Monday, January 29, 2007

Interview with an Operator

The fitness needs of Special Operations personnel are extensive. For these folks, optimum physical fitness can mean the difference between life and death. Many have latched onto Crossfit as a means of attaining and maintaining this level of fitness.

I recently got the opportunity to sit down with a good friend and an eight-year veteran of Crossfit who serves our country in this capacity. He shared his take on fitness in the field, covert operations, and the rigors of Crossfit.

AF: You serve in the U.S. Navy as a Corpsman, and you’re also a Crossfitter. What kind of job do you do?

Op: I am a U.S. Navy Corpsman, a medic basically. I work with Marines. This last deployment I was with the MSPF element, which is the Maritime Special Purpose Force element that does VBSS, which is visit, board, search, and seizure of vessels in the ocean. We do hostage takedowns, and reconnaissance and surveillance of enemy personnel.

AF: How long have you been doing that?

Op: About the last year or so.

AF: Give me some background. What happens between the time when the mission comes down and you hit the ground?

Op: You get a warning order. You have this five-paragraph order. It basically states the commander’s intent, what he wants of you, your unit to accomplish on this mission. Approximate dates, times, probably get a photo of a high-value target you need to capture. You get routes. If you’re walking on foot, sometimes you get dropped off 5, 6, 7 kilometers away in the middle of a jungle, you need to walk to the area. You get walking routes, topographical maps, satellite imagery—you get all kinds of stuff as far as mission planning is concerned.

Then everybody gets together, all the key personnel in the unit get together, the platoon commanders, you got your element commander, the element executive officer, squad leaders, team leaders, and the Corpsmen also sit in. They need to know, if something goes wrong medically, where they need to rendezvous with you, how long is evac time, so you can pack your gear accordingly. You’re not going to walk out there with a hospital on your back.

AF: How much gear are you usually packing?

Op: I usually pack between 20 and 30 pounds of gear. Most of it’s water weight, because it’s IV bags, intubation kits.

AF: So hopefully you’re coming back as heavy as you went in?

Op: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. I spread load the stuff, too. I spin up most of my guys with how to administer IV solution, all that stuff, hypervolemic shock and all that stuff, so they know how to recognize it. At least, I think they do, I hope they do. When they recognize it, hey I’ve got this IV bag, let’s stick it and bring them to the Doc.

As far as basis, if you put it together, all the medical gear that’s out there, it’s probably seventy or eighty pounds, but I spread load it. One Marine will have some of the stuff, another Marine will…I spread load it within the Squads. You have three Squads in a platoon. If we’re rolling heavy, you’ve got 37 guys out there, you have seventy or eighty pounds of total gear, but they’ll be carrying 1 or 2 IV bags.

AF: So you’ve got this spread loaded, you’re on the helo, you have your mission, you know where you’re going. You’re five minutes to target. Tell me what’s going on physically, what’s going on in your head.

Op: Your mind is running like crazy. This is my first deployment, so you’re running though all the scenarios, what could happen, what couldn’t, is everybody going to be all right? Are you going to bring everybody home safely? Not you, in general, but is your commander going to bring you home safely? You’re just amped up. You’re ready to roll.

Everybody’s quiet. You can’t spit. You’re nervous as all shit. No matter how much water you drink, you still feel dehydrated. That’s just half of it right there. You’re shaking, you’re shaking a little bit.

AF: Okay. You’re over your drop zone. What goes on?

Op: After that, it goes into you do what you’re trained for. You execute. Once your feet are on the ground, you don’t have time to worry about what’s going to happen.

AF: Are you guys always fast roping out? Are you hover landing?

Op: Most of the time we’re fast roping. If you can find a clear LZ far enough away form the objective point, we’ll land, if it’s clear. Helos don’t land if there’s certain criteria. The helos will take off and we’ll start our op.

AF: Most Crossfitters have never fast roped. What exactly is getting out of that helicopter like?

Op: There are two ways to get out of the helicopter. There’s this thing called a “hellhole”, about the size of this table, a little bigger than this table. 3.5 foot by 3 foot hole you swing out of, you fast rope down. That’s the center of the bird, right in the belly of the bird. Then they have a tower that hangs off the back of the helo. You can swing out of that, too. That’s a lot easier to get out of, because there’s no restrictions. Your backside’s away from the bird, you’re looking at the bird as you’re going down. That’s a fun time. Fast roping’s good stuff. It’s a good way to put a lot of guys on the ground without touching down.

AF: Have you ever been in a combat situation where you had to throw somebody on your shoulder?

Op: Yes. We were in -------, and we were operating with Reconnaissance [Marines]. Those guys went through the house, and I was on the outside of the house. One of their guys went down. Their Corpsman inside the house, the Recon Corpsman, their own Corpsman, treated him, but being a Recon Corpsman, they have to push through, they have to operate more, so they called me up.

I had to do my secondary assessment, and I put him over my shoulder and carry him out. The LZ was 1.5 clicks away, so I carried him about 1.5 clicks.

AF: How far is 1.5 clicks?

Op: About a kilometer, 1500 meters.

AF: How much would you say this guy weighed?

Op: About 270, 260 pounds with all his gear.

AF: You carried a 270-pound man a kilometer. What are the ramifications of you not being able to do that?

Op: Basically, when that Corpsman did the turnover to me, here’s your patient, this is your patient; you’ve got to take care of him. If I can’t carry him, I can’t take care of him. The reason we’re there is to take care of the guys who are in need of medical attention. So if I have to dump him with some Marine who doesn’t know any medical, doesn’t have any advanced trauma and life support training, who can’t do any monitoring, even on his shoulder—he wasn’t wounded that bad, but bad enough to where he couldn’t walk—you always want to be able to monitor the patient. Me being able to carry the guy made it that much easier for me to monitor him.

