Sep 24th, 2011

What We Can Learn from James Henderson

Why play with little change when you can go for the big dollars?

This video clip has been around a while, but it is rich general wisdom in all things and it’s one of my perennial favorites. It features the incomparable James Henderson as he quickly warms up to a 600 pound bench press for three repetitions. He does this wearing nothing more than a t-shirt and some sweat pants. No bench shirts, belts, wrist wraps, or any other manner of supporting gear. It is truly impressive. When your warmups start with 225 pounds, you know that good things are on the way.

The video is a veritable how-to on successful lifting. Firstly, James is a big man. Building muscle requires a caloric excess and James is no stranger to eating to grow. He’s surrounded by friends in a very positive atmosphere. He discusses that atmosphere between his absurdly strong bench press warm ups. He’s got a team of people helping him out, loading weight for him and spotting for him. After each warmup, his spotters throw on another set of 45 pound plates while James cracks jokes and dispenses pearls of wisdom such as, “You don’t really need all that fancy stuff like shirts and drugs. Take your time and do it right. Short cuts get you short responses.”

Henderson sits down at the bench with the idea that he is going to do well. On a few occasions, he says, “I’m going to have a powerful workout,” and then goes on to do just that. He gives his spotters a good natured hard time, takes a deep breath, and then presses the weight as if it is not even there. Memorable quotes abound in this video and I will not spoil them all. So, without further ado, I will get out the way.

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Sep 10th, 2011

Barbell Training and Health

Reminder: Mike is holding his seminar on Getting the Most Out of Your CrossFit Training today (Saturday, September 10th) at 11 AM. If you can make it, do so.

Michelle Clean Femme Fit

Michelle in the midst of self medicating

Last week, a contributor to Mark Rippetoe’s Starting Strength site named Dr. Jonathon Sullivan penned a very interesting article about the effects of barbell training on older populations entitled Barbell Training is Big Medicine. It is a dense read that is full of insights and information on aging, the cellular processes involved, and strength. Sullivan is both a medical doctor and a Ph. D who also happens to spend some quality time under the bar himself. I’ve got a soft spot in my heart for medical doctors and Western medicine in general and Sullivan makes some excellent points by employing very direct language. And I quote:

Still, aging individuals are told by cultural stereotypes, TV, family, doctors and other “experts” that they need to slow down, eat less meat, and for God’s sake act their age. The intrinsic signals are even worse: “I’m fat. I’m weak. I’m worthless. My joints ache. And I’m too old to do anything about it. Where are the Cheetos?

This is an increasingly prevalent phenotype of aging in America and other industrialized nations: a living hell of progressive weakness, obesity, inactivity, shrinking horizons, sexual impotence, decreased expectations, mounting despair, a growing list of expensive drugs, learned helplessness, sickness, and pain. It’s being “All Done At Sixty”…or Fifty. It’s a life of waiting to die from a skin infection or a broken hip or a blot clot, of needing a stupid little fucking go-cart to get from here to there, of not being able to reach your own ass to wipe it, of narcotizing yourself with alcohol, cigarettes, American Idol and Doritos so you don’t have to face your own grim existence as a slowly rotting Jabba The Hut. I see it every day. We call it “old-itis.” A joke, I guess, but an obscene one. This gruesome avatar of aging offends the eye, the mind, and the spirit, and it cries out for both compassion and correction.

So, if you are ready to dive in and learn something about cellular death (called apoptosis), growth factors, and how squatting really does make everything better, I heartily encourage you to give the article a read.

Since it seems appropriate, let’s not forget Dylan Thomas’s short, masterful poem Do Not Go Gentle into that Goodnight. After reading both of those, you’ll probably want to pick up something pretty heavy. I’ll end this post with the opening of the previously mentioned poem, which qualify as perhaps three of the coolest lines yet committed to paper:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.


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Aug 27th, 2011

Another Frighteningly Strong Woman

Schedule Update: Strength Saturday will happen on Sunday this week from 2 to 4 PM. We’re all full this week, unfortunately. Email me if you would like to get in next week (9/3).

Mini sent this video my way this evening and while the video above fails several of my criteria for being watchable, the subject of the video, Jennifer Thompson, is truly amazing. Thompson tips the scales at at a mere 132 pounds. In the video above, she squats 315 pounds, bench presses 293 pounds, and deadlifts 419 pounds. Those lifts shattered a number of American records for those lifts in her powerlifting federation (USAPL) and added up to a massive 1027 pound total, also a record.

All of the lifts were performed with nothing more than a singlet, a belt, and some shoes. No squat suits, bench shirts, or knee wraps were used. The squats were deep and there was a marked lack of screwing around during the competition. I was impressed.

