Tuesday, February 27, 2007

One Foot to the Toeboard

Here at Again Faster, we have a preoccupation with power. We measure our times, our repetitions, and our loads in an effort to calculate our athletic output to the nearest watt.

In the shot put, these calculations are unnecessary. Power output is evidenced by the farthest throw, an immediate visual measure that requires no pencils, paper, or formulas. The best athlete bombs the shot down the sector, and the gasp of the crowd is the only measure that matters.

Yesterday afternoon, I witnessed some of the best throwers in the world compete at the 2007 AT&T USA Indoor Track and Field Championships. The field was loaded, including two-time Olympic medalist John Godina, World Indoor Champion and #1 ranked Reese Hoffa, 2004 NCAA Indoor Champion Dan Taylor, and 2004 World Indoor Champion Christian Cantwell.

These guys are large, and they move fast. The massive indoor shot resembles a golf ball in the hands of these giants, and 65-foot throws are par for the course.

Reese Hoffa throws 69-plus.

The intricate footwork of world-class throwing puts incredible momentum on the shot, culminating in a drive and extension that sends the implement arcing outward at high speed. The violence of the throw is reminiscent of the third pull of the Olympic lifts, embodying the same devastating combination of speed and skill.

Cantwell continued his pursuit of the 75’10” world record with a Round One put of 71’3.5”, a throw that was unmatched for the rest of the competition. It was enough to secure him the men’s Visa Championship and a giant credit card worth $25,000, an enviable payday in the under-funded sport of professional track and field.

Hoffa took second with a 69’7” throw, and Taylor third with a 66’8” throw, neither man threatening Cantwell’s position at the top.

The final throw of the day belonged to Christian Cantwell. With the competition wrapped up, Cantwell stood in the ring, the shot extended overhead. The stands were shaking with the clapping of hundreds of spectators, the din reaching a crescendo as he lowered the shot to his neck and sank into his starting stance, beginning a blinding spin that culminated in the longest throw of the day.

Cantwell throws a bomb.

We screamed as the shot clanged off the backboards, only to see the official raise the red flag. The foul meant the throw would not be measured, despite the fact that it was easily over the 72’ mark. Cantwell would have to settle for his season-best mark of 71’9” and his gigantic check.

The applicability of throwing to elite fitness is obvious. Along with hip flexion and extension, throwing requires the athlete to harness rotational force to send an object as far as possible. Generating and maintaining rotational force requires tremendous strength throughout the torso, as the athlete must keep the body moving as a single unit throughout the throw. Any weak link severely compromises the end distance achieved.

We do not train the throws in the current Crossfit curriculum, perhaps to our own disadvantage. After witnessing the power and grace of the shot put, I believe that derivatives of the event could be useful in enhancing core strength, midline stabilization, and power expression, qualities that are perpetually lacking in our novice athletes.

John Godina in the ring.

Like every worthwhile athletic activity, power generation in the throws starts at the core and emanates outward, employing the largest muscles of the body in a multi-joint compound movement. We know from experience that this type of movement results in increased muscle mass, decreased body fat, and positive hormonal effects.

Given its similarities with our existing practices, incorporating throwing into the Crossfit training regimen is no-brainer. In fact, our preoccupation with power demands it.

Next time you wander in the door at Crossfit Boston, you may want to look to the sky—taking a shot to the head is never pleasant.

Go faster!

Lead picture of Dan Taylor.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

The Keys to the Kingdom

On the wall, directly over the lifting platform, a three-foot by three-foot piece of whiteboard records the accomplishments of the members of Crossfit Boston. The four best times for any given feat are recorded on that Board.

Last night, I got booted off the Board. I was number five.

It bugged the hell out of me, and it still does. Fortunately, I know exactly what went wrong, and I can fix it.

As a trainer, it’s my job to know the keys to elite fitness. I know them—back and forth and up and down and sideways. I just don’t follow them all that well. That changes now, today, right this minute. As far as I’m concerned, knowledge and action are the same damn thing, and I’m on the wagon.

The keys to elite fitness:

Consistency: Show up, whether you like it or not. Work out on a regular schedule. If it hurts, suck it up. If you can’t do it, learn.

Effort: When you can’t do the next rep, do it anyway.

Sleep: Nine-plus hours every night. Kill your subwoofer-owning-militant-whore-neighbor if you have to.

Diet: Zone with five times fat. No excuses. Weighing food is easy compared with the everlasting pain of a dead-f*cking-last performance.

