Patience and Consistency

12356774_1100109356673926_228953655148068323_oThis past month I read an article in Success Magazine on James Lawrence, the guy who completed fifty Ironman races in fifty days, in fifty states.

An Ironman race consists of a 2.4 mile swim, a 112 mile bike ride and a 26.2 mile marathon. To finish one would be an extreme accomplishment, but fifty in fifty days all across America seems impossible.

On the fifth race in, he injured his shoulder which forced him to swim with one arm over the next several swims (which reminds me of Cat rowing with one arm for our 10K benchmark workout a few weeks ago).

On the eighteenth race exhaustion caught up to him and he fell asleep on his bike, but only suffered minor road rash in the crash. Other injuries he suffered throughout included a few toenails falling off, a hiatal hernia, and pushing his body so hard that his heart had to focus on pumping blood to his major organs causing him to lose feeling in his extremities.

How many of these would have caused you to quit? Would these cause you to give up on your goal?

What really hit home with me was what he said he thought about during the races. Sometimes he would have long conversations with himself, but most of the time, it was about focusing on what he would do in the next minute. Lawrence says he tried not to think about how many miles or days he had left; he just wanted to be perfect at whatever he was doing- running, biking or swimming- for the next minute.

Talk about a time where you would think absolute perfection would be the farthest thing from your mind, during this daunting task, but this is what allowed him to stay focused.

In relative terms, how hard would it be for us to focus on making every rep perfect in the movements we do, instead of just doing whatever is needed to finish as fast as possible?

When asked how he did this Lawrence said, “patience and consistency.” He went on to say, “you have to do a lot of things right over an extended period of time. You have to focus on the basics, and you have to be perfect at them. That’s ultimately why I succeeded: I was perfect with the basics, and I had patience. I became an expert at a lot of things, and that’s how I became successful- that’s one of the keys to success if anybody wants to tackle something of this enormity.”

This going back to the basics, really made sense with my goal that I’m working on for 2016. I want to preface what I’m about to say with the recognition that the only way my experiences should even be in the same blog post as something as amazing as what James Lawrence did, was that all I have focused on for the first month and a half of my goal is patience and consistency and just keeping it basic.

My goal is to accumulate 10,000 pull-ups and 10,000 pushups throughout the year. As of this writing I’m a little over 1,000 of each- so about on the pace I will need to keep going through the rest of the year.

I know I set this as my goal because all of my weaknesses in the gym stem from weak upper body strength, but I did not expect to see such amazing progress in such a short amount of time.

Through the first month I can now do bar muscle-ups consistently. Also, I have been doing ring muscle-ups for years, but they have always been an extreme struggle for me, and now I can string multiple reps together regularly. Until the past few weeks, I was only able to do them with a false grip, but now I’m able to do them without a false grip every time. This makes it easier to string together big sets of muscle-ups.

My working regimen for pull-ups are mostly sets of five strict pull-ups at a time and I’ll just do this for about 30-40 reps daily for the most part. There have been days where I have done zero and also days where I have done many more, but for the most part it has been pretty consistent. Pushups are easy for any of us to practice, because you can do them anywhere at anytime.

I’m excited to see the progress that takes place throughout the remainder of the year.

What can you do on a consistent basis to get better at something that has eluded you up to this point?

Protect Your Spine

11828564_1039727416045454_1548512201806256283_nWithin the first five minutes of every yoga class that I have ever been in, the teacher will either mention or set an intention around focusing on your breath throughout the day’s practice.

It has been a struggle for me to be able to focus on my breathing for an entire yoga class, but I have managed to make it through, getting in and out of postures while focusing on my breathing.

In yoga, there are a multitude of reasons why focusing on your breath is important. I feel the biggest is that it prevents you from constantly drifting off in thought about what you’re going to have for dinner, or some issue that is going on with a family member, or what is going on at work.

Those thoughts are paralyzing to your practice, and if they overwhelm you, before you know it the class is over and you feel no different than when you walked in there in the first place. This defeats the purpose, since yoga is supposed to be relaxing and rejuvenating.

Similarly, in our daily CrossFit workouts, you might have trouble focusing on staying tight through your midline.

How many times in class have you heard a coach say, “stay tight,” or, “squeeze your belly,” or “engage your core”?

Just like coming back to your breath during yoga, you should constantly check in during CrossFit and ask yourself if you’re staying tight, if you’re squeezing your belly, and if your core is engaged.

We don’t give these cues to slow you down during a workout. We want you to stay tight because, in the most general sense, staying tight through your midline protects your spine.

