Fitness
Sep 1st, 2012

To Ice or Not to Ice

Handstand Walk

This picture has nothing to do with anything that follows.

Earlier this month, Kelly Starrett posted a blog entry and accompanying video entitled People, We’ve Got to Stop Icing. We Were Wrong, Sooo Wrong. suggesting that the use of ice to combat pain and inflammation after an injury would best be avoided. A brief sentence in the same entry suggested that the use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) is contraindicated in many circumstances as well.

Jonathan Sullivan, MD, an emergency room physician who also wrote Barbell Training is Big Medicine took issue with Starrett’s entry and penned a rather extensive rebuttal that is chock full of references. It is an engaging and lengthy read that looks at the mechanisms behind injury and inflammation and the state of the literature regarding icing and NSAIDs. Here’s a little sample:

Inflammation is the body’s natural-and therefore correct-response to injury. Your body knows what it’s doing, and interfering with the inflammatory response is therefore ill-considered.

This is the easiest argument to dispense with, because it’s just silly-not to mention selectively applied. For example, in the video it is made clear that ice and NSAIDs are bad because they interfere with inflammation, but compression, which suppresses post-inflammatory edema, is not. In any event, this argument proceeds from the assumption that pristine natural processes are always optimal to the realization of human ends, which is clearly not the case; and that the human body is a "perfect machine," which is just so much bullshit.

Here’s a reality check: Mother Nature doesn’t give a rat’s ass about your program, your WOD time, your 1RM bench press, or even your survival as an individual. She designed you to make new primate gene replicators, and then croak. Let’s not even talk about the design of the low back, the exquisite suicidal sensitivity of neural and cardiac tissue to brief ischemia, or the deplorable shortcomings of cartilage. Inflammation is not an ideal adaptation just because it’s the "natural" response to insult. Pain, scarring, functional impairment, tissue loss and cancer are also natural responses to insult-and all can result from inflammation. On the logic of the AAI (Anti-anti-inflamation) crowd, analgesia, wound repair by primary intention, tissue debridement, abscess drainage and tissue salvage are also bad ideas. If that’s what you really think, it’s unlikely we’re going to have a meeting of the minds. God help you if you ever get anaphylaxis or appendicitis.

I love well-placed profanity sprinkled amidst good scientific writing. Add in suggestions for the real purpose of reproduction a la Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene and my smile grows wider, indeed. Sullivan’s article is entitled Stopping the Spread of Misinflammation and it is well worth the time you would spend reading it. Few things are ever as straightforward as they may seem and this article is an excellent reminder of that. Enjoy.

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Aug 25th, 2012

How to Hold on to a Bar

Double Overhand Grip

The double overhand grip

When pulling a weight off of the floor, there are a few options with respect to gripping the bar. What a trainee uses will be dependent upon the size of their hand, grip strength, and tolerance for discomfort. The first and most obvious way to hold the bar is using the double overhand style. Both of the palms face the lifter’s legs and the thumbs are wrapped around the bar on top of the fingers. Holding the bar like this evenly distributes the load across both shoulders, allows the bar to move in a nice straight line off the floor, and provides plenty of grip work during the lift. If you can use this grip for all of your deadlift attempts, by all means do so.

For many trainees, however, the grip will begin to give way using the double overhand style as the weight gets heavier. Once the bar starts slipping out of the hand, the deadlift comes to a screeching halt. No amount of cursing or prayer will rectify the situation until the grip is changed to something more secure. Once the double overhand fails, the following options are available: the hook grip, the reverse grip, or straps.

The Hook Grip

The Hook Grip

The hook grip looks identical to the double overhand grip when viewed from the front.  When viewed from the rear, you can see that you grab on to the thumb with the first two fingers. This relaxes the hand somewhat and allows for a strong, secure hold on the bar. Since you are both mashing your thumb into the bar while simultaneously pulling on the thumb with the tip of your middle finger while using a hook grip, it can also be very uncomfortable. This discomfort becomes much less troublesome as the hands adapt to the stress. The hook grip shares the same benefits to the shoulders and bar path as the double overhand grip. It is the preferred grip for the Olympic lifts and is my personal favorite for the deadlift.

