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!

Prepare for Victory

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Last week we went over how to go about choosing goals for the New Year.

If you really want to achieve your goals you need to be specific, and also have something that is reasonable, measurable, and attainable. Pick something that is going to drive you until you have achieved it.

Do you have an eerie feeling when you think about your goals? Oh man, why did I tell everyone what I want to work on, because I don’t even know how to get there? I’m not even sure where to start?

Any goal that has ever been written looks overwhelming to begin with, so thats why it is important to break them down into small actionable steps. There was a great article on TED Talks earlier this week, where Kelly McGonigal, a psychologist at Stanford University, mentioned to focus on the process, not the outcome.

“People often get lost thinking they have to change everything all at once,” says McGonigal. “But small changes can pave the way for bigger changes.” Ask yourself, what is the smallest thing I can do today that helps me reach my goal? For example, if you’re shy and you want to be more outgoing, you might accept someone’s invitation to lunch or say hi to someone you usually walk past in the hallway. From there, just follow the breadcrumbs — one small choice after another.

“You can make very, very small changes that are consistent with your big goals without having to understand how you’re going to get to the endgame,” says McGonigal. If you make daily choices that are consistent with your goal over and over again, you will eventually reach it

If your goal is to do one strict pull-up, actionable steps may start with nothing but ring rows for the first 2 months of the year. While doing your ring rows you can constantly challenge yourself, but you have to make a conscious effort to do so. Start your ring rows at a forty-five degree angle to the floor and slowly inch your way closer to parallel  to the floor.

The next step would be to move to banded pull-ups. You may have to work on them on your own time, before or after class. I promise that these guys will not care, as long as you stay out of the way. Everyday that you enter the gym, do not leave until you have done five sets of five pull-ups. Every week or so shoot to decrease the tension of band that you use.

There are many areas in which you can improve towards getting that pull-up. If you need help with it ask a coach to put together a plan with you.

In addition to breaking your goals down into actionable steps, there are other ways to move towards reaching your goals. Maybe your goal is to be able to do a snatch with an empty bar, but you lack the shoulder mobility to do so. Something that you need to improve would be your mobility. Your coach can help you with movements to increase range of motion. Yoga should be a part of everyone’s weekly routine if you lack the discipline to spend adequate time on mobility.

Lastly, just by coming to class consistently our programming will help you in ways that you will only notice when you start tracking your progress. And unless you are a direct descendant of Nostradamus, and you can accurately predict what your fitness level is going to be at any given time, it is mandatory that you enter every score into Beyond the Whiteboard!

It is not too late to get your goals for 2015 sent to us. Email them to goals@twintownfitness.com

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?

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.

How often should I work out?

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One of the fitness world’s million dollar questions: how often should I work out? Research across the industry varies, and you’ll find different answers for different workouts like weight training, cardio and aerobic activity, or bodyweight workouts, on how many times per week you should endeavor in each.

Hmmm, where could you possibly go to work out that encompasses all of this?

Fitness experts recommend anywhere from two to six workouts per week. Sources saying you should work out twice per week are the same that recommend that whole grains and pasta make up the highest percentage of your diet. Why do Americans look and feel the way they do? I just don’t understand.

There is one common theme pretty much everywhere you look: the amount of time you devote to working out depends on what your goals are.

If you are overweight, deconditioned, or new to exercising you should consider planning for a workout schedule of Monday, Wednesday, Friday, or, alternatively, Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday. Think one day on, one day off, and repeat this cycle.

Having a routine and sticking to it, even when times are tough, is what is going to transform you to the “new and improved you.” Don’t leave your health to chance, commit to it.

Once your body’s recovery process has improved, and you can handle a higher workload, look to keeping a rotation of going to the gym on back-to-back days, then taking one day of rest.

For competitive athletes the CrossFit main site recommends three days on, one day off. This works well for workout volume and proper rest.

For any of the aforementioned routines, this snip-it from CrossFit Impulse, sums it up pretty well. “If your body is getting the nutrients it needs to perform tissue repair and fuel your workouts then you can train more often. If you eat poorly then you will inevitably train less often or with less intensity, and will require more rest when you are done. Your body also won’t get as full a benefit from the workout because you haven’t supplied it with the tools to fully adapt to the stress you provided during the workout.”

Above all listen to your body. Work through soreness and fatigue. Beware of working through pain, especially acute pain.

Train often enough to reach your fitness goals, but not too much that you overtrain or develop overuse injuries.

A goal for all of us should be to do something active for at least thirty minutes per day (stretch, hike, bike, swim, sports games, mobility, yoga, etc.).

Your body is made to move, not to sit on the couch!

Meal Plan for Success

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Eating a healthy diet can be a hassle. It tests your patience, commitment to eating well, and your ability to budget.

