ball.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

F*ck Gravity

This Sunday, we’re continuing the Again Faster Weekly Workout Series with an all-out assault on the personal record.

After a brief warm-up, we’re going to test your pulling strength and endurance with a max pull-up test. Resistance is the name of the game—we’ll have weighted vests and dumbbells on hand to keep your numbers down.

First, the vests. We’ll test your maximum number of reps with a 20, 30, or 40 pound vest. For the diehards, the AF Bar will be available—a double-pendulum man-maker of a pull-up bar that promises to knock you down a few notches.

Then, the max pull. You’ll have five attempts at a single pull-up with as much resistance as you can handle.

If the thought of multiple PR attempts isn’t enough to send your back into spasms, we’ll follow up with a set of lock-offs and a few hangs for time. I smell contest.

For the pull-up challenged, we’ll have rings set up to help you progress toward your first unassisted reps.

We’ll finish with “Sprint and Strike”, a workout with enough heat to make you forget that it’s October:

5 rounds for time:

100m Sprint
20 Sledge Swings
20 Push-ups

We’re going for a record turnout this weekend—everybody likes a PR attempt with a few screaming fans! As always, we meet at 8:00 a.m. by the pull-up bars at Jamaica Pond. This event is not weather contingent, ladies and gentlemen. I'll bring the chalk.

Go faster!

Picture of Jerry Hill courtesy of

"Fight one more round. When your arms are so tired that you can hardly lift your hands to press the dumbbells, fight one more round. When your heart pounds and your head spins so fast that you wish you would pass-out or puke, fight one more round - remembering that the person who always fights one more round is never whipped.”—From Jerry Hill, edited from James Corbett.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Boston Crossfit Certification Seminar: Day One

“We teach people what their ass does for a living.”—Greg Glassman

Walking into the first day of a Crossfit Certification is like walking onto a Hollywood set. You recognize everyone, and no one recognizes you.

The hallucinogenic qualities of the experience are heightened by the familiarity of the terrain. This is the building I train in every day. At least, I think it’s this building.

The equipment had disappeared, and a bunch of Crossfit Rockstars stood in its place. Greg Amundson, Nicole Carroll, Coach. Kelly Moore, Jesse Woody, Lynne Pitts, and Carrie Klumpar.

I felt like a pre-teen girl at an N’Sync concert, except the stage-front security was nowhere to be seen. Disneyland for fitness freaks. A backstage pass to GPP Lollapalooza.

It was on.

Sam and I were ridiculously early, towing our new friends from Crossfit Cape Fear—John, Shad, and Heidi. We signed the “Yep, you’re probably going to die” waiver, and proceeded to hug everyone in the building. I zeroed in on Lynne. I’d failed to convince her that the gangsters in Roxbury are asleep at 7:00 a.m., and I was anxious to hear the horror stories of her journey from New Hampshire.

She didn’t have any, but she did have a new piece of equipment coming her way. I grabbed an AF Bar from the corner, and presented it with all the decorum of a guard at Westminster Abbey. It had the intended effect—jealousy. I think Kelly wanted one before she found out what it was.

Standing with two Crossfit legends, I bellowed across the room at my girlfriend, gesturing for her to come say hello. Sammy came over, smiling like it was going out of style.

Between the two of them, Lynne and Kelly beat the hell out of nearly every fitness pursuit worth pursuing—Crossfit, RKC, Clubbells, powerlifting, gymnastics—and Sam knows it. Standing face-to-face with her role models, Sam exhibited all the humility and grace you’d expect from a novice. Not surprisingly, those traits were returned in spades by our new friends. The lack of ego was palpable.

The joy on Sam’s face was worth the price of admission, and we hadn’t even started yet. At 8:00, Nicole stood under the whiteboard, calling for attention.

She introduced Coach Glassman to thunderous applause. Greg Glassman created Crossfit during decades of work as a trainer, embracing a contrarian approach to fitness that often left him on the wrong side of the popularity divide. He commands attention in a manner that belies his stature—at five foot six or so, his physical presence is unintimidating. Nonetheless, his eloquence draws you in and keeps you there.

We started at the beginning. The Tao of Crossfit. In tiny blue letters, Coach marked up the corner of the board:

“Empirically Driven Continuously Tested Community Developed Constantly Varied Functional Movement High Intensity.”

Everything you need to know about Crossfit in twelve words. He left his scribble to soak in, and launched into the basic movements of our trade.

