Arousal States and Training

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I used to listen to Bebel Gilberto in the gym until everybody complained. Apparently I’m the only one who wants to listen to bossa nova while working out. Nowadays the speakers blare a reliable cacaphony of popular music by long-haired degenerates and big-bootied minxes. Groan.

Aside from the obvious, the difference between Bebel Gilberto and say, Nicki Minaj, is that Gilberto’s beats are usually notated in 2/4 time which is characteristic of a relaxing, side-to-side, “swaying” beat. Minaj’s music is primarily 4/4 which is a straight-ahead, charging beat that you can bob your head to.

Most people prefer working out to a 4/4 beat because it increases arousal state which is a fancy way of saying it psychs you up. In the world of sports psychology there are numerous divergent theories about how arousal affects performance, ranging from the plausible to the absurd.

I don’t want to go down that rabbit hole but I will point out that most research in the area is based on the assumption that athletes’ arousal states are low in training and high in competition.

This is a very problematic idea for CrossFitters for whom the line between training and competition is blurred. I would make the case that in a completely randomized programming environment you can’t train, because training presupposes deliberation and planning. If every workout is a random beat-down then you basically have to psych yourself up, as a matter of  survival. At TwinTown we don’t like random. The foundation of  our programming is progression and repetition. Whereas civilians exercise…athletes train, and we see an athlete in everybody.

So how do you meet us in the middle? You can’t do much about the music in the gym, but you are in control of your own mindset. The biggest thing you can do to affect mindset is to think beyond the workout that’s in front of you. If you have a clearly established goal you can treat your time in the gym as focused training, rather than mere exercise. When you set foot in the gym, remind yourself of your goal. Ask yourself, what am I training for?

When you find a strong, goal-directed motivation, you won’t need to psych yourself up anymore. You will be able to manage your arousal state and train from a place of calm and focus, rather than desperation and anxiety.

If you haven’t yet emailed your 2015 goals to Coach Brock it’s not too late. Email goals@twintownfitness.com with your top three fitness goals for 2015. Let’s train!

How To Think About Range of Motion

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There are two ways to think about range of motion.

First, there’s the range of motion necessary for your rep to be scored.

Then there’s the range of motion necessary for you to be awesome.

cletusCrossFitters are extremely strict about the the first definition, ostensibly because a pillar of CrossFit is intensity, defined as work multiplied by distance, divided by time. According to that formula, if you short range, you are cheating on work output. But wait! If a tall guy and a short guy are each doing 95# thrusters, doesn’t the tall guy end up doing more work?

In point of fact, the CrossFit range of motion standard is completely arbitrary. You can think of it as a convenient way to identify cheaters in a room full of Type A competitive exercisers.

Sad to say, merely fulfilling that range of motion will NOT make you awesome.

Gasp! Heresy!

Put the pitchfork down! Let me explain, by specific example.

The Squat

Most CrossFitters say that if your hip crease breaks the plane of your knee your squat is good. Let’s be clear. If your hip crease breaks the plane of your knee your rep will be scored. It is not good. Here’s why.

First muscle tension increases with length, and strength increases with tension. If you stop your squat right below your knee, you probably haven’t fully tensioned your muscles, which means you won’t benefit from the stretch reflex, which means the muscle elasticity which is your genetic endowment from millennia of human evolution will go to waste. Not good.

Second, stopping your descent and reversing direction without the benefit of the stretch reflex requires a very strong eccentric contraction. Over a lot of reps, all those eccentric contractions cause micro tears in your muscles. You will become screamingly sore, and being sore is for suckaz.

The Pullup

Most CrossFitters will score your pullup if your chin clears the bar. This horrible range of motion standard causes people to reach for the bar with their chins.

tumblr_l5tqfewUW31qc63sno1_400If you’re wondering why this is such a big deal, stand up, put your hand on your lower back and then raise your chin. That movement you feel in your lower back is hyper-extension.

Hyper-extension is not a big deal every once in a while. Your spine is designed to move dynamically…sometimes. But in a workout with 100 pull ups, if you reach with your chin on every rep, something bad is going to happen. This is why Coach Peter is always up in your grille about keeping your chin down when you do pull ups.