If you are staying tight in your squat, you are probably not butt winking and your chest will be more vertical than if you weren’t. Where do you think all of the pressure goes when your spine looks like a “slinky” when you back squat?

If you squeeze your belly while dead lifting, odds are your back is not rounding and your not dumping all that weight into your lumbar spine.

When you engage your core while snatching or cleaning, you land more solidly because you are under tension, which allows you to push explosively and get out of the bottom of the hole.

Wall balls, thrusters, rowing, push press, jerks, push-ups, ring rows, pull-ups, pistols . . . midline stability is key to almost every move you encounter in our daily workouts.

In your next workout, I challenge you to continue going back to anything that reminds you to engage your core. Your spine will thank you for years to come.

There Are No Shortcuts To Success

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One thing I noticed during this year’s CrossFit Open is that it’s easy to get caught up in the hype and try to take on more than you can handle.

I get it, you’re competitive and you want to post a good score. But if you don’t check yourself and do it the right way you won’t be posting any scores because you’ll be on the sideline with an injury.

Believe me, I learned this lesson the hard way. When I began CrossFit I let my ego, pumped up from past athletic success, take the lead and it got me into trouble. Bad form and a big ego are a recipe for disaster. Just ask my shoulder.

Maybe you were a stud athlete in high school, or maybe you just want to challenge yourself. Either way, take caution. High school was probably a long time ago, and I bet you didn’t walk out there with the varsity in whatever sport you excelled at and dominate on your first day. No, you put in time honing your skills and working on fundamentals. You need to take this same approach at the gym.

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If you have bad form, or you’re not confident in your technique, back off on the weight you’re using and slow your roll. There is no sense in personal heroics; you’re only going to injure yourself or reinforce bad habits.

Master the fundamentals. Without solid fundamentals you have little hope of succeeding. Accept the challenge to get better and attack it with everything you have, but don’t try to take shortcuts. This way, when you’re ready, you will be able to reach your full potential.

Help! My shoulders are leaking!

scapYour shoulder is made up of three bones: the humerus (upper arm), clavicle (collar bone), and scapula (shoulder blade). The humerus connects to the scapula via a ball and socket joint called the glenohumeral joint. So any articulation of your upper arm will involve your scapula to some degree.

The funny thing about the scapula is that it’s not directly attached to your skeleton. It is held in place by muscles in your back. If these muscles are loosey-goosey when you try to push something heavy over your head, the scapula will sag and you will be leaking energy out of your shoulders. The heavy thing is likely to bonk you on the head. If the heavy thing is your body, and you are doing a handstand, you might bonk your head on the ground.

Before you press overhead you should give yourself something solid to push from by engaging your shoulder blades. But how can this be accomplished? Most of us are very “connected” to our front sides, probably from years of navel gazing and minute examination of our abs in the bathroom mirror. How are you supposed to connect to some weird bone in your back that you can’t even see?

Here’s a drill that I will freely admit I stole from Pavel. Stand with your back against the wall with your knees bent. Walk your shoulder blades up the wall in a R-L-R-L pattern until your knees are straight. Strive to move each of your scaps independently and really reach with each. Now work your way back down. Repeat!

Running isn’t free

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One of my talking points about CrossFit is that it is a skill-intensive training paradigm. I like to trot out “Nancy” as an example. Nancy is one of our benchmark workouts consisting of five rounds of a 400 meter run and fifteen 95 pound overhead squats. Nancy compels you to perform a technical skill under duress which is how you know that you really own your technique. Any knuckle head can overhead squat 95 pounds fresh. But if you can do it fifteen times after sprinting 400 meters and then repeat that couplet four more times…well then maybe you really know how to overhead squat.

But there is a hidden presumption inside of this. Namely, we often fall into the trap of thinking of a load-bearing element (OH squat) as the high skill element in a couplet. That means that running or other forms of locomotion are seen as low skill elements whose sole purpose is to create duress. After all, everybody knows how to run right?

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Pop quiz. Given two athletes who finish Nancy with identical scores; Athlete #1 has very high parity across her 400 meter pieces with no more than 5 seconds divergence; Athlete #2 has low parity across his runs; he finishes his third 400 meter piece 30 seconds slower than his first. Which athlete is more technically proficient as a runner?

Duh. Obviously Athlete #1 is a more technical runner because she is able to perform consistently under duress.

Now here’s a more interesting thought experiment: which of these athletes do you think is more likely to finish the Twin Cities Marathon without injury?