The squat. According to Coach, it takes three to five years to develop a mature squat—torso upright, lumbar arch maintained, midline stabilization constant.

Using his demonstration piece, a sarcastically self-professed “dumb jock”, we got an up-close view of athletic perfection. Nicole made the squat look easy, cranking out rep after rep with flawless form. The downward portion of the movement is initiated by the hip flexors—rather than fall into the bottom position, the athlete pulls back and down. The return to standing is accomplished using a full contraction of the butt and hamstrings, and the weight remains on the heels for the duration. Her lower lumbar arch is enduring.

It’s amazing how hard this is to do correctly.

Coach pointed out the alignment of the pelvis and spine, using a simplified schematic that we’d see ad nauseum over the next two days—a stylized “s” connected at the tail with an oval. For a first-hand look at this artistic masterpiece and a great overview of basic anatomy and physiology, grab a copy of the August 2003 Crossfit Journal.

The point of the drawing: in nearly every athletic movement, the pelvis remains wedded to the spine, forming a continuous line unperturbed by posterior tilt.

“In this position, she’s bombproof. She’s bulletproof…your ability to punch, jump, run, throw…will be largely determined by your ability to maintain stabilization of this structure…Extension of the hip is necessary and maybe even sufficient for elite athleticism. If you cannot powerfully, explosively extend the hip while maintaining midline stabilization, you are working at a fraction of your capacity.”

This little bit of information would remain with me all weekend long, rearing its head again and again as I practiced squats, wall ball, high pulls, and slam ball. Evidently, my spinal alignment leaves something to be desired.

Using a five-foot dowel, Nicole demonstrated proper deadlifting technique. The shoulders remain behind the hands, arms taut, lumbar arch maintained. The load stays in the frontal plane throughout the movement, following a vertical path from the ground to lockout.

To allow for a straight up and down movement, the knees clear out of the way of the bar—the bar does not travel around the knees! Nicole went through the deadlift at warp-speed, the return to the ground precisely retracing the path to lockout. She probably could’ve pulled 225 with the same grace, although her speed might have suffered.

Our lesson in foundational movements continued with a review of the shoulder press. Coach stressed the importance of shoulder flexibility in facilitating overhead lockout. During the shoulder press, the entire body is active, leaving nothing relaxed. The shoulders are pressed into the ears, stabilized by the traps, and the bar is directly overhead. Everything should be tight and working.

Shoulder flexibility can be developed thorough focused stretching—hanging from the pullup bar with a narrow grip or partner stretching Superman-style.

We’d been sitting for close to two hours without any form of physical activity, and the fine folks running the Cert decided to change that with a vigorous bout of bottom-to-bottom Tabata squats.

Gee, thanks.

The Tabata protocol
dictates twenty seconds of work followed by ten seconds of rest, repeated for eight intervals. A bottom-to-bottom squat is just like it sounds—you start and end in the hole. Conveniently, the “rest” also takes place at this lower elevation.

Like everything else Crossfit, the Tabata interval is scored. The lowest number of squats completed during any of the eight intervals is your number. This has ramifications on the athlete’s strategy during the exercise.

“What does it tell me if you do twelve in one interval and sixteen in the next?”

Coach answered his own question: “You’re stupid.”

With a quick warm-up (standing up and putting away the chairs), we formed a circle around the room. Coach stood in the center, and showed us three ways to cheat the bottom-to-bottom: inadequate depth, slumping in the bottom position, and inadequate extension. Then he put Nicole in there.

“Just keep up with her.”

This is like trying to outrun a thoroughbred on the back stretch of the Belmont Stakes. Nicole is capable of upwards of 20 squats in a single interval. I am not. With Dave Picardy and Jesse Woody standing directly over my left shoulder, we proceeded to Tabata-ize our morning. With typical indiscretion, I tried to keep up with Nicole. While Sammy received effusive praise to my right, I heard over and over:

“Come up higher. You’re losing your arch. Lost it. Don’t sink. Arch!” Yep, okay guys. I’m on it. I couldn’t have pushed myself higher in the bottom position if Jesse had broken out a pistol and threatened to aerate my head.

The Tabata protocol has the unique distinction of causing aerobic and anaerobic failure simultaneously, placing it in the same torturous class as electro-shock therapy at Guantanamo Bay. By the end of the protocol, my legs were a curious mix of Jello and cement, and my beige folding chair looked like an overstuffed couch.