Also, I’m doing my job, I’m sharing my load. I’m not dumping my load on someone else. So it makes the team that much more efficient.

AF: As far as the psychological necessity of being in the field, I’m sure you need to be focused and on-target and unemotional. I don’t want to put words in your mouth. What is it like out there for you psychologically?

Op: You have to be ready and focused all the time, especially in that situation. Stuff goes downhill very quickly. For it not to go downhill on you, you need to be focused. That Crossfit stuff comes into play big-time. That physical duress you go through, even if it’s twenty minutes, it builds the mental toughness, the focus. You don’t have to worry about huffing and puffing up a hill.

AF: You obviously have to undergo some job-specific training, not only medical, but you need to be proficient with your gear. What kind of physical training do you undergo in the U.S. Navy, and how do you blend that training with Crossfit?

Op: The Navy sends me to medical schools, all the medical training we can get. A Corpsman on the “green side”, with the Marines, we start with Corps School, we go to FMSS, which is Field Medical Service School, and from there, they go to their unit. Their unit, after that, can either send them to EMT school or OEMS, a live tissue school. It’s a two-and-a-half week long school where they teach you all the ATLS stuff. They take the biggest points out of 18-Delta, which is the special operations medic school that all the special operations medic guys go through. We do a pig lab after that, a live tissue lab. You get to see firsthand what bullet wounds do to flesh, what cuts do to flesh. Sutures and stuff like that. Funny thing is, when you go to that course, you’ll be about 150, 200 yards away from the pig, and they’ll shoot it, and they’ll call for a Corpsman Up, Medic Up, and you have to go running to it. Assess it while you’re huffing and puffing, put it on a stretcher, and bring it back to your table. It’s an all or nothing type thing.

Crossfit teaches you to be like that. One second you’ll be standing there, and the next second, you’re going as fast and hard as you can.

AF: Are you just picking it up?

Op: You’re running to your patient or your pig—it doesn’t matter—and as you’re running there, all these scenarios are going through your head. That’s where physical fitness is huge. Is huge. If you’re not fit, one, you can’t get there quick enough, and number two, being fit allows you to think on the move. Thinking on the move is the big thing.

Just like if you were doing a “Diane”. If you know you can’t lift a 225 twenty-one times, if you’re thinking on the move, if I just divvy this up seven times, rest a little bit, seven times, rest a little bit. If you can’t do the handstand pushups 21 times in a row, it’s the same way. You build that focus.

AF: You started Crossfitting before you were serving in a covert capacity. What were the fitness requirements you had to meet to get into your Spec Ops Program?

Op: Basically, there isn’t a [stated] requirement. Physical fitness is paramount in that community. If one guy can’t keep his weight or pull his weight, the next guy has to pull his weight, and there’s a trickledown effect. If you’re operating with only twelve or fifteen guys in a house, it’s very hard to be efficient.

That’s where physical fitness comes into play, where Crossfit comes along. You should be able to carry a 250-pound guy a substantial distance if you need to. You also need to be able to deadlift a 250 pound guy, because if he’s on a litter, and you’re sharing it with another guy, you should be able to lift at least 150 pounds, maybe 200 pounds—him, all his gear, and maybe sometimes you need to put your gear on him as well.

AF: We were talking earlier about first responding, about policemen and firefighters, about the need to be out in the field and have your physical capacity about you to be able to do your job. Obviously, that’s very important. How do you fit in working out and being recovered enough to do your job, and is it an issue for you in your job?

Op: Policemen don’t carry sixty pounds of gear. First responders, same thing. EMTs, paramedics, those guys. Firefighters do, they have to wear all their protective gear. But those guys are immediate action. They get a call, they have to go right away.

In the military, it’s not like that. It’s more you get a mission base, you get your mission planning, and then your execution. That timeframe is usually 48-72 hours. So let’s say I do a Crossfit workout, a real hard one, like we did today, where you know you’re going to be sore tomorrow. You’re still good. Before your feet hit the deck, you’re going to be fully recovered. Let’s say you get the word tonight—you know you’re not going to hit the deck for at least another 48 hours. That’s the very minimum. Usually they push it further.

AF: How do you do WODs on deployment? You’re out for months at a time; you obviously can’t pack an entire gym with you. You guys are operating in pretty austere environments. What do you have?

Op: One of our guys in our platoon bought a bunch of kettlebells, so we bring those with us. We spread load those as well. If we’re making a campsite for the night, if we’re working in clandestine operations, we obviously don’t bring them, because we know we’ll be back within the day. But if we’re just out in the field we bring kettlebells with us. We also take from the old Crossfit Journal, where you can fill up sandbags and old ammo cans with sand. We guesstimate distances as far as running and stuff like that. I have a pair of rings I bring with me every time we go to the field. That’s how we Crossfit.

AF: How often do you get at it?

Op: Every time we go out. When I’m in garrison, I do it every day. When we’re in the field, it all depends whether or not we have time or not. Because in the morning—mornings are early—six o’clock, six thirty they get you up and you have to do your training. That training usually lasts until sundown. But if you’ve got enough time you do it, if not, you live to fight another day.

AF: Where do you get your workouts?

Op: When I go to the field, if I know I’m going to the field for five days, I write down five days worth of workouts, just random ones, ones I know I like. Ones that I know the guys I workout with like.

AF: Do you guys do exclusively Crossfit-style workouts? Is there anything else in there? Are you lifting?

