Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Thirty Days to Freedom

When I’m in front of a group of athletes, teaching basic barbell movements, the nuances of the sprint, or proper kipping technique, I’m an expert. I tell them what I know, and I hold it out there as gospel. They usually become better athletes for it, and it makes me very happy.

Still, it turns out that I don’t know a damn thing. When I hit the platform to clean and jerk or throw up a few snatches, I feel like an utter and complete novice. When I set my back on the bench for a few presses, I feel as weak as the first time I set foot in a gym. I attempted a one-legged squat the other day, and I would’ve fallen on my ass if I wasn’t holding onto the pull-up bar uprights.

I get a similar feeling when I read the works of the masters. I’m not talking about Milton, Moliere, and Shakespeare. I’m talking about the guys who have been slinging iron and pounding plywood longer than I’ve been alive—Mark Rippetoe, Glenn Pendlay, John Drewes, and Bill Starr make me feel downright slow.

These men have accumulated decades of training wisdom, the type borne of witnessing tens of thousands of attempts, and they have the wherewithal to get their observations down on paper. When I read these treatises on lifting, I hope to absorb a tenth of what’s there, knowing that I’ll probably have to settle for less. Without tens of thousands of observations of my own, I can’t fully assimilate their knowledge.

These men made a commitment to strength training that I cannot match while working a nine to five.

So be it. In the name of progress, I’ve handed in my resignation. I’m trading a 401(k) and dental coverage for financial uncertainty and a shot at becoming a veteran of the iron game. Starting June 1st, I will be a full-time trainer, author, equipment vendor, and business manager, taking up a station in the back offices of Crossfit Boston.

With the blessing of my girlfriend, a $400 plane ticket, and a pair of lifting shoes, I’ll spend my first week on the job at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, taking the preliminary steps toward a USAW Club Coach Certification. It seems like as decent a start as any.

I don't have decades of time under the bar, but I’m working on it. In twenty years, I may stand in front of a group of athletes and actually know what I’m talking about. That’ll be a good day.

Go faster!

Picture of Coach Rip with Nicole Carroll, courtesy of Crossfit Eastside.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Putting on the Pounds

Back in January, I started running off at the mouth about snatching bodyweight within six months. Further, I made this my only goal, and said that I would forsake all other pursuits until June.

Needless to say, my ADD-addled brain wouldn't allow me the type of laser-like focus this required, and my body had it's own mini-rebellion after a few weeks of training. My calves rolled themselves up into little knots and my shoulders hurt to the touch.

It took me a good month to realize my snatch grip was too wide and my chest/back were tremendously imbalanced. After a cycle of benching, a slight grip modification, and a few trips to the massage table, my body stopped its Olympic lifting-induced hissy fit.

Now I've got two months left, and I'm a full thirty pounds short of my goal.

The good news is that I can pull the requisite weight (165 on my last weigh-in) to my eyebrows, so it's just a matter of getting the third pull dialed in. Toward that end, I'm employing Dan John's "Big 21" program for the next three weeks.

The premise is simple: 21 reps of three separate exercises (clean and press, snatch, clean and jerk) performed three times a week.

This program has been beat to death all over the Interwebs, but I thought I'd post a spreadsheet for anyone who'd like to know exactly what I'll be doing for the next three weeks. If you'd like to join me, just plug your numbers into the yellow boxes.

Don't give up on me yet, kids. A 165-pound snatch may be close by.

Go faster!

Picture of Thanh Nguyen courtesy of IronMind. IronMind rocks.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Overhauling the Engine

Here at Again Faster, my preoccupation with power is well documented. I’m not talking Napoleon-marches-on-Russia power, but rather power in the classical physics sense.

Power is equal to work over time, and is variously measured using watts, horsepower, foot-pounds per minute, joules, or any derivation thereof.

Power = work/time

This metric serves as a brilliant conceptual umbrella for explaining Crossfit. During any given workout, we’re trying to maximize power, either by increasing work, reducing time, or both. In a workout such as “Cindy” (as many rounds as possible in twenty minutes, five pullups, ten pushups, and fifteen squats), we’re holding time constant while we attempt to increase the amount of work performed, thereby increasing power. In a workout such as “Fran” (21-15-9, thrusters and pullups), we’re holding work constant while we attempt to minimize the amount of time it takes to complete—again, increasing power.

The power equation is simple, but deviously so. Before any athlete can maximize work or minimize time, he or she must maximize a third variable—strength.

When you begin Crossfitting, your strength base is the equivalent of a four-cylinder engine. Over time, you become more adept at recruiting this strength base to move external objects and your own bodyweight, and your power output goes up. You’ve tuned your engine.

Still, you’re driving a four-banger, and you’ll quickly reach the apex of your output potential. After all, you can only tune that bugger so much.

If you want to up your output further, you’ll need to get a bigger engine. This is where dedicated strength training comes into play. Heavy deadlifts, squats, presses, and Olympic lifts, practiced regularly and to the exclusion of metabolic conditioning, will give you this bigger engine. There are many programs that are effective in this arena. The Hatch Squat Program and the Performance Menu Mass Gain Program have both worked well for me in the past. I guarantee that six weeks of dedicated strength training will turn your four-banger into a V-6, and you’ll have whole new powerblock to tune.

If you’ve recently failed to set a personal record on any of the benchmark workouts, go get yourself a bigger engine through strength training. After six weeks, stop back by the Crossfit performance shop. There, you can tune your bigger engine to new levels of power output, expressing your increased strength through decreased WOD times and increased metabolic capacity.