Hand Size Comparison

Longer fingers and bigger hands are an advantage when pulling a barbell off the floor

If a trainee has small hands, the hook grip may not be of great use during limit deadlift attempts, unfortunately. Longer fingers are required to get a good purchase on the thumb. For trainees with shorter digits, the reverse grip may provide a stronger hold than the hook.

Hook Grip Compare

Note that the trainee on the right is able to grab a lot more of her thumb
while using the hook grip. Longer fingers strike again. Sorry, Kelly.

The reverse grip involves supinating (turning) one of the hands so that one palm faces in front of the lifter, while one is left facing the legs. This grip also allows for heavier weights to be handled without fear of the bar slipping out of the hand on the way up. It is probably the most popular choice for deadlifts. The supinated grip asymmetrically loads the shoulders and the supine hand tends to slightly push the bar away from the lifter as the pull comes off the floor. It can, in rare cases, irritate or injure the biceps tendon of the supine hand, although such injuries are normally reserved for fairly advanced powerlifters who are handling large poundages.

Reverse Grip

The mighty reverse grip

Because of the uneven loading of the hands and shoulders using the reverse grip, it is a good idea to switch the supine hand regularly to evenly stress both sides. This can be done from workout to workout, or if the trainee prefers, can be switched between repetitions. The reverse grip and the hook grip can be combined, although this is not used as commonly, probably because it is somewhat difficult to supinate the hand and hold on to the thumb at the same time.

Lastly, if none of the options above work, the trainee can use purpose-built straps to aid with grip. How and when to use straps is beyond the scope of this article, but they are useful tools on many occasions. Most competitions do not allow the use of straps, so this should be kept in mind when employing them.

Big hands and longer fingers are a distinct advantage on pulls. My apologies to those with shorter fingers. Life isn’t always fair and this is one of those times. Here are my recommendations for deadlifts:

  1. Use chalk. It helps to dry the hands and keeps the bar from slipping.
  2. Use the double overhand whenever possible. Use it on warmup sets until you cannot do so any longer.
  3. When the double overhand fails, move to the hook grip.
  4. If you cannot hold on using the hook grip, go to the reverse grip.
  5. If none of that worked, use straps.

There is more to say on this topic, but that will suffice for now. If you haven’t tried the hook grip on the deadlift, consider it. You may prefer it, despite the discomfort.

Special thanks to the CrossFit Oakland Hand Modeling Corps for their assistance with this article. Your checks are in the mail.

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Aug 4th, 2012

Upcoming Events and Saturday Class Scheduling

Deadlift

Today’s post isn’t so much about training as it is upcoming events. However, before I get into details, I just want to say that Michael Phelps is awesome and I love the Olympics.

Firstly, I will be holding a Starting Strength Training Camp at CrossFit Oakland on Sunday, 26 August from 1:00 PM until 5:30 PM, although we often go a little beyond that. We will be going over the deadlift and the power clean. Additional details and sign ups can be found at the Aasgaard Company Store. The cost is $140. The camp is limited to 8 participants to allow for plenty of coaching.

Secondly, the Occupy Strength Competition will be held next Saturday at CrossFit One World. To accommodate that, I am going to move the normally scheduled Strength Saturday class to Sunday, August 12. We have a number of CFO members competing there, so come on down and cheer them on.

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Jul 28th, 2012

An Ode to Pressing

Press

Julie at the top of a press

Mark Rippetoe recently wrote an article for T-Nation entitled Get Your Press Up. It is an amusing and profane piece encouraging trainees to focus on an oft-neglected lift. His audience is specifically young men who are focused on the bench press as an upper body strength building exercise, but the points made are relevant well beyond that demographic. Here’s an excerpt:

I made the error of training the bench press for 15 years without heavy pressing, and it got me two shoulder surgeries (the press keeps your anterior and posterior shoulder strength in balance, the bench doesn’t) and the realization one day that I couldn’t correctly press 35% of my bench. Which is bullshit.

