Jan 28th, 2012

Straight Arms in the Clean

Zach - Jumping Position

Zach in the jumping position during a Starting Strength Pulling Camp.

To understand why straight arms are an important part of a successful clean, it helps to understand what a clean is. Since I like succinct explanations, we’ll use this one: A clean is a jump while holding a barbell. Upon completion of the movement, the bar is racked across the front of the shoulders. While there are some differences between a standing vertical jump and a clean, this definition works remarkably well to instill a good fundamental movement pattern for the lift. Note that in the definition above, no mention is made of pulling or rowing the bar to the shoulders. This is important. The function of the arms in the clean is to efficiently transfer force to the barbell.

When we perform a jump with the barbell, the work of propelling the weight upwards is done by the legs and the hips. The arms can be thought of as ropes or chains that attach to the bar. When visualizing that scenario, we can see how a taught rope directly produces force against the resistance. If the arms are bent, we effectively inserted a spring into the system. As the jump occurs, the bent arms absorb some of the energy as the muscles struggle to maintain the flexion in the elbows.  If the arms bend at any time before the jump happens, you are very successfully siphoning power out of the system.

Let’s look at the picture of Zach at the top of this post as he performs a power clean. This is the jumping position. Note how straight the arms are. The bar is in contact with his thigh, his knees are bent, his shoulders are in front of the bar, his feet are flat on the ground, and his arms are in full extension and ready to transmit the power generated by the jump to the bar. He’s not trying to row the bar. He is trying to jump the bar upwards.

Zach - Full Extension

Zach after completing the jump

The picture above this sentence represents the next frame in the series. The knees and hips and hips are extended and the arms are almost completely straight. Had I managed to click the shutter a few milliseconds sooner his arms would probably be more fully extended. This picture probably represents the beginnings of the transition from the jump to the rack and we see the arms bend slightly. However, you get the point. He is not pulling the bar up using his arms. Zach is powering the bar up with the force generated by the lower body. In order for this to happen effectively, straight arms are required.

So, keep your arms straight as you jump in the clean. The bar will move more quickly. More weight will be lifted. You will be happier. Your coaches will be happier. The world will be a brighter place for it.

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Jan 21st, 2012

Training While on the Road


Finding a place to deadlift while away is not always an easy thing.

I had the opportunity over the past year to do a bit of traveling, mostly for work. During those trips, I often attempted to train with decidedly mixed results. I figured it might be time to recount what worked and what didn’t and how to integrate travel with training. If someone is going on a big vacation through areas where gyms aren’t available then the best advice is not to worry about training at all. Enjoy the trip instead. This article is geared towards more routine and less exotic travel.

One of the first things to determine is whether there will be time to engage in structured workouts. If not, there’s no need to pack the lifting shoes. Instead, some pushups and stretching may be the best that can be managed. Provided time is available to go to a gym, it is wise to be conservative. In most cases while I am travelling, my attempts to set personal records have ended in disappointment. You may be different and, if so, I salute you. However the vagaries of a disrupted schedule combined with limited control over food and sleep will often conspire to limit peak athletic performance. So, what to do? Work to your capacity at the time and realize that a maximal effort on the road is likely below what could be accomplished at home.

The primary goal of training while away may be the avoidance of detraining. Using a trip as an opportunity to back off from normal intensity can be a valuable thing, particularly if aches and pains are beginning to make themselves felt. Developing strength is long term process where consistency is rewarded. Even if training sessions on the road resemble punching the clock more than inspiring vignettes from a Rocky movie, they beat doing nothing.

In the event that long car rides or plane trips are involved, be aware of how your back responds to being seated and largely immobile for hours at a time. Back injuries are even less fun when you are away from home and are best avoided. Being sensible about loading after stepping out of a multi-hour trip in a car is a good choice.

None of this deviates from common sense, but I need to remind myself of these ideas when I am on the road. I have had some good training sessions while traveling, but they tend to be exceptions. Provided workouts are approached intelligently, it is usually a simple matter to pick up where you left off upon your triumphant return.

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Dec 31st, 2011

Captain Kirk

El Capitan

Captain Kirk preparing to squat 1,000 pounds. This video cannot be embedded, but clicking on the image above will take you to YouTube to watch it. I promise it will be worth your time.

