Practical Tips for Prioritizing Quality over Quantity in a CrossFit Setting

With all the pro- and con-CrossFit articles coming out recently (here, here, here, and here), I felt the need to side-step the bullsh*t and just write about what it is that we actually do . . . train.

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Practical Tips for Prioritizing Quality over Quantity in a CrossFit Setting

So you’ve been doing CrossFit for some time now, and you have made noticeable gains in your fitness. That’s great! You should take some time to literally stop what you’re doing and reflect on how incredible it is that you are improving your body’s health and capabilities. Getting your first chin-up, muscle-up, or handstand push-up is an accomplishment worth celebrating!

I want to keep things very practical in this article. As you continue to progress in CrossFit, you might reach a point where you find yourself pushing harder and harder to get extra reps and rounds to the detriment of your form and technique. This is not the way to go! Rather, you should prioritize Quality over Quantity so that in the future you may continue to make gains in strength, work capacity, mobility, and overall fitness.

1. Breathe

What a simple thing that we all do everyday! However, mid-WOD, it suddenly becomes apparent that you have not been breathing adequately. How about this: focus on inhaling. Long, slow, controlled, and in through the nose. If you are doing a 20-minute AMRAP, then I want you exclusively breathing through the nose for at least the first 10 minutes. Heavy mouth breathing should be reserved for sprints, short efforts, and the ends of workouts.

2. Break up sets

Have you ever stopped and thought about why 21-15-9 is such an effective rep scheme? One reason is because each set can be broken up into 3 distinct sub-sets: 3 sets of 7, 3 sets of 5, and 3 sets of 3. Another great way to break up this rep scheme is: 11 and 10, 8 and 7, then 5 and 4. So the next time you do Fran, Diane, or Elizabeth, strategize a bit beforehand and see if that helps you set a new PR.

3. Rest between sets

Rest?! Aren’t you supposed to go all out as fast as you can? Okay, yes, I get it, the workouts are done for time. However, you might end up with an overall faster time (and thus greater work capacity) if you actually plan to rest between sets from the get-go. For instance, next time you do Cindy (as many rounds and reps as possible in 20 minutes of 5 pull-ups, 10 push-ups, and 15 squats), try to do 1 round at the top of every minute. If you succeed, you will have accumulated 20 rounds! It will feel very easy in the beginning, and very not-so-easy at the end. (If 20 rounds of Cindy is out of your reach, then try 1 round every 90 seconds. Or, vice-versa, if your old PR is higher than 20, try 1 round every 45 seconds or so.)

4. Prioritize mobility

You know you’re supposed to do it, but somehow you only manage to hit the foam roller or grab that stretch band once or twice a week. How about this: you are not allowed to do a WOD unless you’ve first done your mobility work for the day. Have you ever set a timer for 5 minutes and then rolled out your thoracic spine? Or what about grabbing a lacrosse ball and hitting your entire shoulder girdle? Check out Kelly Starrett’s awesome MobilityWOD project for more ideas.

5. Scale movements and weights effectively

If you only take one principle away from this post, please pay attention here. You want to make optimal choices in your life, correct? If you could take 2 routes to your destination, but one of them was longer and riskier, what would you decide? You would take the optimal route, duh! Similarly, learning to scale movements and weights effectively is how you optimize CrossFit workouts to fit your individual fitness level and needs. Refer to Prilepin’s Chart (a guideline for what percentage of your 1 rep max to lift for each given rep range) when choosing what weights to do for WOD’s:

Thanks for reading! If you have any additional practical tips for how to prioritize quality over quantity in a CrossFit setting, please post to the comments!

CrossFit and Rhabdomyolysis

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A few days ago Medium.com published an article titled, “CrossFit’s Dirty Little Secret” written by a physical therapy professor named Eric Robertson. Professor Robertson’s article details a condition called rhabdomyolysis, which is extreme kidney malfunction due to excessive muscle damage. While he makes the case that rhabdomyolysis is commonplace in CrossFit gyms, I will argue that his position is exaggerated and perhaps even dishonest.