Don’t compromise your spine to fulfill range of motion. When you clear the bar you should be hollowed out with your head neutral…essentially an elbow plank but flipped 90 degrees.

Overhead Movements

All CrossFitters everywhere have heard the cue “cover your ears”. Most people can track this cue, but many people try to fulfill the range of motion requirement by pushing their head forward through their arms. This puts incredible stress on the upper part of your spine.

I confess that I have used this horrible cue myself.

<hangs head in shame>

But what I really want is to see your skeleton stacked vertically with the bar positioned over your feet. That position gives you maximum mechanical advantage with minimal risk. If the bar is over your feet and your skeleton is stacked, I could care less where your ears are in relation to your arms.

Mindful Movers

CrossFit coaches push. It’s in our nature. But TwinTown coaches don’t want you to be range-of-motion zombies; thoughtlessly painting by numbers in the gym; doing the bare minimum to avoid a no-rep.

Be mindful in the gym. Mindful movers become good movers and above all else, we want you to become good movers. The awesomeness will follow.

Is Your Butt Winking?

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You’ve probably heard one of your coaches at TwinTown Fitness use the term butt wink before. But what does it mean, and more important, how do you prevent it from happening?

The butt wink is a term used to describe the posterior rotation of an athlete’s pelvis during a squat, i.e., your tailbone tucks underneath your body during the squat.

A butt wink can occur because the range of motion in your hips is limited once you reach a certain depth. It might also happen because you have tight hamstrings.

There is no doubt that a butt wink is bad. Kelly Starrett says that when you butt wink, the whole system is then compromised do to instability. Your core turns off, causing you to get loose in the bottom, which leaves you poorly braced.

This becomes really problematic when you have a loaded barbell on your shoulders because your risk of injury goes up.

How do you fix a butt wink?

First, address your posterior chain and hamstring mobility.

Starrett suggests squeezing your belly and your butt to stabilize your spine at the top of your squat. Then, initiate the squat by pushing your knees out laterally and your hamstrings, not your butt, back. You should drive your knees out as far laterally as possible, and screw your feet into the ground, creating torque as you get deeper in your squat. Imagine that you have a connected sheet of paper towel under both feet and you want to tear it in the middle.

But until you master the awareness to do this while banging out a set of squats, stop your squat where you begin to butt wink.

For some athletes this occurs when their hips are at ninety degrees, for others it doesn’t happen until they get below parallel. If you are unsure of where your tailbone starts to tuck under your body, ask a coach to watch you and place a box or medicine ball to stop your squat right before this point.

Stay there with the box or medicine ball for a while and really feel what your body is and is not doing to this point. Are you tight in the bottom? Is your back rounding? Then remove the object, squat to full depth, and see if it feels different to you. Try to recreate the feeling your body had before you began to butt wink. If you are unable to do this, go back up to the box or medicine ball and don’t go any deeper until you have worked on your mobility and can squat without a butt wink.

Move Like A Baby – Part 1

What exactly is mobility? Is it flexibility? Range of motion? Stability? Fascial conditioning? Neuro-muscular coordination? Mobility defies precise definition, which is great for people selling mobility products but not great for people who just want to move better.

Here’s a definition of mobility for the great unwashed masses: it’s something you don’t have, that you know you need, that you should spend a lot of time trying to get, without knowing exactly when you’ve gotten it. And oh yes, it’s going to cost you a pretty penny.

I have no skin in the game; my only motivation is my clients’ well being so I think it’s okay for me to say bologna to all that. I have my own simple rubric for mobility, which is this: can you move at least as well as an infant? If the answer is yes, you are mobile. If the answer is no, you need work.

Infants are exemplary movers. Their movements are incredibly efficient, as a matter of necessity. They can’t force patterns because they don’t have any strength. They don’t have bad habits, because they haven’t spent decades hunched over a keyboard. And they are unobstructed by ego. A baby could not care less if he looks stupid. All he knows is, if he can’t get off his back, he won’t be able to move.

Over the next few weeks we’re going to break down some key movement patterns from the perspective of infant development. Let’s try to shed some light on what mobility really means.

