Tag Archives: crossfit

Misery

In any athletic event, winning is at least partially determined by how much discomfort you can tolerate. Some sports are well known for producing discomfort.  Everyone can imagine how the athlete must feel at the end of an endurance event like a marathon.  But shorter events can be miserable too.  Many consider wrestling to be the toughest sport.  I certainly remember my high school wrestling days and the how bad I hurt at the end of a match or a particularly tough practice.

But weightlifting has its own special brand of misery.  There is truly nothing quite like it.  The lifts don’t take that long, and they usually aren’t, or shouldn’t be, painful.  Misery in the sport of weightlifting isn’t in the competitive event, it is in the training and it is all about fatigue.  It is not the sharp pain of a pulled muscle, but the dull ache, the bone crusing ache, of fatigue.  To become good at this sport you have to learn to live with that ache, and continue to train and push yourself anyways.  You have to get to the point where you actually like it.

In the end, this is what is going to determine your success.  Whether you can shoulder yet another set of squats and start to descend on the first rep even though you know the misery that has to happen before you can rack the bar.  Whether you can jump under a clean or snatch with absolutely NO hesitation even though you are scared to death.  The mental challenges of weightlifting are at least as great as the physical ones.  And when you reach your goals you will find that although your physical changes are huge, your mental changes are even greater.

 


Dealing with Imperfections.

This is one question that never goes away.  We all want to improve, most of us are willing to work our ass off the improve, but most are plagued with doubt about which program to use, and why.  Every aspiring champion has doubts about the program they are using, and whether or not it is the right one.  And who can blame them?  The Bulgarians maxed out constantly, and they did pretty well.  The Russians and others did a more varied program, with lots of different exercises and rep schemes, seemingly a whole different style of training.  So what should WE do?  Who should we copy?

 

I for one don’t think we should COPY anyone, but we can certainly learn from everyone.  America is a unique country, and we will need to come up with unique methods.  We are one of the only countries in the world with a large population of recreational weightlifters, or lifters for whom winning is not part of their livelihood.  Some think of this as a disadvantage, I disagree.  It simply makes the genetic pool we draw from bigger.  This pool is where we will eventually find the people who will move us back to the top of the sport.  I am biased towards the Bulgarian way of doing things, and always approach training with the mindset of wanting to go as heavy as possible, as often as possible.  I am impatient, I want to move that max clean and jerk up as fast as I can.  But although my default position is always to max out, I know there are a lot of reasons why a constant diet of nothing but maximal lifts often doesn’t work out for American lifters.

 

For one thing, we are not all perfectly suited to the weightlifting movements.   None of us were selected at age 9 for perfect limb lengths or other factors that make superior lifters.  Some of us are just built wrong!  Whether the problem is a spine that is too short or two long in comparison to our legs, or elbows that don’t completely lock out, these physical imperfections mean that we are not lifting machines designed solely for weightlifting!  This does not mean we will never snatch or clean big weights, it does mean we might have to resort to extraordinary means to do so.  Whether this means that you have to do way more push presses than jerks to build the necessary strength in your shoulders and triceps, or whether like Jared Fleming you have to resort to isometrics to build the necessary pulling strength to break an American record reaching your best total is likely to mean more than just maximum snatches and clean and jerks.  In fact you might have to resort to completely different methods of training, like Jared did.

 

Most lifters who do not quickly become national champions or world team members are lacking strength in at least one particular motion.  Fleming lacked pulling strength, others might lack strength in the squat or lockout strength on the jerk.  If you have lifted for a year, and you have not yet qualified for nationals or aren’t yet high on the ranking list for the world team, don’t fool yourself.   A lack of strength in some movement is the problem.   The Pendlay WOD uses lots of back squats and push presses, and even deadlifts for part of every 8 week cycle as the fastest ways to increase pulling, squatting, and lockout strength.  These strength exercises are programmed twice per week with one higher volume and session and one higher intensity session every week. They are pushed HARD.  If you are allergic to grinding our heavy sets of squats, this training program is not for you.  On the other hand, if you believe gaining muscle and getting strong are necessary parts of the sport of weightlifting, come on over.  We will get along just fine.     


The Life of a Samurai.

