Jun 11th, 2011

Moving Day

Update: CrossFit Oakland is moving. There will be no Strength Saturday class today, but you are invited to help us move.

Jenn Deadlifting in Pleasanton

Jenn of CrossFit East Bay demonstrating proper lumbar extension during a deadlift.

Since we will be moving about a mile down the road and picking up heavy things repetitively, I figured it would be wise to touch on the idea of proper back position while lifting. As it so happens, Mark Rippetoe recently wrote an article on this very topic entitled Proper Back Position for Power. Here’s an excerpt:

An awareness of back position is necessary for the control of that position. Until you can identify lumbar extension – what it feels like to have your lower back in a position where the erector muscles are in contraction – you won’t be able to assume this position when you want to, or when you have to, like in a squat or at the start of a deadlift.

A lot of people like to say "lift with your legs." This is nice and the legs should certainly be involved in lifting, but the back is worked hard any time you pick something up off the ground. There’s no way around this. Keeping your back in voluntary extension is the key to doing that safely. See you at the new gym.

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May 28th, 2011

Neuromuscular Efficiency

Rippetoe coaching the deadlift

Mark Rippetoe coaching the deadlift at Eastside S&C in Redmond, WA

Many people are resistant to the idea that increases in bodyweight may be necessary to get stronger. There are many examples of athletes that perform amazing feats of strength at very low body weights. Many of these athletes did a good job of choosing their parents and may be capable of these feats because of how their nervous system interacts with their musculature. Let’s discuss that.

There are two primary ways in which a trainee can get stronger. The first involves making the nervous system more effective at firing muscles. When a trainee lifts a weight, motor neurons send the signal to a group of muscle fibers to contract. A motor neuron and the muscle fibers it innervates are called a motor unit. As far as we understand it, when a motor unit is turned on, it contracts at full strength. More force is produced when more motor units contract at the same time. A trainee that can recruit large numbers of motor units at the same time is going to more fully realize their potential to generate force. They possess high levels of neuromuscular efficiency.

Neuromuscular efficiency, like most physical traits, responds to training. In an untrained individual, neuromuscular efficiency is probably low. These trainees will see rapid strength gains in strength once they start lifting. They can get stronger without putting on much weight because they are training their bodies to use the resources at their disposal more effectively.

Like most good things, these gains do not continue indefinitely. After several months of training, many of the easy neurological improvements have been made. A trainee can still become more efficient, but the gains come from an increasingly small slice of the pie. This is when we need to look to the second method for increasing strength – finding ways to make the muscles contract with greater force. That’s a topic for another day.

Before we call it quits, however, I want to return those individuals who are able to be both very light and very strong. Keeping neuromuscular efficiency in mind, we can surmise that these people have nervous systems that are well plugged in to their muscles. At the cellular level, they may also have contractile proteins that generate greater force than other people, but for the sake of simplicity, they are neuromuscularly efficient. How can you identify these people quickly and easily? Ask them to perform a standing vertical jump. Those that jump the highest will be the ones that tend to excel at athletics. There are, of course, exceptions to that, but a vertical jump is a nice easy field test to determine how efficient a trainee is at recruiting motor units.

While we can get better at using what we have, there is no real way to increase the level of innervation of the muscles in adults. Those kinds of the things are set into motion during fetal development. If you don’t have a 34-inch vertical jump, what can you do when you want to get stronger? We’ll discuss that in the next installment.

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May 21st, 2011

Strength is the Foundation

Vertically Challenged Deadlift

Many have noted that increasing strength pays big dividends when it comes to conditioning workouts involving weighted implements. Let’s take a look Workout 3 that was recently posted for the CrossFit Regional Competitions:

21-15-9 reps for time of:
Deadlift (315lb / 205lb)
Box jump (30"/24")

Note the weight on the deadlift. The unfortunates tasked with completing this workout need to pull 315 pounds (or 205 pounds for women) off the ground 45 times. How will that task be accomplished if 315 pounds represents something close to a trainee’s one repetition maximum (1RM)? I’ll provide a hint: it won’t happen. No matter how fast a trainee can run, unless their 1RM is well above 315 pounds, this workout will grind to a halt. The strength that enables a heavy pull is a prerequisite before conditioning of any kind can even be considered.