The press is a difficult movement for many people, myself included. The muscles involved in pressing are smaller and more susceptible to fatigue than those used in the squat and deadlift. Progress often comes slowly in the lift and with smaller weight increments than we might want. Microplates (plates less than 2.5 pounds a piece) come in very handy when seeking to maintain incremental increases in weight.  Despite these difficulties, a strong press is of great benefit to CrossFit and overall strength training. Enjoy the article and good luck setting new PRs on the press.

Also, best of luck to Joey, Leka, Steve D, Lance, and our fearless leader, Mike Minium as they compete in Hercules tomorrow. I happen to think Hercules might be the best town to host a strength-related competition I have ever heard of.

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Jul 21st, 2012

Today is a Good Day to Train

Greg Squat

Greg’s first attempt on the squat.

I’ve been meaning to write an article about Greg for some time. He’s a worthy subject and his story helps illustrate a larger point. Greg began to train with barbells over two years ago and as his strength gains accumulated, he decided the time had come to enter a competition. In April, Greg, along with Zeke, entered in a powerlifting meet in the South Bay at Wild Iron Gym. Yes, I know it is now July, but I studied geology. What are months in the face of eons? You’ll never see such a short delay in the rock record.

Back to Greg. In the meet, he competed in the 90 kg (198 lb) weight class and made the following lifts:

Squat – 110 kg (242.5 lb)
Bench – 70 kg (154 lb)
Deadlift – 152.5 kg (336 lb)
Total – 332.5 kg (733 lb)

With those results, Greg set the California State Records for masters athletes in the US Powerlifting Association for all three lifts and for his powerlifting total (the sum of the lifts). In his early 60s, he falls outside the usual strength training demographic , let alone the normal group that competes in powerlifting. While the records are certainly cool, it has been more rewarding to watch Greg refine his technique and gain the strength to move some very impressive weights. Not surprisingly, his increased strength has led to an increased quality of life. How many men in their early 60s walk up to well over 300 pounds and decide to pick it up off the ground? Greg does so almost every Saturday afternoon.

Excuses abound, but inspiration is readily available. What is the secret to getting stronger? You show up. You lift hard. You sweat. You then come back and lift a little heavier. It never gets easier. As we age, the siren call of the couch grows louder. It is the rare individual that rejects that call and takes their wellbeing seriously enough to preserve it. As Dr. Jonathan Sullivan noted, Barbells are Big Medicine. Tired of feeling badly? Tired of getting weaker? We are capable of great things, provided we are willing to work for them. Just ask Greg.

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Jul 7th, 2012

Showing Up

Candace Hand Stand Push Up

Candace at last year’s 2011 NorCal Regional Competition

Hunter S. Thompson, an interesting character if ever there were one, has this famous quote attributed to him, "Half of life is just showing up." That quote is so common now to become a cliché, but I have a soft spot in my heart for Thompson, therefore it stays. That it is overused does not make it less true. Progress in the gym is additive. The work that was done yesterday provides the foundation for work done tomorrow.

I mentioned in various postings on this site that strength is built slowly. It also tends to erode more slowly when a layoff occurs than something like cardiovascular fitness. However, when you stop training, you start to get weaker. Getting weaker is the opposite of progress and we want to avoid it whenever possible.  Thus we return to the point. If you want to improve, you must first show up. Again and again. Whether you feel like it, or not.

Here’s a dirty little secret about strength training: almost any reasonably laid out program will make you stronger, especially over the short term. "Reasonably laid out" of course means that you are squatting below parallel on a regular basis and otherwise performing multi-joint barbell exercises. There are no magic programs to increase a trainee’s squat strength that do not involve hard work and persistence. Some programs might be more effective than others and some programs might be dependent upon the level of advancement of the athlete doing them. Whatever the case, the most perfectly conceived program will fall flat when a trainee misses workouts on a regular basis.