Op: We’re running a lot and swimming a lot. So what we usually do in garrison, back in the rear, we’ll Crossfit in the morning at six, and at the end of the workday, we run or swim. That keeps us in pretty good shape. Actually, keeps us in really good shape.

AF: Is there total buy-in in your unit? Is everybody Crossfitting? Are there some guys that look at you like you’re nuts?

Op: There’s a lot of guys that look at us like we’re nuts. I’ve got to say, 85% of the guys look at us like we’re nuts. But the results speak for themselves. When I’m the first one done with a combat o-course, or I’m the first one done with a run, or the first one done with a swim, or the first one done with a run-swim-run, it’s all “who’s this guy?” Who’s this Navy guy? They talk shit about the Corpsmen, because you’re not a Marine. But I didn’t join the Marines Corps. It’s good to kick some ass every once in a while, put them in their place.

AF: How many guys are we talking about?

Op: The platoon is 35 deep, and about ten guys are Crossfitting. I know there’s five of us doing it on a consistent basis. You know ------‘s one of the guys in my platoon, and there’s two other guys that do it on a consistent basis. Four or five of us on a consistent basis. The other guys, they kind of do it, sometimes maybe not, depending on their mood.

AF: You guys ever try to spread the Gospel, so to speak, or is it hands-off?

Op: I tried. I tried when I first checked into the unit, and it didn’t work.

AF: What are these other 30 guys doing for fitness?

Op: The old school Marine Corps shit. They’re doing a lot of running. I told them, “A lot of running’s not going to make you combat effective.” They do a lot of the isolated muscle thing, the muscle-head, biceps curl shit.

AF: Is there a difference in results from the guys doing Crossfit? You’ve got a third of the guys doing Crossfit. Do you see a difference in run times?

Op: Hell yeah. -----, when he first started Crossfitting, his PFT… In the Military, everything is a PFT. What was your last PFT score? Which is not an accurate measure of fitness.

AF: For those that don’t know, what is the PFT?

Op: The PFT for the Marine Corps is sit-ups in two minutes—a hundred is a perfect score—pull-ups, no time limit, twenty is a perfect score, and a three-mile run. Eighteen minutes is a perfect score.

AF: Let’s talk about range of motion. Are these full sit-ups?

Op: No. Not at all. It’s arms crossed, touch your thighs. The pull-ups are dead hang. You can’t kip, but you can get a rhythm. If it doesn’t look like you’re kipping, they’ll count them.

AF: What’s your PFT score?

Op: My last PFT score was 295 out of 300.

AF: Where did you fall short?

Op: I was a little slow on the run.

AF: So you couldn’t string together three consecutive 6:00 miles? That’s okay, man, not too many people can. (Laughter).

Op: It’s ridiculous.

AF: These guys that you’ve got out there running every day?

Op: Even the guys that are out there running every day aren’t scoring 300 PFTs. A lot of them are falling short on the calisthenics, especially the pull-ups. A lot of guys can’t do twenty pull-ups. It’s kind of embarrassing for them when the Corpsman comes along and does twenty pull-ups like it was nothing.

Going back to ------, when he first started Crossfitting, his PFT was like a 255, 265, something like that. It’s middle first-class. High first-class would be a 285, 290, 295. He started Crossfit, and two months later, he had a PFT, and he went from a 265 to a 285, 290. In just two months. And he still maintains it today. And he’s gotten heavier as far as muscle mass. He’s got even more muscle.

AF: What other situations do you find yourself in where your fitness needs to be exhibited, not in a combat situation, but in o-courses, etcetera?

Op: O-course too. The Marine Corps o-course. It’s a short course, about 200 meters long. Not even two hundred meters. It’s a hundred and fifty meters long. You got a bar you have to vault, you got monkey bars, you have a thing called the “Dirty Name “ where you jump off a log and catch it on your stomach, and then low walls, you got low log vaults, and a rope climb at the end. My time, it’s hard for me to gauge it, because I didn’t start Crossfit in the military—I started on the outside. Which is good, but for a bigger guy, I’m not small, I can keep up with the best of them. I attribute it to Crossfit.

AF: How long does it take you to get through that hundred and fifty meters?

Op: Last time, it was like 3:40 over twelve, thirteen obstacles. You get to the rope, you’re smoked. There’s no doubt about it. It’s a short, quick workout. Sometimes you run it two, three times for PT. I like it. It’s very Crossfit-like. It’s functional, throw-your-body-somewhere stuff.

AF: We know Crossfit is superior to a bodybuilding/cardio split. I don’t think that’s worth rehashing too much. Does it actually make a difference in the field? Are your bodybuilding/cardio guys keeping up with you anyway? Is it really not a problem?

Op: They can keep up, but they get gassed a lot easier. They definitely can’t carry a two hundred and sixty pound guy for one and a half kilometers. But they can keep up. They wouldn’t be there if they couldn’t. They were hand-selected by our battalion to go to this unit. They can, but I think they could do better. That’s just my opinion, from what I’ve seen.

AF: All right. Thanks. I really appreciate you sending me this stuff and taking the time to talk with me. I’m sure everyone out at Crossfit will appreciate it too. Thanks very much.

Op: No worries.

My thanks to the men of the United States Navy and the United States Marine Corps, and my friend, the outstanding Crossfitter who made this possible. Thank you for your service. All pictures courtesy of an anonymous serviceman known simply as "Combat Camera".

Friday, January 26, 2007

Killing Fran

You think your "Fran" time is good? John Velandra of Crossfit Cape Fear took this video of Greg Amundson and Kelly Moore banging out everyone's favorite WOD in under four minutes at the 2006 Boston Crossfit Certification.