Don’t be surprised if the first few weeks back from the squat rack are difficult. Your body will need some time to readapt to the wallop that is Crossfit. After a month of rebuilding your metabolic base, try those benchmarks again. If you don’t set a PR, I’ll sell this site to those fitness wizards over at Men’s Journal.

Go faster!

Picture courtesy of Hatch Squat Program courtesy of Coach Mike Burgener over at Mike's Gym. Performance Menu Mass Gain Template, created by Greg Everett and Robb Wolf and translated to Excel by Jeff Dale, courtesy of The Performance Menu.

Sunday, April 8, 2007

Unilateral Support

This is one of my favorite AF Articles from last year. I published it in the first days of Again Faster, and I'm pretty sure nobody read it. For the sake of your lifting prowess and my ego, let's try this again, shall we?

When was the last time you picked something up with one hand? Probably about two minutes ago. We do it all the time, yet our training is typically done with both hands.

The last time you pressed, cleaned, snatched, or deadlifted, you did it bilaterally. You gripped an loaded barbell with both hands, and did the movement. This pattern is not innate.

We're not programmed to do things with both hands. You are right- or left-side dominant. You use your dominant arm/hand/leg/foot for writing, throwing, kicking, pulling, and pushing.

This predilection toward one side carries over into bilateral movements.

When you do these movements, your dominant side does more work than your non-dominant side. This happens because the human body craves efficiency. Why push harder with the left arm, if the right arm can get the job done?

This efficiency of movement is self-reinforcing. Your right arm does more work than your left, receiving more of the strength gains from training. Because it gets more relative benefit from training, it continues to dominate your left.

The fix is simple. Unilateral movements.

If you're a Crossfitter, you've had some exposure to the one-arm overhead squat, split jerk, walking lunge, and snatch. These exercises require you to move an unbalanced load through a significant range of motion. They only utilize one side of the body at a time, forcing that side of the body to do the vast majority of the work. This precludes any help from the other side, dominant or not.

The weapon of choice for these exercises is either a dumbbell or a kettlebell. The kettlebell will slightly increase your lever length (distance from your shoulder to the center of mass of the external object) in the pull portion of the snatch and the clean, requiring you to do relatively more work than a dumbbell.

This relationship is reversed in during the jerk portion of the C&J, the overhead squat, and the walking lunge, where the kettlebell handle decreases lever length by placing the center of mass closer to your shoulder.

You should work with both of the dumbbell and the kettlebell--constant variety ensures adaptation and keeps things from getting stale.

In practice, you should always perform unilateral movements with both sides of your body. Do your reps with the non-dominant side first, and move to the dominant side later.

Fatigue builds when you're doing any exercise. By using your non-dominant side first, you ensure that fatigue will not prevent you from completing your prescribed reps.

Use a challenging weight. After you've mastered the mechanics of the movement, make sure you're using enough resistance on the non-dominant side to develop strength and power. If you're doing 10 reps per side, use a weight that represents your 12-15 repetition maximum for your dominant side. This will keep the non-dominant side working hard.

Gear your unilateral training toward closing the load gap, so that your repetition maximum is equal for each side.

In addition to helping correct dominance-related imbalances, unilateral movements will help you develop balanced rotational strength.

Rotational strength is called into play whenever we throw, kick, swing, or twist in any way. Nearly every sport I can think of requires its athletes to exhibit power while rotating through the sagittal plane.

When you have a weight extended overhead, using only one arm, a significant amount of the load is borne by your core on the side away from the load. If your right arm is extended overhead, your left-side obliques bear more load than your right-side obliques.

Grab a dumbbell, and do a one-armed overhead squat. Press your "up" shoulder to your ear, look at the weight, and rotate inward slightly as you descend into the squat. Concentrate on your torso. Which side is contracted more?

By overloading the obliques/lats on one side or the other, we develop the ability to use those muscles more effectively for rotation and stabilization. This ability transfers directly to sport.

Just as you're side-dominant, you also have a predilection toward rotating either clockwise or counter-clockwise. Early commentators in snowboarding, skateboarding, and rollerblading dubbed these rotations "natural" and "unnatural".

Working on eliminating the general dominance of one side of your body aids the elimination of rotational dominance. Elite athletes can rotate in either direction with ease. This skill differentiates truly great competitors in baseball, football, soccer, board sports, and gymnastics. It is the foundation of agility.

Unilateral training has obvious merit. We incorporate it into our workouts all the time.

A few weeks ago, we did a WOD geared toward unilateral development at Crossfit Topsfield. It's a barnburner.

For time:

10 kettlebell swings
20 one-armed overhead squats (10 left, 10 right)
30 one-armed split jerks (15 left, 15 right)
40 one-armed walking lunges (20 left, 20 right)
30 one-armed split jerks (15 left, 15 right)
20 one-armed overhead squats (10 left, 10 right)
10 kettlebell swings

Remember to start with your non-dominant side first. If you need an explanation of any of these exercises, shoot me an email using the link in the right sidebar.

If you want to get crazy with it, try a one-armed snatch, squat, clean, or press with the AF bar. It requires tremendous stabilization. I did a one-armed snatch with it yesterday during "Again Faster in Chains", and it almost knocked me on my ass.

That would've been embarrassing.

Go faster!