When a trainee starts missing several workouts, then they aren’t really training anymore. Training suggests that a goal is in mind. Work is being consistently done for a reason. Working out without a goal is just exercising. That’s not to say that exercising is a bad thing. Moving is better than not moving. However, we can do better. Training leads to progress. Progress results in increased capacity and provides motivation. None of this is possible without first showing up, even when it is easier to stay home. Train hard.

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Jun 16th, 2012

Accessory Work

Low Bar Squat

One of the best assistance exercises yet developed.

Often when a trainee experiences a problem with one of the big lifts such as a squat or a deadlift, one of the first questions that gets asked is, "What other exercises should I do to make (insert muscle group here) stronger?" This is a very natural reaction and assistance exercises certainly have their place. However, in many cases, a simpler solution exists. If progress in the squat is lacking, then the answer is probably to squat more instead of doing something else.

Strength is not built overnight, but, instead, is the result of hard work and consistency. Lifts like the squat and deadlift are multi-joint exercises that employ most of the musculature of the body and are renowned for their difficulty. Because of the muscle mass used, the technique required, and the will that must be summoned to complete these lifts successfully, it is not always clear what the weak link is when a lift is missed.  At limit weights, something is going to give and you are not going to be able to employ technique alone to pick 600 pounds up from the floor. Until a trainee is already fairly strong, it may not really matter what muscle group, or groups, are impeding progress on a lift. The body responds well to being trained as a system instead of a collection of discrete parts. Instead of looking to greater complexity or more exercises, it will often be a better use of everyone’s time to work on the movement in question with renewed focus.

There is probably no movement in the training arsenal capable of building total body strength like the squat. If the squat is a weak point, then choosing a weight that can be handled for three sets of five is a very good place to start. After the training session, the lifter should go home, eat some good food (probably a lot of good food), sleep, and then add a little weight to the bar and squat three sets of five again the next time they train. The process of lifting, recovering, and then lifting a little heavier is a proven method for getting stronger. Note that there is nothing complicated here. The repetition scheme is held constant. No additional exercises are added to bring up weak points. Instead, the only variable adjusted is the weight. Simplicity is good. Training should be as simple possible to drive the progress that is desired.

For many trainees, a simple approach such as the one above is all that is needed for a good long time. As strength levels increase and as familiarity with the lifts increase, additional complexity and exercises will become useful. However, the basic lifts remain the primary drivers of progress throughout a training career. If the goal is to squat more weight, then more time needs to be spent squatting. Any weaknesses that impede progress will be addressed by doing the exercise correctly and loading it in a way that encourages success.

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May 26th, 2012

Andrey Malanichev

Just another day at the office with 460 kilos

In the event you have not heard about Andrey  Malanichev, I would encourage you to make his acquaintance by watching the video above. He is a frighteningly strong Russian powerlifter who tips the scales at a lean 300 pounds and has already established himself as one of the greats in his sport. In the video, Malanichev walks 1014 pounds (460 kg) out of the rack and, without any fanfare, proceeds to squat the weight deeply for a double. Ladies and gentlemen, that’s over half a ton on his back. Half a ton. He does this wearing a belt, a single ply squat suit, and some knee wraps. Please read this post if talk of squat suits is something unfamiliar.

One of the most disturbing things about this video is just how easy Malanichev makes it look. Note the bar speed of his ascent. He comes back up faster than he descended and there is no doubt that he will finish each rep. The only thing missing is for him to yell, "I wanna hold it!" before racking the barbell. Perhaps he was discussing that omission at the end of the video.

Also impressive is Malanichev’s ability to walk the weight out of the rack and demonstrate complete control over it. A common sight in powerlifting is a monolift where the supports swing out of the way prior to a lifter beginning the squat. This enables the lifter to stay in place and to assume a very wide stance. While there are many reasons to use a monolift for training and competition, there is something especially cool about watching Malanichev walking the weight out, squatting it, and putting it back. Enjoy the video and enjoy your lifting.

