Friday, April 18, 2014

Getting Stronger: Keep it Simple

This is a piece I wrote for the Box Basics blog, "Second Pull":


A quick internet search brings up a plethora of strength programs, all promising BIG GAINZ and the endless love of scantily clad ladies.

Wendler, Smolov, Texas Method... the list goes on and on, with a new one coming out nearly every month as another strength coach puts his or her twist on a program and publishes it on every social media line out there. And for the advanced athlete, you might need something more intricate to get your body to adapt past your intermediate strength gains. For most of us, myself included, and almost anyone else who works for a living, it doesn't need to be that hard.

Strength is about patience and consistency. And any of the above programs will require that as well, but why confuse the matter?

I'm a big proponent of something called a linear progression. When I spout those words out to people, I can tell by the dim of their eyes that they see images graphs and calculus lessons long forgotten. But this is what I mean:

Step 1) Pick up something heavy for a chosen number of sets and reps.
Step 2) Next week, do it again, only go a little heavier.
Step 3) And again, a little heavier.

There is really only one decision you have to make: what rep volume (sets x reps) do you want to work at? The most popular is 25 reps (seen in 5x5), and 30 reps. Go too high and you risk not recovering for the next training day. Go too low and you risk not creating enough stimulus for adaptation (read: GAINZ).

From there you can play around with all the sets and reps that equal the volume you want to hit. If you chose 30 reps you're looking at 5x6, 3x10, and 2x15. Depending on what your goals are (strength vs size) and how your body recovers and responds, that choice can be different from person to person, or even for the same person from one month to the next.

Here is my favorite starting program I use with women, since typically we have a harder time putting on upper body strength (target reps = 25, 8x3 is close enough):

Week 1Squat 5x5Press 8x3RestDeadlift 5x5Press 5x5 (same weight as Tuesday)
Week 2Squat 5x5 (+5 lbs)Press 8x3 (+5 lbs)
Deadlift 5x5 (+5 lbs)Press 5x5 (same weight as Tuesday)
Week 3Squat 5x5 (+10 lbs)Press 8x3 (+10 lbs)Deadlift 5x5 (+10 lbs)Press 5x5 (same weight as Tuesday)

And each week you up the challenge by 5-10lbs.

The ease and malleability of this program lends itself to being applied to pretty much any lift you could train, and can easily be adjusted to fit around any training you're already doing, such as CrossFit or a triathlon.

Happy lifting!

Monday, April 7, 2014

Open Post-Mortem: I suck as CrossFitter, but I have something most of them don't...

A posterior chain. A strong one.

After 14.3 I had some iteration of this conversation with at least three different athletes in one day:

Athlete: "Man, that sucked."
Me: "Wasn't so bad."
Athlete: "How....?"
Me: "Most CrossFit training I've observed pays very little attention to the posterior chain, with the exception of deadlifts that show up once and a while."
Athlete: *blank stare*
Me: "Think about it, I bet your front squat and back squat aren't that far off from each other."
Athlete: "Right."
Me: "And I bet your back squat and deadlift are pretty close."
Athlete: "Yeah..."
Me: "I see it all the time, athlete's whose front squat is only 30 lbs lighter than their deadlift."
Athlete: *thinks* "OMG. That's exactly where my numbers are..."
*Note: The above conversation was with a fairly fit male member.

Going forward, these are some moves I hope too see more people incorporate into their training, and I'll be sure to have my own classes and athletes do them, to make sure I see less fear of #herniationnation next year.

1) Deadlift more

If you want to get better as something, do it. It's as easy as that. Now I get that there are a plethora of moves that one needs to do to become a well rounded CrossFit athlete, but this is one of those simple moves that everyone should be doing more because it spans more life-like situations than, say, snatching.

I only deadlift every other week. It takes a lot out of me, takes a long time to recover, so I put it in my program when I know I won't have a leg workout the next day, no technical movements the next day, or a full on rest day.