CrossFit and Rhabdomyolysis

The first issue that we must address is the elephant in the room whenever you talk to experienced CrossFit trainers: there is no one single thing that you can point at and say, “THAT is CrossFit.” Due to Greg Glassman’s theoretical idealizations of general physical preparedness, constant variance, and functionality, you can make an argument for virtually any physical activity fitting under the CrossFit umbrella. A short list of activities that could easily pass for CrossFit includes weightlifting, powerlifting, gymnastics, sprinting, calisthenics, kettlebell training, triathlon, running, and even certain types of yoga. Clearly, this makes defining the term ‘CrossFit’ very challenging.

Next stop on the debunking train: CrossFit gyms and trainers vary WIDELY from place-to-place. While some people may argue that CrossFit HQ has a quality control problem, it is worthwhile to consider that ANY large corporation runs into this issue. Have you ever been to a Starbucks that just “feels better” than another Starbucks? Similarly, there are plenty of yoga studios, for instance, that have much more experienced teachers than others. Thus, extrapolating an individual’s experience with one CrossFit gym to CrossFit as a whole is a bit misleading. There are CrossFit gyms, and then there are CrossFit gyms. Just as with any act of consumerism in a free market, the buyer must make a smart, educated choice when choosing a gym and trainer.

My main problem Professor Robertson’s article is that the title is overly sensationalized (just like a piece published on Salon.com in early September that was originally titled, “CrossFit embodies everything that’s wrong with America”). To write an article about one individual’s experience with rhabdomyolysis is one thing, but to then state, without evidence, that rhabdomyolysis is “commonly encountered in CrossFit” is just blatantly dishonest. To provide some perspective, I have been training in a CrossFit gym since June of 2009, and I have witnessed exactly ZERO instances of rhabdomyolysis in that time.

Lastly, this argument is from a commenter on reddit (hat tip to Brian Sawyer from CrossFit 908):

Let’s say, internationally there are 100 cases a year (pure guess – if there were more I’d imagine we’d hear more about it). There are probably 10 people at a WOD, twice a day, 5 days a week, at 6,000 affiliates. That means in any given week there are 600,000 WOD’s – and I think I’ve been fairly conservative there not including non-affiliate workouts. That’s 31.2 million workouts a year.

So we’ve got 100 cases from 31.2 million workouts. That’s a 0.0003% incidence, making up half a percent of all reported cases. Even if it was 10,000 reported Rhabdo’s a year, that would only be 0.03% of all CrossFitters, hardly “commonly encountered.”

Thanks for reading! If you found this post interesting, helpful, or even controversial, please share it! On Thursday I will be writing about some Practical Tips for Prioritizing Quality over Quantity in a CrossFit Setting.

What Are We Really Training For Anyway?

Every now and then in a fitness program you have to stop what you’re doing and think, “What am I really training for anyway?” Are you registered for an upcoming competition of some sort (CrossFit, triathlon, Olympic lifting, grappling, etc.)? If so, then great! You are one of the lucky few people in gyms nowadays who have a clear vision of what they should be doing: preparing for and practicing your sport.

However, if like the majority of gym-goers, you do not have any particular event on your calendar for which you are training, then why do you push yourself in the gym on a daily basis? Let’s go through some common answers:

  • “I’m trying to lose some weight.” – Here’s a super secret fitness tip from an insider: the guaranteed way to lose weight instantly is easy… just cut off a limb! Voila, weight lost! Oh… that’s not what you meant?
  • “I’m trying to lose some body fat.” – The good news: you have great intentions. The bad news: studies show that exercise alone is not all that effective at losing body fat. Ouch, sorry.
  • “I’m trying to build some muscle.” – Okay cool, this is something I can get behind, and you don’t have to be a bodybuilder to want to build muscle. Simply put, increasing your lean muscle mass helps prevent aging, not to mention getting that much closer to being both jacked and tan.