The answer to this question is obvious, but non-trivial because it goes against the long-slow-distance paradigm that drives mainstream endurance training.

By progressively uploading training volume without ever actually developing running technique, most endurance athletes are “repeating wrong” in higher and higher doses. This is why there are so many running-related injuries every year.

Running isn’t free. It is a skill and skills are sharpened with focused training and directive coaching. Skill is blunted by repeating wrong.

Fortune Favors The Bold

Lately I’ve really enjoyed reading Donny Shankle’s blog. Donny is a modern-day philosopher-warrior who is perhaps the only human being on earth who can write about weightlifting in a way that makes the subject fascinating to non weightlifters.

One recurring theme in Donny’s blog is the idea that weightlifting “reinforces the virtue of courage”. What a strange idea! The linking of virtue and courage seems anachronistic in an age when sniveling has become the norm.

What is courage anyway? Of course you must have physical courage when you move under a bar. That thing is heavy. It could hurt you. But  there is another form of courage, namely, the willingness to risk humiliation.

If your only goal in the gym is to protect your ego, you’ll never take the risks you need to get better. Donny Shankle missed over forty attempts at a 171 kilo snatch before finally succeeding. Imagine how much ego strength that required.

Many people think they are a “loser” if they miss a lift, or fail at a pull-up, or finish the workout last. That’s wrong. Failure doesn’t make you a loser. It means you have skin in the game. Always remember that fortune favors the bold.

Preventing Wrist Pain in the Push Press and Jerk

Being able to press weight overhead is a great feat of strength. As you become more comfortable with the push press and jerk, you will learn that progress in these lifts shows not only that your upper body is strong enough to move the load, but that your midline is capable of bracing your spine as you perform them.

A common issue that I run into when coaching is that despite plenty of runway in someones strength capacity, they hit a wall when the movement is making them uncomfortable – in this case, specifically in their wrists.

The two main problems here are at the beginning of the lift, and in the finishing position.

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First, your starting position needs to be one that allows for your body (not just your arms) to hold the weight before you press (see picture 1). The bar should be resting across your shoulders, your elbows should be slightly in front of the bar, and you should try to grip the bar through the middle of your palms.

The deviations in proper technique are shown in the latter two pictures. In picture 2, the bar is where it should be, but the grip is not. This will cause you to press with your fingers and leave your hands folded backwards, putting extra pressure on your wrist. This is bad on many levels. Don’t do this!

Picture 3 shows that the grip is closer to correct, but the bar is being supported entirely by the arms. Leaving the bar on your shoulders leaves it on a much more stable platform to press from. Make sure it’s there when you’re setting up!

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The problem at the end of the lift is a little easier to describe. When you finish pressing (or catch, depending on the lift), it is ideal for your wrists to be as straight as possible (picture 4). Finishing with your hands folded backwards (picture 5) puts a lot of stress on the wrist, and is of no help in the lift. Think about punching the ceiling at the top of your lift.

The next time you are working on a pressing lift in class, pay attention to where you might be able to clean the details up a bit! Notice your set-up and finishing positions when you’re warming up with an empty bar, and only add weight if you know you’re able to keep your form right!

Fix Your Squat

10896871_936713919680138_7746851009549468939_nEveryone wants to master the snatch!!!

It is the fastest barbell movement, and since we are talking about it, it is also the coolest looking lift in the world!

Let’s look at this in terms of how we began to move as toddlers: first we learned how to crawl; then we moved on to walking; and once we figured that out, we started running.

Why do we try to reverse that order in the gym?

CrossFit Equation: If (snatching= running) and (overhead squatting= walking), then (_______= crawling).

Answer: ________= squatting.

So to recap, we first polish up on the squat, then hone in the overhead squat, and lastly work towards mastering the snatch. Today we are going to focus on the squat.

Squat: In a recent post, coach Teddy talked about the importance of range of motion. If we are in fact going to start with squatting then let’s make sure that range of motion is one of our priorities in our squat.

Watch Kendrick Farris in this snatch video. Where do you think he squats to? Stopping at parallel is not the goal.

Another priority in the squat is to keep tension throughout your squat. You want to actively push through your midline. You do this by engaging your core as if you were pushing into a weight belt on the way down and all the way back up.

If your first move at the bottom of your squat is to lean your chest forward, then you are completely taking your quadriceps out of the equation and putting the load on your lower back and hips. Is this you? Have you hurt yourself or been super sore in areas that you shouldn’t when squatting? Take a deeper look into this then.

