Tuesday, December 16, 2008

A Tribute to Crossfit

July 7, 2008, was the day I got my ass kicked by Murph. It was the day that I experienced a 42 minute beat down that left me lying in a pool of my own sweat with the world spinning all around me. Yup, July 7th was a good day.

"Murph" is the name of the first Crossfit (CF) workout I had ever done. It consists of:

For time:
  • 1 mile Run
  • 100 Pull-ups
  • 200 Push-ups
  • 300 Squats
  • 1 mile Run
  • Partition the pull-ups, push-ups, and squats as needed. Start and finish with a mile run.
Although I did both of the mile runs that day, I could only get through 70% of the middle part: 70 pull-ups, 140 push-ups, and 210 squats. I was in agony the entire workout. The last mile felt like the longest mile of my entire life. In the end, I crumpled onto the ground, unable to do much of anything besides slowly creating a "sweat angel" on the floor below me. And yet, when I peeled myself off the floor some 10 minutes later, I found that I had a weird smile on my face. I was hooked.

What is Crossfit?

From the Crossfit website:

CrossFit is the principal strength and conditioning program for many police academies and tactical operations teams, military special operations units, champion martial artists, and hundreds of other elite and professional athletes worldwide.

Our program delivers a fitness that is, by design, broad, general, and inclusive. Our specialty is not specializing. Combat, survival, many sports, and life reward this kind of fitness and, on average, punish the specialist.

Crossfit is a program focused on developing "General Physical Preparedness" (GPP) - that is, it's tailored towards improving fitness across the board. Rather than developing just strength (from a strength training routine), or just endurance (from jogging), or just speed (from sprinting), Crossfit aims to improve everything at once. The goal is to build proficiency in each of the 10 fitness domains: cardiovascular/respiratory endurance, stamina, strength, flexibility, power, speed, agility, balance, coordination, and accuracy.

In this spirit, Crossfit workouts combine a little bit of everything: power lifting, olympic lifting, kettlebells, gymnastics, calisthenics, plyometrics, running, rowing, climbing, jumping and more. Each day, the Crossfit mainpage hosts a different Workout of the Day (WoD), and Crossfitters around the world do it, scaling the workout to their own abilities. It is the belief of Crossfit that following this routine produces the best all around athlete in the world, the motto being "Forging Elite Fitness". A Crossfitter might not beat a specialist in the specialist's particular field, but he'll do well nonetheless, and dominate the specialist in all other areas of fitness. For example, someone who only does long distance running might post a better 10K time than a Crossfitter, but not by a large margin. They will, however, perform far worse than the same Crossfitter when it comes to lifting heavy weights, sprinting, pull-ups and just about everything else.

Crossfit Workouts

Along with Murph, here are some other typical CF workouts:

"Elizabeth"
For time, 21-15-9 reps of:
Clean 135 pounds
Ring dips

"Fran"
For time, 21-15- and 9 reps of:
95 pound Thruster
Pull-ups

"Crossfit Total"
Back squat, 1 rep
Shoulder Press, 1 rep
Deadlift, 1 rep

"Griff"
For time:
Run 800 meters
Run 400 meters backwards
Run 800 meters
Run 400 meters backwards

June 12
Seven rounds for time of:
10 One legged squats, alternating
12 Ring dips
15 Pull-ups

Looking at the list above, it's important to understand that CF workouts consist of constantly varied, functional movements executed at high intensity. Every day is a different workout, and a given workout is unlikely to repeat more than once or twice per month. This is *not* the same old routine day in and day out at the gym and boredom is never an issue. I've been doing Crossfit for 5 months now, and just about every time I go to do a workout, I feel like I'm learning something new and fresh.

This might seem like a strange way to exercise, since repetition is typically needed for improvement, but you have to remember that while the workouts are constantly changing, the actual exercises used in the workouts are repeated quite often. From just the short list above, you can see, for example, that pull-ups are done both in Fran and in the June 12th workout. Running is done in both Murph and Griff. Squats are done in almost every workout: back squats in Crossfit Total, (squat) cleans in Elizabeth, the thrusters (front squat + push press) in Fran and the one legged squats on the June 12 workout. These movements are repeated again and again, but the actual workout changes the weight, reps, sets, etc. The result is that a Crossfitter gets damn good at doing just about any of these movements in almost any scenario.

