Apr 22

The Mood Factor

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Anecdotally, there isn’t a more important factor for determining the effectiveness of my training than my mood. This concept was recently corroborated with some additional work done by none other than CrossFit Endurance’s Brian MacKenzie. It has been his experience that an athlete’s mood coming into training has been as good or better than virtually any other indicator for his or her performance that day. Could mood be as important as resting heart rate, body composition changes and rest when determining how much an athlete is able to take on training exposure?

Shane Sweatt, who’s coached powerlifters to multiple world records, can often be heard saying, “Mental and physical stress are not perceived differently in the body.” After all, the cortisol production of stress (both physical and psychological) is simply hormones in the body. Consider the power of this. Coming into the gym with major stress from work or a relationship isn’t dissimilar to coming into the gym physically under-recovered from previous training.

As athletes and coaches, it’s quite easy to only consider sore muscles and recent training volume by default. Some coaches will take this a step further and look at things like changes in resting heart rate or even fluctuations in body composition as an indicator of an athlete’s ability to recover. Rarely is something seemingly tangential like mood a consideration.

Based on how little I observe an athlete’s mood as consideration in planning a day’s training, I don’t think we can overemphasize this enough. Handling nutrition, training volume, sleep and other training factors by monitoring mood could be the newest, most accurate tool to gauge an athlete’s readiness to train.

I know, personally, I’ll decide which days to take a day off based on mood before physical indicators like soreness with great efficiency. Let’s not forget that training is a stressor, too, and the best way for us to make sure it’s a positive stress adaption is to manage it.

Apr 22

5 Things To Look For In A CrossFit Box

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New year … new box? New to CrossFit, entirely? Whether you’re fresh to the sport, having box commitment issues or just thinking about opening up your relationship in 2016, these are the things you should look for before signing on the dotted line.

Tight Community

A box isn’t just a gym. You’ve done that routine before, walking in and out of the same place three to six times a week, like a predictable, tepid buffet for your muscles. The box is so much more. It’s a playground to push your limits, and having the right playmates makes all the difference. Do they happily welcome you or smugly dismiss you? Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t about Kumbaya. It’s about who will be there for you when you want to quit before the clock has run out … who will spot you when you’re striving to PR your one-rep max.

Look around the room. I like seeing a diverse range of athletic ability and ages — people you can relate to but also chase and inspire to be. It’s an indication of a good coach and a good box when you see a variety of skill levels in one room working safely and happily together.

What happens beyond classes is another indicator of a box’s strength. Check its website, blog, Facebook page — does it host holiday parties, barbecues, maybe field trips? Don’t overlook this spirit of camaraderie ’cuz when all you want to talk about is CrossFit, you’re gonna need friends who won’t want to smack you. Trust your gut. Don’t waste your time on a second or third visit if it doesn’t feel right early on.

The Right Programming

So you think you’ve found a great spot … do the hours fit your schedule? They can have all your favorite classes, but unless your days and nights are flexible, you’ll be heartbroken to find conflicting times after a great intro session. Check the calendar online, and if it’s not a match … swipe left.

Also, be aware that not all boxes emphasize the same focus. While by nature CrossFit is a mix of cardio, gymnastics and weightlifting movements, some boxes aren’t as well-rounded. One may focus specifically on Hero workouts, while another may lean heavily toward Olympic lifting. Get real on what your goals are. Track a box’s programming online for a couple of weeks to see whether it makes your muscles twitch with excitement and dreams fill with PRs!

Facilities

Location is everything. Close proximity to work and home is key. If your box is near the beach, you better be getting some routines in on the sand. If it’s close to a track, you should be getting some time trials in. What about laps in a nearby Olympic standard pool? At the very least, you owe yourself the comfort of running outside without fear of getting mugged or hit by a car. Are you hoping to catch the 6 a.m. class, wash up and go straight to work? Make sure you find a box with showers — they’re rare.

Ask members and management about challenges their box faces. Grit usually makes us tougher, but some boxes are hamstrung by surroundings. Can you drop weights? Blast deafening gangsta rap? Depending on the neighborhood, some have to keep the noise and vibrations down. For me, this really sets a box’s tone and the path to (or from) my own personal success.

Experts

Find a box with coaches and athletes who jive with you. CrossFit sometimes gets a bad rap because everyone else just hears about the injuries. That’s what happens when you don’t check your ego at the door or when a coach doesn’t have the extensive background and expertise necessary to notice your warning signs before you do. (BTW — this isn’t exclusive to CrossFit. It’s true for all sports.)