Recovery: Roll it out, ice it down, tape it up, stretch it hard. You say you don’t do it because it takes too much time. You don’t do it because it hurts.

I’m not getting booted off that Board anymore. If you’re going to beat me, you’re going to have to experience cardiogenic asthma, hallucinatory states, and mild bouts of suicidal desire to get there. We’ll see who’s where when the smoke clears.

Go faster!

Picture courtesy of bclkeys.com.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

The Tactical Strength Challenge

Again Faster and Crossfit Boston are hosting a venue for the 2007 Tactical Strength Challenge. The competition begins at 10:00 a.m. on Saturday, March 3rd, immediately following the 9:45 a.m. weigh-in.

The TSC tests absolute strength, strength-to-bodyweight, and strength endurance using three events: the deadlift, deadhang pull-ups, and the kettlebell snatch. The competition will be refereed by myself and RKC Lynne Pitts of Crossfit fame.

The rules are as follows, posted directly from the Tactical Strength Challenge Website. They're not complicated, but we will be following them to the letter, and we expect all competitors to arrive with a basic knowledge of the event layout.

To register for the Tactical Strength Challenge, please complete a waiver and bring it with you on the day of the competition. Day-of-competition entries are at the referees' discretion.

The Rules:

Contest: The contest must be held on a single day. The events consist of a three-attempt powerlifting deadlift, pullups for max reps, and kettlebell snatches for max reps in a 5:00 time period. There are three competition classes: Men's Division, Men's Elite Division, and Women's Division. There may be separate awards for Masters (competitors over 50, same as the RKC, not the more common over 40) at the organizers' discretion; however, Masters lifters should lift in the same flights as other competitors. The weights used for pullups and snatches vary by competition class as described below.

The events must be contested in the order of deadlift, pullups, snatches. Each competitor must be allowed at least 15 minutes of rest between events but 30-60 minutes is recommended.

Scoring: In the deadlift, the winner is the competitor that successfully lifts the most weight. In the pullups and snatches, the winner is the competitor that successfully performs the most repetitions. The winner is determined by combined placement in the three events. For example:

If Lifter A finishes third in the deadlift, fifth in pullups, and second in snatches, his score is 10 (3+5+2).
If Lifter B finishes first in the deadlift; third in pullups, and third in snatches, his score is 7 (1+3+3).
The lowest combined score wins. In the above example, Lifter B would finish higher than Lifter A (7 is lower score than 10).

In the event of a deadlift tie, the lighter competitor places higher. In the event of a pullup tie, the heavier competitor places higher. In the event of a snatch tie, the tie stands. In the event of an overall tie (two or more lifters get same combined score), the tie stands.

Equipment: The equipment consists of a standard Olympic bar and plates, a 16kg, 24kg, or 32kg kettlebell, a pullup bar, a weight belt with a chain, and a timer. The pullup bar should be high enough so that tall competitors can use it without excessively bending their legs. It should also be sturdy enough to handle heavier competitors and kettlebells.

The weight belt with a chain is for weighted pullups in the Men's Elite Division. Competitors may use their own weightlifting or powerlifting belts for the deadlift event, but not for other events.

Deadlift: For the deadlift, the bar will be loaded to the weight the competitor specifies and placed on the ground. The competitor will approach the bar and lift it in one continuous motion. When the weight is fully locked out (knees and back fully straightened), the referee will give the "Down" command and the competitor will drop the bar or lower it under control.

The competitor has three attempts and may specify the same weight or a heavier weight in each successive attempt. The competitor may not request a lighter weight after missing with a heavier weight.

Pullups: In the Men's/Masters division and the Women's Division, bodyweight pullups are performed. A chinup grip, with the palms facing the lifter, is not allowed; the palms must face away. The grip may be thumbless or not, but most competitors find they do best with a thumbless grip.

In the Men's Elite division, pullups are performed with 22 lbs (10kg) attached to the competitor using a weight belt and chain. The total assembly (weight belt and plates) should weigh between 21 and 23 lbs and should be weighed before the competition. Any assembly of belt and plates in this weight range is official and will count for competition purposes or for TSC records.

For pullups, the competitor will approach the bar, grasp it with both hands, and settle into a dead hang with both arms fully straightened. (Competitors may initially stand on a block or box in order to reach the bar.) After settling into a dead hang, the competitor will pull with both arms, using no kipping or swinging, and pull up until the neck or the chest cleanly touches the bar. The competitor will then lower back to a dead hang and do another rep.

