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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Jan 29th, 2011

Power Rack


The Rogue R-4

Right around the New Year, CrossFit Oakland received a shipment of matte black steel that weighed a few hundred pounds. After a short time, said steel was assembled and bolted to the floor on the side of the Sayoc Room to serve as a proper squat rack for the gym. The squat rack was a gift from David Sally, Mike Minium, and me to CrossFit Oakland. We wanted to provide an area where people could work on strength without getting in the way of the normally scheduled CrossFit classes.

In addition to making some room on the main gym floor, the rack provides a few niceties not previously available. The assembly provides extra stability when handling heavier weights and has a built-in set of safety chains to allow for a graceful exit from a failed squat. The chains also provide the ability for trainees to work on rack pulls, or barbell shrugs, should they desire to do so. The rack has precision-cut holes along the main uprights to allow for fine height adjustments of the j-hooks that hold the bar. Those looking to work on bench presses need only grab one of the flat benches from out on the floor and bring it into the rack to have a marvelously solid station from which to work. Holes are also drilled along the bottom and top beams to allow for band pegs. Devotees of Westside Barbell training methods will appreciate that capability. Lastly, the cross members at the top of the rack can be used as pullup bars, including the larger-than-normal diameter pullup bar in the back. Of course, we have lots and lots of pullup bars at CFO thanks to Daniel Hester’s amazing fabrication skills, so this is just icing on the cake.

The rack is open to all CFO members that want to use it. It is not really intended to be a go-to choice for regular CrossFit workouts, but for those trainees that want to train their lifts, it is patiently waiting in the next room. Enjoy the rack and take good care of it. We are excited that it is here.

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Jan 22nd, 2011


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Sectionals are coming. Persistence yields results.

Last week we discussed coming back after a training layoff and this week we’ll provide some inspiration to avoid layoffs. As has often been mentioned, progress comes quickly in the beginning of any effective exercise program.  Once those gains have been realized, it becomes more difficult to improve. When this occurs, frustration and stagnation are often the result.

There are two big variables to manipulate when training. They are stress and recovery. Effective training involves stressing the body sufficiently to disrupt homeostasis. The body then repairs itself and becomes slightly stronger than before. This was discussed in greater detail back in June. If progress ceases to occur, it is important to look into recovery. Are food and rest sufficient to build back up after training? If so, are training stresses being properly applied? Is the trainee beating themselves into submission day after day? Is the trainee not working out enough?

Of great importance is simply showing up. Training variables can be manipulated, but sweat equity is incredibly important. Not every workout will result in a new PR. Sometimes regressions will occur. I have more workouts than I would like to admit where I do not meet my goals for the day. Each workout, however, is not particularly important on its own. Instead, it is the sum of weeks and months of hard work that yields progress. If the dedication needed to stick to a plan are lacking, then worrying about the details of programming is time that is wasted.

Take any physical parameter that is desired (strength, endurance, power, etc…) and it becomes apparent that these qualities are the result of slow, patient, difficult exertion. The highly quotable Jim Wendler had this to say about the accomplishments of the powerlifters as Westside Barbell, a well-known gym in Ohio of which he was also a part, "If you want to look at the success of Westside, don’t look at the program. Look at the attitude and the expectations of the lifters."  Not every workout will feel good and not every workout will be satisfying. Despite that, consistently chipping away at weakness will yield results. Once consistency is established, then the other variables can be considered again.

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Jan 15th, 2011

Coming Back from a Layoff in Training

Tami Deadlifting at CrossFit Pleasanton

Want to be strong like Tami? Patience is the key.

Despite our best efforts, sometimes breaks in training will occur. Coming back from these breaks needs to be handled conservatively to ensure a successful return to demanding physical activity. Getting injured or becoming catastrophically sore serve as further impediments to doing what needs to be done – training regularly with purpose and drive.

There are sometimes good reasons to take planned, generally brief, rests from strenuous activity. We are not concerned with such episodes here as such breaks are generally last less than a week and allow for more or less uninterrupted training and progress. The question of how to come back from multiple weeks, or months of inactivity is our focus. On these intermediate time scales, strength and endurance are lost and the muscles become detrained. The nervous system adaptations that resulted from the previous training efforts, however, ebb more slowly. When a layoff occurs, the nervous system retains the ability to fire the muscles with greater force and frequency than what the muscles can handle. If a trainee returns to a hard workout after a layoff, massive soreness is often the result.

Here are some ideas to allow for a swift and productive return to training:

On the first workout back, go very easy. Scale weights and repetitions to the point that your pride is insulted. That will be the correct starting point. Some soreness will still result and that is fine. The object is to avoid crippling soreness that serves to discourage another return to the gym. Also, going very easy at first allows momentum to build for rapid improvement. Scale difficulty upwards within reason thereafter.

Avoid training seven days in a row when the previous three months involved nothing more strenuous than a brisk walk. People do this. A lot. Once again, soreness and potential injury await when such a path is followed. Strength and conditioning are built gradually through smart programming and proper recovery. Work out, rest, and then workout again. Patience is important.

Dan John, who recently moved to The Bay Area, has often noted that there is nothing more conducive to making progress in the gym than sleep and food. Trainees do not become stronger or faster from exercise. They reap these adaptations by recovering from exercise. Upon a return to the gym, remember to match food and rest to increased demands of training.

Welcome back.

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Jan 8th, 2011

Great-Grandmother Strength


There are numerous reasons for not working out. For those that need some encouragement, I would like to introduce you to Ms. Winifred Pristell. Ms. Pristell is the world record holder for the bench press and deadlift in the World Association of Benchers and Deadlifters (WABDL), one of several powerlifting federations. She is also 72 years old and suffers from arthritis. I got a chance to talk to talk to Ms. Pristell in mid-December, a few days before her birthday. Her nickname is "Heavy Metal" and she lifts more than some men half her age can manage. If inspiration for getting strong is in short supply, keep reading.

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Dec 4th, 2010

Eating to Grow – Part Three

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If you haven’t read parts one and two on this subject already, I encourage you to do so before embarking upon this article. We have two topics to discuss. We’ll start by looking at the necessary motivations for putting on muscular bodyweight and then we’ll move on to some general eating guidelines to complement training to get stronger.

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