Monthly Archives: August 2011

We Will Kill You.

I have been annoyed at many Crossfit shirts. This started when I watched a guy at a local weightlifting meet warm up next to Donny Shankle wearing a “Crossfit: your workout is our warmup” shirt. Donny was warming up to open his snatch at 160kg, this guy was opening at 60kg and was struggling with 50kg in the warmup room. I remember thinking that this guy couldn’t even do Donny’s warmup, not even 1/4 of it, let alone his workout. Who did he think he was? For some reason this stuck with me and every time I saw one of those shirts my blood pressure went up a couple of points. Shirts like “Smoke you like cheap crack”, fed into this. I mean really, smoke everyone who reads the shirt? Smoke them at what? The clean and jerk? The 2 mile run? Open water swim? Smoke everyone at every possible athletic event? Then the endless shirts playing up the fact that the wearer, or crossfitters in general, hurt more than anyone else, collapse at the end of the workout more than anyone else, throw up more than anyone else, or even sweat more than anyone else.

I recently read the first two articles in Lyle McDonald’s series about the shape American weightlifting is in, (for a discussion of the articles, click here) and one of the things he tries to do is explain the conditions that must be present in groups that are successful or even dominant. He talks about the absolute dominance of Kenyan distance runners, and one of the things present is both a belief that the harder they work the better they will be, and, the constant attempt to run each other into the ground at training camps. They are obsessive about trying to out-train each other, in particular any newcomer to the camps or training centers. Prefontaine is mentioned, along with his belief that he was willing to suffer more than his competitors and this was the key to his success. Hard work, suffering, and the belief that one can “break” competitors by pushing harder and suffering more than they can. Sounds like Crossfit. This made me see the various slogans in a bit of a different light. Although I won’t be buying a “smoke you like cheap crack” shirt myself, behind the slogans I see a belief that working harder and suffering more is what will make the wearer better at Crossfit, or more fit, however you want to define it. Putting it in those terms takes away much of the annoyance, and let’s me understand the mindset a bit better.

I recently saw a CF shirt that is truly awesome, and today Jon recieved an example of it. Not we will dominate you, not we will destroy you, and not we will smoke you. This one just gets straight to the end-game. We will kill you. Crossfit Salem, complete with a rainbow and a Pegasus on a light pink shirt. Crossfit Salem: We Will Kill You. Sounds like something Prefontaine might have said.

Some straw men are pretty tough…

There is a notion that is gaining popularity among the general strength training crowd, the notion that Olympic lifters in the United States do not care about strength training. That we put a low priority on getting strong. Now, it is so patently ridiculous to think that those in a sport where success is based on how heavy a barbell you can pick up and put over your head don’t believe strength is important that I did not think the idea would ever gain all that much traction. In fact, it is so ridiculous that I thought it would probably come back and bite the folks saying it in the ass once people just thought about it a little.

I was wrong.

This argument is a classic straw man argument. Falsely claim another is supporting position “A”, then win the argument by pointing out that position “A” is incorrect, and that your own position “B” is much superior. This is done in politics all the time, and can be done subtly enough so that sometimes even the victim of the scam doesn’t realize he has just been had. The victims position can be slightly altered, barely exaggerated, just enough to give the perpetrator of the fraud something reasonable to argue against. No need to just out and out fabricate your opponents position to use this technique to win an argument. But in our case, there is nothing subtle about it. No need to be subtle really, as there are plenty of things about training for the sport of weightlifting that can be twisted, taken out contest, or confused to give those who would like to make themselves look very good by knocking over the straw man plenty of opportunity to confuse the issues. I will confront three of these areas of confusion.

One misconception is that because not all weightlifters use the deadlift, this proves we don’t emphasize strength enough. Many powerlifters, for whom the deadlift is a competition exercise, also don’t deadlift often, sometimes none at all between contests. Why is this? Because many have found that the deadlift is so hard to recover from when done with maximal weights that they just cannot be done frequently. They have found that they progress quicker when they do them less often. Many have also found that using different squatting variations done very heavy to develop strength, then using lighter and more dynamic pulling is just a superior way to train the deadlift, and results in stronger lifters and bigger deadlifts. This sounds remarkable similar to the way weightlifters train, lots of heavy squats, lighter, more dynamic pulling. Not deadlifting heavy on a regular basis does not prove one is not trying to get strong, it just proves that one has found a better way to get strong, a way that produces bigger and stronger athletes in other sports, and many of the strongest deadlifters and biggest deadlifts in the world.