This week we’re going to kick things off with the supine-to-prone rolling pattern. Learning how to roll over from your back is hugely important. In a supine position, your limbs are deleveraged. With the exception of a few edge cases, you can’t put any force into the ground when you’re on your back. You’re basically a blob.

Here’s a short clip of my eight month old daughter turning over from her back.

The key observation here is that her feet are off the ground when she makes the turn. In other words, she is not driving herself over using her feet. That would require strength she doesn’t have. Instead, she makes the turn by letting gravity help her.

If you’re curious, go ahead and try this. Lie on your back, lift your feet off the ground, and then let the weight of your knees turn you over onto your stomach. Remember, you can’t push off your feet, and you can’t fling your knees over. You have to roll over in a state of complete relaxation, without getting stuck on your side.

Most adults err by sticking an arm straight out to one side. When that happens you stress your shoulder joint and your arm gets pinned underneath you, like this:

Babies don’t have the upper body strength to unpin themselves so they have to be smarter than that. If you watch the first video closely you’ll see that when my daughter initiates her turn, she positions her elbow by her side, so that she doesn’t have to work against her shoulder joint to roll over. Here’s a clip of me trying to roll with a tucked elbow.

So what happened here? My elbow is in a better position but I still can’t roll over. The problem is that my thoracic spine (the part of the spine between your shoulder blades) is neutral. My head is oriented straight ahead. Look again at the first video. When Kira wants to turn over she twists her head to face the ground. When I add in that small detail, I’m able to make a smoother transition.

Here is an advanced version of the rolling pattern. My daughter can’t do this but here is how my four year old son rolls from supine. In this version, you initiate the turn with an arm extended over your head.

We’ve looked at a lot of tape, and I’ve left you with some wacky ideas, but I want to highlight the big takeaway from all this.

The key to rolling over efficiently is a healthy thoracic spine. If you can’t turn your head with an extended thoracic spine, it is very difficult to make a smooth turn. You’re basically a blob, stuck on your back, watching the world go by.

Unfortunately, modern lifestyles wreak havoc on your thoracic spine. Every time you sit down at your keyboard, or start twiddling with your smart phone, you hunch over and your spine fuses into an unnatural position.

To put it another way, being a grown up makes you move worse than a baby.

Are your ankles affecting your squat?

1891244_880767821941415_6467677369343282556_n-2Tight ankles change the mechanics of your squat position. Tight calves, achilles or plantar fasciitis can also negatively affect your squat, but we are going to focus on ankles today.

Lack of dorsiflexion can make you weaker and more injury prone. Having tight ankles forces you to use your quads more and your glutes less.

A quick and easy way to increase ankle mobility, and give your heels a stable surface to push off of when squatting, is to put your heels onto a five pound plate. Or you can get off your wallet and go get some oly lifting shoes.

There are literally a thousand ways to mobilize your ankles, but most of our immobilities are centered between our ears. “Huh… what is he talking about?”

I’m saying that most of us choose to take the lazy route and not do anything to improve no matter how much we need it. Let’s assume that we have moved past obstacle one, our lazy nature, here are a few great videos that you can follow along with and see what is holding you up.

I would start with Dorsiflexion Test to see where you are at. This is just a snip-it, but start with your toe five to six inches from the wall. While keeping your heel completely on the ground, see if you can touch your knee to the wall.

If you cannot touch your knee to the wall, try the exercises in Ankle Dorsiflexion to start to mobilize. This video has you put a PVC or dowel on the inside of your big toe and then bring the outside of your knee around the PVC. But you can get a lot of the same benefit by placing the PVC on the outside of your pinky toe and bringing the inside of your knee around the PVC. Do each of these ten times, on each leg and retest.

Kelly Starett has a few great videos that tie everything together in your lower leg, and show you how to improve mobility for squatting. Check out Heel Cords of a Cheetah and Heel Cord Love’n.

There are also a few great exercises in Dorsiflexion for Improved Squat Performance and How to Improve Ankle Dorsiflexion & Plantar Flexion for Sprinting to work through.