I recently had a conversation with an unnamed engineer on the Bay Bridge, who also happens to be a member of CFO, about strength and its application to CrossFit. Said engineer was by no means weak, but recently embarked upon a strength program before making a return to CrossFit workouts. His 1RM squat improved from approximately 360 pounds to around 430 pounds. If I am off on those numbers, I am sure a correction will be forthcoming in the comments.  Despite the fact that his conditioning regressed, he reported that the extra strength he gained positively impacted his CrossFit workout performance.

That’s worth thinking about for a moment. An increase in strength makes many CrossFit workouts easier by virtue of making each repetition a smaller percentage of a trainee’s 1RM. The weight feels lighter and is therefore moved with less exertion. How heavy will a 95 pound thruster feel when you can squat 400 pounds? Not very heavy. Strength breeds capability and is the foundation of work capacity. Conditioning is still very important in CrossFit workouts, but if strength increases are not being aggressively pursued, enormous gains across a broad suite of activities are being left on the table.

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May 14th, 2011


Squatting with Rippetoe

During my undergraduate coursework for geology, one of my professors talked about the concept of Occam’s Razor when developing explanations for various observations. The concept of Occam’s Razor can summarized by the following.

  • You have an observation
  • You have two or more explanations for that observation
  • If one of those explanations adequately describes what you see, but is less complex, it is probably the more correct explanation.

In general, you do not trade up to something more complicated unless that more complicated solution provides greater explanatory power.

This concept can be applied to strength training, although the context is slightly different. We are not seeking to explain phenomena. Instead, we are seeking to elicit an adaptation – becoming strong. There are an infinite number of ways become stronger, but those methods that are the simplest and most straightforward have the edge. They are the more likely to be the solution to our problem. Train with barbells. Add more weight to the bar. Repeat the process. Complicated schemes and specialized devices need not come into play. Instead, hard work, consistency, and persistence will pay the dividends for which we are looking.

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May 7th, 2011

More on Squatting

Schedule Update: The Strength Saturday class for Saturday, May 7th has been moved back one hour for tomorrow only. It will go from 5 to 7 PM, instead of the normal 4 PM start.

Ann Squatting to the Appropriate Depth

Ann is seen here squatting to the appropriate depth – below parallel

Now that Sectionals are over, we are free to turn to weightier matters on Friday nights/Saturday mornings. Before we dive deeply into some topics I have in the queue, I wanted to highlight an article that Mark Rippetoe recently wrote about squatting and strength training in general. For those that don’t know him, Rippetoe is strength coach out of scenic Wichita Falls, Texas who is also a talented writer. He penned a piece for T Nation recently which affirms the principle that squatting deeply is the road towards all things noble and good in this world. Here’s a little taste for you:

Squats below parallel are your homework. The result of doing them is that you get stronger on all the other exercises, even the pressing movements, because squats make your whole body stronger – if you do them correctly. I know it’s harder that way, and one of the ways you know it’s wrong to do them high is that everybody else does them high. When was the last time that thing everybody else was doing turned out to be the right thing to do?

Deep squats done with a weight that’s a little heavier each time you train affect your body in a way that no other exercise can. And believe me when I say that "other methods" have been tried. They just don’t work. And it’s not that they don’t work as well, they don’t work at all.

For those that would like to keep reading, you can find the entire article over at T Nation. It is entitled, When it Comes to Squats, Easier Doesn’t Work.

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Mar 26th, 2011

March Madness Meet Recap

Sectionals Competitors: The Saturday heat schedule has been posted below (see attachment).  If you do not see your name on the list and opted in, email us at The heats are much smaller than last time, due to the fact that this is a repeat workout.  We’ll be running three 5-person heats.

Judges:  Check your email for the judging schedule tomorrow.

Daniel Deadlift at March Madness Meet

Daniel pulling heavy. Thanks to Chris van Luen for taking this photo.