2) Good Mornings

These tax the spinal erectors in a special way. I want special attention focused on how the lady in the image still maintains a neutral curve in her low back, an tight thoracic, the elbows are pointing back and not down in this position, and her shin have a negative angle, while the knees are unlocked. Isolating the hip hinge apart from the full squat and deadlift motions are very helpful for general body awareness, as well. Next time you're doing high rep deadlifts, being able to choose among various hip heights to hinge from can give your body options.

Alternative styles to work in:

  • Zercher good mornings - holding the bar in the crook of the elbows in front of you. 
  • Safety squat bar - holds the weight in front of your shoulders, challenging you to bend over in the thoracic
  • Banded good mornings - stand on a large power band, pull it over your neck. best used for volume
  • Camber bar - The bend in the bar will make it want to swing if your movement is at all jerky

3) Reverse Hyper

Not every gym has this piece of equipment, but you can be sure if yours does, someone in that gym gives a shit about posterior chain strength, and therefore, the overall strength of their athletes.

I've seen this one used in a variety of ways. I teach my athletes to use it as follows:

  1. Set up on the machine where your legs can hang straight down like in the first picture. 
  2. Swing your legs slightly forward to start some momentum. 
  3. Pull back and away with the heels as high as you can without arching your back. 
  4. Let the weights swing back down until you can see the plates under your head, then pull back with the heels again until you reach height. 
  5. All the while, minimizing the about of flexion and extension happening in your spine. 

4) Back & Hip Extensions

Much like the reverse hyper, this works the back and hamstrings, only this time the lever is the body and the feet are locked into place. 

But, OMG, her back is rounded! 
Many of my weightlifter friends do the bottom set, hip extensions, while holding a plate or dumbbell to their chest or a barbell across the back. Hows that for some evil? The idea with the top set, back extensions, is to focus on extending your back slowly, vertebrae by vertebrae, strengthening the spinal erectors through movement as opposed to through isometrics, which most of these others enforce. 

5) Heavy Ass Kettlebell Swings

These are NOT your CrossFit, over the head variety. These are so heavy that you have to seriously plant yourself or the bell will pull you over. These are heavy enough that you can't fathom swinging the thing higher than your chest. Double up on the bells if you have to. 

I don't know why more people don't swing this way.  Oh yeah, CrossFit.
Notice how the image above has the athlete start the swing on the ground with a hike rather than pick it up and then do some weird humping motion. As much as I like humping, we all like humping, let's leave it off the gym floor in general (see also: push ups).  

Alternate this double hand/ single bell with double bell and one handed swings as well. With these you're getting some volume, conditioning, AND strengthening your back all in one sweet, hip swinging move. 

6) Heavy Carries

Doing heavy carries with emphasis on not arching back against the weight or letting your shoulders get pulled forward are also great for overall core stability, with the emphasis on the posterior chain. 

Notice in the above image how even though his gaze is down (you want to see where you're stepping with that much weight), his shoulders are back, arms are straight, and his back is ramrod neutral. 

Variations include:
  • Farmer's walks - like you see above
  • Suitcase carries - weight in only one hand and trying to avoid waddling
  • Rack carries - putting one or two kettlebells in the front rack 
  • Zercher carries - carrying any type of bar in the crook of your elbows


Get your back strong, rotating these movements for volume into your training and accessory work. You don't always have to deadlift, but if you have no back, no have no chance. 

Friday, April 4, 2014

Be a gym friend, not a gym farce

So, thanks to my friend Andrea, I was pointed to this rage rage read:


This is my ranty, ranty, bitchy, ranty response:

Stop telling women what to do. They're members of your community, so presumably they are grown-ass adults. They've lived their life and determined the best way to exist in it. Back off. 

- Stop catty woman-on-woman hate. The things in this list don't directly affect you. Just because you are a woman doesn't mean you know how to be the best version of one. 

Stop caring so deeply about shallow things that don't directly affect you. Don't like her outfit? Don't wear it. Don't like her make up and hair? Do your hair and make up differently. Trust me, people will still like you (and her) anyway. 

