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The Deeper Side of CrossFit

By: Matt Rasler

Next week marks the beginning of the 2019 CrossFit Open (to be more specific, the first 2019 CrossFit Open) and as such, acts as a New Year-esque reflection point for CrossFitters in the global community. It is a time to reflect on progress over the years, to anticipate growth over the last year, and to reflect overall as to what CrossFit means for that athlete.  Given the energy of the event and the commitment required to compete weekly for 5 weeks: this time of the year is filled with unbridled anticipation and anxiety.  Oh, and a lot of fun.

But perhaps more importantly, the yearly check-in offers a subtler opportunity: the opportunity to reflect on how CrossFit has shaped our lives in a deeper and more meaningful way than fitness and strength.

The 2016 CrossFit open was the first year I had the privilege of competing.  I would have been 3/4 quarters of a year into regularly attending CrossFit with my wife under the tutelage, primarily, of the same coaches that train me and my wife today. I have always been a slow, but hopefully strident learner, and the first Open was an absolute challenge both mentally and physically.  But, it was also a lot of fun.  I was already cemented into the community and had bought into the CrossFit machine completely.  But something of the experience expounded the merits of sweating with my pals and opened my eyes to the broader, and impressively massive global CrossFit community. 

It is easy to feel the grassroots nature of the sport when you are only tuned into your local box, but this event brought the focus outwards, describing the extensive sprawl and speed of growth of this CrossFit thing.  Thereafter, I have had the privilege of CrossFitting in different countries around different cultures, and dropping into Boxes freely when I travel.  The experience has been nothing short of amazing: though it is easy to see the differences at each CrossFit box that I have visited (though biased, I still think KJ is the best) one can not escape the remarkable similarity and continuity of culture across these gyms.  I remember dropping into a gym in a Dubai while visiting my wife who was deployed in the Middle East under the employ of the Army at the time (and also coaching CrossFit at the base she was deployed to), though nervous, when the class finally began, the warm up, workout, tools, coaching: all where remarkably familiar. I found myself engaged in something absolutely familiar within a very foreign culture.  It was magical!

It wasn’t long before the merits of this system drew me into coaching as well as continuing my training as an athlete. One of the single most difficult questions I receive consistently as a coach today is: “why do you coach”? Usually my response is straightforward and honest: I feel like I need to give back to this community, like I have something to give, and I feel that it makes me a better person because of the responsibility.  But there is a deeper part to this answer that I have been curating and chasing for some time. And the answer is part of something more holistic in my life, part of an observation of the change that I have witnessed in my self through this journey.

I want you to imagine a training ground for humanity, a school, if you will, for life.  In it, we work on our character flaws, perhaps some we did not even know we had.  We learn to be more patient with people. Less apt to letting emotions fuel reactions to other people and more apt to looking inwards for the source of negative emotions.  Rather than shy from criticism, we learn to embrace it.  Rather than hiding our weaknesses we more confidently share them.  Rather than judging people and putting them down, we assess and help them improve.  Instead of reacting to events we learn to focus our minds and pay attention to only those things we can impact or control.  We learn to be calm, classy, humble, and considerate even at the depths of physical weakness.  We learn to set attainable realistic goals and be brutally honest with ourselves and what we are capable of.  This, without loosing touch of hope.

We learn to have faith in a system so that we can focus on the work in front of us rather than constantly spinning on the end goal.  We become more social.  More confident.  We sit up taller and have a more commanding presence.  We have a voice in a community.  We have friends to lean on.  We have companions to do things with that make amazing memories and force us into doing things we would have never done without.  We eat healthier, we breath easier, we look more tone, we radiate the energy that is bursting within us.  We are more calm under pressure.  And we positively reinforce others’ efforts.

You will find on this training ground people activity asking the tough questions of themselves: how do I become more X, or how do I change Y.  You will find people actually changing, evolving before your eyes.  The notion of people being static and unchangeable will disappear and you will begin to realize that people do change.  It becomes irrefutable from this vantage. 

This training ground is a reflection of my experience in CrossFit.

All of this has led me to become more curious of humanity and the human mind and spirit.  It makes me dream of change in every aspect of life and apply the same principles whenever I have a desire to become something more.  Plan honestly, work hard, show up, focus on what is controllable, work more, asses progress, reflect, rudder, find experts, learn, work, repeat.