Moreover, Crossfit exclusively focuses on functional movements - proficiency developed in these movements transfers extremely well to other applications. For example, the squat is so prevalent because it is the quintessential strength movement needed in the real world: a better squat helps you run faster, jump higher, lift heavy objects, and so on. Pull-ups appear very frequently because the ability to move your own body weight is essential in almost every sport and the grip strength developed is useful in almost any physical endevour. Moreover, proficiency at one functional movement often transfers to another: a good squat, for example, often produces a good deadlift. A good clean often helps produce a good box jump. The advantage here is that we can get better at a wide variety of exercises without having to spend a huge amount of time doing each individual one.

The movements done in Crossfit intentionally do NOT include a number of exercises seen in other workout routines: in particular, there are no isolation exercises (bicep curls, tricep extensions, etc) and no machines (leg press, smith rack, etc) of any kind. Why? For one thing, they are simply not as effective: compound exercises that involve multiple muscles & joints tend to produce much more rapid increases in strength than isolation exercises. Moreover, machines do not allow you to develop strength in the same way you'd use it in the real world. In particular, the balance and coordination needed to do a free weight exercise, such as the balance needed for squatting with a heavy weight on your back, is just as important as the actual strength. You can build some of that strength using a leg press machine, but it won't develop the same levels of balance & coordination, and therefore won't transfer to the real world or other exercises. Finally, machines and isolation exercises often lead to injuries. By separating the body into various parts, they make it possible to develop muscles in a very unbalanced manner. For example, the quadriceps and hamstrings pull on the knee joint in different directions and should be balanced in a healthy knee. If one gets much stronger than the other - which could happen from lots of leg press, which over-emphasizes the quads - the result is often knee injuries.

Finally, Crossfit is all about intensity. What most gym goers don't seem to understand is the concept of specific adaptation. Here's a great example from Starting Strength: imagine that every single day, you spend exactly 10 minutes outside in the sun. The question is, would you be more tan if you did this for two months than if you did it for just one month? Most people assume you would. The reality, however, is that your tan will basically be exactly the same. Tanning is your body adapting to the stress of the sun trying to damage your skin. The amount of tanning depends on - is specific to - the maximum stress your skin encounters. Since this amount is exactly 10 minutes each day, once the initial tan is established, which probably takes just a few days, your body will NOT tan any further - otherwise, wouldn't we all gradually end up extremely tan after a few years of life on earth? The only way to become more tan is to spend more than 10 minutes in the sun, which produces greater stress and consequently, a greater adaptation.

Well, the same principle applies to exercise. "Moderate exercise", by its very nature, can only produce moderate results. If you want to run faster, jump higher, lift more weight and see more abs, you have to dial up the intensity, which is exactly what Crossfit does. As you may have noticed, many CF workouts are "for time", which means the workout should be completed in as little time as possible. Next time the workout repeats, you should be trying to do it still faster. The result is that you waste no time waiting around, minimize rest periods and are pushing your body to its absolute limits. I cannot overstate how those two little words, "for time", can change a workout. Alternatively, some workouts set a fixed time but tell you to do "as many rounds as possible" of some workout during that time: e.g. as many rounds as possible of 5 pull-ups, 10 push-ups and 15 squats in 20 minutes.

Does the Average Person Really Need "Elite Fitness"?

Let me come out and say it immediately: Crossfit is not for everyone. It is physically and mentally far more gruelling than any exercise I have ever done, and as I have a long history of doing all sorts of exercise, that means a lot. Moreover, Crossfit is not without its dangers. As the "What is Crossfit" page explains:

In any case it must be understood that the CrossFit workouts are extremely demanding and will tax the capacities of even the world's best athletes. You would be well advised to take on the WOD carefully, cautiously, and work first towards completing the workouts comfortably and consistently before "throwing" yourself at them 100%. The best results have come for those who've "gone through the motions" of the WOD by reducing recommended loads, reps, and sets while not endeavoring towards impressive times for a month before turning up the heat. We counsel you to establish consistency with the WOD before maximizing intensity.