Back in our seats, Coach asked if anyone managed to keep up with Nicole. No hands. He worked his way down—“Nineteen squats? Eighteen?” One guy raised his hand. “Seventeen?” No one. “Sixteen? Fifteen?” Hands started to go up. Mine stayed down. I wasn’t sure what I’d scored, because it’s hard to count when you’re dying.

Coach took up his station at the whiteboard.

Crossfit is empirically driven. We do things because they work, and we find out they work by doing them. Exercise science informs Crossfit only tangentially—academic work is largely ignored in favor of trial and error conditioning. If a particular theory can be proved through real-world experience, it becomes practice.

If not, it remains theory.

The Internet has given Coach Glassman a fantastic tool for refining the Crossfit Method. Hundreds of comments regarding the Workout of the Day are posted daily, giving him insight into the quality of the program. By examining the output—the relative experience of the participants—Coach is able to tweak the input, changing the sequence and duration of the prescribed movements to optimize physical development. In this manner, Crossfit is community developed and continuously tested.

The Method comes with a simple caveat—if you can come up with something better, we’ll do it. To paraphrase Coach, if a three-day sequence of yoga, pilates, and the WOD creates world-class athletes, we’ll be doing yoga, pilates, and the WOD. Until then, we’ll stick with what we know—a carefully orchestrated combination of gymnastics, weightlifting, and sprinting.

The squat, press, and deadlift represent the foundations of human movement—Crossfit embraces this triad and expands its scope. Coach illustrated this expansion with a simple diagram.

The squat becomes the front squat as resistance is added to the movement. The front squat is more difficult than the air squat, requiring a higher level of strength, coordination, and power. The sequence culminates in the overhead squat, the most difficult of the three movements.

This three-part progression holds true for the press. The press becomes the push press becomes the push jerk. Each subsequent movement requires increased agility and coordination, enabling progressively larger loads to be pushed overhead.

The deadlift is extremely functional, enabling large loads to be raised to hip height. It evolves into the sumo deadlift high-pull, a movement that brings the load to the upper chest through a combination of hip extension and close-grip pulling. This sequence ends in the clean, an exercise that allows otherwise unmanageable objects to be pushed overhead.

Nicole demonstrated each of the second-tier movements. Coach stressed the importance of the rack position during the front squat and the need to remain completely vertical during the dip/drive portion of the push press. During the dip and drive, the midline moves in a vertical plane, straying neither forward nor backward.

The sumo deadlift high-pull has tremendous real-world application, as most objects don’t lend themselves to being picked up with a conventional deadlift. Boulders, sandbags, and other small loads must be picked up with a close grip rather than a wide grip, rendering the conventional deadlift useless.

As the movements progress along the continuum of difficulty, they require more and more power for successful execution. Coach would return to this point after lunch.

At Nicole’s cue, we broke into groups of six or seven athletes, each attended by a bevy of veteran trainers. The student-to-teacher ratio during these sessions was fantastic, approaching one-on-one. The feedback was quick and freely given. We reviewed the front squat, the push press, and the deadlift using five-foot lengths of PVC as resistance.

An eight-ounce pipe precludes a proper rack position for all but the most flexible athletes. I am not a flexible athlete. With a trainer pushing down on the pipe, I descended into the hole, only to realize my legs were totally frozen from the morning Tabata session. Once again my inadequate lumbar arch made an appearance, eliciting cries of “Arch!” from my new teachers.

I disappointed them horribly, cranking out Quasimodo-esque squats on command.

The push press wasn’t much better—I was slow with the dip and my chest was determined to pitch forward. After a mild correction, I was push pressing to everyone’s satisfaction.

We reviewed the sumo deadlift high-pull under the watchful eyes of Kelly Moore and Jesse Woody, cranking elbows toward the ceiling. I escaped unscathed, released into the October afternoon to find some lunch.

Sam, John, Heidi, Shad, and I crammed into Sammy’s beat-up Ford Focus and roared off toward Trader Joe’s. Several chicken breasts and some uber-crappy sandwiches later, we were back at the Facility, ready for more.

Our lesson in the Tao of Crossfit continued after the break. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve heard the phrase “constantly varied, functional movement, executed at high intensity” several hundred times. I’ve seen more word-for-word copying of this statement in the Crossfit-o-sphere than any other Glassman-ism, and for good reason.

It describes Crossfit perfectly.

Coach addressed functional movement first. The exercises employed by Crossfit exhibit “universal motor recruitment patterns”. This means they exist everywhere. They are not contrivances specific to the gym.