Not a secret to those who know me: I am an introvert, or perhaps used to be (which is an interesting thing to consider in itself).  Now I laugh and smile comfortably in a room full of alpha personalities.  I know myself more deeply, and have more confidence in my character and nature.  And because of this, I am more apt to being patient with people and I generally like and appreciate people more. 

I fear failure less; fear of failure being a considerable negative motivator and influencer in my younger years. I attribute this specific growth the casual environment in which my coaches and peers reward my efforts and applaud my failures.  Like a small child who just fell off my bike for the first (or 1 millionth double under attempt) and look back to see my parents applauding and smiling, I have grown.

Sometimes I question the ‘how’ of why CrossFit has created this ecosystem.  Sometimes I question whether these attributions are a consummate fact of CrossFit or is just an experience I have had with two amazing coaches in a tremendous gym.  I imagine other sporting groups and affiliations share similar opportunities for growth, though I do not know any that offer these things with such a low barrier of entry as CrossFit does.  The sport is still growing, maturing, so we do not know where it will be in the future.  But as the CrossFit Open of 2019 begins, I know where I will be: showing the world that I am more than what I was just a year ago.

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CrossFit and Injury

Making Friends with Reality

CrossFit is amazing; it does incredible things for the body and the mind. An appropriate amount of stress and intensity leads to mental toughness and a body that is more resilient, fit and stronger. CrossFit also has a bad rap for being a sport that leads to injury. We have all heard it, “I don’t want to try CrossFit because I don’t want to get hurt”. As much as it pains me to say, there is some truth to this argument. CrossFit is a sport of progression; learn to lift, try to lift more, faster. Learn kipping pull-ups so you can do more, faster. CF athletes tend to be driven, results oriented, and slightly obsessive. There is pressure, whether external or internal, to go heavier, move faster, and to progress to the next level. This drive helps make CrossFit the successful beast that it is, but that same drive can lead to injury.

Sexy Moves

Let’s face it, what is good for our bodies is not always sexy. In our gym, we regularly perform a series of shoulder exercises that are excellent for injury prevention. They are extremely effective and are challenging to get through. What’s the problem? We use 2.5 – 5 pounds, sometimes even 1 pound. Not sexy; no one is posting videos of themselves doing these on Instagram. Glute bridges, back extensions, weighted planks, barbell rows, walking around with a sandbag, none of these exercises are glamorous. As a result, most CrossFit gyms don’t program them; even if they did, many CrossFitters would give them a hard pass.

So, What?

Why should we care? You should care because most CrossFitters do not earn their positions. We jump to movements and weights very prematurely, without doing any of the basic foundational work. An Olympic weightlifter integrates back strengthening exercises into their training three times a week, most CrossFitters do none. To move heavy weights correctly and effectively, lifters need an incredibly strong posterior chain, without this, injury is waiting to happen. Gymnasts work on strict strength and flexibility for years before they attempt the more complex movements. CrossFitters brag about getting kipping pull-ups or handstand pushups before they can do a single strict one. It is possible to do CrossFit and stay safe. This means listening to your coaches, especially when they want to scale you, it means not shrugging off accessory work, and putting just as much effort into side work as you do the workout of the day. Your coaches care about you, but you need to care about you too.

Soapbox

Let’s not be neglectful of our bodies for the sake of our ego. Let’s do the grunt work. Let’s prioritize excellent movement patterns over numbers. Let’s fix imbalances. Let’s get to a place in our training where we feel good and can respond to stress in a positive way. Let’s get comfortable with the idea that these movements take time and it is okay if we are moving a little slower than our peers. Let’s work smarter, not harder. Protect your body, it is capable of incredible things, especially if it is nurtured and given time to adapt.

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Troubleshooting the Squat Part 2

We have discussed what a Russian baby maker squat looks like and why we don’t want to squat like that. Now let’s talk about what’s causing this problem.
(May or may not have gotten a little carried away with the memes…)

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1. Your butt is weak.
This is one of the most common causes of poor squat technique. And yes, it is possible to squat for years, or squat heavy loads, and still have underdeveloped glutes. Our bodies are incredibly resourceful and will get the job done, using whatever compensatory techniques it needs to. Since the glutes are responsible for hip extension, an athlete that has poor glute strength will tip forward in the lowering phase of the squat, regardless of how strong their core is. This movement pattern will place load on the lower back and reduce the power output of your legs. Key note: your back is not as strong as your glutes and will become injured under heavy, repetitive loading and flexion.