For each successful rep, the referee will count 1, 2, 3, and so on. The set is terminated when the competitor quits or fails to make three successive attempts.

Kettlebell snatches:
In the Men's/Masters division, a 24kg kettlebell is used. In the Men's Elite division, a 32kg kettlebell is used. In the Women's Division, a 16kg kettlebell is used. Competitors may use chalk to improve their grip.

A snatch is defined as swinging a single kettlebell between the legs with one arm, bringing the kettlebell overhead in a single motion, and locking it out overhead with a straight arm. After each rep, the competitor will let the kettlebell fall in a single motion (without dropping the kettlebell to the chest or shoulder) and perform another rep. The knees must be locked out at the completion of the lift for the rep to count. The competitor may not use the non-lifting arm to assist the lift in any way - the lift does not count if the free arm or some other part of body touches the platform, the kettlebell, the working arm, the legs, or the torso.

The competitor has 5:00 to perform as many repetitions as possible. The referee will use a timer and tell the competitor when to begin. Once the timer starts, the competitor can snatch with either arm and switch arms as many times as he/she prefers. The competitor can also set the kettlebell down on the ground, rest, or pace on or around the platform (without disturbing other competitors). The set is terminated when the competitor quits or the 5:00 time limit expires. If the competitor violates another technical rule during performance of the set (for example, lowers the kettlebell to the shoulder), the set is not terminated, but the rep preceding the violation does not count. The competitor may resume performing repetitions provided that he/she complies with all relevant rules.

Referee's discretion: The rules of the TSC are basic and straightforward. A brief rules meetings should precede each event but should be brief and not legalistic. The referee may, at his/her discretion, disallow any unorthodox equipment or practice that he/she feels provides a competitor with an unfair advantage. The exact equipment or practice does not have to be disallowed specifically by these rules.

Now that that's out of the way, we hope you can make it! Lynne promises not to beat you--too badly. Crossfit Boston is located at 123 Terrace St., Roxbury Crossing, MA. We'll start the lifting at 10:00 a.m. sharp!

Go faster!

All pictures courtesy of www.tacticalstrengthchallenge.com.

Friday, February 9, 2007

Caught Flat-Footed

Last night, I was watching the World Class Coaching DVD on the clean. I made it through the first hour before I had to shut it off.

My brain couldn’t assimilate the wealth of knowledge contained in the first sixty minutes of the video, let alone the following forty. Watching Shane Hamman clean four hundred pounds with the same dexterity as a ten-pound training bar was absolutely surreal. Cut-aways to Pyrros Dimas and Marc Huster at the 1991 World Championships only added to the effect.

Then the real bombshell. About twenty-five minutes in, the narrator said something like this:

“It is our opinion that the ankles should not extend during the second pull. Despite the fact that many world-class athletes employ ankle extension, we don’t believe it embodies the most efficient technique. Rising up on the toes shifts the center of gravity forward, making the clean more difficult. As the clean is refined, and heavier weights are lifted, we believe this movement will be discarded.”

Holy sh*t. What did he just say?

The video cut back to Hamman, throwing around four hundred pounds like he was warming up for jog in the park. Sure enough, the soles of his shoes remained parallel to the platform for the entire lift. Suddenly back at the World Championships, my eyes were glued to Dimas’ feet. Not a hint of ankle extension.

Watch Hamman at The 2000 North America, Central America and Caribbean Islands Weightlifting Championships:

The evidence was right there in front of me. The best lifters on the Planet employ a double-extension technique. The knees and hips extend, with the ankles continually dorsiflexed at ninety degrees.

The narrator didn’t do me the favor of explaining further, and I was left to rationalize this one on my own.

My bewilderment cleared up as I thought back to my USA Track and Field certification. The O-lifters were keeping their ankles rigid, much like sprinters and high jumpers. These track athletes maintain dorsiflexion because force transmission is compromised if the ankle is extended, and sprinting and jumping at an elite level requires maximal force transmission. They cannot afford a weak link.

Our Olympic lifters are doing the same thing. Any shock absorbing link between the platform and the barbell will compromise the amount of force the athlete can put on the bar, thereby limiting the amount of weight he can clean. Flexing the ankle to ninety degrees maximizes force transmission.

Coming up on the toes compromises another important attribute—balance. This action shifts the center of gravity forward and upward, away from the desired direction of travel. The bar path for a properly executed clean is upward and backward, with about four inches of rearward horizontal displacement. Any forward displacement of the body could compromise the athlete’s ability to rack the bar, as it would cause the barbell to move forward rather than backward.