Okay, so all kidding aside, what are we missing here? How about the simple fact that humans are meant to move! If you haven’t yet watched Daniel Wolpert’s TED Talk “The real reason for brains,” then please do so immediately. If you engage in a structured physical activity or fitness program, then please acknowledge the fact that MOVEMENT needs to be a higher priority in your life.

Let’s work through a specific example. CrossFit, in its humble roots, is a GPP program: General Physical Preparedness. Taken from the CrossFit.com website: “Our program delivers a fitness that is, by design, broad, general, and inclusive. Our specialty is not specializing. Combat, survival, many sports, and life reward this kind of fitness and, on average, punish the specialist.”

Towards this end, CrossFitters often talk about “work capacity,” i.e., the ability to do a given amount of work in a given amount of time. It is precisely this theoretical underpinning that justifies the emphasis on quantity over quality that is present at so many CrossFit gyms. Who cares if those push-ups didn’t look good? You got 1 more round of Cindy than last time, so you are more fit!

*Raises hand* “Excuse me, but how exactly do you demonstrate work capacity in the absence of doing specific movements?” For instance, if your Fran time improves, then you very well may have just gotten better at the specific skills of barbell thrusters and kipping pull-ups. Or maybe you knock a minute off of Diane, in which case you probably just level’ed up at the skills of barbell deadlifts and kipping handstand push-ups.

What is my point? These are all specific skilled movements. There is no such thing as pure unskilled work capacity. CrossFit’s version of GPP is actually more like SPP: Specific Physical Preparedness. Why do so many CrossFitters choose dumbbell snatches and shy away from kettlebell snatches? Because snatching a kettlebell requires practice! Why work on your static handstand hold when you could be doing something sexy like handstand walks? Because static holds are harder!

To wrap up this long-winded rant, I propose that we, as fitness generalists with no specific attachment to any one competitive sport, adopt a new mindset and purpose for why we train:

Train to learn new skills, gradually and progressively, so as to become capable of and masterful in more complex movements.

Intrigued? Good, there will be much more to come on this topic in the future. Thanks for reading, and thanks to Ido Portal for the inspiration for this post:

Addendum: It occurred to me after publishing this post that I absolutely must also credit Erwan Le Corre and his Movnat system of movement for inspiring some of these ideas as well. I recommend you read, “The 5th MovNat Principle: Vital,” and study this Venn diagram:

Clarity and Focus in Exercise and Diet

This post is inspired by Dan John’s “Tough or Reasonable” and Ido Portal’s “A tip for the generalist,” as well as Precision Nutrition’s “Calorie Control Guide for Men and Women.”

Clarity and Focus in Exercise and Diet

Scenario #1: The Over-Zealous Eager Beaver

You suddenly become flushed with inspiration to overhaul your life, and with the best of intentions, you begin a super-strict Zone Paleo diet and an intensively exhaustive exercise regimen. What typically happens here? The majority of people who commit to this undertaking last a very short time before fading out and reverting to old habits. By attempting to change everything all at once, nothing actually sticks. (See BJ Fogg’s paper, “A Behavior Model for Persuasive Design.”)

Scenario #2: What Would Lao-Tsu Do?

You read about the Paleo diet and are very curious about whether or not it’s the right choice for you. In order to try it out, you decide to avoid bread for one week and see what happens. By Saturday, you notice your jeans fit a bit looser around the waist, and your energy levels mid-morning are more consistent. Great! The next week, you decide to subtract pasta from your dinner, instead adding spinach or kale. What happens in this situation? Flash forward one year in time, and this person has made several drastic, wholesale changes in their life by adopting new habits one at a time and ensuring that they last.

What is the point here? Most people who desire change in their life actually try Scenario #1 rather than Scenario #2, thus setting themselves up for failure by trying to change too many things at the same time!