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2. Your hip flexors are shorter than a baby oompa loompa.
First, what do the hip flexors do? The hip flexors pull you from an open hip to a bent hip. Tight/short hip flexors cause a change to your pelvis, one of these changes is the beloved butt wink or anterior pelvic tilt. Besides being aesthetically unappealing, the butt wink lengthens your abs and hamstrings, making it harder to stabilize your core. The hip flexors contribute to poor squat technique by creating forward tilt at the base of the squat. This body position is extremely difficult to rectify in the middle of the squat, meaning the upward part of the squat will happen with the weight shifted forward over the knee. Again, more of the load will be shifted to the low back.

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3. You have non-existent adductor strength.
Squatting with buckled knees isn’t cool, even if you are squatting massively heavy weight. Think of the adductors as the muscle group that stabilizes the knees. When the adductors are tight, stretched, or weak, the knee cap will track incorrectly. Tight adductors can also leave the lifter feeling like they got a groin strain for a couple of hours. Poor adductor strength will create instability in the knee position, changing the muscle groups used to move the load. Knee position (too far in or out) has been shown to change muscle recruitment and can increase the stress to ligaments and tendons.

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4. You skipped back and core day.
Who needs a strong back, squatting is a leg exercise…. Said no smart person, ever. Thinking that you don’t need a strong back to squat big weight is like thinking a truck would be able to carry a heavy load without a frame. When squatting, athletes that have a weak core and back lose their neutral spine, especially in the bottom of the squat. When you lose your neutral spine, you stretch the ligaments that support the spine. (The hip extensors pull down on the pelvis, the lower back pulls up, a weak low back can also cause a butt wink). The spine is 55% stronger when in the neutral position. We all know squatting with a rounded back is bad, but there are different areas of the spine that can round due to lack of static strength. In fact, the thoracic spine is more important in stabilizing the spine than the abs! Long story short, the lumbar and thoracic spine must be incredibly strong to hold the pelvis in place and prevent the spine from buckling during squats and deadlifts.

Protect your spine people!

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5. Your hamstrings get no love.
We love our glutes and quads. The hamstrings are out of sight and out of mind for many, no one ever comments on how amazing your hammies look. They should. When you look at your legs and your quads are quadruple the size of your hamstrings, or you can’t see your hamstrings at all, we have a problem. The underrated hamstrings are synergistic to the glutes and quads. The quads generate a forward force on the tibia, the hamstrings generate a backward force on the tibia, this creates stability at the knee. When the hamstrings are weak, the athlete is not able to keep weight off the forward part of the foot; athletes tend to shift weight forward in a variety of ways in order to overcome weak hamstrings (this includes shifting the torso forward).

OK, that should be enough information to assist with troubleshooting the squat….

P.S. – This article mainly focuses on the weak muscle groups that contribute to poor squat form. There are many flexibility and anatomy issues that can contribute, those will be discussed in later posts. But remember, most of the time weak muscles are short, this profoundly influences mobility.

KJ CrossFit is located in Longmont, Colorado. They offer CrossFit classes for all skill levels. Convenient location for all of Longmont, Dacono, Firestone, and Frederick.

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Troubleshooting the Squat Part 1

The Diagnoses

Have you ever squatted a ton and felt like you still had weak legs and a weak ass? Does your back frequently hurt after heavy squat days? Do you have an amazing pair of shark fins? (Super ripped mid-back muscles that give the appearance of fins) Then you might be suffering from Russian Baby Maker Squat Syndrome (RBMSS). We have all experienced a phase in our squatting careers where we end up with our chest almost touching our knees at the bottom of the range of motion, except the lucky few that are born with awesome proportions and mobility for squatting. The back squat looks more like a Russian baby maker, Google it. This problem can exist for a really long time; it is totally possible to go about ones lifting career without understanding why this happens or the fact that it is not going to go away by simply squatting more. The first step to recovering from RBMSS is understanding the problem, we will look at a few common causes that we see here in the gym.

Standards

First, let’s talk about what we consider a great squat, and a poor squat. We know there are varying opinions on squatting; how much depth is healthy, how much flexion in the spine is appropriate, where the barbells should be positioned, etc. We have a specific standard for squatting that we like, we will look at what we want to see out of our athletes. The great Yasha Kahn describes why sometimes achieving a proper squat is challenging. “For many lifters, the problem is that the body naturally finds a way to squat overusing the muscles that are strong, while avoiding the muscles that are weak.” Yasha posted an awesome set of diagrams on his website, yashathoughts.com demonstrating this. We have hung a series of these over the weight plates, subliminal messaging at its finest.