Above is one of my favorite squatting videos, although, to be honest, my list of favorite videos seems to be continually expanding. The video features the legendary Kirk Karwoski, known as Captain Kirk. Karwoski is among the greatest powerlifters in the history of the sport. His accomplishments include a world record 455 kg (1,003 lb) squat set in competition in 1995. Karwoski competed in the 125 kg (275 lb) weight class of the International Powerlifting Federation (IPF) and his record, set over 15 years ago, still stands.  He also won seven national and six international championships at the IPF.

Kirk was known not only for his incredible accomplishments on the platform, but also for his outsized personality. He trained with extraordinary intensity and focus and was widely regarded as being all but insane. Ed Coan, who is arguably the greatest  powerlifter of all time, was asked in an interview, "What is the craziest thing you have seen in powerlifting?" He replied, "Kirk Karwoski." Karwoksi gave an interview a few years ago and had this to say:

I would like to comment on motivation. Most power lifters share some common defects, as a whole, for whatever reason, we LOVE to punish, beat, and torture ourselves beyond the limits of mind and body. It is our spirit that prevails. This defect of intelligence and sensibility pushes us on to the next level, makes us better and stronger. We all have lifted sick and badly hurt. When this subject comes up with normal people and other meatheads, we all have the prideful smile when we talk about lifting with a 100 degree temperature or a torn groin. Thank God that therapy doesn’t work on us.

Before we sign off for the evening, let’s discuss the video above. In it, we see Karwoski squat 1,000 pounds for a double. This truly astounding feat of strength was accomplished using a single ply squat suit, a set of knee wraps, and a belt. If talk of single-ply squat suits does not ring a bell, I discuss the particulars of equipped vs. non-equipped lifting in an earlier post. An important point to note is that suits available to Karwoski in the early 90s provided considerably less assistance than do the suits available now.

Kirk unracks the 1,000 pound barbell and walks it out of the squat stands. A very common sight in powerlifting today is a device called a monolift. This is type of squat stand that allows the lifter to unrack the bar while the supports are swung out of the way and the lifter can stay in place to begin the squat without ever moving their feet. Walking the bar out is a difficult thing and I think it is cool.

Karwoski squats the both reps deeply, with the first one coming up very quickly. I don’t know how you can stand up that fast with 1,000 pounds on your back, but he managed to do it. The second rep comes up a little more slowly, but was never in doubt. All of the onlookers in the gym are yelling loudly, but when his spotters want to rack the weight before Karwoski does, he screams, "I want to hold it!" The room quiets down while his cowed spotters back away until Kirk is ready for the set to be finished. It’s a pretty funny moment and helps to illuminate Karwoski’s ferocious approach to lifting. The man was intense.

Have a great 2012.

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Dec 24th, 2011

Want a Bigger Clean? Talk to Me about Your Deadlift.

Ellie Deadlift

Ellie finishing a deadlift. Pictures from the CrossFit Total earlier this month will be available…in the near future.

The Olympic lifts represent an interesting confluence of strength, power, and technique. The two contested Olympic lifts include the snatch and the clean and jerk. Both of these movements involve explosively moving the barbell overhead either in one movement (the snatch), or two separate components (the clean and jerk).  Learning these lifts can take some time due to the complexity of the motor patterns required to jump with a barbell and to receive that barbell in a very specific position.

Initially the lifts will be limited by technique. The weights used will be light and the emphasis placed on moving the bar correctly and moving the body correctly. After a time, however, the fundamentals are established and the weights begin to climb. The more familiar a trainee becomes with the movements, the more confidence grows, and the more performance increases. Of course, this does not continue forever. Eventually other factors begin to limit increases. This is a mirror of the process for almost anything worth doing. Initially, performance is low, followed by a rapid period of improvement, then increases become harder to attain.

Today we’ll look at a big component of the Olympic lifts – power. Some terms need to be defined first. Strength is the ability to generate force against an external resistance. Power is the ability to display strength quickly. A deadlift requires strength, but not speed, and is not a lift requiring great power. A snatch, however, requires the barbell to move quickly and, at the heaviest weights, the lifter to move very quickly under the bar. Power production must be high in order to successfully complete a snatch. This simplification does not illustrate the relationship between strength and power very well, unfortunately. The next simplification does.

You cannot be powerful without first being strong.