Provided you can get around the awful camera work, bad editing, and misspelling of the subject’s name in the opening credits (really?), the strength that Thompson displayed was humbling. Her lifts are quite respectable for a man significantly heavier than she is. This woman benched 2.2 times her bodyweight. That is unreal. Few men manage that feat, let alone women.

Time is short this evening, so I cannot expound at length upon some of the issues raised here, which include, most importantly, my hurt feelings over how strong Thompson is. On one hand, this video could be used as evidence that size does not always equal strength. That is very true within certain parameters. However, Jennifer Thompson chose her parents very wisely. Most human beings will never be able to display that kind of strength at that low of a bodyweight. Thompson is amazing and is an inspiration, but very few, if any, will equal what she did at 132 pounds, men or women.

This brings me to another point, that I hear quite often, which is an insistence upon keeping bodyweight as low as possible, especially among females. If you were not excelling at sports from the time you were a child and could not jump higher than almost everyone around you, chances are you are not an exceptional athlete. That’s okay. Welcome to the club. Therefore, just because someone is capable of performing a feat of strength at a given bodyweight does not mean that you should be able to do the same. Maybe you can, but maybe not.

If performance is important, then training and diet must accommodate those goals. This might mean muscular bodyweight gain. This is to be embraced and celebrated. Those that insist women must be skinny are not only wrong, they are not entitled to an opinion on the matter and are to be ignored. More on this next week. Lift like Jen Thompson, but be more concerned about the weight on the bar than the weight on the scale.

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Aug 20th, 2011

Mr. Konstantinovs

Schedule Update: Strength Saturday will occur as normal this Saturday from 4 to 6 PM. Alas, we are full this week and cannot accept anyone else for the session. There’s always next week, however.

Twenty-seven seconds of awesome.

This week’s post will be on the shorter side because I have some pictures that need to go out the door sooner rather than later. However, for those that enjoy the finer things in life, I present to you Mr. Konstantin Konstantinovs. After watching the video above, you may feel the need, as I do, to refer to him as Mr. Konstantiovs. Mr. Konstantiovs hails from Latvia and most of the talking that goes on his videos is, unsurprisingly, in Latvian. Fortunately, I am here to translate for you. Since being an absurdly strong powerlifter doesn’t really pay the bills, he makes his living as a bodyguard.

Konstantiovs pulls a jaw dropping 815 pounds off the ground while standing on a 3.5 inch box. Firstly, an 815 pound deadlift is a feat of strength that puts a person in pretty exclusive company. He has effectively made the bar closer to the ground by standing on the box, which makes the lift significantly more difficult. After all, 815 pounds is not enough of a challenge all by itself. He is not wearing a dealift suit, nor a belt, just a t-shirt celebrating the ????? ?????????? ????????????????? ??????????, shorts, and some lifting shoes. However, the part that really is intended to hurt the feelings of the viewer comes after Konstantiovs finishes the lift. He holds the bar in his hands for a while, looks around, has a chuckle, and mentions something to the effect of, "Please post this video on the CFO site. Say ‘Hello’ to Mini for me." My Latvian is a little rusty, but I am pretty sure that captures the spirit of what he said. Have a wonderful weekend.

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Aug 13th, 2011

A Very Strong Woman

Reminder: CFO is closed on Saturday, August 12. Strength Saturday will be moved to Sunday, August 13th and will take place from 2 PM to 4 PM. Email me if you would like to attend.

I’d like to introduce everyone to Russia’s Tatiana Kashirina. She is one of the best female weightlifters in the world and won the gold medal at the 2011 European Weightlifting Championships held in Kazan, Russia. Tatiana competes in the superheavyweight (above 75 kg) women’s division and weighs 97.6 kg (215 pounds). Her prowess on the weightlifting platform is so great that if she competed in the men’s 94 kg class in the recent 2011 US National Championships in July, she would have tied for third place.

Tatiana’s opening lifts start after all of her competitors have finished their third attempts. She snatched a world record 146 kg (322 lb) and clean and jerked 181 kg (399 lb) to earn a total of 327 kg (721 lb). Take a moment to think about that. She picked up 400 pounds off the ground and got it over her head. That is a very impressive accomplishment for a male and one that very few lifters ever attain. That she does this as a woman is even more amazing.

There’s a video from the European Championships that is commentated in English, but the audio is rather distorted, so I went with the version above that I assume is in Russian. The video is quite lengthy (18 minutes), but I set the start time to include Tatiana’s last lift. Aside from her incredible display of power during the competition, I was also impressed with her reaction after she successfully completed her clean and jerk. Tatiana didn’t yell, or scream, or carry on. She smiled, bowed, and had to fight back tears. She dominated every one of her competitors by a wide margin, yet was restrained and dignified upon her victory. I was very impressed.