Everytime my ego gets too big, I turn this on. Three and a half minutes of humble pie.

Go faster!

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Bringing Out The Dead

We've got a lot of new athletes at Crossfit Boston, and with the influx comes a whole bunch of newbie questions about deadlifting, including the corker I got last night: "What's a deadlift?"

Here's my take on the best slow lift in existence, originally published in May of last year. Not much has changed since I wrote this article, but I have managed to add 40 pounds to my deadlift. Also, it turns out I'm not as bitterly sarcastic as I used to be. Thanks, Sammy!

I love deadlifting. There aren't too many things I like better than ripping a sh*tload of weight off the ground. I love that moment when you're pulling, and the bar is bending, and nothing is moving. At that moment, I know that I have to be stronger than the gravitational pull of the Earth. Beating an entire planet? It doesn't get any better than that.

The deadlift is a relatively simple movement. Grab the bar, and get it above your knees. Go to full extension. That's it. No double scoop, no "getting tall", no explosion. The deadlift is a slow grind of man versus metal.

Like everything else, the details are important. I'm not an expert on the movement, but I've been coached through a pull or two, and I'm damn close to a 2.5x bodyweight lift.

The first detail--own the f*cking bar. Walk up to that thing like it stole your wallet after it slept with your sister. Grab it, using a hook grip or a mixed grip, and strangle the ever-living sh*t out of it. Treat every pull like a battle.

You're William Wallace, and the bar is the English. It doesn't stand a chance.

Once you've got a good grip on the bar, drop the hips and get your chest up. The bar should be on your shins or damn close. Unlike a snatch or a clean and jerk, your shoulders should be behind the bar.

Retract your upper back. Your lower lumbar curve should be pronounced. A rounded back is going to result in injury. You'll notice a tendency toward rounding as your reps go on, especially during high-rep efforts. Make a conscious to effort avoid rounding.

As you're addressing the bar, take a deep breath, and tense every god-forsaken muscle in your body. All of them. Say it with me now..."I am one piece. I AM ONE PIECE!"

Now, don't think. Don't wait. Don't breathe. Don't worry about how much weight is on the bar. Rip that motherf*cker off the ground.

Your hips and your shoulders should move at the same rate. Do not extend the hips and then the back. The movements should be simultaneous. If you do them independently, you'll get no pull out of your legs and all the strain will be on your lower back. This will severely limit the amount of weight you can move. Romanian Deadlifts are wonderful and all, but that's not what we're doing here.

Pull through the heels. This is important. You wouldn't engage in a tug-of-war on your toes. Human beings are built to pull from the heels. We do it instinctually in every pulling effort we engage in. Unlike last Saturday night, now is not the time to resist your instincts.

Even though the bar may be moving slowly in reality, pull fast. This is a mindset. The "faster" you attempt to pull, the more power you'll develop. Power output is a direct result of a high rate of force development, or RFD. The sooner get to your maximum force output, the sooner the lift will be over--you'll lift quick and spend less time fighting the bar.

Do not quit. Just because the bar doesn't move at first doesn't mean it won't move. The barbell is flexible--at high weights, it actually bends before the weight comes off the ground. You have to work through this point. If you feel stuck, pull harder! DO NOT QUIT!

This lift is close to my heart. I'd do it all day long if I could. Screw Crossfit. Screw density training, sprinting, and gymnastics. I want to move enough weight to qualify as a human bulldozer.

Take some advice from a man who has already achieved machine-hood. Dave Tate has pulled 740 off the ground. His deadlifting advice doesn't always vibe with mine--he advocates rounding of the upper back and keeping the bar away from the shins. Of course, he's been lifting since I was in diapers, so what the f*ck do I know. Check out this article, courtesy of Dave Tate and T-Nation.

Go faster!

I don't know where the picture of Mel Gibson came from. It might be a mug shot. The skinny screaming guy is me, back at the old CFB Facility.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Exercising Caution

As a trainer, I have a mandate. I’m charged with increasing my clients’ speed, strength, and power, and with those qualities, their overall fitness.

I’m also charged with keeping my clients injury-free. An athlete who is unable to run, jump, pull, push, and throw is not going to make any gains. I always err on the side of caution in this respect. If a client reports persistent pain beyond the level of simple discomfort for any movement, we don’t do that movement.

I also refuse to expose my athletes to any movement that I deem unsafe. There are very few exercises that fall into this category. Most exercises that conventional wisdom has declared “unsafe” are absolutely necessary for elite athletic development—the squat and the deadlift come to mind. These exercises are perfectly safe with proper spinal alignment and range-of-motion. Without these sound mechanics, they can result in injury.

The weighted good morning is one of the few exercises my athletes don’t perform. While this movement is perfectly suitable for veterans of posterior chain work, it exposes novice and intermediate athletes to an unacceptable risk of injury. Further, a viable substitute exists that reduces this risk substantially.

In the weighted good morning, the athlete holds a barbell across the trapeziums, much like the starting position of the back squat. With a slight bend in the knees, he then leans forward at the waist while pushing the hips back, keeping the chest up and the shoulders retracted, until reaching parallel. Upon completion, he returns to the upright position.

Like the squat and the deadlift, performing this movement safely requires good spinal alignment. The chest is “up”, the shoulders are retracted, and the lower back is arched.

For novice athletes, maintaining this spinal alignment is a challenge. This group typically presents poor hamstring flexibility, making it nearly impossible for them to retain an arched lower back throughout the prerequisite range of motion during the good morning. Without this arch, a tremendous shearing force is placed on the spine. The lack of proper spinal alignment is further exacerbated by the placement of the resistance.