If you do not know where your immobilities lie exactly, but know that there is something going on, get with one of your coaches and we can help you properly diagnose where your problem areas are and point you in the right direction for improvement.

We can all be as mobile as we want, but how badly do we want it?

Set Your Press Up Correctly

10620168_884241538260710_6363014703601438569_o There are a lot of fine details that can be tweaked to perfect an overhead press. Today, I’m going to take on one of them: the position of your elbows relative to the bar when you set up.

The overall idea here is that when the bar is racked before the movement begins, you should have your elbows slightly out ahead of the it. First, this helps to keep the bar on your shoulders and allows your body to support the weight (as opposed to strictly relying on your hands/arms to hold it). This is extremely important in lifts with a dip and drive component like the jerk or push press.

Second, this set-up allows for the bar to stay as close to your center of gravity as possible as it moves. With your elbows slightly in front of the bar, you are naturally going to press the bar up above you. If your elbows start behind the bar, your initial press will push the bar out away from you making it much harder to manage the lift. Getting this set-up into place before you take the bar off the rack is a good way to get comfortable with it.

Give it a shot the next time you’re working on any kind of a barbell press!

What part of the front squat do you struggle with?

10404177_863593560325508_1897217743595871228_nLike many elements in our CrossFit journey, the front squat takes practice. Practice with the mobility to get the bar into the proper position, the strength to keep tension throughout the lift and in patience to not try to do too much too fast.

The following pictures in this sequence illustrate where you should be technique-wise throughout the lift:

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Position 1- “Front Rack”- The back of your arms should be parallel to the ground throughout the lift; think about keeping your elbows shooting up through the ceiling. Something that will help you keep your elbows up, and prevent you from feeling a burning sensation in your wrists, is to release your ring and pinky fingers from the bar so you only have your thumb and two fingers on the bar. Your fingers only serve the purpose of keeping the bar in place, all of the weight should be supported by your shoulders.

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Position 2- Initiate the squat. Break at the hips and sending butt back. Notice how Peter’s angle between the bottom of his arms and his body in this picture from the first. The more you can keep your torso vertical, the less pressure it puts on your shoulders and wrists. Think about keeping those elbows shooting to the ceiling while tracking your knees over your toes as you squat.

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Position 3- Bottom of the squat. As always, you want your hip crease to be deeper than your knees, as Peter is doing here. Work to keep the back of your arms parallel with the ground throughout the lift. If you notice your chest sinking forward as you squat, it is because you lack the proper hip and/or hamstring mobility to support keeping your torso vertical. When you hit the bottom of your squat and start driving up be sure to keep your knees out. Think about forcing your knees out as if you were doing banded squats.

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Position 4- The return. Work on returning on the same path you came down on by using your glutes and hamstrings. If you were to trace the bars movement pattern throughout, it would be moving on a straight line down and up.

If you lack the mobility in any of these four positions, get with a coach and ask how you can improve your mobility to better front squat.

Add power to your game

In golf, hockey, lacrosse, baseball, and pretty much any sport involving a stick, rotation in your thoracic spine is crucial to creating power.

Here are two simple stretches from the Titleist Performance Institute that will help you gain the flexibility you need to get more distance off the tee or increase the velocity of your slap shot. If you don’t play a sport, but you’d like to add to your mobility routine, throw these into the mix.

A-Frame Stretch:
This stretch targets your thoracic spine, shoulders, and chest.

  1. Start in your deadlift position: shoulders back, bend at the knee, hinge at the hip.
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  2. Place your elbow inside one knee.IMG_0678
  3. Reach your other hand behind you and rotate until it’s pointing vertically.
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  4. Return to the starting position.
  5. Repeat on the other side.

Open Books:
This stretch helps you gain flexibility in your thoracic spine, chest, shoulders, and rib cage.

  1. Lie on your side with your knees bent and pinned together, and your arms out in front of you – place the hand of the shoulder connected to the ground on your knee.IMG_0713
  2. Rotate your top arm all the way across your body, keeping your knees connected to the ground.
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  3. The goal is to touch your knuckles to the ground, keeping your arm at chest level.
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  4. Return to the starting position.
  5. Repeat on the other side.

If you want it, work for it!