Louie Simmons said something to me several years ago that resonated with me.  He said “Glenn, I have lived the life of a samurai”.  What I believe he meant by that is that he had devoted his life to one thing.  Louie’s one thing is strength, and the development of strength.  He became a master in the development of strength, his one thing.   I do not pretend to compare myself to Louie, but I have pursued one thing in a similar fashion.  My one thing is weightlifting, the snatch and clean and jerk.  I have given up a lot in pursuit of my “one thing”.  A marriage, a successful business, and many of my friends.  Even my relationship with my son has been strained almost to the breaking point.  I have walked away from everything that didn’t fit in with my pursuit of producing a bigger total in an American weightlifter.

 

From time to time I question if it has been worth it, or if it will ever be worth it.  I have one friend who I believe is as obsessed as I am with weightlifting.  Donny Shankle and I have never spoken about the subject in these terms but even without speaking about it I know he would understand perfectly.  He would understand because he is as obsessed as I am.  Just the fact that a like-minded person is out there makes life easier somehow.

 

I continue to believe that if you succeed at doing one thing really, really well everything will work out.  Your life will have been worthwhile.  Your life will have been a success.


Pendlay WOD

The Pendlay WOD is programmed in 8-week training cycles.  I do it this way because this length of cycle works the best for the most people.  Training cycles work for a simple reason.  Neither the human body nor the human psyche react well to monotony.  We thrive on change, particularly when it comes to stress.  So we constantly change the stressor.  On the competition weightlifting movements, every week brings a change in the intensity and the volume.  We also do variations of the weightlifting movements such as the power variations, or lifts from the knee or the hip.  While the competition movements are done weekly with moderate intensity, we do the variations with high intensity, often going right up to our maximum. We can do this indefinitely because we change which variation we are using every week or two.  The combination of doing the actual competition lifts with moderate intensity and different variations with maximal intensity while regularly changing the variation works.  But it is only half the story, or actually 1/3 of the story.  Doing only the snatch and clean and jerk doesn’t make an effective program.

 

As amazing as an exercise like the snatch is, it is not all that effective for building maximal strength and muscle.  For that, we have to do movements like the squat and deadlift.  Ideally the exercises that we use to build strength and muscle will work the body through the same or similar ranges of motion as the weightlifting movements but will use much heavier weight and therefore slower bar speed.  The exercises that work the best are the back squat, the deadlift, and the front squat.  The use of training cycles is even more important for continual progress on the squat and deadlift than it is for the snatch and clean.  Each 8-week cycle on the Pendlay WOD moves the athlete from higher volume training on the squat and deadlift at the start, to lower volume and higher intensity by week 8.  Each 8-week cycle should end with PR sets in the squat and deadlift as well as PR lifts in the snatch and clean and jerk.

 

The combination of moderate competition lifts and maximal lifts on a variety of variations is  1/3 of story, an effective strength program is another third, and the final piece of the puzzle is something that few weightlifters like to do.  Assistance exercises like glute-hamstring raises, back extensions, hip extensions and other similar things done for sets of 10 at the end of every training session.  No one likes to do these exercises.  No one looks forward to their time on the GHR.  But just because they are not fun doesn’t mean we don’t do them.  Exercises like the back extension and hip extension build muscle and strength where we need it most, in the back, hips, and hamstrings.  They also build tolerance to workload and enable an athlete to handle MORE squats, snatches, and clean and jerks.  With each successive 8-week cycle you get stronger in the snatch and clean, stronger in the squat and deadlift, as well as in better shape and able to handle a higher workload.

 


Size verses Strength

On the podcast this morning, we got on the topic of how muscle size relates to strength.  Many do not realize this, but size of a muscle is very, very closely related to the strength of the muscle or amount of tension that muscle can produce.  So why aren’t the biggest bodybuilders the strongest athletes?  Well, strongest at what?

 

This is an interesting question and the answer is part physiology, and part physics.  The physics part is pretty straightforward.  The human body applies strength through a system of levers, or bones.  The arrangement of these levers is just as important to how much force can be applied in any movement as the amount of tension the muscles involved can generate.

 

Let’s look at an example.  Donny Shankle is a pretty strong guy.  He also has an extremely long spine as a proportion of his height.  For a lifter proportioned like Donny, flexion/extension of the torso is always going to be difficult.  If you have trouble imagining why this would be, imagine you tried to hold a 1 meter stick with a 10 pounds attached to the end perfectly vertical.  Not too hard, but now imagine you tried to hold it at a 10 degree angle.  What about a 45 degree angle?  The 1 meter stick represents Donny’s spine, or the spine of anyone built like him.  Imagine how much easier it would be to hold the stick either at either angle if it was a 1 FOOT stick instead of 1 meter.