Before I go, I want to point out one other salient fact. Tatiana weighs 215 pounds. She is not 215 pounds of fat, either. She’s actually pretty lean. If you are having trouble with strength, power, and recovery, ask yourself if you are eating enough. The answer is probably "no."

Best of luck to all of the competitors in FemmeFit tomorrow. May you channel Tatiana during your cleans.

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Aug 3rd, 2011

Changes to Strength Saturday Classes

Kelly Deadlift Warmup

Kelly warming up the deadlift

After a two-week hiatus, Strength Saturdays will resume this weekend promptly at 4 PM on August 6th. As those who attended the last few sessions noticed, the class size increased to a point where it was difficult to provide the individualized coaching that has made the strength classes the unique experience that they are. While having too many participants is a nice problem to have, a few changes are in order to help preserve the quality of instruction.

Firstly, the class will be limited to eight participants. When we have more than eight, it takes too long for me watch everyone’s work sets. The hallmark of the classes is that all the participants receive focused coaching while they are under the bar. With 10 or 12 people, the wait time between sets gets to be too long. In order to avoid this situation, participants need to sign up in advance. Eventually, this will be handled in a more sophisticated fashion, but for now if you would like to attend a Strength Saturday class, email me at Alas, the days of dropping in without signing up are at an end.

More changes are on the way and will be rolled out in the coming months, but the big one is the cap on attendance. I look forward to this Saturday and wish you all a good week.

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Jul 16th, 2011

How to Grip the Bar

Schedule Update: Saturday’s CrossFit classes will be held at CrossFit East Bay. This week’s Strength Saturday will be held in the parking lot at CrossFit Oakland. Come prepared for sun. Strength Saturday will go on a two week hiatus for July 23 and 30. We’ll resume our worship at the altar of the low bar back squat on Saturday, August 6.

It is Friday night and the week was a long one. Therefore, this post will be a short one. Short, but perhaps worthwhile. Calluses are are fact of life when lifting weights. The kipping pullup, a staple of CrossFit workouts, is particularly good at forming calluses in the hand. These calluses have a nasty habit of tearing and leaving the trainee unable to complete the workout and less able to train for many days thereafter.

The video above is a somewhat lengthy discussion from Mark Rippetoe on how to hold on to the bar during deadlifts and pullups to help minimize excess callus formation. It is not specifically directed towards kipping, but a similar approach can be used there. The CrossFit Journal has a very good free article on that specifically addresses grip considerations for kipping. Torn hands mean training interruptions. Those don’t make anyone very happy. Keep your hands healthy, my friends.

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Jul 2nd, 2011

Eating to Grow – Part Seis

Femme Fit Deadlifts

A picture from the previous Femme Fit. Strength helps with deadlifts.

Last week we began our discussion of female trainees who wish to get stronger and we’ll continue that today. The scenarios we discuss today will be particularly applicable to those whose strength gains have stalled. I mentioned last week that setting some goals is a valuable part of the process. It is important to send an unambiguous signal to the body to become stronger and having target weights for a handful of lifts will provide a useful yardstick by which to gauge progress.

The question becomes, "How does someone become stronger?" Not surprisingly, for men and women the answer is the same. Lift progressively heavier weights and make sure that recovery is adequate to support strength increases. If done correctly, muscular bodyweight gains often accompany this process. This is not to be feared, but embraced. Men and women will differ in how fast and to what extent gains in strength and bodyweight will occur for several reasons. The largest variable here is testosterone. Men have more of it and, if they train properly, can make larger gains in both strength and bodyweight than women. That being said, there are several women walking around CFO that are stronger than some of the men in the room. Body chemistry, therefore, is not the sole determinant of strength and performance.

This series is called eating to grow, so it makes sense to talk about food. If strength is to be pursued, eating a lot of good food is required. What is a lot? More than you are eating now. Protein is very important to support muscle growth. Protein and calories need to be increased. Dietary fat is not to be feared. If gains are not made, calories and protein need to be increased more. For very underweight women, this may represent a wholesale shift in eating habits. Find a skinny guy and eat more than he does. Eventually, you will lift more than he does. I have seen this happen a few times with the women who dedicate themselves to becoming stronger. When you squat more than the skinny dude next to you, then the high fives really begin. Keep food quality high and set PRs in the gym.

Let’s discuss body fat as this is the next question that will arise. Training and eating for strength will cause muscle to grow. Muscle is heavy and will cause an increase in the weight on the scale. If you are eating a lot and training heavy, it is also likely that some fat will come along for the ride. I would love to tell you that this is not the case, but for most people a little extra body fat is a likely outcome. This, however, is controllable and since most women are not seeking to put on 50 pounds of bodyweight, it is also not something with which to be greatly concerned.