Using classical mechanics, the dangerous nature of the good morning due to the placement of resistance becomes blindingly obvious. The barbell is across the shoulders, a full torso-length from the hips. In essence we have a lever system, where the spine serves as the lever and the hips serve as the fulcrum.

The further the fulcrum is from the load, the greater the force that must be applied to the lever to move the load. In this case, the fulcrum is as far from the load as possible, and the athlete must apply a great deal of force to the spine in order to return to standing. The chance of the back rounding and spinal alignment failing is huge.

The majority of the benefit of the good morning lies in the return to standing. The athlete recruits the hamstrings, the glutes, and the erectors to move the resistance through a 90-degree arc, ostensibly building strength and power in that muscle group. Make no mistake—this is a worthwhile goal. The ham/glute/erector complex is the engine that drives all athletic movement. It must be developed thoroughly in order to achieve maximum performance.

There is an alternative to the good morning that creates the same speed and power benefits. The Romanian Deadlift (RDL) recruits the same muscles as the good morning while allowing the novice athlete to achieve proper spinal alignment, despite a lack of hamstring flexibility. Most importantly, the load is placed very close to the hips, reducing the load on the spine, and therefore reducing the risk of rounding.

The RDL is often lumped into the mix of dangerous exercises. Like anything else, it can be devastating without proper mechanics. The knees are slightly bent, the chest is “up”, the shoulders are retracted, and the lower back is arched. The barbell is against the shins, placing the load close to the hips and within the base of support. Keeping the knees bent and the spine in proper position, the athlete moves through a 90-degree arc to vertical.

There are several similarities between the RDL and the good morning. The glute/ham/erector complex is activated in each instance, and proper performance requires good spinal alignment. The range-of-motion is nearly identical. The difference lies in the placement of the load in relation to the hips and the base of support. When we take these factors into consideration, the proper choice of exercise becomes obvious.

With equal efficacy, and a lower risk of injury, the RDL is superior to the good morning for targeted posterior chain development.

Go faster!

Pictures courtesy of the Maryland Spine Center,, and The crappy lever illustration is all mine.

Friday, January 19, 2007

The Truth

Everyone has their caveats. This is the warning reasonably intelligent people deliver after every definitive statement in an attempt to cover their ass.

“Yeah, fasted cardio is the only way to get your body fat below 8%. But, you know, that’s only true for most guys. It might not work for you.”

The caveat absolves the speaker of any responsibility for the effectiveness of their advice, shifting the blame for failure to the listener. In the world of athletic training these cop-out statements are often necessary—there’s not a whole lot out there that’s strictly black and white.

Nonetheless, I was lying in bed last night wondering if there are certain unalienable truths out there, statements about training that require absolutely no caveat. In my mind, every pursuit has an essence that lends itself to description and explanation. Fitness is no exception. Here, I humbly present the truths of training, caveat-free:

1.) You will not get stronger without overload.

This one is simple. Training has two guiding principles—volume and intensity. The first refers to the number of repetitions performed, while the second refers to the relative demand those repetitions place on the body. Over time, you must expose your body to gradually increasing volume in order to reap fitness benefits. You must keep intensity high throughout.

I like to track this in my workout log by recording the total amount of weight lifted in any session divided by the number of repetitions performed in that session. This calculation gives an average weight per repetition. This number must increase over time, or you’re just spinning your wheels.

2.) You will not get bigger without eating more or smaller without increasing energy expenditure.

My buddy Eva Claire loves this one. All the girls want to get smaller and all the boys want to get bigger. Most women try to get smaller by eating less when they would be better served by increasing their energy expenditure. Most men try to get bigger by increasing their energy expenditure, although they’d be better served by eating more.

Each gender should take a page out of the other’s playbook.

Eating less only serves to lower your metabolic rate, meaning your body will attempt to conserve every precious calorie for future use. What goes in stays in, stored as fat. Rather than lower their metabolic rate, women would be better served by lifting heavy to maintain lean muscle mass and exercising with high intensity to ramp up fat-burning.

In the same vein, lifting heavy and often will only increase lean muscle mass if the attendant caloric intake will support the new tissue. The boys need to take in more food, not lift more. Nonetheless, they’ll spend three hours a day in the gym, burning off those stray calories that would’ve turned into new tissue if energy expenditure had been a little lower.

3.) Steady-state cardiovascular work will not lead to fitness.

The body uses three distinct energy pathways, each employed based on the demands placed on the body. Two of these systems (the alactic acid system and the glycolytic system) are called into play when the rate of muscle contraction exceeds the body’s ability to produce contractions using oxygen.

These two systems, collectively known as the anaerobic systems, are not trained during steady-state cardiovascular work. Steady-state work utilizes the aerobic energy system, which is only capable of producing muscle contractions in the presence of oxygen.

Unfortunately, the anaerobic systems are critical for high to moderate power output activities, such as the squat, the clean and jerk, and the 400-meter sprint. If they aren’t properly developed, the corresponding activities suffer.

Road jocks aren’t worth a damn when it comes to performing anaerobic activities, because they haven’t developed the contractile strength that comes with heavy anaerobic training. Primary practitioners of steady-state cardiovascular work are incomplete athletes.

4.) Mental focus is more critical to training success than physical ability.

We are limited by our bodies, but our true limitations exist in the mind. Flat-out lying to an athlete about weight on the bar will often get them to lift a personal best, absence any organic change in the body. I attribute this phenomenon to the power of belief. “Knowing” that you can do something will instantly bring you closer to doing it. Combine an ardent belief with months of training, and you have a recipe for excellence.