Coach flapped his arms like he was trying to take off, driving home his point by mimicking the absurdity of the weighted lateral raise. Functional movement is always applicable, in that it transfers easily to daily life. Real-world squatting, lifting, pulling, and pushing are all done in a non-isolated, compound manner, and we train for the real world. Therefore, Crossfit makes exclusive use of compound movements.

In Crossfit, intensity is exactly analogous to power; the latter defined as force multiplied by distance over time. Increased power output invariably leads to increased fitness, as seen again and again through observation of Crossfit athletes.

Power = (Force * Distance)/Time

Crossfit naturally incorporates the pursuit of increased power output. WODs are typically structured to elicit a specific number of reps in an unknown timeframe or an unknown number of reps in a specific timeframe.

For instance, “Fran” demands 45 repetitions each of the thruster and the pull-up. The duration of the effort is up to the athlete. In this case, the “force times distance” portion of the workout is fixed, leaving time as the unknown variable. The less time it takes the athlete to complete the workout, the more power he/she has generated.

By way of contrast, “Cindy” holds time constant, demanding the athlete complete as many rounds as possible in twenty minutes of a pull-up/push-up/squat combination. To maximize power output, the athlete must increase the “force times distance” portion by completing more rounds.

In both cases, the fittest athlete is the one who produces the most power.

With a subtle warning, Coach Glassman theorized that greater power outputs lead to increased neuroendocrine response, creating changes in body composition that “mimic exogenous hormone therapy”. In other words, Crossfitters begin to take the shape of steroid users without the negative side effects—they enjoy low body fat levels and increased lean muscle mass through high power output.

The impact of compound movement extends beyond mechanics. For instance, deadlifting will improve an athlete’s sprint speed even though the two movements are mechanically dissimilar. This cross-exercise improvement seems to be unique to compound movement, and serves as further evidence of the efficacy of the Crossfit Method.

The argument for constant variety in our training is simple. To tackle unforeseen tasks, we must confront and overcome the unknown on a regular basis. When faced with a novel physical task, “we fail at the margins of our experience or exposure.”

Toward eliminating failure, Crossfit emphasizes exposure to functional exercises across aerobic and anaerobic metabolic pathways. Coach offered the observation that endurance-sport athletes lose their superhuman endurance capacity even when asked to compete in outwardly similar events—marathoners are typically poor cyclists, exhibiting the same lack of cardio-respiratory endurance as novice cyclists. In his words, “VO2 max doesn’t translate very well.”

At the other end of the spectrum, “Crossfit produces a ready state.” Coach presented the example of Greg Admundson, a crazy-fit product of his Santa Cruz gym. While waiting to compete in the “Toughest Cop Alive” Competition, Greg participated in a triathlon, taking second place despite no sport-specific training. He won the TCA Competition later in the week, beating out better-rested athletes for the title.

According to Coach, adequate variance, functionality, and intensity are sufficient for calling any activity Crossfit: “If you were to dig a moat, fill it with crocodiles, swim the moat, scale a castle wall, battle a dragon, throw the damsel over your shoulder and escape, that would be Crossfit!”

Our survey course in Crossfit philosophy over for the day, we turned our attention to the final three movements in the progression—the overhead squat, the push jerk, and the clean. Nicole took center stage to demonstrate each exercise.

The overhead squat possesses all the mechanical attributes the squat, putting the load 8-12 inches overhead.

Using a dowel, Nicole performed dislocates to find her optimal overhead squat grip. She does this by cycling the bar from the hang to overhead to behind the back without bending her arms. The wider the grip, the easier the movement becomes. The athlete works her hands inward on successive repetitions until she cannot complete the movement without bending the arms. Her optimal grip is immediately outside this terminal position.

Grip width determines clearance of the bar over the head. The shoulders are active, shrugged hard. This tension is critical to performing a successful overhead squat with any significant load.

The overhead squat amplifies dynamic and structural problems in the squat. By necessity, any forward inclination of the torso places the load behind the neck, putting the athlete in a suboptimal position to complete the squat. She must cantilever severely to keep the load in the frontal plane. When the torso is kept upright, the movement becomes much easier—the load is directly over the heels, enabling the athlete to transfer force from the ground directly to the bar.

The push jerk is the granddaddy of all presses. Once the push jerk is mastered, the earlier iterations of the press become obsolete—it will get more weight overhead than the press or the push press, respectively.

The standing press is simple, cued with one word: “Press.” The push press is more complicated: “Dip, Drive, and Press.” The push jerk begins where the push press ends, incorporating an additional dip and catch: “Dip, Drive, Press, Dip, and Stand.”