Let’s take a hypothetical underweight female trainee and put 10 pounds of bodyweight on them over the course of several months of dedicated training and appropriate (read: big) eating. Of those 10 pounds, three may be fat. The remaining seven pounds are lean tissue gains. This bodyweight gain is accompanied by significant improvements on all of the lifts and their dead hang pull ups have also increased. Neat trick. Put on bodyweight and do more pullups. Yes, this can happen. Are those three pounds of fat problematic? Definitely not. The likely result is that the trainee will not only feel better, but look better.  Most importantly, they are significantly stronger.

I have more to say on the matter so it looks like there will be a part seven at some point, but I will close with the following observation. For those women who wish to gain strength yet are not making gains, I encourage you to chat with some of the women in the gym who move big weights. Find out what they eat. It’s probably a lot. If you are really interested and the woman you are talking to does not mind telling you, find out what they weigh. It’s probably more than you would guess. Muscle is heavy. Muscle is useful. Muscle is the goal. Enjoy your Fourth of July. Eat a steak for me.

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Jun 25th, 2011

Eating to Grow – Part Five

Emily Bench Press Seattle

This installment is the last, or maybe next to last, in an occasional series about putting on muscular bodyweight. For those that would like a refresher, you can read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4 by following the conveniently linked text. Today, we will focus on females, a training population that generally does not want to make the numbers on the scale climb higher.

First, however, I have a barely related story to share. I was in the closet-sized kitchen in my office eating a large portion of pot roast as I am wont to do around 3 PM. Let’s face it, three meals a day may not be enough if you wish to put on weight. I like to think of it as early dinner. A gentleman with whom I work came up to me while I was feeding and said, "My arms and my legs are strong enough, but I want some abs. How do I get them?" The irony of asking someone (me) who does not and never has had six pack abdominals about how to get them while I was eating a large slab of beef was apparently lost on my coworker. I replied that I don’t really have any advice on that topic and he looked genuinely hurt and asked, "Why?"  I replied that if he asked me about how to get his squat over 400 pounds, I might have some advice, but abs aren’t really my department. My coworker then asked, "Who in the world would want to squat over 400 pounds?" So begins our topic.

Trying to convince people of the utility of strength is often an uphill battle and, especially with coworkers, not one in which I would engage. If a trainee values strength, or sees its utility in the pursuit of their other goals, then that is the audience in which I am targeting today. For many, getting stronger is an irrelevancy. That’s a shame, but it’s not my goal with this article to argue in favor of getting stronger. I’ve already done that previously.

Instead, I’d like to address the topic of women who wish to become stronger, but are having some trouble doing so. I am going to assume that these hypothetical women understand that squatting is the cure to almost all of life’s problems and that they are not overtraining their conditioning. What do I mean by overtraining conditioning? Beating themselves into the ground with frequent, highly demanding conditioning workouts would count. If strength is the goal, then training must support that goal. Trying to squat big weights while doing five or six conditioning workouts a week that leave a trainee nauseated will not result in squatting big weights. Sad but true.

Of great importance will be setting a quantifiable goal for strength. This goal can and probably should include numbers for more than one lift. Once those numbers are set, the work must begin to meet them. Setting aside some time to focus on getting stronger will necessitate deemphasizing other training goals. This does not have to mean no conditioning, just less conditioning.

Eating and sleeping must also comport with these goals. Training for strength gains will involve putting on muscular bodyweight. Sorry, but someone needs to say it. Females benefit from muscular bodyweight gains just like males do. However, I am already above 500 words, so I will stretch this series for one more installment. Until next week…

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Jun 18th, 2011

Starting Strength Training Camp – The Squat

Update: Strength Saturday will take place as usual at CrossFit Oakland in the parking lot from 4 to 6 PM. We’ll be squatting in the sun. Bring shades and sunscreen.

Knees Out

 Knees out is a common cue for properly performing the low bar squat. Photo courtesy of Kelly Powers.

I will be holding a Starting Strength Training Camp at CrossFit Sweat Shop next Sunday, June 26th on the low bar back squat. The proceedings will kick off around 1 PM and we’ll go until sometime around 4 or 5 PM. The afternoon starts with a discussion of the squat and how it is done, followed by warm ups and work sets under the bar. Participants get coached throughout their sets. After that, we’ll return for a discussion of how to program the squat for strength gains, injury prevention, and finish with a question and answer session. We won’t leave until we run out of questions. If you are struggling with the squat, or would like a deeper understanding of the movement, this is a good place to learn. The cost is $110. If you would like to sign up, you can do so at The Aasgaard Company Store.

In the event you have yet to discover the magic of the back squat, here are two things for you to read:

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