 

This is why Donny is a superior front squatter, where the torso is kept very close to vertical, a reasonable back squatter where the torso has a moderate forward lean, and a terrible deadlifter where the torso developes lots of forward lean.  Do you ever wonder why the world record holder in the squat rarely also holds the record in the deadlift?  Same reason.

 

Luckily for Donny, he chose a sport (weightlifting) that utilizes the body God gave him very well.  But the reason why the biggest muscle isn’t always the strongest has a physiological basis as well as a physics basis.  The weightlifting snatch and the powerlifting deadlift at first glance would seem to be very similar lifts.  Yet one regularly leads to the development of pretty big muscles, and one rarely does.  Now I love Weightlifting as much as anyone, and more than most, but let’s be honest.  A big snatch doesn’t automatically mean big muscles.  Developing a big snatch is as much about speed as it is about strength.  Applying force at high rates of speed is a neural adaptation more than a muscular one, and developing motor patterns is more important to snatching big than big muscles are.

 

Bodybuilding and weightlifting are two activities at opposite ends of the spectrum, and powerlifting is somewhere in the middle.  But just as you will never see a 500 pound bench press and a 5 minute mile done by the same person, you will never see a 20 inch arm and a 200kg snatch by the same person either..   Some things are just mutually exclusive.


CrossFit Pi

CrossFit Pi in Exeter is  the most spacious and well equipped gym I have seen in a long time.  The owner Martin Uttley studied at Brunel University and was a high level rugby player before opening his gym.  I am not sure what I like best about this facility, the coffee dispenser, or the platforms!  But I do know that it is far nicer than most CrossFit facilities in the USA and both Martin and his staff seem to be great coaches and totally dedicated to making this facility the best that it can possibly be.


Look on the Bright Side.

IMG_0194So you were not designed by God specifically to break world records in weightlifting.  Yes, that is a tough pill to swallow, but it is what it is.  So you probably can’t simply max out on the competitive lifts  your whole career.  You will have to find a way to fix yourself.  Your future probably holds various exercises like squats, push presses, and deadlifts or pulls.  But look on the bright side, if you are like most people reading this you have two working hands to grip the bar and a body that works well enough to actually do a snatch or clean and jerk.  Some people are not so lucky.

But there remains the question, how to make the things we have to so beside snatch and clean and jerk carry over to snatch and clean and jerk as much as possible?  As I sit here writing this, I am watching Rachael Davis do push presses.  I have told her and told her to separate each rep with a pause on the shoulders.  Yet when she gets a little tired and finishing the set is in doubt she still lowers the bar straight into the dip portion of the dip and drive.  This makes the set a little easier to finish.  For most people anyway.  It is not really cheating, and the difference is slight, but there is a difference.
But, for an exercise to carry over, it not only has to work the same muscle or muscle group as the movement you want to affect, it has to use the same movement speed, the same basic force curve, and the same range of motion.  The more similar the two movements are, the more the carry over.  So if you want your push press to help the jerk, separate each rep with a pause.  Make most of your reps fast, as fast or almost as fast as a jerk.  Avoid ‘grinding’, or any reps with a noticeable slowing of the bar.  Dip to the same depth on every rep.

If you try to do this it still won’t make your push press carry over perfectly to your jerk.  But it will make it carry over a hell of a lot more than if you do them sloppy and slow.

An example that is a little more obvious is the deadlift.  In the past I have not been a proponent of deadlifts for weightlifters.  But after coaching enough lifters with a long torso/short leg body type I have softened by stance.  I am still not a big fan of pulls, feeling that the deadlift can be done heavier and at least in theory should lead to faster strength gains.  But if you have a strength deficit on the pull and are going to deadlift you sitll need to not only keep the same joint angles as when you do the weightlifting movements, you need to keep the same bar speed when possible.  So there should be very few pulls when the bar is just crawling up your leg.  When possible,  the bar should be moving at roughly the same speed as it does in the snatch or clean.  If the start position is the same, and the bar moves at roughly 2 meters per second, there should be a lot of carry over.
In my next blog in this series I will talk about how Caleb Ward made sets of 5 in the back squat as specific to the clean and jerk as possible.