Nov 5th, 2011

Powerlifting Meets

Lydia Squat Setup

Lydia setting up for a squat attempt in Pleasanton in January

On Sunday, Tamara and Lydia will travel to Super Training Gym in Sacramento to compete in a powerlifting meet. Today’s post will focus on what happens at a meet and to perhaps encourage some of you to compete at one in the future.

Powerlifting is a strange name for a sport where power is not the contested attribute. Strength is defined as a person’s ability to generate force against an external resistance. Power is the ability to display strength quickly. For example, a 600 pound deadlift will probably come off the floor and proceed to lockout slowly. The lifter will exert significant force (a display of strength), but the bar will not be going too fast. That same lifter might be able to clean 300 pounds. In the case of the 300 pound clean, the bar must move very quickly once it is above the knee, or the lift will not happen. A deadlift requires strength. A clean requires power. Powerlifting is a test of strength, but how fast the weight is moved is not important. Hence, power is not the primary concern in powerlifting.

No matter the nomenclature, a powerlifting meet consists of three contested lifts:  the squat, bench press, and deadlift. A lifter has three attempts at each lift. Only one repetition is required for each attempt. When the results of the lifts are summed, the person with the highest total wins. Of course, there are weight classes to provide a more equal playing field and there are formulae that are often used to provide roughly comparable results between lifters of various weights. Depending upon how the meet is run, the results of the formula may actually determine the winner. The most important takeaway is that the lifter has nine chances to build a total and place in the meet. If a lifter cannot successfully complete at least one attempt at each of the movements, then they do not earn a total and are disqualified from placing, although they can continue to lift.  No one likes to bomb out of a meet.

It is important to note that once a lifter attempts a weight, the only direction the poundage can go in subsequent attempts is up. Therefore, it is important to pick an opening weight for each lift that is easily manageable. The idea is to get on the board with the opener. Thereafter, the weights can climb and personal records can be set. Missing an opener because it is too heavy is a bad way to start things off and often results in not making a total. Hurt feelings are sure to follow.

Powerlfitng meets tend to be all day affairs. Despite the significant time commitment, they are a great deal of fun. First and foremost, you get to wear a singlet which qualifies as perhaps the finest article of clothing known to man. Stepping up to the bar in front of a crowd cheering you on is exhilarating and promotes maximum force production. You are highly incentivized to put everything you have into successfully completing the lift when you have people watching and yelling. Hitting personal records in training is good, but hitting personal records on the platform in front of three judges is even better.  With competent judging, you have independent confirmation that you achieved the proper depth in the squat, or kept your butt on the bench while pressing. I highly recommend competing in general and a powerlifting meet is wonderful place to test your strength and know for sure that you performed the lift to accepted standards.

Good luck to Tami and Lydia this weekend.  The meet in Sacramento on Sunday is for women only. The men compete on Saturday. There’s a chance that Tami and Lydia will be competing alongside the mighty Laura Phelps-Sweatt, too. Lift some big weights for us.

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Oct 29th, 2011

The Third Olympic Lift

Serge Reding performing a fantastically strong clean and press

There are two contested events in modern Olympic weightlifting, the snatch, and the clean and jerk. However, this was not always the case. From 1928 until 1972, a third event was part of the contest, the clean and press. The clean and press was eliminated from competition after the Olympic Games in Munich due to a variety of reasons including difficulty in judging, Cold War politics, and a desire to shorten the duration of the weightlifting contest. John D. Fair wrote an excellent article that delves deeply into the history of the press in Olympic weightlifting for those that are interested.

The press used in the Olympics changed over the years to become a dynamic movement that involved violently whipping the hips, laying far back, and often unlocking the knees. In fact, as the weights climbed and judging became more lax, the press almost incorporated enough knee kick to suggest a push press. Bent knees aside, the Olympic press deviated enough from the more traditional two hands press, or shoulder press, to require its own special technique.

The amazing Serge Reding can be seen in the video at the top of the page pressing 503 pounds in Lima, Peru in 1971. Yes you read that number correctly. This lift represents one of the best examples of an Olympic press out there and is a classic moment in sports history. Reding was a Belgian superheavyweight who tragically died at the young age of 34. In the video above, he set the world record for the clean and press. You’ll note that he cleans and stands up with those 503 pounds with almost no trouble. Reding then aggressively whips his hips twice while he powers the bar upward. He took over a quarter of a ton sitting on the ground and then pressed it overhead. His world record lasted only a few minutes. Russia’s Vasiliy Alekseyev came along and cleaned and pressed 507 pounds after Reding’s lift to take both the first place spot and the world record.

When the press was removed from Olympic competition, the movement fell out of favor. This fall from popularity was compounded by the rise of the bench press as the preferred upper body strength lift. The shoulder press has seen a resurgence in recent years, although the Olympic press variant is still not widely practiced. It occupies a niche between the shoulder press and the push press and when watching some of these very strong athletes from the past press heavy weights overhead, it is hard not to feel like an important part of the sport of weightlifting was lost along the way.

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Oct 22nd, 2011

Starting Strength Training Camp – Nov 20

Connie Squat.jpg

Connie at a camp in January of this year. Thanks to Kelly Powers for the photo.