Let’s adopt some Clarity and Focus in Exercise and Diet. For the next week, you are allowed one goal and one goal only relating to your fitness and nutrition. Be specific and meaningful here! For example, when practicing pull-ups, aim for one more unbroken rep than your previous PR. Or perhaps when eating out for lunch, have a lean meat and a dark, leafy green each day. Whatever you choose, be sure that at the end of the week, you can actually sit down and say that you’ve accomplished that goal! No ambiguity, vagueness, or lackluster goal-setting allowed.

Let’s take this a step further. Say that, like most people reading this blog, you partake in some sort of group exercise like CrossFit where your workouts are planned for you. How can you choose to make your own goals when someone else is designing the movements, reps, and sets each day? This is when you need to take individual accountability for your own movement practice. If the ‘WOD’ has back squats for strength but your goal is a 200-lb deadlift, then explain to your trainer that you are focusing on the deadlift that week. Similarly, if you really want to get that strict chin-up, then reduce the reps of banded/kipping/ring rows in the ‘WOD’ and do a few super-slow negatives each set.

I hope this has inspired some of you to reduce your scope and focus a bit more intently on what you want to accomplish. Take this concept and apply to other domains of your life. I have students in the drum corps world who are auditioning for indoor drumlines right now, and you better believe that they are doing nothing other than study, drum, eat, and sleep. Even if your job or family are your #1 priority (as they probably should be), you will still receive a greater return on your investment by gaining some Clarity and Focus in Exercise and Diet.

Thanks for reading!

Movement as Nutrition

Next up in my series of posts of possible Performance Menu article ideas…

“Movement as Nutrition”

In an effort to get people moving more frequently in more beneficial ways for their minds and bodies, I put forth the notion of Movement as Nutrition. First, we will talk about frequency, or as Ido Portal would say, we as human movers can get a whole lot more out of our bodies than simply 45 minutes of exercise 3 days per week. Second, we will discuss quality, as certain movements are more wholesome and nourishing for our bodies just like certain foods are.

Frequency

How often do you eat? Three meals per day most likely, maybe a snack or two in there as well. But here’s a better question: how often do you move? For some of you, it might be as infrequent as 45 minutes of exercise 3 days per week! Have you heard of the Warrior Diet? In essence, you only eat one huge meal each day (typically dinner) and fast throughout the morning and afternoon. While many of you are probably thinking that sounds ridiculous, I challenge you to think about your exercise habits. Chances are, you are on a “movement fast” each day before splurging on a huge “movement meal” each night!

So what if we tried having “movement snacks” throughout the day? For example, do some basic joint mobility work before breakfast, then go for a 15-minute walk after lunch, and lastly practice a few sets of weightlifting and gymnastics movements at the gym before dinner. Scientifically speaking, this has multiple benefits: fasted training in the morning burns fat, walking after lunch minimizes the insulin spike from eating, and eating carbs at dinner after training heavy helps to replenish depleted glycogen stores.

Now I am not asking you to quit your job and train 3 times per day like most elite athletes do. This “movement snacks” idea has plenty of variations, even if you don’t have that much time. How about 5 minutes of yoga sun salutations in the morning, a 20-minute bodyweight workout at the park in the afternoon, and 5 minutes of deep static stretching at night before bed? Bam! More frequent movement sessions means more physical energy, mental clarity, fat loss, muscle gain, skill acquisition… you name it.

Quality

Who here eats a Zone diet? Anyone? Yeah, didn’t think so. Again, if you’re reading this blog, then you probably gravitate towards the Paleo / Primal eating crowd. That is because many people have found better results through less effort by focusing on quality food rather than strict quantity.

Yet, why do we go into the gym and do exactly 3 sets of exactly 8 reps with exactly 1 minute 30 seconds rest between them? How does whoever wrote that exercise program know your body, your background, your experience, and your fitness level? Unless you have a coach or trainer who gave you an assessment and then wrote you an individualized program, the chances are that the focus on exercise quantity is unnecessary. Rather, let’s discuss movement quality.