First, you have to find recipes that appeal to you. Then you have to make a grocery list of all the ingredients in the meals you plan to cook. After this, it’s off to the store to buy ingredients. Then you come home and spend up to a few hours cooking your food. Once your meals are prepared, you have to grab a sponge and clean up your mess.

Two days later, it’s time to begin this whole song and dance again. Sweet!

You might even end up scrapping the whole cooking idea and order your meals instead. This is not a budget friendly option.

Of course it would be easier and cheaper to hit up the dollar menu of different fast food restaurants all week. It’s quick and requires no planning or clean up on your part. But like spending all your free time sitting on the couch watching TV, this is not a sensible option.

Approach meal planning like your time at the gym. Commit, commit, commit.

Every week I look at my schedule and commit to five days that I plan on going to the gym. I give myself room to make one change in the event of an unforeseen event, but that’s it.

Do the same with your meal planning. Sit down on a day that works for you and plan out your meals for the week. Plan your meals for six days of the week, this gives you one wildcard day on the weekend to eat what and where you please. Break the week up into two, three-day chunks, with a trip to the grocery store in the middle. If two trips to the store isn’t an option for you, choose one day to head to the store to buy your food for the week.

Another option is to set yourself up on a meal plan like they offer at Origin Meals to get you through the week.

Keep it simple to set yourself up for success.

Testing Your Max

Testing what you are maximally capable of on a given lift is important for a number of reasons: you can clearly see the progress you’ve made by watching your max go up over time, a coach can easily assign you a weight that is both safe and challenging in a workout if they know what your max on that movement is, and pushing your body to perform with a maximal weight forces it to adapt to your training in ways that other stimuli do not.

Despite the value in testing a max, there are also some common pitfalls. Let’s talk about them so you can be sure to steer clear!

Performing any lift should never be done “at all costs”. Instead of focusing on the absolute amount you can lift, think of max attempts as what you can do without your form breaking. If a coach ever tells you that something is wrong with your lift or offers a modification, it is only because we want you to practice perfection. Allowing for anything else is not doing you any services!

There are many factors that can influence your ability to either set a new personal record or leave you shy of a previous best. While training on a regular basis is great, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you will automatically set a new record every time you test. Being tired or sore from a previous workout, suffering from a bad nights sleep, or just having a sub-par day can all influence your performance. Think of your max attempts as what you are capable for the day. If circumstances are right, you might just set a new best. But it certainly can’t be expected on every attempt (and that’s alright!).

If you picture a graph with all your numbers for a specific lift on it, it is only important that the line slowly rises over time. There will always be ups and downs, but as long as the overall trend is heading in a positive direction the peaks and valleys should be of no concern.

“Patience you must have, my young Padawan”

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I was trolling through my Friendster feed the other day when I saw a link pop up that caught my attention. The two words that stuck out to me were “Vibram” and “lawsuit”. UGH! While I wasn’t surprised to hear that one of the big names in the minimalist shoe game is now under scrutiny for it’s product (I was actually more surprised that it had taken this long), the allegations against Vibram were disappointing nonetheless.

This specific instance is an unfortunate one because I believe that the minimalist shoes have been, and will continue to be, a very helpful tool for many people. However my true disappointment comes from the underlying theme of this lawsuit, and the fact that our fast-paced culture has been lead to believe that any changes to our bodies can happen in an unrealistic (and often unsafe) timeframe. In this case, people were under the impression that switching to a minimal shoe, and making some changes to their running form would have them healed of injury, and pushing the limits of their running capabilities in no time.

The expectations that are put upon us (and that we now put upon ourselves) have gotten way out of context. It’s constant in our world that we’re bombarded with promises of instant changes to our bodies (“17-Day Abs“, “Bikini Body Now!“) and it’s hard not to be enticed by the idea of such a quick fix. It’s just not always that easy though.

Weight loss, strength gains, improved endurance, technical lifting advances, and increased mobility are all common goals in my line of work. Despite this, every time I start chipping away at one of these with a client, the path is always different. I wish it was as easy as sending out an email with a list of what worked for someone else and then telling them to report back in a couple of weeks with their success story, but it’s not. We are all different, and just because one person had success with a specific method in a certain amount of time, doesn’t mean it will work for everyone.

My intention in writing this is not to further illustrate the hard work that progress can require, but instead to remind you to listen to your body along your journey. Most of us have unintentionally developed a lifetime of bad habits. Whether it’s the amount of time we spend sitting, the nutritionally-void food that we regularly put in our bodies, or the overly-padded, soft-foot-making shoes that we’ve been living in for years and years, if we expect to see a positive improvement in ourselves, it is imperative that we allow for a healthy period of time for our bodies to adapt.