Coaches run the show, but there are others here to learn from, too. The occasional hour spent in a WOD with elite competitors makes a whole world of difference. It’s just flat-out fun to work out with Regional champs and top athletes in the sport —even just to be in their presence! Few athletes get to train with their idols quite like CrossFitters. Try not to do your best with Lindsey Valenzuela in the room — I dare you!

Extra Credit

Leave tiebreakers up to the front counters and your belly. Bonus points to the boxes that take your nutritional needs seriously. Some boxes have healthy meal plans delivered right to the door. You’ll find the best ones are always stocked up on protein bars and protein powders. They make it a lot more convenient to live the CrossFit lifestyle by turning their box into it a one-stop shop.

A lot of boxes have been stocking up on these single-serving packets of protein powder. I’m constantly running around, before and after the workout, so they’re a very welcome addition to my training arsenal. Quest just came out with this cookies & cream powder that has little bits of protein cookies mixed in, so I’m pretty much hooked already.

CrossFit is about being ready for anything. Are you ready to change things up this year? Even if you’re 100 percent in love with your box, it’s always great to drop in to other ones and break out of your comfort zone. Find inspiration in new people, different places and fun workshops (I highly recommend Strongman) … and represent your own tribe.

Apr 22

New News

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As CrossFit gains popularity, science takes a closer look. Here are the results of several studies that examined CrossFit, both as a movement and a modality.

CrossFit as a Cult

Next time annoying haters ask you whether CrossFit is a cult, you can tell them that it’s actually a “reinventive institution.” Or so says an article published in 2015 in the journal International Review for the Sociology of Sport. In it, the author explains that while CrossFit can be polarizing, its emphasis on performance regulation and mutual surveillance (i.e., athletes scoring and coaching each other) provides evidence that it has recalibrated and changed the institution of fitness. And in case the haters want to get in-depth, you can tell them that a reinventive institution is a place, like a spiritual retreat or virtual community, where members voluntarily go to improve themselves

Strength Wins Out

Ever wonder what it really takes to excel in a benchmark WOD? So did researchers at the University of Saskatchewan in Canada. So they compared the times of competitive CrossFitters in “Grace,” “Fran” and “Cindy” with three physiological measurements — VO2 max (a measure of endurance), Wingate (anaerobic power) and “CrossFit Total” (essentially overall strength: 1RM back squat, overhead press and deadlift). Interestingly, there were no significant associations with Cindy. However, Grace and Fran were a different story. While whole-body strength (CrossFit Total) and power (Wingate) scores were strongly related to Grace and Fran scores, only CrossFit Total survived the rigorous analysis. In other words, in the end, how strong the competitor was best predicted how well they’d do in Grace and Fran. Stay strong, my friends.

The Culture of Community

In this study, published in the Journal of Exercise, Movement, and Sport, researchers held focus groups in CrossFit gyms in Canada, asking members various questions about their box’s culture. They based their questions on Edgar Schein’s model of organizational culture, which describes (a) artifacts (visible aspects, such as dress code), (b) espoused values (philosophies and statements of identity) and (c) assumptions (unspoken or unconscious behaviors). Members reported the rugged nature of the gym and the social behavior of members around a WOD to be important artifacts. In addition, pride in the gym and their workouts were espoused values, as were the inclusion of all people regardless of abilities and a strong sense of community that extended beyond the gym. And the shared underlying assumption by all members, coaches and owners? Improvement in members’ health and well-being.

Female-Friendly

In a detailed in-depth study published in Women in Sport & Physical Activity Journal, Bobbi Knapp looked at themes within a CrossFit box relative to gender. In applying a critical feminist geographical approach, she found multiple elements within a box that create a welcoming culture for women, including a strong sense of community, the emphasis on pushing through physical limits, coed workouts and the acceptance of being “beaten by a girl.” She concludes that while there is some reinforcement of gender norms in CrossFit, there are also many ways in which “ideal femininity” and “hegemonic” (controlling) masculinity are resisted.

Genuine Cross-Training

In a study published in December 2015 in the International Journal of Performance Analysis in Sport, researchers measured physiological responses to a single bout of CrossFit training. After looking at things like heart rate, blood pressure, pulse pressure, mean arterial pressure, blood lactate, blood glucose, and total cholesterol values before and following that bout of CrossFit, they determined that athletes’ physiological responses were consistent with those in athletes following high-intensity interval training and conventional cardiorespiratory training. In other words, yes, CrossFit is a good workout.