The athlete puts momentum and elevation on the bar, throwing herself underneath it in a partial squat, arms extended overhead. The final movement is very similar to the third pull of the clean or the snatch. The arms lockout overhead milliseconds before the feet hit the ground—“Jump and land partially squatted.”

Nicole performed the push jerk with extraordinary speed, demonstrating an exceptional ability to leverage herself under the bar in perfect position. Shoulder flexibility plays a huge role in the successful push jerk, as the bar ends up overhead with the hands just outside shoulder width. Nicole nailed the movement again and again, her flexibility evident.

According to Coach, each new press variation should allow for a 30-50% increase in load over the previous press. The push jerk momentarily puts the athlete in freefall with the load locked overhead—the weight is limited only by the structural integrity of the body on impact. Coach offered the example of being thrown out of an airplane with a grand piano. You’d be able to press it overhead without any difficulty, but the landing would suck.

The final exercise for the day was the clean. Nicole held a Dynamax ball in a close-grip deadlift, standing and shrugging on Coach’s cue. She went to triple extension, rendering the ball momentarily weightless.

“A clean is exactly playing catch with yourself with a heavy object.”

Coach emphasized this aspect of the clean, commanding us to watch the ball rather than Nicole. As she shrugged, the ball hovered just long enough for her to get underneath it in a solid squat.

The clean has a large psychological component—it is not human nature to want to throw oneself beneath an object in freefall.

“The athleticism of (the clean) is not in the pull…powerlifters look at the loads Olympic lifted, and they’re not impressed…There’s one guy that can get under that 650 pounds, but probably thousands that can pull the load as high as he did,” Coach said, gesturing toward his abdomen.

The glory of the clean is the third pull.

We broke into our groups for individual work on the overhead squat, the push jerk, and the clean. During this session, I had a wonderful revelation regarding my inability to push jerk properly. My failing is caused by inflexibility.

While training at Crossfit Boston, I am repeatedly called out for landing stiff-legged. Unfortunately, this is the only way I am able to land and still maintain an upright torso, as my shoulder and hamstring flexibility levels prevent a proper squat with my hands directly overhead.

Of all the things I learned at the Seminar, this was the most valuable. Knowing the source of your failings is a huge boon to self-improvement.

We reconvened around the whiteboard for a final lecture. Coach encouraged us to maintain a proper attitude toward the highest order of athletic movements, as they can take a lifetime to master.

He also encouraged us to focus on mechanics, properly executing the basic movements before moving on to more advanced exercises—“You can’t go to reading if you don’t know the alphabet.”

He warned us to respect sub-maximal loads. In his experience, most injuries occur at 60-70% 1RM. These weights produce enough force to hurt you, but aren’t large enough to engender proper respect. Focus is paramount when working in this load range. Proper technique protects athletes from injury, even when post-maximal loads are used. If correct positioning is employed, a failed lift won’t end in a hospital visit.

We cleared the floor, and the trainers brought out barbells and stacks of 25-pound bumper plates. They set up nine stations, each with a Dynamax ball and a 95-pound bar.

It was time for Fran.

Greg Amundson and Kelly Moore each took at spot directly in front of the pull-up bars, giving an up-close demonstration of peak Crossfit performance. I’ve never been so amped in my life. Greg’s sub-3:00 attempts at Fran are the stuff of legend, and I was ecstatic to have the chance to witness it firsthand.

With an entire room of screaming athletes behind them, Greg and Kelly blasted through the workout. Sets of thrusters and pull-ups melted into each other as they cranked onward, Greg finishing in 3:09 with Kelly 30 seconds behind. It was amazing--see it here.

When Coach called for athletes to take the floor, I bolted for the stations closest to the pull-up bar. Dead center, with Jesse Woody standing to my right, we launched into Fran. Surrounded by veteran Crossfitters, I felt like I was exercising underwater. I deliberately broke up my first set of thrusters into sevens, preserving some energy for the final assault.

The pull-up bar was an absolute melee, athletes jostling for room to kip. I made the mistake of going inside the bar, losing my slot when I dropped off for a rest. Frustrated, I stood in a forest of kipping legs, waiting. Ten seconds later, I was free.

The mid-workout haze set-in as I went through the remaining thrusters and pull-ups. Jesse counted my reps, preventing my super-ball of a barbell from killing bystanders during the transitions. Surrounded by friends screaming my name, I felt like I had the power of a thousand men.