On the flip side, God-given ability is easily negated by a poor outlook. I’ve seen otherwise-talented sandbaggers spend a lot of time claiming inability, giving them a ready-made hedge against failure. These folks fail a lot, and they remain in the realm of the novice athlete for years.

5.) There is an inverse relationship between the complexity of a piece of exercise equipment and its effectiveness.

The most effective implements for building lean muscle tissue and shedding fat are heavy, blunt, and simple. They have few or no moving parts, and they don’t plug into the wall. A barbell, some weights, a few dumbbells, and a pull-up bar are all you need to achieve world-class fitness. Everything else just adds variety.

By their nature, these things require effort to use. You’ve got to pick them up off the ground and hoist them around. They don’t give you a place to sit, and they don’t read your heart rate every ten seconds.

If your exercise regimen involves blinking lights, vibrating seats, or imbedded televisions, you’re doing yourself a disservice. Find the stuff that’s cold and heavy and made of metal. It’s the only route to fitness.

There they are—five unalienable truths about training. You could disagree with my assertions, and probably make a good case of it, citing fifteen scientific studies and the extensive knowledge of the over-certified polo shirt-wearing pseudo-trainer down at the local Y.

The problem is you’d have to use an awful lot of caveats.

Go faster!

Picture courtesy of Check out our new Gill Athletics site for all the heavy, blunt, cold stuff you could ever need. From now until eternity, we're offering great discounts on all the gear in the Gill Athletics inventory. Email me for details!

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Impulse Control

Virtually all athletic activities involve maximal force development. This may be directed toward starting, stopping, changing direction, or maintaining a vector at top speed. Likewise, it may be directed at throwing, jumping, and hitting. As a general rule, the more force you’re able to develop, the greater your athletic potential.

The fastest sprinter and highest jumper direct the most force toward the ground with the greatest speed, as does the world record holder in the clean and jerk. Each one of these athletes depends on their ability to move a motionless object into motion.

For the track athlete, this object is themselves, while the weightlifter is moving a barbell. For the aspiring Crossfitter, this object could be themselves, a rower handle, a barbell, a kettlebell, a medicine ball, or any other form of resistance. In each instance, we’re looking to move an object from rest to top speed in the shortest amount of time possible.

Moving an object from rest (or in a new direction) requires an impulse. This quantity is equal to the average force applied to an object multiplied by the duration of that force application.

Impulse = Force (avg.) * duration of force application

The greater the overall impulse, the faster the ensuing acceleration will be, all other things being equal. Therefore, to maximize our sprint start, our first pull, and our rowing stroke, we must maximize impulse.

There are two ways to maximize impulse—increase force or increase the duration of force application. Ideally, we won’t separate these quantities. We’ll generate a ton of force for as long as possible.

Maximizing force is intuitively obvious. We want to push hard and fast. Even beginning athletes know that “harder and faster” increases force output. Tell a little leaguer to hit a baseball as hard as he can, and the little guy will swing the bat as fast as he can.

The problem comes when we automatically associate the speed of an action with its force potential. If you were trying to knock out Chuck “The Iceman” Liddell, you would try to hit him as hard as possible as quickly as possible, but you wouldn’t rabbit punch the guy fifteen times. Intuitively, you know that one strike delivered well is more effective that ten strikes delivered poorly, even if both efforts take the same amount of time.

I constantly observe Crossfit athletes trying to “knock out the Iceman” by going too fast. They attempt to speed up their sprinting by increasing stride frequency, speed up their rowing by increasing stroke rate, and clean more weight by pulling on the bar “faster”.

It doesn’t work.

These athletes are sacrificing impulse generation for speed. By blindly pursuing “faster”, they are maximizing force but inadvertently minimizing the duration of force application. Their feet don’t stay in contact with the ground or the rower pedals long enough to generate a meaningful impulse. As our handy-dandy equation shows, maximal force means nothing if the duration of force application approaches zero.

When accelerating an object—self, barbell, rower handle—the athlete must consciously strive for a maximal period of force application. In practice, this means staying in contact with the ground or the foot pedals for as long as possible while applying maximal force. Rather than row “faster”, we need our athletes to row “harder”.

The same principle applies to sprinting. Those who come out of the blocks the fastest generate the largest impulse. They maximize ground contact time for the first twenty meters of a race, pushing “harder” than the competition. Similarly, our Olympic lifters attempt to keep their feet flat on the platform for as long as possible, maximizing contact time and therefore maximizing the impulse to the barbell. Each reaps the benefit of greater acceleration.

Graphically, impulse generation is a parabolic function. For each athlete, there will be a moment of perfect balance between force generation and duration of force application. After this point, force generation drops.

For each athlete, we must find the point where the amount of force and duration of application result in the greatest impulse. Fortunately for the coach and the individual athlete, most athletes are on the early side of the curve, where duration is insufficient to maximize impulse.

Next time you’re going for that personal record, remember to push harder longer. Contact time is essential. You don’t want the Iceman to realize you’re trying to knock him out.

Go faster!

Picture of Chuck Liddell courtesy of "The Iceman" is a Crossfitter, training under John Hackleman at The Pit. Given his recent victory over Tito Ortiz, it must be working!

Friday, January 12, 2007

AF Strongman

This weekend, Again Faster will be at Crossfit Boston for the first-ever Again Faster Strongman Contest.

Patterned after everyone’s favorite late-night program, World’s Strongest Man, we’ll have four events and a whole lot of weight. The only thing missing will be the massive doses of veterinary medication.

I’ve always been partial to the Atlas Stones, an event that requires competitors to lift five successively heavier boulders onto progressively higher platforms. We don’t have any Stones, but we’ve got a whole bunch of barbells.