The first thing to remember about powerlifting meets is that they take a long time. If you are looking for a visually captivating, fast-paced sporting event, you may want to consider a basketball game. However, for those willing to spend some quality time in a chair, you catch glimpses of some truly impressive feats of strength. I am always impressed with the competitors that approach the bar without great fanfare, move heavy weights, and then get ready to do it again.

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Mar 5th, 2011

The Bench Press


Lydia bench pressing at the recent CrossFit Pleasanton Power Lifting Meet

The mainstay of weight rooms throughout the country is the venerable bench press. During my trip to Bakersfield, from which I came back a little more than two hours ago to write this little post, I managed to go to a 24 Hour Fitness to work out. While I saw no one there performing anything that could be confused with a squat or a deadlift, I did see lots of bench pressing, some of it done very strongly.

Let’s review a few main points of the lift, the first being that you lie down on a bench while you do it. For this reason, bench pressing gets criticized as not being the most functional exercise and, let’s be honest, there’s some truth to that claim. Let’s also be honest, if you could easily bench press 350 pounds for multiple repetitions, you probably wouldn’t be too upset about it, "functionality" be damned. A strong bench press is just that – a display of strength – and being strong is fun.

Of primary importance in the bench press is muscular tension. The more muscles in the body undergoing isometric contraction (where the muscles contract, but do not change in length), the better. This helps to provide a stable platform from which to raise and lower the weight. The breath should be held using the Valsalva Maneuver during the lift, with breathing happening only at the top when the arms are fully extended. This further helps to stabilize the lift. Exhaling or inhaling while the bar is in motion will ensure that you do not move as much weight as you can.

The bar should be lowered under control to the chest before being pressed back up to a fully extended position. To borrow Mark Rippetoe’s analogy, you should lower the bar as if there were a plate of glass on your chest that you need to touch without breaking. The popular sport of violently bouncing the bar off the sternum and relying on the elastic rebound of the ribcage to propel the weight upward should be relegated to the same scrap heap as bouncing deadlifts off the ground. Both are to be avoided.

Rear ends need to stay on the bench during the lift, both for the sake of stability and to keep the bench press from becoming a decline bench press. By raising the butt off of the bench, a lifter obtains a slight mechanical advantage and makes use of some extra musculature. While this is not necessarily dangerous, it helps to have some sort of standard by which the movement is judged and the butt leaving the bench will earn a "no lift" from every powerlifting federation in existence – all 7,000 of them.

Before we go, it is important to note that not everyone needs to bench press. Those with shoulder injuries should probably look elsewhere to avoid further problems. The bench can be hard on the shoulder, especially if trained to excess, or if trained without the balance provided by the shoulder press. That being said, for those with healthy shoulders, the bench press is wonderful exercise for building upper body strength and might be indicative of your long term survival chances.

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Feb 26th, 2011

Eating to Grow – Part Four


Meet Terry Dickman, of CrossFit Excel. He weighs 207 pounds, is in his fifties, and deadlifts 490 pounds.

Welcome to another post encouraging people to eat. If you have not yet read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3, now would be a good time to do so. In today’s entry, we are going to address a population that is frequently absent from discussions of weight gain – older trainees. The message is ultimately the same as for other populations. Strength is of primary importance and being skinny is often at odds with being strong.

Let’s review the claim that strength is of primary importance. Being able to generate force against an external resistance is something that people must do every day, whether that is getting up out of a chair, lifting a bag of groceries, moving a couch, or hefting an injured person into an ambulance. Our abilities to perform each of these activities safely are directly related to how strong we are. As individuals crest middle age, a process called sarcopenia, the gradual loss of muscle mass, sets in. Losing muscle predisposes individuals to numerous health problems and a severely decreased quality of life. An important way to fight against this insidious process is resistance training. Couple resistance training with a diet that supports recovery and muscle can be gained instead of lost. The weight on the scale will climb, as will the weight on the bar, and increased capability will follow.