We will look at two hypothetical trainees. The first can deadlift 225 pounds for a set of five. The second can deadlift 405 pounds for a set of five. The task before each of our lifters is a 200 pound clean. When the barbell first breaks from the ground, for whom will it feel lighter? Which trainee will feel more confident as the barbell clears the knee and the bar touches the thigh, indicating the need to violently accelerate the bar upwards? Who will have a better chance of successfully completing the lift? Obviously, a 405 pound deadlift confers a big advantage when it comes time to clean 200 pounds. Even if the stronger lifter is less explosive and less athletically gifted, those 200 pounds do not represent a heavy load. Even in the absence of good technique, the stronger lifter is still at an advantage. When it comes time to throw a barbell around, things will be much better if the weight feels light in the hands.

There are a lot of components to getting good at Olympic weightlifting. Being strong does not guarantee that you will have a bright future in the sport. However, not being strong guarantees that you will not progress very far with the fast lifts. If your Olymipc lifts are stalled and your technique is solid, the next questions to ask are, "Is my squat improving? How about my deadlift?" If the answers to those questions are not affirmative, then the path to a better clean just became a lot clearer.

Strength Saturday Schedule

As previously mentioned, Strength Saturday is on a Holiday Hiatus. I like alliteration.  There will be no Saturday class on Christmas Eve, New Year’s Eve, or January 7th. The strength class will return on Sunday, January 15th before resuming its familiar Saturday slot in the subsequent weeks.

Happy Holidays, everyone.

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Dec 17th, 2011

Your Ribcage Should Not Be Used as a Trampoline

Mini Bench Press

Mini doesn’t bounce his bench presses and neither should you.

There are lots of ways to make a bench press easier. One commonly used tactic is to aggressively bounce the bar off the sternum and to use the elasticity of the ribcage to drive the bar upwards from the bottom of the lift. Much like bouncing a deadlift off the ground, this is a bad habit that interferes with strength development, erodes morality, and contributes to crop failures.

The bottom of the bench press is a mechanically disadvantageous position. The bar lies across the chest while the pectorals and triceps are stretched, the elbows are flexed, the shoulders are in transverse extension, and the bar is no longer directly over the shoulder joints. Pushing the weight back up is hard work, but can be made easier by allowing the bar to accelerate right before the bottom and using the rebound off the chest, not unlike a trampoline.

Bouncing the bar off the ribcage prevents strength from being developed in the first portion of this range of motion.  Because the ascent of the barbell is no longer completely driven by muscular contraction, it also allows you to handle more weight. If we are bench pressing to become stronger, this presents a conflict. More weight is not synonymous with greater strength in this case. The muscles are not required to produce more force. Instead of getting stronger, we changed the movement. A direct comparison between a strict and bounced bench press can no longer be made. Further, if the weight is heavy enough, it can be injurious. Dropping 315 pounds on to the sternum can leave a nice bruise, or maybe even something a little more painful.

There is no need to pause at the bottom of the bench press, unless you are training for a powerlifting competition, where a pause may be required as part of the rules. You only need to touch the chest while under control and drive the bar back up immediately. Resisting the temptation to bounce the bar off the sternum will help to make you stronger and will allow you to stay in a tighter, more stable configuration while lifting. All of this will be better for your ribcage and your bench press, not to mention your character.

Strength Saturday Schedule Update

This Saturday, December 17, we have a double shot of afternoon strength classes. The first will go from 1:00 to 3:30 PM. The second class will go from 4:00 to 6:30 PM. Both classes are full this week. After this weekend, Strength Saturday will go on a three-week hiatus. There will be no class on Christmas Eve, New Year’s Eve, or January 7th. Classes will resume on the second weekend in January. We’ll see you in 2012. Thanks to everyone that made this year’s classes a success.

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Dec 10th, 2011

Can You Lift Like a Girl?

Cristi Bartlett pulling an easy 485 off the ground

Pennsylvania is a great state indeed. As evidence for this, I submit Ms. Cristi Bartlett and her 485 pound deadlift. As with Tracy Zimmer, who I highlighted a few weeks back, Bartlett trains and works alongside the widely-respected James Steel at the University of Pennsylvania. She is unreasonably strong and watching her in the video above makes me want to pick up something heavy. I suspect you will have the same reaction. Ms. Bartlett was a collegiate basketball player and stands 6 feet tall. However, here is my favorite part she weighs 190 pounds. Let’s meditate on that for a moment. A 6-foot tall, 190 pound woman pulls 485 for what looks to be a pretty easy single. A 485 pound deadlift is a very respectable pull for a 190 pound man (a little better than 2.5 times bodyweight). For a woman, it lies firmly in the "You Are Kidding Me, Right?" category.