Discussions about the ratio of the competitive lifts to the squat can also lead to confusion when statements are twisted or taken out of context. Often, these ratios are used to gauge a lifters technical proficiency. Sometimes they are used to make decisions about where to best spend the majority of training effort. It is considered “normal” for a lifter to snatch about 80% of their best clean and jerk, and back squat about 125% of their best clean and jerk. These numbers won’t be the same for everyone, but if a lifter is significantly different from these rations, it might point out some defeciency in technique or even the training program. If a lifter is snatching 90% of his best clean and jerk, it would be normal to ask “what is holding back the clean and jerk?” or to wonder how how training might be altered to change this. Likewise, if a lifter back squats 200% of his best clean and jerk, most lifters and coaches would be wondering why the clean and jerk is not following the squat at a more reasonable distance, what can be done about it, and, if it might pay to take some of the effort currently being expended in pushing the squat and instead put it toward fixing whatever is wrong with the clean and jerk. NONE of this means we don’t care about strength or don’t want to get stronger. What it does mean is that the snatch and clean and jerk is how we demonstrate strength in our particular sport, just like squatting is how you demonstrate it in powerlifting, loading stones is one of the ways you demonstrate it if you compete in strongman events, and the weight throw for height is one of the ways you demonstrate it if you are a highland games athlete. Consider a strongman competitor who has a huge 900lb deadlift but cannot load a 300lb stone. Compare him to another competitor, who can deadlift only 700lbs, but can load a 350lb stone. Which one should be working harder on stone loading, and which on deadlifting? No one would bat an eye if the 900lb deadlifter said he was choosing to de-emphasize deadlifting and put extra effort into loading stones prior to an upcoming contest. Certainly no one would question his understanding that strength is the cornerstone of his performance and must be raised in order to perform better. On the other hand, the fact that a weightlifter who back squats double his clean and jerk might put extra emphasis into improving his clean and jerk at the expense of pushing the squat can be twisted and distorted into, again, the silly notion that weightlifters don’t understand the value of strength training and don’t think that strength matters. At the heart of this is the next fallacy…

Some claim that strength is not built by snatching and clean and jerking. They claim that strength is displayed, but it is only built by slower, heavier exercises like the squat, the press, and the deadlift. Sometimes I wonder if this is a true belief or a claim only for the purpose of constructing the straw man… but it is true that some of those making this claim have had maximal snatches and clean and jerks that are very, very low percentages of their squats and clean and jerks. For a man who squats a large number but has skill, technique, or flexibility problems that limit the snatch to less than 30% of this number or the clean and jerk to less then 50% of this number, then yes, it is true, the Olympic lifts will not be major drivers of leg and back strength. The load is just not big enough. But it would take a real lack of imagination to not understand that a clean and jerk done by a man who can clean 80% of his back squat is a whole different animal than what they are doing. Wherever this claim originates from, it allows them to look at the lifter who devotes a significant proportion of their weekly training to doing the snatch and clean and jerk, and make the following claim “see, they flog technique training to death, but don’t emphasize strength training”. Because to them, all training on the snatch or clean is, is technique training. In reality, to a skilled lifter a high percentage lift on the snatch or clean and jerk is a powerful driver of strength adaptation. Unfortunately, it is impossible to demonstrate this to those that are not skilled lifters, and some simply won’t take your word for it.

More than anything, this particular blog entry is a simple rant against a situation that frustrates me. Most of the people who read it will already agree with me. Most of the people who need to read it don’t even know this blog exists. But thank you for reading anyway, and here’s to all those out there practically bleeding on the platform and in the squat stands trying like hell to get stronger.

Who’s got your back?

I used this picture for a magazine article about using the power clean for athletes outside Olympic weightlifting. The point of the article was that the competitive lifts and their variations are great builders of the back muscles. That even those outside of weightlifting might want to look into some of the simpler variations like power cleans to aid in their development and strength goals.

I have had a questioning response from a couple of people who have looked at the article and picture. The question revolves around the fact that not all weightlifters backs look like this. It’s true, they don’t. Some don’t have this level hypertrophy. On the other hand, some are even more impressive. But, can this not also be said about the use of the barbell row and the chin-up? Both accepted in the mainstream circle of strength training as the best or at least among the best builders of muscle and strength in the back. Yet does everyone who uses these exercises have an exceptionally developed back? Certainly not. Fact is that genetics, work ethic, and a reasonable training plan all play a part.

But, certainly the fact that it is not abnormal for a weightlifter to have a very visually impressive, thick, and dense back with said back developed by nothing more than the normal weightlifting exercises of pulling weights off the floor and putting them overhead or on the shoulders tells me that if you have the necessary qualities to allow it to happen, cleans and snatches can certainly give you one hell of a back.