However, having said that, Crossfit has been the single most rewarding and effective exercise program I have ever done. Period. I have seen incredibly rapid improvements in my fitness across the board (see below) and I've accomplished things I never thought I'd be able to do. I cringe at the hours I wasted before I found Crossfit and can't imagine doing anything else now.

It's worth pointing out that while not everyone should do Crossfit, everyone can. Most people that see the workouts become intimidated and figure you need to already be an elite athlete just to start. This is not true, at all. Again, from "What is CrossFit?":

We’ve used our same routines for elderly individuals with heart disease and cage fighters one month out from televised bouts. We scale load and intensity; we don’t change programs. The needs of Olympic athletes and our grandparents differ by degree not kind.

Every single Crossfit workout, by design, can - and for beginners, should - be scaled to anyone's ability. In fact, the BrandX messageboard lists scaled versions of every single WoD. For example, consider this workout:

"Nasty Girls"
3 rounds for time of:
50 Squats
7 Muscle-ups
135 pound Hang power cleans, 10 reps

There are a number of scaled versions of this workout: for example, if you can't do a muscle-up, you could try jumping muscle-ups. Can't do those either? Do pull-ups and dips. Still no? Do assisted pull-ups and dips. Not ready for that? Try push-ups and body rows. In a similar manner, every part of this workout, and any workout, can be scaled down. As you do Crossfit and your fitness improves, you'll slowly be able to scale back up to the original workout until you finally reach the point where you can do them exactly as written, aka "as Rx'd".

Not sure how to do an exercise? You've got tons of options:
Not sure you have the time for it? Well, the first thing to consider is that most Crossfit workouts are under 20 minutes. Elite Crossfitters can do the infamous Fran in under two minutes. Time wise, Crossfit compares favorably with other routines, but believe me, the WoD will make every minutes count. Besides, exercise is not something you magically have time for. You make time for it, just like you would for a visit to the doctor or to watch your favorite TV show.

Need more inspiration? Just about every WoD in the archive comes with a video and some of them have to be seen to be believed. Some of my favorites include 14 year old Kallista competing with adults in the Crossfit Games, Fran in full firefighter gear, "Turkish Get-Up with Wife", the "Everyman's Gymnastics", the "one armed Grace", "King Kong", the burpee muscle-up, and bodyweight overhead squat for 15 reps by Nicole.

My Results

Since I started Crossfit back on July 7, I've seen enormous improvements in every aspect of my fitness. I've used the Anandtech message boards to keep a workout journal and am amazed at the progress I've made in just 5 months. For example, I've learned how to do a whole ton of new exercises:
  • Kipping pull-ups, clapping pull-ups, and L pull-ups
  • Muscle-ups on a pull-up bar and on rings
  • Handstand push-ups
  • L-sits on the floor and on rings
  • Tuck planche for ~15 seconds
  • Single-legged squats
  • Back lever on rings
  • Double-unders
  • Clean and Jerk
  • Snatch
I've also accomplished some feats I never thought I'd be able to do:
  • Ran a 10K and a 15K
  • Deadlifted 415lbs at a bodyweight of 185lbs (I've lost 43lbs since April, but that's a story for another post)
  • Cleaned 245lbs
  • Completed the "Filthy Fifty" in 28:00
  • Won a competition at work by posting the fastest time for the "300 workout" (it's one of the workouts done by the guys in the move "The 300") in 17:01
  • "Fran" in 5:58
  • Weighted pull-up with BW + 125lbs
Last but not least, on November 9th, I got my second chance at "Murph". I still ended up a sweaty mess on the floor, but this time around, I managed to finish the entire workout in less time (40:01). I've still got tons of room for improvement, but what I've seen already is nothing short of fantastic.

Of course, Crossfit itself is by no means perfect, but it's damn close. Let me put it this way: my endurance is through the roof, I'm stronger, faster, and feel more in shape than I've ever been in my life. Sweet.


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peter kenneth said...
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