But wait, there is more. I would hate to be accused of missing an opportunity to advocate for muscular bodyweight gain and Cristi Bartlett provides a very nice object lesson. Are you a 6-foot tall male? Do you weigh less than 190? How’s your deadlift? Are you a woman who is resistant to the idea of putting on weight to drive strength gains? Consider Ms. Bartlett’s example. She is 190 pounds of awesome. Maybe it is time to eat a little more. Depending on who you are, maybe it is time to eat a lot more. Don’t forget to lift heavy, too. There are few problems that cannot be made better by getting bigger and stronger.

A Few Announcements

For those of you who participated in the silent auction at last night’s Holiday Party, you can find out if you won by looking at the bottom of yesterday’s post. Thank you to Mike and especially to Robyn who spent the evening making sure that everything went smoothly.

Thanks to the CrossFit Total on Sunday, I have two spots open for this week’s Strength Saturday class. If you are interested, drop me a line  The class goes from 4:00 PM to 6:30 PM. Also, I will be holding a special double shot of Strength Saturday next week, December 17th. The first session will go from 1:00 to 3:30 PM. I have two slots remaining for that first session. The normal 4:00 to 6:30 class is full. Once again, if you are interested, send me an email at the address above. The cost for the class is $25. There will be no Strength Saturday class on Christmas Eve.

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Dec 3rd, 2011

The Magic of Sleep

The Mighty Tyrannosaurus Rex

While we cannot say for sure how much Tyrannosaurus Rex slept, I think it’s a safe bet that the answer was, "a lot."

Lifting weights does not make you stronger. In fact, immediately after a heavy training session, you experience a performance decline. You cannot lift what you just did and are, therefore, weaker. So if the act of lifting heavy things does not make you stronger, how do you make progress? The answer is recovery. The body’s ability to recover from the stresses imposed by training is what yields increased performance. For a more a more through treatment of this matter, check out Stress, Recovery, and Progress.

We will focus on a particular element of proper recovery today – sleep. Finding the time to get a full night of sleep can be a significant challenge. However, its role in driving progress can be enormous. There are some individuals for whom getting long hours of rest is unnecessary. They are few and far between, however. Unless scientists are begging you to be a participant in a sleep study to determine how you get by on minimal rest, chances are you probably fall somewhere within the bell curve of needing a full night of sleep.

All kinds of interesting things happen when you close your eyes. Growth hormone is released, the concentrations of other hormones responsible for repair and anabolism rise and fall in the bloodstream, and immune function is bolstered. If this sounds good to you, it should. You make progress when you can recover. Sleep in concert with food form the foundation on top of which performance increases can occur.

The recent Thanksgiving weekend provided me an opportunity to get several consecutive nights of long, restful sleep. I was rewarded on Monday with one of my best workouts in recent memory and personal records followed throughout the week. I have often noted that I was sleep limited in much of my training, but this episode provided a powerful reminder of that fact. If you are feeling run down and your performance in the gym has been lacking, consider taking Adam Mansbach’s advice. Go The F*ck to Sleep. Footie pajamas and/or onsies are optional, but highly encouraged.

Strength Saturday – Extra Session

The Strength Saturday classes are wait-listed until the end of the year. To accommodate that fact and because I will not be holding a class on Christmas Eve, I will hold two classes on the weekend of December 17th. I need to make sure that I am not in conflict with the CFO Team workout, but chances are that the extra class will be held on Saturday, December 17th from 1:00 PM to 3:30 PM. I will have a confirmation of that next week. If you are interested in the extra class, drop me a line at

Sleep well. Train well.

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Nov 26th, 2011

472 Pounds Overhead

While it is tough to compete with a woman pepper spraying her fellow shoppers in the hopes of securing a coveted Xbox on Black Friday, I have something very impressive for your consideration. Earlier this month, an Iranian named Behdad Salimi snatched 214 kilograms (472 pounds) at the 2011 World Championships in Paris. This represents a new world record for the snatch, at least since the weight classes were reconfigured in the 1990s. The previous world record of 213 kg was held by another Iranian named Hossein Rezazadeh, who happens to be coaching Salimi. Rezazadeh is something of a legend himself and talking about him would easily fill another article.