Quit with the shaming. Is she she working out in a g-string and pasties? No? Then she's probably not a health hazard. 

- Her workout intensity (or lack thereof) doesn't affect your fitness. She's not working hard enough for your taste? That isn't going to affect how hard you or someone else pushes. Or is it that your victory over her as the harder worker means nothing if she doesn't legitimately pursue the rhabdo. 

Look. She's paying a membership too. Presumably CrossFit offers other benefits, such as community, and who are we to determine where the value lies for her? As with any choices that someone makes that don't directly affect the quality of your own life and the pursuit of your own goals, you should probably just leave it be. 

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Dance and Body Image: Answering a Mother's Question

A few months ago a friend from "back in the day" (I think we met in junior high? We hung out most in high school...) has a daughter that has been begging to take dance classes. Another friend of her was once a gymnast and has enough bad memories of feed restriction and body image pressures that she has unequivocally stated that she would never let a daughter do gymnastics.

My friend reached out to me to ask how my experience with dance affected my relationship with my body, saying she was worried about body size pressures and thinking martial arts would be a better route.

This was a fun challenge for me, to put my emotions and experiences into words that had the impact I wanted. This was what I came up with:


So, did dance give me any body image issues? Yes and no. I didn't start to feel the pressure directly to be thin until I started getting competitive, and that was in high school where your tendency to be swayed is fairly set. 

Early on, the only pressure I felt to be thin was from seeing pictures of skinny ballerinas in pictures, posters, and magazines and knowing I didn't look like that. My teachers never put that energy out there. 

In high school, the message from Buchner was "be thinner", and that message got stronger especially as I became more prominent on the dance team. The problem was that no one told me what that means. Be thin vs be heathy vs be strong. I wish someone has better delineated the difference and that eating healthy doesn't equate to eat less. 

That said, women get those same message regardless of their hobbies. Magazines, TV, friends, etc. Kids call each other fat as an insult before they really know what it means. I think the friends someone runs with has more effect on that. 

The few girls I knew who  suffered from anorexia or other eating disorders were products not of the dancing, but of "stage parents" or otherwise overbearing homes where the kid was pushed really hard to be perfect in school and dance. Anorexia, binging, and bulemia were often symptoms of low self esteem, not feeling good enough, and needing some element of control in their lives. 

Now the other side:

Dancing gave me an indescribable level of PRIDE in my body and what it could do. It gave me an outlet and a a form of expression that stayed with me through grad school. It was something I could fall back on when things were tough. It was something to enjoy when things were good. It was something that I could always work towards and perfect and something I could revel in at whatever skill level I was at. 

Additionally, it gave me the foundation to excel in nearly every other athletic endeavor that I have tried since. The body awareness in dance is unparalleled in most sports, with the exception of perhaps martial arts. The dedication it takes to perfect and fine tune something as simple as how to project while walking makes other physical tasks seem relatively easy. 

If I could do it all again... 

Suppose I were to have progeny of my own. Given unrestricted time, access and/or resources, I would put a daughter into both dance and judo/jujitsu. (My thoughts on why grappling is ideal for women is a whole 'nother essay.) My first year in judo is when I stopped equating a scale number with beauty. It's also when I stopped having those nightmares where someone is chasing you. 

With the popularity of shows like So You Think You Can Dance, you see images these days of dancers who aren't stick thin. They have thighs, they're athletic and strong. If you look at dancers with groups like Alvin Ailey or Alonzo Lines, they're contemporary dance troupe, but they're anything but skinny ballerinas. 


1) My inability to be swayed by "be thin" messages were a product of loving, non-overbearing parents with solid messages of self worth.
2) Dance gave me a fantastic foundation to spring off into other physical endeavors later in life. Set a be-active mentality from a young age. 
3) Dance gave me pride in my abilities and a physical and emotional outlet. 
4) Teach her what nutrition is and the importance of calories as energy rather than only discussing restriction. 
5) More girls should do judo/jujitsu :) 

Monday, March 17, 2014

Body Image as a Female Strength Athlete

Body image and all the ingrained societal sexism that drives it to be the THING that it is, is really complicated. To set the tone, I'd like to refer to the following article from The Good Man Project:

CrossFit's Problem with Women, and Ours

It starts to delve into the intricacies of gender dynamics that I don't have the words or thought coherency to even begin discussing. For instance, when CFHQ posted the Talayna picture and people pushed back, they then posted the one of shirtless men climbing the rope, trying to say "see, equal opportunity!" Only it's not. 