After the last pull-up, I called for time. Six minutes, 29 seconds, a full fifty-five seconds better than my previous personal record. My enthusiasm was tempered by the knowledge that Greg had halved my time, but a new PR was always welcome.

Two more waves of athletes went through the workout, driven by the incessant yelling of the Level II trainers. For the third wave the bars were set at 65 pounds, and the women ripped through Fran.

Sam dominated the heat, finishing the workout in 5:37 as prescribed. She kipped out every pull-up, drawing the attention of Kelly, Lynne, and Nicole. When it was all over, Sam claimed her place as an upcoming Crossfit superstar, Kelly joking that she had better start training harder.

In the span of one day, I’d seen the heart of Crossfit and received enough motivation to last a lifetime. After a brief discussion on the merits of large-bore shotguns, our crew piled into the Ford for the short trip back to Brookline, headed for dinner and some much need rest.

We passed the evening in my living room, trading theories on proper training methods, periodization, and the best way to handle unmotivated athletes. I fell asleep at 9:00, a hundred thousand theories bouncing around in my head.

I had a million questions. Luckily, my backstage pass was good for one more day.

Fran Video courtesy of John Velandra. Stay tuned for Day Two. All the excitement of Day One with none of the funny aftertaste!

Friday, October 20, 2006

A Bit Of Craziness

The overhead squat is a nasty exercise. Even at relatively light loads, it takes tremendous focus to put the weight up and keep it there.

Last night, I got a taste of the pain inherent in flinging a bunch of steel and rubber above your head and squatting for reps. It was entirely self-inflicted, and it was excellent.

Dan John wrote about a young collegiate thrower in his e-book “From the Ground Up". When asked what exercise he would do if he could start his training at square one, the thrower replied, “The overhead squat.”

Apparently, the young man’s coach wouldn’t allow anyone to throw unless that individual could perform 15 consecutive overhead squats with a bodyweight load. This is a mean feat. If you can pull it off, you can probably beat everyone you know at everything they do, strength or otherwise.

Every muscle participates, making this one of the premier strength exercises on the planet. You could never do another movement, and you’d have amazing stability and strength across a variety of pursuits.

I cut the bodyweight requirement into tiny little pieces, and it still turned me into a pile of uselessness. Neal Thompson and I came up with this bit of masochism, dubbed “Therapy”:

6 rounds for time:

200m Sprint
5 Overhead Squats (1/2 bodyweight)
10 Burpees
15 Push Presses (1/2 bodyweight)

During the third round, my wrists gave out, and I had an epic time trying to keep my shoulders active. If you’ve ever questioned the meaning of “active shoulders”, the overhead squat will resolve your skepticism immediately. Keeping the load from pulling you onto your face requires full-body tension and the ability to put your shoulders into your occipital lobes.

Achieving that tension after 200 meters of all-out sprinting is a sick joke.

I took the bar from the floor every time. I push jerked it overhead and settled the bar behind my neck. From this position, I took a snatch grip and push jerked the load again, assuming the top position of the overhead squat. If you’re feeling particularly ballsy, a snatch will get you there faster.

The shoulders go into the inner-ear canal, and holding your breath is not optional—this practice generates the tension needed to keep the bar up when you’re down in the hole.

Every time through was agony, and I f*cking loved it.

Give “Therapy” a shot, and let me know where you end up. I managed it in 27:24 with an 85-pound load for both strength movements.

Go faster!

For Coach Glassman's take on the Overhead Squat, pick up the August 2005 Crossfit Journal. It's five bucks worth of brain-candy.

Photo of Pyrros Dimas courtesy of Stop by on Monday for all the dirty details of the Boston Certification Seminar.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Go Away

Again Faster is going remote this weekend, and you’re not invited. Sam and I are bringing our unique brand of rock climbing back to the Gunks for one last hurrah before the snow flies.

From the look of things in the Midwest lately, we don’t have long.

If you’re jonesing for a workout come Sunday morning, try this bodyweight scorcher:

10 Squats
200m Sprint
15 Burpees
400m Sprint
30 Pull-ups
400m Sprint
15 Burpees
200m Sprint
10 Squats

Consider it my gift to you. The Weekly Workout Series will continue all winter long, resuming on Sunday, October 29th. We won’t let a little thing like bone-chilling cold stop us, now or ever.

Go faster!

Lead photo courtesy of Tune in on Monday for a epic recounting of the Boston Certification. Group picture by Tony Budding,