I’ve had trouble with this myself, my cleans landing forward of their optimal racking position. Lincoln Brigham, a USA Weightlifting Coach out of Sedona, Arizona, theorized that my second pull wasn’t close enough to my body, and my elbow whip wasn’t fast enough, causing me to rack too far behind the bar.

Although these observations are undoubtedly true, I now believe that my extreme ankle extension is exacerbating the problem.

Fighting ankle extension is difficult, and requires an acute awareness of body position throughout the lift. Nonetheless, I've witnessed it in action with my own eyes, so it can't be sworn off as impossible. From this day forward, I’m abandoning triple extension in favor of a flat-footed approach to the clean.

If it's good enough for Shane, it's good enough for me.

Go faster!

Hamman profile picture courtesy of realsolutionsmag.com. Video of Hamman at the 2000 North America, Central America and Caribbean Islands Weightlifting Championships courtesy of Ticket2Sports.com via YouTube.

Sunday, February 4, 2007

Child's Play

There is a video of Pyrros Dimas floating around the internet. I’ve had it linked to Again Faster since our inception, because it’s absolutely beautiful. Among other things, it shows him power cleaning around 400 pounds.

Not power cleaning as in his femur didn’t make parallel. Power cleaning as in his knees barely bend.

I’ve watched this video upwards of twenty times, and it never ceases to amaze me. I’m no longer surprised at what he does—he’s a three-time Olympic Champion, after all—but rather what he does it with. This man only weighs 185 pounds. It’s predominantly muscle, but there’s only so much muscle you can pack onto a 185-pound guy and still have room left for organs and such.

One of the other assistant instructors at Crossfit Boston asked me to post the video in question to our WOD Blog on Friday morning. I tacked it up there, and barely gave it a second thought. The human brain has a wonderful ability to seek novelty and ignore banality, and I’d seen this video more often than I’d repeated lines from Fight Club.

Late on Friday afternoon, when the incoming email slowed to a trickle, I remembered the wonder that overcame me the first time I watched Dimas throw a barbell around. I shut down the various pieces of financial software that rule my 9 to 5, and I loaded up the video.

He’s only 185 pounds! This piece of trivia had bounced around in my head, unanalyzed and unacknowledged for over a year. This time, it slammed me upside the head.

There are two basic ways to get stronger. An athlete can develop larger muscles, or he can utilize more of the muscle mass he already has. The former process is known as hypertrophy, while the latter process is known as innervation. Either way, contractile force goes up, and the athlete brings more force to bear on the world around him.

Until Friday afternoon, I believed that innervation had a very limited scope. Like every other male on the planet, I thought I’d need to get bigger to get stronger. My daily observations seemed to prove it. Linebackers are stronger than wide receivers, bouncers are stronger than their patrons, and Vin Diesel could clearly kick the crap out of Paul Walker.

Then there’s Pyrros. He could probably fling a 260-pound man a pretty good distance and still have the pluck to pick the guy up and dust him off.

Using our traditional paradigm of lifter size and weight lifted, it would stand to reason that Pyrros would weigh something north of 225. He doesn’t, and the question becomes, “Why not?”

It’s accepted within lifting circles that high intensity/low volume sets lead to innervation without appreciable hypertrophy. An athlete lifting above 90% of his one-rep max is teaching his nervous system to fire his muscles in the exact order and duration necessary to complete the lift without signaling his body to grow.

The number of repetitions an athlete can perform at this intensity is necessarily limited, and the attendant damage to existing muscle fibers is limited as a result. When damage is limited, hypertrophy is limited.

Fortunately, the body’s ability to make additional neural connections with existing motor units is not. The athlete continues to get stronger through innervation.

Along with a few other elite Olympic Weightlifters, Dimas has taken this process to its logical end. These athletes have the ability to contract every ounce of muscle fiber in their possession, with such ferocity and completeness that power cleaning 400 pounds becomes child’s play.

They serve as a striking counterpoint to the idea that bigger is stronger. Next time you feel the urge to buy six bottles of Mass Gain 3000 or call me with complaints that your twelve-part bulking program isn’t working, remember that there are other ways to skin a cat. Load up the bar to 90% and bang out three reps. Repeat a couple more times, and call it a day. Someday, you might find yourself power cleaning 400 pounds.

Go faster!

Picture courtesy of abc.net.au. I believe the video is from Ironmind. If it is subject to any copyright, I sincerely apologize to Dr. Strossen for my role in its dissemination, and I encourage all of you to go subscribe to MILO right now!