Their camera angle and his leg position are at least each about 45 degree off from it being about the same thing. Then there is the whole issue that women are in booty shorts of their own volition, but is it because they truly want to be or are they taught they want to be to further their desirability/ popularity as female athletes. 

What does it mean to be a female athlete? Particularly one who wants to market her abilities for sponsorships and speaking engagements and the like? It's enough to make my head explode. 

But it was the Sherry Stiles article that really prompted me to give my own 2 cent rant.

Sherri Stiles on Perceptions of Fit Women

She tears apart on a comment by a guys that states "women don't look good all muscled up." This commenter makes the assumption that (1) he is the purveyor of all that is aesthetically right and (2) women do what they do for the sexual attention of men, end of story.
From and you can find them on Instagram at "Iron and Emotion"

Can you say male privilege loud enough to match the audacity here? I doubt it.

What's discouraging is that this mentality is insidious. It's so assumed that it doesn't even have to be spoken most of the time. And when it is said, you have both men and women nodding along like, "oh yeah, of course."

What kills me is the visceral reaction of many men when presented with the image of a strong women. I'm not here to say that all men should find muscles and a 400 lb deadlift hot, but this reaction isn't the gut level, visceral push back that one gets when presented with a women who is devoted to marathoning, cycling, yoga, or dance. It's only when that devotion takes on characteristics of what society considers "masculine," like strength, competition, and aggression.

After reading a particularly heart wrenching article on Jezebel made me think more about the issue. One of the comments I left was:

"As a black belt, I started seeing more and more how women behave different as a protective mechanism, just to get through their days. I started seeing how people treated me different because I was a competitive martial artist. How their attitude changed. As though my femininity was based on my susceptibility to victimization." 

And herein lies the issue as I see it: those that have the deepest, most severe negative reaction to female strength athletes I tend to find are the same men that rely on external cues to assess their own masculinity. They are the guys that haven't yet found comfort and an innate sense of self, of who they are as a male human, and need comparisons to others in the outside world. And to be presented with an image that puts their external cue system it jeopardy is problematic. Their reaction turns aggressive, a "masculine" reaction in response to a perceived threat to their masculinity.

What is masculinity? Why do we still need to divide ourselves and our habits between masculine and feminine?

Here is an interesting documentary that is in the making:


What does this have to do with body image? Dare I say almost everything?

Starting at ground zero, with the expectation of human dichotomy between men and women and their often unrealized need to be masculine and feminine by comparisons to each other. And then you have people like me, and there are lots of us, who reject that notion that I care to be feminine in a traditional way that means I'm smaller and weaker than a man. (I'm the Newman, and I do what I want.)

The bafflement that ensues.

The aggravation that arrises when even in weight class sports I'm classified as almost too big because I'm over 165 lbs. The wonder by people that "why don't you just cut weight?" Because I don't fucking want to.

Having been told years ago that my choice of pursuits might be off putting to men.

How do we fight it? First, recognize it. Realize that you don't have to work in that dynamic. Just because it was set up before you got here doesn't mean you have to play by its rules. And this goes for anyone who wants to buck trends.

Happiness doesn't come wrapped with a pink or blue bow.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

My Current Training: Staying Sane with Multiple Focuses

I was going to write an update on the weightlifting meet, but got bored editing video. So here is this blog entry instead:


Or is it focii? Or is that only in my now-defunct genetics training?

As mentioned, I train for weightlifting, powerlifting, strongman, with aerial circus stuff thrown in for good measure. I've played with programming for myself mostly because I don't know any coaches that program for such multiple end goals.