The first diagram shows proper form for a high bar back squat. The weight of the barbell stays over the back part of the foot, there is no excessive recruitment of the back or leg muscles, it is balanced. THIS IS OUR SQUAT GOAL.

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The second diagram shows what we commonly see. The descent of the squat is decent, but in order to stand the weight up, the lifter over recruits the back; there is an over exaggerated horizontal angle of the upper torso that inadvertently puts more strain on the back. This form of squatting is common in lifters that have a strong back but weaker legs. These lifters believe they are back squatting and that their legs are getting stronger; instead their legs aren’t being stressed as much as the back, and the back will continue to become overly strong while the legs do not gain any strength.

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The last diagram shows a more extreme variation of the RBM squat. We see this in athletes that have underdeveloped back muscles as well as other muscle groups that are imbalanced. The result of this squat is a collapsed upper body, overstressed knees, and a sore back. THE LEGS DON’T GET A CHANCE TO DEVELOP WITH THIS TECHNIQUE!

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Next time we will talk about specific causes of Russian Baby Maker Squat Syndrome…. (We will science the shit out of it)

KJ CrossFit is located in Longmont, Colorado. They offer CrossFit classes for all skill levels. Convenient location for all of Longmont, Dacono, Firestone, and Frederick.

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A Frank Discussion about Gym Pricing

Let’s talk about why CrossFit is so expensive. More often than not, new people and potential new clients are taken aback by the prices we charge. In a world where it is totally acceptable to spend $10 at the coffee shop every day, the thought of spending $9 a day on a CrossFit membership is offensive. Why do we feel this way? When did health and fitness fall so far down the priority list? First, let’s look at why the Globo gym model is so cheap, or why it appears to be cheap.

The average cost of a gym membership in the U.S. is roughly $58 dollars, some even offer memberships for $10 a month. How are these large Globo gyms able to charge so little and stay in business? Most of these gyms have close to 6,000 members! Have you ever seen all 6,000 members trying to use the facility in one day? No way, that scenario is not physically possible since the average facility can only accommodate 300 people at one time. (Well I guess it could be possible if the facility was at capacity for almost 24 hours, possible but not likely plausible) If all of the members who signed up actually went, the Globo gym would have to charge much, much more. According to the NPR Planet Money Podcast, about HALF of new members NEVER actually step foot in the gym a single time. The Globo gym model only works because they are banking on people never showing up but continuing to pay their membership fee every month.

Some people argue that the Globo gyms are built, decorated, and ran in a way that attracts a client base that will not be dedicated enough to use their memberships. Gyms are designed to look and feel more like a bar, pizza night and bagel breakfasts occur once a month in some chains. According to NPR, lower cost gyms lose about half of its members every year, enticing new members with free food has proven to be effective. Beware of the gym that uses food to sell memberships, not RESULTS. So what is the actual cost of these memberships? According to a study by University of California-Berkeley economics professors, members who choose to pay a flat monthly fee of over $70 attend an average of 4.3 times per month. This means those members pay close to $17 per class.

In stark contrast, CrossFit gyms actually WANT you to show up. Our capacity is much lower; we are prepping for the scenario where all of our member attend in a day. We don’t’ offer pizza night or bagel breakfasts, we have no mirrors or mood lighting, but we do offer quality. Our classes are capped; this allows our coaches to spend more time with each member. We are also small enough to get to know you, and we are also very aware of when you do not show up (many times prompting a call or message). We watch your movement, keep you safe, and provide programming, all for an average of $10 per class. In the Globo gyms, there are three to four trainers present, none of which are obligated to watch you perform any movement, unless you are willing to pay the $50-70 an hour private training fee that is. So yes, CrossFit gyms charge more, we expect you to show up, and we are invested in seeing you achieve results. Is that worth the higher monthly membership? Your answer to this question says a lot about how important your fitness goals really are to you.

KJ CrossFit is located in Longmont, Colorado. They offer CrossFit classes for all skill levels. Convenient location for all of Longmont, Dacono, Firestone, and Frederick.

Sources
DellaVigna, Stefano and Malmendier, Ulrike. “Overestimating Self-Control: Evidence from the Health Club Industry.” Stanford University, Graduate School
Smith, S. “Why We Sign Up for Gym Memberships but Never Go to the Gym.” Planet Money Podcast, NPR