Everyone knows about the macronutrients found in food: protein, carbohydrates, and fat. Let’s also now talk about the macronutrients of movement: push, pull, squat, hinge, and gait (props to Dan John). Just like you should be aiming to eat protein, carbs, and fat each day, you should also try to include some sort of pushing, pulling, squatting, hinging, and gaiting each day! What does this look like in application? Warm up with bodyweight squats, push-ups, chin-ups, KB swings, and KB walks. Go heavy with barbell squats, handstand push-ups, muscle-ups, barbell deadlifts, and sprints. For more ideas, refer to this movement chart.

What about supplements? Personally, I take fish oil, vitamin D, whey protein, magnesium, and zinc daily. These supplement my diet of mostly meat, fish, veggies, fruits, and nuts. In movement terms, the auxiliary exercises you do are the supplements to your regular old training. For instance, do some dumbbell external rotation isolation work to help strengthen your shoulders. This is a micronutrient, a supplement, an auxiliary movement.

Lastly, just as fasting intermittently from food has benefits, so does “fasting” from movement, i.e. “rest.” Fasting gives your body a chance to catch up, whether that means muscle recovery, glycogen replenishment, or digestion. Fatigue masks fitness, so in order to reap the benefits of your hard work, you need to “fast” from movement every so often.

Alright, enough from me. Go move, in interesting and meaningful ways, and spread the message. Thanks for reading!

Health and Fitness as Practice, Not Work

In an attempt to refresh some content on this blog, I will be posting some ideas I have for possible Performance Menu articles. I have been approved to write one for the November 2013 issue, but I will save that content for the issue.

“Health and Fitness as Practice, not Work”

Too often nowadays in the fitness world you hear people talking about exercise while using the vocabulary of work, punishment, torture, and pain. It’s quite literally everywhere: Pure Barre talks about a “full blown attack” on the body, CrossFit has Pukie the Clown, and a simple conversation with the average gym-goer yields discussion about how utterly sore and destroyed they are from their most recent painful excursion with their trainer.

Quite simply, I reject the fitness paradigm of work, punishment, torture, and pain. While this may expend energy from a metabolic-cost perspective, it encourages low-quality movement, mindless apathy in the gym, and a negative, self-loathing mindset outside of the gym. (Besides, plenty of other activities in life burn calories and are way more fun: walking, climbing, martial arts, sports, sex, etc.) When the focus is “burning calories,” “no pain, no gain,” “working off the weekend,” or any other similar cliché, then both the client and the trainer miss out on a whole world of possible benefits.

Instead, I put forth Health and Fitness as Practice, not Work. There should be a mindset of Constant Improvement and Progression of Skills. Your Practice should be Goal-Oriented, with Improved Fitness as a Byproduct rather than a direct goal. (For example, if you want to be happy in life, you actually have to do things that make you happy, rather than just focusing on happiness in and of itself.)

Whether you know it or not, you are currently practicing and getting better at everything you do. The real question is, “what are you practicing?” Sitting, procrastinating, and being lazy? Or how about handstands, squats, and sprinting? What about cooking, mindfulness, and gratitude? If you want to get fit, then figure out some goals and match your behavior to get you there.

The beauty of “practice” rather than “work” is that practice is inherently suited to the individual: an experienced gymnast needs more and varied handstand drills to improve his handstand compared to a novice (same for an experienced weightlifter and the snatch, for instance). A 40-something soccer mom will see incredible results from practicing the fundamentals of bodyweight squatting, pulling, pushing, and hinging, whereas an expert mover like Ido Portal might need just a wee bit more detail.

Want some examples? How about set a timer for 20 minutes, and practice handstands against a wall and kettlebell swings to head-height with a clean, crisp hip “pop.” The emphasis should be on quality movement, technique, and sensation rather than quantity or density of reps. Instead of “AMRAP” (as many reps as possible), aim for as much quality as possible (AMQAP?).

I hope this post inspires some of you to ditch a one-size-fits-all approach to fitness where the focus is on work, punishment, torture, and pain. Rather, I would encourage you to cultivate mindfulness in movement, practice more complex skills, and enjoy your time spent moving while reaching your goals.