Watch someone I know come out of the woodwork and say, "hey, jerk face, I do that!" Whatever, fool.

So far, since I began training again post shoulder surgery (almost a full year ago now!) I've been able to make progress in all fronts. I posted a two week rotation that I was doing last year, and have since changed it up again with the addition of strongman and the current focus on pure strength.

The challenge is to not over do it, I'm older and can only recover from so much in a week, and still hit the important pieces. As things start to taper and specific weaknesses show their limiting power, it will all have to change again:

Anywhere I have (A), (B), and (C) means that each week it's a little different, with either one or the other lettered options being done.
HS = heavy single
OH = Over head
Rest means I rest. Like, take as many naps as I can fit into the day between clients and classes. Seriously. Naps are good for growth hormone.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Dare I Discuss It? Knees that go places...

The hub-bub hasn't ended. People are still talking, blogging, facebook-ing, and meme-ing about what should be done with the knees during squats.

I hesitated to even write this because someone some where won't like it. Then I thought, but I'm basically a nobody. Therefore, let the rant begin!

I pretty much only hear this discussion come from my foot in the weightlifting world. And let me just say this. As a whole, weightlifters are pretty whiny. Really. We are. Whiny and self righteous. We're like a bunch of orthodox Christian something-or-anothers, and our way is right and we're going to shout you down because science, credentials, and whatnot.

In fact, I'm whining here because I'm a weightlifter. It comes with the territory, like menses and uteruses.

Guess what cue I heard last Sunday during my strongman training session? Grab the handles and push your knees out really hard before you pick it up. Oh, interesting.

Guess what cue I heard a lot of when I was focusing on powerlifting training? Push your knees out, spread the floor and get your hips through. That's funny.

On a recent episode of "Offline", a CrossFit HQ discussion panel series, the issue of "knees out" was the main topic. It was basically Kelly Starrett arguing his point against Jacob Tsypkin and Quinn Henoch. You can find the episode HERE.

I don't feel like reiterating everything about the debate here. Other than to say you might want to watch if only to look at Ariel Stephen's quads. They are a thing of beauty. (Creepy enough?)

Also on the panel was Lon Kilgore. He seemed to basically throw in his two censt with Kelly and then sit back and watch the debate unfold. That's because he's a powerlifter, not a weightlifter. See above note about weightlifters.

Moving on.

In my experience, I've had to tell every single one of my new athletes coming into CrossFit, powerlifting, or weightlifting to either (1) push their knees out, (2) spread the floor with their feet, (3) screw their feet and hips in. All of these cues elicit the same effect: stabilize tracking of the knee, raise the arch of the foot, and greater activation of the glute meds.

In my experience, I've told maybe 5 athletes to not be a fucking ballerina and push their knees back in. These were athletes that took the "knees out" cue too far and had increased their range of motion enough they could be a high class stripper. It's really not what we're looking for either, but generally if you're going to see this it's going to be a more intermediate athlete who has the motor control and range of motion to do such.

I still want these athlete to screw their feet in and/or spread the floor. Don't get slack and let your knees gimbal everywhere. But "knees out" may no longer be the right cue for them.

This is where self directed athletes and less experienced coaches can run into problems. The "Becoming a Supple Leopard" book is meant to address the needs of the majority, and the majority can use the knee out cue to get the right squatting motion down.

I don't doubt that PT's like Quinn have seen people hurt themselves by overdoing the knee out movement. I've seen athletes that have pushed it so far as to atrophy their VMO and end up with knee pain. Atrophied muscles are never a good thing. Time for sissy squats and hack squats to build that back up. But again, this is rare. Between San Francisco CrossFit and United Barbell, I'm working with hundreds of people a week, and I've seen this only a handful of times (<10).
I just really want more people to squat heavy.
Where do I tell people to track their knees when they squat? I generally ask they have their knees push over their pinky toe. Most beginners can't do that, but trying to will keep the pressure on the glute meds. And those that can won't try to turn their squat into a pliĆ©.