We’ll load five of them up. Competitors will clean each barbell and place it on a squat rack. The bars get heavier and the racks higher with each attempt. The winner moves the most weight. In the event of a tie, the win goes to the athlete who moves the most weight in the least amount of time.

The second event is the Squat. Competitors will lift a 100-pound (men) or 50-pound (women) sandbag from the floor and squat it as many times as possible in three minutes. The thighs must break parallel with every repetition. The athlete with the most repetitions wins.

The third event is the Crucifix. Competitors will hold dumbbells at arms’ length, parallel to the floor (12 pounds for the guys, 8 pounds for the girls). The athlete who maintains the prescribed position for the longest amount of time wins.

The fourth event is the Overhead Carry. Competitors will lift a loaded barbell from the floor, and put it overhead in a snatch grip. They’ll then walk from one end of the gym to the other and back, maintaining the bar’s overhead position. The winner will be the athlete who goes the furthest or completes the course in the least amount of time.

We’ll meet at Crossfit Boston at 8 a.m. on Sunday morning. You’ll get all the joy of Strongman with none of the inadvertent Eastern Bloc hilarity.

Go faster!

Picture courtesy of

Tuesday, January 9, 2007

Principles of Speed

“The Athlete’s Mission Statement: Generate and apply the greatest amount of force over the greatest range of motion in the least amount of time.”—Dave Kerin, Middlebury College Track & Field

I attended the USATF Coaching Certification for one reason: Crossfitters sprint constantly, and no one seems to get much faster.

Sprinting is not jogging with a higher stride rate. If you ask an athlete with a background in high-mileage running to sprint, their mechanics will remain the same regardless of speed. They will go faster, but the improvement is asymptotic. They’ll soon reach the ends of their ability, limited by form rather than potential.

Speed is not driven by rate of action. It is driven by force of action. Translated to sprinting, this means your speed is based on how much power you apply to the ground, rather than how fast you move your feet.

Most folks get this exactly backward. They assume a higher stride rate produces speed. Rather, a higher rate of force production produces speed. This truism is based on Newton’s Third Law: For each action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. The more force we put into the ground, the more force it returns to propel us forward. This process is observable as increased stride length—a more powerful foot strike propels the athlete further than a less-powerful foot strike.

Good sprint mechanics start with posture. The body must be relaxed and in balance. The head is aligned with the spine, and the shoulders are aligned with the hips.

Notice that our sprinter is squared to the direction of travel—there is no angular rotation about the spine. This ensures that all of his energy is directed toward propelling him forward.

When the recovering foot hits the ground, it strikes directly under his center of mass. This prevents the braking action that would occur if his foot landed in front of him.

Upon contact, he achieves full hip extension, much like the second pull of the Olympic lifts. During this process, the foot is in full dorsiflexion. The toes are pulled toward the shin, creating a ninety-degree angle at the ankle. This creates a rigid unit with very little give, allowing a majority of the produced force to be transmitted to the ground. 30-50% of the landing energy is transferred to the next stride, preserving forward momentum.

At maximal velocity, the heels recover high. This means the recovering foot passes the lead leg above the knee and below the gluteus maximus.

The foot is then brought as high as possible in front of the athlete. This maximizes foot speed as the leg extends toward the ground, helping to create a powerful foot strike.

Our Instructors continually reminded us to think of the foot as a hammer, striking the ground as hard as possible. Sprint speed is all about force production and amplitude of movement.

Amplitude of movement refers to the vertical travel of the sprinter. With each foot strike and extension, the athlete launches off the ground, the hips traveling upward. As he transitions into the next stride, the hips travel downward. If you were to trace the path of the hip during a sprint, it would look very similar to a sine wave. This oscillation is indicative of good force production.

According to Dan Laufer of the University of Virginia, many athletes lose amplitude of movement when they try to run faster. This is a symptom of rigidity in the hips and overall body tension. Again, relaxation is paramount to speed, and a large range of motion in the hips is necessary for optimal performance.

I plan on applying these principles to the athletes at Again Faster and Crossfit Boston yesterday. No longer will fast jogging suffice when sprinting is called for. We’ll be working on good posture, high knee lift, dorsiflexion, hip extension, and a large range of motion until everyone stops trying to run a mini-marathon when the WOD calls for a 400 meter sprint.

It’s time to go faster.

Picture of Michael Johnson, holder of five Olympic gold medals in the 200m, 400m, and 4x400m, courtesy of Pictures of J.J. Johnson at the 2002 Mt. Sac Relays courtesy of

Monday, January 8, 2007

Principles of Success

This weekend, I attended a USA Track and Field Coaching Certification at the University of Rhode Island.

Under the tutelage of Dan Laufer, Dave Kerin, and Steve Shutt, I got a great look at training theory, physiology, biomechanics, coaching psychology, and every track and field event under the sun.

As you can imagine, twenty-three hours of classroom instruction covers a heck of a lot of material, and I figure that the Again Faster Community might be a little blasé about the intricacies of the steeplechase. In order to keep you awake, I’m going to present you with the takeaways—the commonalities, huge truths, and key points. No hour-by-hour slogfest here.

Some of the salient points are geared towards coaching, others toward athletic performance. No matter which side of the clipboard and whistle you’re on, you’ll find some useful pointers here, and I’ll spare you the lengthy discussion on pole vault mechanics.

1.) “If you’re going to be demanding of your athletes, you’ve got to be demanding of yourself.”

Midway through the course introduction, Dan Laufer came out with this one. Whether you train hard or coach hard, it’s a wonderful maxim. Athletic success demands commitment, sacrifice, and a constant re-examination of goals, strengths, and weaknesses. You can’t expect a high level of dedication from the people around you if you don’t expect it of yourself.