Apr 22

5 Ways CrossFit Training Differs From Bodybuilding …

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What do lifting weights, compound exercises, cardio sessions and competing all have in common? CrossFit and bodybuilding. There’s plenty of overlap, but these athletes are firing on two completely different engines. Step into each world and you’ll see just how deep their differences are. Some athletes move from one discipline to the other for a new challenge, while others remain content and never change, but you’ll find a rare breed of those involved in both simultaneously … and unless you’re factoring in national-level competitors, you’ll probably see those who practice crossover training are the fittest bunch on both sides of the table. If you’re looking to really mix up routines for a while, it’s best to know the fundamental differences between each of these intense worlds.

1. Range of Motion (ROM)

CrossFitters are monitored by a judge to ensure they perform the exercises fully during competition — no cheat reps allowed. On the flip side, bodybuilders will modify their ROM as needed throughout training to target different muscle groups or to alter the training goal. For enhanced assault, bodybuilders incorporate bottom-half-range reps (just the first half of the move, reps intentionally not going for full extension) to pump the muscle with blood at the end of their last set. It’s brutal, but damn does it work wonders. Come competition time, CrossFitters need to be hitting full- range movements. But incorporating some controlled partial-range sets in training will increase all-around strength so you’re not limited by the weakest part of the ROM.

2. Training Principles

CrossFitters learn the specifics of the WOD upon entering the box. It’ll be a mix of movements, essentially using the whole body and throwing in some cardio for good measure. A variety of muscle groups will be used in each workout session as you focus on overall performance. When bodybuilders enter the gym, however, their game plan is focused on one major muscle group — a wide array of exercises to stress every fiber that comprises it. Most exercises can be done with different grips or foot placement, to hit the muscle in slightly different ways, for multiple sets of the same exercise.

A bodybuilder’s training is split up to divide muscle groups, ensuring muscles grow and rest in balance, providing weaker groups the extra attention needed to balance physique. Bodybuilders will cycle through training plans with varying sets and reps, sometimes focusing on lower reps at a heavy weight or more reps with lighter weight. Rest time between sets is also considered, a notion almost unheard of in CrossFit circles (or boxes ☺). Bodybuilders, on the other hand, can tell you which muscle group they’re training on a given day and the entire week ahead. It’s easy to suffer an injury because of weak supporting (or antagonistic) muscles, so athletes of both sports should make a point to address all muscle groups equally. Trying to increase your squat but not strengthening your hamstrings and lower back? Good luck. Looking for a bigger back while ignoring your biceps and shoulders? Don’t bother. CrossFit covers all bases, so bodybuilders can quickly find any weak links in their anatomical chain after dropping in for only a few classes.

3. Nutrition

The better half of anyone’s physical fitness upkeep is nutrition. Most CrossFitters see this in its purest form: fuel. Bodybuilders may only hit the gym three days per week, depending on what phase of training they’re in, but their daily nutrition is calculated down to the last gram. Their focus is repair and recovery. They time their nutrition to the minute to maximize muscle growth. Whey protein is loved by all for its quick digestion and absorption speed, while the lesser-known micellar casein goes to work over an extended period. Bodybuilders love drinking casein shakes before bed to give the body an overnight, slower-digesting source of protein. Quest Protein Powder strikes a near 50-50 balance of whey and casein, making it a hard-to-beat choice and safe bet for any hour of the day. CrossFitters who only eat for their one-hour daily energy expenditure will be pleasantly surprised to see the results of a few well-timed protein bars and shakes.

4. Time-Under-Tension

In an AMRAP (as many reps/rounds as possible), CrossFitters are working against the clock. Their goal is usually for either a high number of reps in an extended time frame or to complete a set number of reps faster than their competitors. Reps are usually done with a single-time tempo, one count up and one count down. On the other hand, bodybuilders aren’t concerned with beating a clock unless they’re in a rush to get out of the gym that day. (If so, watch out!) They put muscles under different levels of tension each time by fluctuating the tempo of their lifts. This can be done on either the concentric or eccentric phase of the movement — or both. CrossFit uses a lot of explosive movements. It’s like sprinting with every muscle in your body. Altered timing in practice can help CrossFitters boost this explosive power, much like a runner who takes practice laps at back-and-forth paces. Squats, for example: Slowing down the decline, pausing at the bottom, then quickly pushing back up will stress the fast-twitch muscle fibers more than standard form, ultimately leading to improved execution on competition day.

5. Cardio Endurance

CrossFit athletes require tremendous cardiovascular endurance to get through tough WODs and competitions, so they need cardio components within training sessions. High-intensity interval training is one of the best ways to build cardio. On the contrary, a bodybuilder’s performance doesn’t rely on a ton of endurance, yet he logs hours and hours on cardio machines to prep for the stage (and posing in the comparison round is much harder than it looks!). The goal is to shed body fat, not get better at running. During a bulking period, added calorie expenditure isn’t ideal because you then need to eat more to compensate. After a while, eating so much food can get tiresome. Some light cardio should still be part of the plan, though, at least in cycles. That way, once it’s time for a bodybuilder’s competition prep (or anytime cutting), reintroducing more cardio to lose body fat won’t cripple him or have him falling off the stair climber!