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In the past few weeks I have been asked numerous times, “how do I improve my pull-ups?”

Members are frustrated that they are still using bands. This frustration isn’t simply because they are using bands; it’s that they’re using bands and not improving.

One of my favorite quotes simplifies action steps, “if you want it, work for it.”

Sure you will improve just by following our programming, but it takes more than this to move past your GOAT. Not just with pull-ups, but anything that you want to achieve in the gym takes EXTRA effort.

Strict pull-up breakdown:

1. Engage your lats. Pull your scaps down your back. Think of pulling your shoulders into your back pockets. This loads you properly. You can also think about pulling your shoulders away from your ears, making your neck long.

2. Get into the “hollow-body” position. We talk about the hollow body position while doing many movements in the gym. It’s basically squeezing your abs and your butt until you are in the shape of a banana. Think about someone pushing on the bottom of your feet as you are hanging on the bar. You want to be as rigid as possible. If you are loose or your knees are forward or back, your partner pushing on your feet will not raise you an inch.

3. Pulling. With your lats already engaged, as you pull up the top of your chest is aiming at the bar. You have earned a rep once your chin passes the bar and not until then.

4. The negative. Some people think that the pull-up is over once your chin is over the bar. No siree. You have to maintain your hollow body position all the way down until your arms are fully extended.

Always, always, always execute strict pull-ups before moving onto “kipping pull-ups”. Don’t put the cart before the horse.

What can you work on at open gym or after class to aide your quest of completing a strict pull-up?

- Banded pull-ups- Without fail EVERYDAY you are in the gym take 5-10 extra minutes to do 3×3, 5×5 pull-ups with a band. You need to increase your volume in order to make quicker strides.

- Jumping pull-ups- While hanging on to the bar, jump half way up to the bar and pull yourself over the other half.

-  Negatives- Use a high enough box so that you are able to jump yourself all the way over the bar. Hold this isometric pose for as long as you can. As your arms start to straighten, fight for all you’re worth to take as long as possible to drop. Once you advance with this, you can add weigh to increase strength.

- Grip strength- You need to increase your grip strength. You can do this simply by hanging on the bar as long as you can.

- Partner assisted pull-ups- Have a friend push on the bottom of your feet to get you over the bar.

Go get some!

A tale of two squats…

The Real Deal

A couple of months ago I had a come-to-Jesus meeting with myself. I had just started the Texas Method program but on week two I was unable to complete the prescribed volume of squats. I chalked it up to fatigue and decided to not add weight the next week. I waited patiently all week for a chance to redeem myself but when Monday rolled around, I whiffed again.

What gives?

The problem is that the Texas Method is a percentage based progression and I had calculated my percentages against my Ego Squat. The Ego Squat is what you do to get a big number on the leader board, or to lay claim to an impressive milestone. In my case my Ego Squat is a 2x bodyweight squat. I’ve been working for a 2x bodyweight squat forever. One morning I weighed in at 175 and later that day I managed to stand up with 365…barely. But hey, my hip crease broke the plane of my knee so I gave myself credit.

Here’s the problem. Outside of the edge case of competitive powerlifting, a squat where your hips dip just below your knee isn’t really a squat. It’s nothing. It’s worse than useless because it’s a completely different pattern than the one you actually want to engrain. The way real athletes squat is ass-to-ankles, with an upright chest, and always, always, always sitting all the way into the squat. Squatting this way can add 10-15kg to your snatch. It can mean the difference of several minutes in a WOD like Karen or Fran. It makes you better at everything, including the deadlift.

In order to finish Texas Method I had to swallow my pride and ratchet down my numbers. Rather than calculate percentages from my Ego Squat, I calculated percentages from 315 which was my max when I sit all the way into my squat. That adjustment gave me six weeks of productive training where I was able to fulfill 100% of the prescribed volume. The result is that my squat went up as well my snatch, clean, dead lift, and bench press.

The point is this. You are always training for something. So you may as well live by your standard. If you spend your time in the gym chasing shiny objects and giving yourself credit for things you haven’t earned, you’re training to be a knucklehead, and you can’t be surprised when you get owned by somebody with a little humility.