Along with keeping tension in your midline, focus on keeping the weight directly over the middle of your foot. The second you lose tension and your chest dips forward, the weight is now over your toes. Not good.

There are many other facets of the squat that we can talk about, and we will at some point, but for today let’s focus on pushing our range of motion to a place that might be out of our normal comfort zone, while keeping tension through our midline.

Homework: Instead of putting yourself in crappy positions just to get a quicker score or to put up more weight, try the above technique tips to keep you working towards bigger and better goals within the gym!

Become A Double-Under Wizard

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I’m not going to mince words here, if you truly care about getting double unders consistently and you stress when you see them in a WOD, it’s your own fault. You haven’t worked hard enough to master double unders.

Just like I can’t do pistols because I never practice them and haven’t put in the necessary work to attain my goal, you can’t do double-unders because you don’t practice them outside the context of a class. It is ludicrous to think that practicing for ten minutes before a WOD, or going to one double-under clinic without practicing afterwards, will enable you to string them together consistently during a workout.

The good news is this is fixable.

It comes down to practice, practice, and more practice. I promise you that if you put in the time you will eventually become a wizard on the rope. Coach Joe wasn’t born with a rope in his hands. Ask him how he got so good.

Also, get your own rope. If you’re serious about mastering double unders, and you don’t own your own rope, and think that the beat up ropes we have at the gym are good enough, you are mistaken. This is the golf equivalent to using a set of rental clubs every time you hit your local course expecting to break par. Unless your name is Tiger Woods it’s probably not going to happen.

Here are some tips you can take with you to your practice sessions…after you buy your own rope.

Common faults and fixes

Fault: Hands drift apart causes rope to shorten and trip you up.

Fix: Keep your elbows close to your body; hands in front of your torso. You should be able to see your hands in your periphery.

Fault: Using your whole arm to move the rope. This is taxing and inefficient.

Fix: Move the rope with a quick flick of the wrists, or just your fingers.

Fault: Jumping like a donkey or piking throws rhythm out of whack and not efficient – power singles/maintain hollow position.

Fix: Practice a good up and down, rhythmic bounce. Practice single under power jumps to develop the proper technique and timing. Also, jump when rope is about to hit the ground and pass under your feet.

Fault: Loose core.

Fix: Maintain a hollow body position while jumping (imagine someone is going to punch you in the gut and hollow out to take the punch).

It’s Not Me, It’s You

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This Winter I decided to work on my front squat. I can’t adequately describe how much I fear and hate the front squat. It hurts. I’m bad at it. But it’s the limiting factor in my clean & jerk specifically and CrossFit generally, so I figured I better deal with it.

I did a bunch of research and found a twelve week front squat program written by the venerable Charles Poliquin. I’m now starting my sixth week and I can say that my front squat has improved. A lot.

What I can’t say is that it’s because of the programming.

Looking through my training journals, I realized that I’ve front-squatted more in the past six weeks than I have in the past six years. Twice a week, every week, grinding out reps no matter what.

It adds up, and at my level, that’s what matters. I could have rolled dice to determine sets and reps and as long as I showed up and put my work in, I would have gotten better at the front squat.

CrossFitters, especially those who wish to compete, ascribe magical properties to programming. Rudy Nielsen of the Outlaw Way, James Fitzgerald of OPEX, and others have achieved wizard status in our world.

I get it. People want to believe in magic, because it makes reality less painful. Who wants to grind when you can become awesome with a magic pill?

But for those people who think the only thing preventing you from becoming a superhero is special programming I have a few observations:

1) People love success stories and it’s awesome to root for Outlaw and Ute athletes who consistently reach the podium. But lots of people train under those systems. If the magic only works for some, is it really magic? It’s not the programming. It’s the athlete.

2) Rich Froning, the most dominant CrossFit athlete of our time follows no set programming but makes it up as he goes along, based on how he feels on a given day. What differentiates Froning from everyone else is not his programming but his volume, which is mind boggling. It’s not the programming. It’s the athlete.

3) ALL programming is based on the assumption that you are a good mover. If you are not a good mover; if you don’t have an impeccable squat; if you have any form of impingement or restriction, then accumulating volume will cause you to regress and probably injure yourself. It’s not the programming. It’s the athlete.

Occasionally people will ask me to write programming for them and I am glad to do so. I work hard at it and take it seriously, and most of my clients are happy with the outcome. But when my clients succeed, it’s because they showed up and put in their work.

It’s not the programming. It’s the athlete.