To those who would suggest that staying as thin as possible is the key to health and longevity, there is some evidence that this is not the case. Strength has been correlated to decreased mortality from all causes, including cancer and cardiovascular disease. Even when controlling for body mass index, cardiovascular fitness, and several other variables, the correlation of strength to longevity remained. Some participants in this study were overweight, but the stronger they were, the less likely they were to die. Correlation does not imply causation, although it provides an interesting starting place to identify causes. Being skinny is unlikely to save you. Being strong could be of use, however.

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Feb 22nd, 2011

Photos and Deadlifts

A few pictures of some of the CFO FemmeFit competitors

As readers of the blog are well aware, a number of CrossFit Oakland members participated in the recent FemmeFit competition held at CrossFit Sweat Shop in Walnut Creek and did very well. In fact, they won the team division, among other accomplishments. Nabil Langkilde, a former CFO member, and Mike Jenkins, a current CFO member, hosted and organized the event and it was a great success. I was on hand to take pictures and those are now available for your perusal. You can view all of the photos at:

March Strength Camp

I will be holding another Starting Strength Training Camp here at CrossFit Oakland on Sunday, March 13th from 1 to 5 PM. This time, the focus will be on the shoulder press and the deadlift. We will spend a few hours discussing the mechanics, form, and anatomy of both movements as well as putting the theory into practice under the bar. Participants will come away with an understanding of the fundamentals of these lifts and how they feel when done correctly. We will also discuss programming, sticking points, and other useful tidbits before wrapping up with a question and answer session.

Competence in the core strength lifts is an important part of CrossFit, Olypmic lifting, powerlifting, and almost any athletic endeavor. This is a great opportunity to learn the lifts in an unhurried atmosphere. Attendance will be capped at eight people to allow for plenty of indivdualized coaching for all involved. You need not be an experienced strength athlete to attend; all that is required is a desire to learn the lifts. The cost for the camp is $100 and you can sign up over at the Aasgaard Store.

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Feb 12th, 2011

Laura Phelps-Sweatt

Schedule Update: The Strength Saturday class has been rescheduled to this Sunday evening from 4 to 6 PM. Strength Saturday classes will resume as normal next weekend.

Laura Phelps-Sweatt bench pressing 300 pounds for a triple

For those that follow powerlifting, Laura Phelps-Sweatt is something of a living legend. Training both at her own gym and with Louie Simmons at Westside Barbell in Ohio, she is among the strongest women in the world. How strong? In the 181 pound weight class, she squatted 745 pounds, bench pressed 510 pounds, and deadlifted  529 pounds (according to the Southern Powerlifting Federation Website). You read those numbers correctly. A woman weighing less than 181 pounds squatted 745 pounds. She can also walk around her gym on her hands and sometimes competes in the 165 pound weight class. Amazing does not begin to describe Phelps-Sweatt.

Competitive powerlifting has two big factions in it – those who compete "equipped" and those that do not, often called "raw" lifters. Equipped competitors use tightly fitting suits, wraps, and shirts that store elastic energy in the in the joints that provide assistance to the lifter when handling heavy weights. Arguments over what is better, equipped or raw, are the fodder for endless arguments on the Internet. I will not go further into the subject, but it is important to realize that people who know how to properly use suits and wraps lift more than they would without the equipment. Phelps-Sweatt normally competes in the equipped divisions.

While some would suggest that the usage of suits somehow makes Phelps-Sweatt’s accomplishments less impressive, they need only watch a few videos of what she can do on her YouTube channel for that idea to be dispelled. With or without equipment this woman moves weights that routinely put men to shame. She literally works out with the men at Westside Barbell. If you happen to have a CrossFit Journal subscription, they produced a video article showing Phelps-Sweatt performing speed squats with a few of the other Westside lifters. Humbling doesn’t begin to describe it.

Phelps-Sweatt is not a lightweight. While I don’t know her exact height, I would be very surprised if she was much taller than 5′ 3", yet she weighs between 165 and 181 pounds and is quite lean. Muscular bodyweight is useful bodyweight. This is not to suggest that every woman should be shooting to weigh 180 pounds, but a few extra pounds of muscle is something to be welcomed, not feared.

When the bar feels heavy, I remind myself that Laura warms up with a lot more weight than I am using for my work sets. That often provides some extra motivation. Here’s to a strong February.

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