Ready to change up your fitness game? Happy sweating, in whichever new sport you choose! Hopefully, it’ll be a little bit of both. 😉

Apr 22

5 Moves to Master Before Entering the Box

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Bodybuilders are quite familiar with everyday compound exercises like squats and deadlifts, but we don’t do many others … cleans-and-jerks or push presses? Sounds kind of goofy, if you ask me. In my attempt to broaden my horizons into CrossFit, though, I knew my whole repertoire was up for grabs. First-timers in a box may wonder, What actually happens during CrossFit workouts? Are there breaks? What do I need to master before making the jump?

These are the five biggest exercises to know going in for anyone looking to be a strong athlete in the gym and the CrossFit realm.

1. Squats

While many bodybuilders and coaches will swear that deep squats are the only way to build great glutes, another camp disagrees. In my own quest to grow bigger quads, I’ve found success in keeping the work just above parallel and never fully coming to the top of the movement.

Bodybuilder Tip: While going full-out ass-to-grass has butt-building advantages, that range of motion isn’t needed to score you points in CrossFit. The judges are looking for your butt to get to parallel — that’s what makes it a successful squat. If this proves to be a struggle with poor mobility, try putting some small plates (5 pounds) under your heels.

2. Box Jumps

Some bodybuilders include cardio conditioning in their circuits, but many stick to the basics for stripping fat. Moderate-intensity stairs, intervals and Wingate sprints are found in the majority of our plans. Box jumps, though? Fear of catching my toes and smashing my shins (or knocking out my teeth) makes me shudder. And as a competitive athlete, I see a bunch of boxes and go straight for the tallest one, hip height — which may be a little overzealous and self-handicapping.

Bodybuilder Tip: Check your ego at the door and start small. Squat low, explode up and land low. Use your arms to generate momentum. Box jumps add up fast, especially in repetition, regardless of your cardio level. Of course, mastering a new metabolic routine also means you’re going to need to update your nutrition to maximize recovery. I’d recommend a high-quality blend of casein and whey protein isolates like Quest’s Cookies & Cream Protein Powder. It provides readily available amino acids to keep you in top form and some slower-digesting aminos to help sustain you through the day.

3. Pull-Ups

Lat pulldowns, barbell rows, cable rows and wide-grip pull-ups are pretty standard in a back workout for bodybuilders. But ask for something beyond a wide or narrow grip pull-up and you’ll probably just get a blank stare. A kipping pull-up? A butterfly pull-up? These are pretty standard in a box and moves to get familiar with as you embrace the new sport.

Bodybuilder Tip: A kipping pull-up may look like it uses momentum, but it requires a lot of strength and control to complete properly. “Kip” yourself up with a small swing at the bottom before pulling your chin up over the bar. The butterfly is even harder, like a kipping pull-up with a circular movement. To master these, start by progressing up from standard bodyweight pull-ups. You can anchor a band around the bar and rest your knees in the loop to take some of your weight out of the exercise, if necessary.

4. Barbell Thrusters

As if maxing out on each individual exercise wasn’t difficult enough, this combines two — a front squat into an overhead press with a barbell! This move requires the athlete to lock out at the top of the press for it to fully count as a rep. The major advantage of this exercise is that it’s a full-body burn, recruiting all major muscle groups, pumping your heart through the roof and torching calories (while building serious strength). It doesn’t get much better than that!

Bodybuilder Tip: Master each move independently before combining. Find your balance with the front squat and work on getting full depth by pushing through your heels. Work your way up to the press by building strength through reps of both seated- and standing-form shoulder presses. Pay extra attention to your weaker side (we’ve all got one) because any strength imbalance or lack of mobility in a shoulder joint can lead to injury easily. Don’t overlook your core! Keeping your torso straight and strong will go a long way.

5. Burpees

Ahhhh, everyone loves to hate burpees! From boot camps to conditioning workouts and now WODs, you’re bound to encounter them in a box. At a glance, they’re not too intimidating — vertical jump and a push-up? Easy enough … until you string them together for an endless minute and your oxygen supply runs out. Cardio endurance is needed here, especially as these get incorporated into a WOD among other strength moves.

Bodybuilder Tip: Push through it. The safety comfort here is that you don’t have to land on an object, so your shins are safe. But the hard truth is that you just do them over and over, again and again … and again! Building overall cardio endurance will be your greatest strength, so you might want to pick up the pace on the stair machine.

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