2.) High intensity and high volume don’t go well together.

Our discussion on training theory centered on the proper periodization of workouts over macrocycles, mesocycles, and microcycles. That’s fancy coach-speak for years, months, and weeks. If you’re pushing yourself or your athletes to perform maximal work day in and day out, everything is going to go to sh*t. It might be fine for a while, but eventually the training load will catch up with you, and injury becomes likely. In the world of athletic training, more is not always better.

3.) Train the battery.

All the muscle in the world is useless if you can’t use it. The neuromuscular system must be developed to achieve any sort of athletic success—efficient muscle use relies on it. Toward this end, work with movements and rep schemes that maximize central nervous system development. This means multi-joint exercises executed with both feet on the ground.

4.) Strive for unconscious competence.

During his lecture on training psychology, Dave Karin explained the stages of learning and the hallmarks of athletic progress. When an athlete first learns a skill, they reflect unconscious incompetence. They perform at a sub-par level and they don’t know why.

As they practice, they move into the realm of conscious incompetence, demonstrating an awareness of technical defects but the short-term inability to correct them.

Further coaching leads to conscious competence, the stage where movement becomes mechanically sound.

According to Dave, this is the point where most coaches and athletes stop. Competent performance signals us to stop practicing and move on to the next challenge. This compulsion prevents elite performance. Those who perform at the highest levels of sport possess unconscious competence, the ability to perform flawlessly without a hint of inward focus. Reaching this level requires repetition and continuous effort.

If you’d like to be unconsciously competent, keep practicing long after Coach stops correcting your form. Rather than think “Pull, re-bend, extend, shrug, and drop”, think “Clean!” Until that becomes automatic, you’re not performing at an elite level.

5.) Focus on process instead of outcome.

Coach Shutt does everything he can to prevent his throwers from knowing how far their throws go. This forces them to focus on throwing mechanics rather than distances. As their mechanics become sound, distance is the natural outcome.

This philosophy has immediate applicability to Crossfit. I’ve seen shoddy form in pursuit of better times more often than I care to admit. Focus on doing every movement correctly, and WOD time will take care of itself.

Our first day at the USATF Certification was enormously enlightening, and we didn’t even touch the events. Tune in tomorrow for a discussion on the forces that make you “go”, proper sprinting technique, and the best way to jump high and long. You don’t need to be a track coach to benefit from this stuff.

Go faster!

Picture of Mike Powell courtesy of

Wednesday, January 3, 2007

Stepping Down

Crossfit has an extremely broad curriculum. We incorporate exercises and concepts from gymnastics, weightlifting, sprinting, powerlifting, Parkour, and martial arts in our day-to-day training. This is a tremendous amount of material with a ton of depth.

Wisely, we begin training in the Crossfit Method by learning the basics. We do pull-ups, push-ups, sit-ups, and squats, adding resistance and complexity as our athletic prowess increases.

Soon, we learn thrusters, presses, ball slams, rowing, snatching, cleaning, deadlifting, and all the attendant variations. We assemble a set of skills for developing elite fitness, and we practice as much as possible.

Progress comes quickly. We turn in lower WOD times and higher weight totals with each passing week, and general physical preparation is on a moon-shot trajectory, doubling or tripling with every passing month.

Because of this immediate, tangible result, Crossfit has a well-deserved reputation for unmatched efficacy. We turn slobs into athletes faster than anyone else on the planet.

The problem comes when we try to turn our generalist athletes into sport-specific stars.

Many folks, myself included, came to Crossfit without a sport. When I arrived, I wasn’t training for a triathlon or recreation league softball—I was training to train.

Crossfit became my sport. With every shot at a first-place finish, I became more and more addicted to the workouts. My only objective was to move a ton of weight really quickly, and it did wonders for my athleticism.

As time wore on, my objective became more sport-specific. I became more enamored with Olympic lifting, dedicating the majority of my training budget to building a platform and seeking out qualified coaching.

Last month I decided my six-month goal is to snatch bodyweight. That’s 165 pounds from the ground to overhead with no local stops.

Unfortunately, meeting this goal is going to require some sacrifices that are incompatible with Crossfit’s general physical preparation programming. Daily torture with thrusters, pull-ups, and wall ball shots is not going to give me the technique I need to throw myself under that barbell. Toward that end, I’ll need to practice snatching on a regular basis.

There is a certain reality about the world--every time I’m practicing my snatch, I’m not doing Crossfit. I can only do so many workouts per week, and one has to take precedent over the other. Because of this fact, I anticipate a gradual decline in WOD performance as I dedicate more time to Olympic lifting.

I’ve learned that at some point in your training career, you have to make sacrifices in order to attain certain goals. This point will not come at the beginning of your training, when everything you do produces a tangible result. Rather, it comes when you’ve decided to improve a skill set beyond the province of general physical preparation.

It’s a hard sacrifice to make.

The question is simple: Can you give up the things you need to give up in order to attain your goals? Can you sacrifice metabolic capacity for a bodyweight lift?

No matter what they tell you, you can’t have everything.

Go faster!

Picture of Chad Vaughn courtesy of

Tuesday, January 2, 2007

Get Cracking

The Again Faster "Win My Sh*t" Contest garnered two entries. Here's the second entry, from Jason Lopez-Ota: Entry Two.

Because of the lack of entries, I've decided to extend the contest until January 15th.

I can do that. I own the joint.

Break out that camcorder and get cracking! We're looking for the most original example of pulling strength and endurance you can commit to video. Don't be afraid to try something original!

Go Faster!

Picture courtesy of