The snatch is a weightlifting movement whose name engenders many a chuckle. Despite the name, it is one of the most technically challenging lifts that can be done with a barbell. Just about everyone with some exposure to CrossFit has attempted the snatch as well as the deadlift. Think for a moment about a 472 pound deadlift. "Light" would generally not be one of the descriptors used. Salimi pulled that weight off the ground and accelerated the bar high enough to catch it with fully extended arms in a deep squat. That feat represents the outer edge of human performance and it is amazing to watch. 

For those keeping track at home, the heaviest snatch ever successfully completed in competition was 216 kg (476 lb) by Bulgaria’s Antonio Krastev in 1987. However, as mentioned above, the world records were wiped clean prior to the 1996 Olympics (perhaps someone has the exact date for that) and the weight classes changed. As of now, Salimi has the world record for the snatch and perhaps we will see him surpass Krastev. Enjoy the leftovers from Thanksgiving. May the feasting fuel new PRs.

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Nov 19th, 2011

Shoulders in Front of the Bar

Tamara Deadlift

Tamara pulling a heavy weight from the floor two weeks ago in Sacramento. Note that her shoulders are in front of the bar and that her arms are not quite perpendicular to the ground.

If you watch lifters pull heavy barbells off the ground, you will notice certain commonalities in their movements. One of those commonalities is the placement of the shoulders with respect to the bar. Whenever the weight is appreciably heavy, the bar will move in a plane directly over the middle of the feet and the shoulders will be positioned slightly in front of the bar. This doesn’t happen most of the time. It happens every time when limit weights are lifted from the floor. No matter where the lifter starts off, this observation seems to hold true.

Mark Rippetoe was one of the first people to bring this idea more widespread awareness in his book Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training. The third edition of that book has just been released and a few excerpts have been posted. Two of the excerpts involve pulling mechanics and they are fascinating reads. Rippetoe goes pretty deeply into the anatomy and physics of the lifts to describe why the shoulders arrive at the position they do when the pull occurs. Here is a quote:

The non-vertical arm angle is perhaps the most poorly explained phenomenon in weightlifting. Why does the back angle become stable for the first part of the pull when the shoulders are in front of the bar and the arms assume their characteristic angle of 7-10 degrees from vertical? Why is there an apparent equilibrium between how far the shoulders are in front of the bar and how far the hips are behind the bar? Our working theory is that the critical relationship is the interaction between the lats, and the teres major, the triceps, and the humerus. There is a back angle at which the lats can best stabilize the arms and shorten the distance between bar and hips in order to facilitate a vertical bar path, and a heavy deadlift settles into this angle because it cannot do otherwise.

Part 1 and Part 2 of the Pulling Mechanics excerpts can be found at the Starting Strength site. These excerpts sketch out some of the reasoning for pulling a bar in a straight line off the ground, which is a surprisingly controversial assertion. However, that is a discussion for another day.

For those who want a good understanding of the primary lifts, Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training is an essential resource. It has been extensively revised and now happens to include quite a few pictures I took, so I am hardly an impartial observer here. Even if that weren’t the case, the new version provides a thorough and satisfying look at the hows and whys of strength training. Until next week, keep your shoulders slightly in front of the bar.

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Nov 12th, 2011

A Reason to Work Harder

Tracy Zimmer of The University of Pennsylvania making mere mortals feel inadequate

YouTube causes me no small amount of consternation because I am only a few seconds away from finding something like the video above. I’d like to introduce you to Tracy Zimmer, Assistant Strength Coach at The University of Pennsylvania. It is not an exaggeration to suggest that Tracy is really, really strong. She is coached by James Steel, the Head Strength and Conditioning Coordinator for Penn who can be heard providing encouragement off camera. Steel is very highly regarded strength coach who, not surprisingly, sees the squat as an important component in any well constructed program. He is a competitive powerlifter himself, who happens to hold three records in the American Powerlifting Association of New Jersey. 

However, let’s return to Ms. Zimmer who weighs approximately 150 pounds. In the video above, she squats 325 pounds for 14 repetitions. For those of you who had the privilege of holding 325 pounds on your back, you can fully appreciate what is happening in the video. Zimmer squats 2.17 times her bodyweight for repetition after repetition wearing just a belt and some knee sleeves. A twice bodyweight squat is an impressive feat of strength for just about any athlete and that is just for one repetition. For a woman to accomplish that 14 times is, well, pretty damn amazing.

The news out of Pennsylvania this week has been bad. As a Penn State alumnus, it is rather depressing to read the headlines. However, Tracy Zimmer and her squats came to the rescue. For those that need some inspiration to approach training with renewed intensity, Tracy sets an excellent example.

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