I will be holding a Starting Strength Camp dedicated to that most fundamental of movements, the low bar back squat. The camp will take place on Sunday, November 20th from 1 PM until about 5 PM. We will begin with a discussion of the anatomy and technique behind the squat before moving on to the always-popular practical session where everyone gets to spend some quality time under the bar. All participants gets coached through their warm up sets and then we go around the room for three work sets from each trainee. After the squatting is done, we return for an additional discussion regarding programming for strength, injury prevention, and why things really would be better if you put on muscular bodyweight. We wrap up the camp with a question and answer session and don’t go home until people run out of questions to ask. Attendance is capped at eight to allow for individualized instruction. The cost for the camp is $125 and sign ups are handled through the Aasgaard Company Store.

The Starting Strength Camps are abbreviated excerpts of the longer and more comprehensive Starting Strength Seminars which are put on by Mark Rippetoe. The camps are run by one of Rippetoe’s staff (in this case, me) and focus on a single lift, or two. They are designed to provide a focused and unhurried atmosphere in which to learn about and perform the movements correctly. All experience levels are welcome, but it doesn’t hurt to have picked up a barbell before attending.

For those that want a deeper understanding of the strength lifts, the Starting Strength Seminars provide an intensive two-and-a-half day immersion in the theory and practice of barbell training. They are intended for lifters with some experience and have an emphasis not only on understanding and performing the lifts properly, but also learning to coach them. They are unique and rewarding events that are well worth seeking out. I would say the same even if I were not involved with them. Lastly, since I like pictures, I have some photos from the most recent Starting Strength Seminar out in Brooklyn, NY. Enjoy.

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Oct 15th, 2011

Deadlifts from a Dead Stop

Kelly getting ready to build character

Kelly preparing to build character

The deadlift can be a brutally difficult movement. It gets pulled off the ground from a dead stop, hence its name. Unlike a squat, or a bench press, where the weight is first lowered prior to being driven back up, the dealift requires the lifter pull from the floor without the benefit of an eccentric contraction.

What is an eccentric contraction? I am glad you asked. An ecccentric contraction is where a muscle lengthens under a load. It is, for most purposes, the negative portion of a lift. Aside from being one of the primary causes of delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), eccentric contractions also help to initiate stronger concentric contractions, where the muscle shortens under a load and presumably does the work in which we are most interested. The eccentric  contraction initiates the stretch reflex, sometimes called the myotactic reflex. As the muscle lengthens under a load, the nervous system is stimulated to encourage a more powerful contraction. We do this unconsciously when we jump. Try jumping without dipping down immediately prior to the movment. Even if you start with bent knees, you still will want to quickly bend both the knees and hips further before jumping. Doing this lengthens both the quadriceps and hamstrings to allow for a higher jump. That’s the stretch reflex at work.

Let’s return to how this applies to the deadlift. In a properly done deadlift, there is no eccentric contraction. The weight gets pulled off the floor and then is lowered back down and comes to a complete stop before the next pull occurs. Each repetition of a deadlift starts with an uncooperative bar. It doesn’t want to move and lifter must summon the requisite amount of will to make it happen.

In timed CrossFit workouts, the idea that the bar must stop on the ground is generally not followed. Not only does the bar not stop, it is often actively bounced off the ground. Perfoming the lift in this way now provides for an eccentric contraction. Additonally, the elastic collision between the rubber bumper plates and the floor imparts energy back into the bar making each repetition easier. This sounds good so far. The lift is easier, times get faster, and power output increases, right? Yes, but something is lost in the process, too.

The problem with bouncing the plates off the ground is that the lifter has now found a way to avoid getting stronger in the critical part of the movement where the bar breaks from the floor. To deadlift safely, the spine must be held in rigid extension while force is applied to the bar. Bouncing the plates off the ground all but prohibits the necessary setting of the back and encourages rounding instead. It shaves time off a workout, but robs the spinal errectors of necessary work that will make them stronger. An inability to pull even moderately heavy weights while maintaining spinal extension is often the result.

So, what to do? If your goal is to compete in CrossFit workouts, then you are going to need to learn to perform deadlift repetitions quickly and that means not pulling from a dead stop. However, if all you do is touch and go, or, even worse, boucing deadlifts, then you owe it to yourself to start training the deadlift as it is meant to be trained – from a dead stop. The bar should not be moving and the back should be locked in extension prior to every pull. The workout will take longer. It will be harder. It will build a stronger back with a decreased risk of injury. It will also build character.

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Oct 8th, 2011

Strength Saturday Changes Part Deux

Update: While the gym is closed today (Saturday) for CrossFit classes, Strength Saturday will take place as usual starting at 4 PM.

Marc Squatting

Nothing produces a proper squat more quickly than appropriate cues delivered at high sound pressure levels. Thanks to Kelly Powers for the photo.

A few more changes are underway for the Strength Saturday class. The first is the admission that the class always takes longer than two hours. We have changed the schedule to reflect that and the posted times now go from 4:00 PM to 6:30 PM on Saturdays. This allows us to squat, press, and pull each time instead of limiting the proceedings to two lifts. That’s two and a half hours of fun with barbells.

Also, in light of the extended time frame, the price has gone from a $20 drop-in fee to $25. The discount for signing up for multiple classes has also been dropped. It’s just $25 per class now for everyone.

During the summer, the class was limited to eight participants to allow for plenty of individualized instruction and this continues. If you would like to stop by for a class, please send me an email at We are generally booked one to two weeks in advance, but occasionally someone cancels, so it doesn’t hurt to check if that is the case. I will be looking to automate some of the sign ups through MindBody in the near future. Until then, continue to send emails my way and I will schedule you in.

Good luck to everyone in the competition at the Sweat Shop tomorrow.

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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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