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Apr 21st, 2012

Powerlifting Competitors

Greg Deadlift

Greg deadlifting at the CrossFit Total in December 2011. Sorry, Zeke, I don’t have a photo of you.

Schedule Update: Next week’s Strength Saturday class (April 28th) will be coached by our one and only Mike Minium.

This weekend our very own Greg and Zeke will be heading to the South Bay to compete in their first powerlifting meet. The competition will be held at Wild Iron Gym in Santa Clara, CA under the auspices of the United States Powerlifting Association (USPA). Lifting will begin at 9:30 AM on Sunday and go until it is done. The meet is limited to 30 lifters, so unlike the last USPA meet I attended, things will probably wrap up by the late afternoon.

A powerlifting meet consists of three events – the squat, the bench press, and the deadlift. Competitors get three attempts at each lift and the winner is determined by totaling the heaviest successful attempt from each of the three movements, also called a "total." Actually, it is slightly more complicated than that. A formula is used that involves the lifters total and bodyweight in an attempt to more evenly compare the performance of competitors in different weight classes. The winner with the highest calculated value wins, but getting a big total is essential if a person is to win. In a meet, all the lifters finish their three attempts at the squat before moving on to the bench and then the deadlift. To allow for reasonable rest periods between each attempt, competitors are often broken up into groups, or flights, based on weight class.

Greg has been a regular at the Strength Saturday classes since they began and has made enormous strides in his lifting in that time. He is a testament to power of hard work and persistence. Zeke is a relative newcomer to the class, but has been training consistently and driving his lifts up. I am going to enjoy watching both of them compete on Sunday. Should you find yourself with the time to make a little trip to the South Bay, please stop by to cheer them on. Best of luck to both of you.

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Apr 7th, 2012

Getting Tight

Lifting

Scheduling Update: In honor of Easter Weekend and to make sure that there is plenty of time for celebrating at CrossFit Oakland, Strength Saturday will take place on Sunday, 8 April from 4:00 PM  to 6:30 PM. There will be no Strength Saturday class next weekend, April 14th.

Reminder 2: Come to the party on Saturday, 7 April at 4:00 PM at CFO. Yes, you. A good time will be had.

Today’s installment will be a short reminder on the importance of keeping the spine stable under a load. A frequent cue that is given when lifting weights is “Get Tight.” This is an important concept and one that is often sacrificed when fatigue sets in. When handling a heavy barbell, the musculature of the trunk and limbs needs to be held in contraction as much as is possible. Obviously, in order for joints to flex and extend, muscles must contract and relax, but the degree to which this occurs is important here.

Let’s consider the squat, which, in my opinion, should be nominated for the most important lift of all time. If a trainee allows themselves to fall freely into the bottom of the squat, chances are that the back will round, the knees will buckle, and other grievous sins against the gods of gravity will be committed. It is Easter weekend and upsetting the gods is probably not a good idea. Flexing, extending, or twisting the spine under a load is a good way to incur a back injury. The spine likes the relationships between the various vertebrae to be maintained when squatting 500 pounds. Instead, if the hypothetical trainee above controlled their descent and kept the musculature of the trunk and legs in contraction, good positioning could be obtained, the lift could go forward, and great glory be obtained.

How does one get tighter in a lift? The first thing to do is hold your breath, also known as the Valsalva maneuver. The second is to actively contract the musculature involved prior to moving. This will slow down the movement slightly, but will allow for a better lift. As a trainee’s skill increases, the squat, or whatever lift is being performed, can be done at higher speeds while still staying tight. Therein lies one of the paradoxes of lifting, contract the muscles, but move quickly. So, cease dive bombing into the bottom of the squat and save your back at the same time. Sounds like the highly coveted win-win situation to me.

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