May 192014


Ah, the hook grip. Joining paleo diets, chalked hands and foam rollers, the hook grip has become part of the canonical gospel of Crossfit. The common consensus seems to be: thou shalt hook grip. Thou shalt use it on the Clean, and on the Snatch, and a higher place in heaven shall be attained by using it on the deadlift. Thou shalt hook grip thy steering wheel, and thy gym bag, and thy breakfast spoon, for good measure.

Except that there are several “maybes” in there. Hook grip, like chalk, is a tool, and a very useful one. When pulling heavy weight from the floor for a snatch or clean, it can allow you to move considerably more weight with considerably more speed than you may be able to with a normal grip. That is, it can, if you have a good hook grip. If you don’t, it can make the movement awkward, uncomfortable and more complicated than it would otherwise be. If you aren’t getting it right, it may even make your grip on the bar less strong or less controlled.

Those who insist that a hook grip is the only way ever to clean or snatch are akin to those who would insist that there is only one proper stance for squats. It’s been proven over and over again that differences in individual strengths and bone structure will dictate what your squat stance should be. Why is grip preference any different? The hand is certainly one of the most complex parts of the body, and differences in bone length, angle and structure can vary wildly from one person to the next. Contrary to what many CrossFit sites may assert, the problems many people experience with hook grip may have nothing to do with “mobility,” and everything to do with geometry.

None of that means that the hook grip is impossible for some people, just that it’s much more difficult to master for them. Difficult enough that it may be useful to sideline it when teaching them a new movement, until the more essential elements are mastered.

If an athlete’s grip is nowhere near the weakest point of their movement, why is there a need to change their technique? The reason often presented is that “well, it’ll help later when they’re lifting really heavy.” But what if that isn’t every athlete’s goal? Maybe not every athlete will get to the point where the power of their posterior chain will exceed that of their grip. Or maybe some athletes prefer to continue to develop their normal grip strength. Or maybe the transition from hook grip to front or overhead rack adds too much unnecessary complexity for some newer (or even more experienced) athletes, to be worth the trouble.

Besides which, there is no one claiming that a hook grip takes an enormous amount of time to learn. By sharp contrast to an incredibly complex movement like snatch, most trainers and coaches agree that hook grip can be picked up (pun intended!) in a couple weeks, so why not wait to introduce it until it’s needed?

None of this is to say that it shouldn’t be taught, or that you shouldn’t learn it, or that it isn’t a useful tool. But it is just that, a tool. You don’t need a 12 pound sledgehammer when you’re driving a roofing nail. I don’t wear a belt when I’m deadlifting 185. The hook grip is a technique that should be honestly attempted until it is mastered, but there are plenty of circumstances, particularly within the realm of CrossFit, where it doesn’t make sense (think low weight, power clean metcons).

If you love yourself some hook grip, that’s great! Just don’t proselytize.

Dec 212013
It's even more fun if you sing them in your head.

It’s even more fun if you sing them in your head.

Saturday WODs are always fun. They’re not so much about serious weightlifting, or focused training, as just goofing off on the gym and having fun with friends. Don’t misunderstand, they’re still lung-busters most of the time, but I always feel more like I’m in a grade school gym class than an adult fitness center.

And that’s a good thing. Who didn’t love gym class?

Today’s WOD was a special, Christmas-themed edition, variations of which pop up at boxes all over the country at this time of year. CrossFit Dedication’s version is at left, and was billed as a partner WOD, with one person working at a time.

I partnered up with Katie again, and we quickly gathered our weights and divvied up the exercises. I’d do the cleans, she’d handle the snatches, then I’d go do pull ups, and we’d divide the rest on the fly, based on who was more out of breath.

The 12 Days of Christmas workout has the added complication of mirroring the song, a detail we promptly forgot when the clock started. I did my power clean and we started marching down the list of exercises, instead of doing 1, 2-1, 3-2-1, like we were supposed to. We got all the way to burpees before we realized what we were doing, and backtracked to catch up.

Once we were past that mix-up, we got into a rhythm and started really busting it out. It might seem like working with a partner would lower the intensity, but with the low rep counts per exercise, we were still both flying all over the place. With an eye toward speed, we started breaking up even the low rep exercises to get through them faster, clapping and yelling encouragement to each other.

The whole gym was happy chaos, with weights and athletes flying everywhere, barbells slamming to the ground and music blasting. It was hard work for Katie and me, but a couple people took it another step toward crazy and were doing it solo! Maybe next year…

Katie and I finished up in just under 29 minutes, which is longish for a CrossFit WOD, but still short enough that we never got to the misery stage. I was laughing before I even caught my breath, just at the childlike fun of the whole thing!

A sweaty Christmas tree.

A sweaty Christmas tree.

If we do the same workout next Christmas, it’ll be fun to try it solo, or do it again with Katie and compare our results. But even if they change it up, I’ll look forward to it!


Dec 202013
The harder the work, the better we work together.

The harder the work, the better we work together.

Matt and Melissa, the couple who own and run the CrossFit gym Katie and I go to, celebrated their 16th wedding anniversary today. Instead of shipping the kids off to the sitter and going out for a candlelight dinner, they decided to celebrate with their favorite thing, and do a special Couples’ WOD!

Okay, so it sounds a little campy, but I thought it was really cute. And it ended up being a bunch of fun! The workout was, in keeping with their years of marriage,

  • 16 partner wallballs (I throw, she catches and throws, then I catch, etc.)
  • 16 partner pushups (her legs on my legs, we do pushups simultaneously)
  • 16 tandem deadlifts (pictured)

As many rounds as possible, in 16 minutes.

It wasn’t the hardest workout we’ve ever had, but it was fun to work with Katie to get it done. For workout nerds like us, things like this (or the Mud Ninja) end up being some of the better bonding experiences we have together. It’s nice to know that other couples are the same kind of weird!

Dec 162013
They told me to explode up through the bar, so... Boom.

They told me to explode up through the bar, so… Boom.

I got to start working on a new movement at CrossFit today. And not just any movement, but the king-daddy of all lifting movements, the Clean & Jerk. It’s the burliest thing you can do in the weight room, moving big weight from the floor, to over your head, with all the explosive grace of a ballerina shot out of a cannon. It is the movement you think of when you think of an Olympic weightlifter, and I’ve wanted to learn it for years.

The clean and jerk is not something you teach yourself. There are so many elements to doing it right, and such dire consequences for doing it wrong, that I would advise anyone wanting to learn it to seek out professional coaching. If you dork up a deadlift, you might throw out your back. If you mess up on a heavy clean and jerk, you might just kill yourself.

Now, that last bit won’t be a worry for me for quite a while. I have a long way to go before I’m putting up enough weight to be truly dangerous, but that’s fine. For now, I’m working on the push-jerk, rather than the more dramatic (and arguably more effective) split jerk, until I master the elements of the more basic form. I have a long way to go until it starts to look and feel right, and I have to have that before I can start adding much weight, but I’m excited to finally be learning it!

Dec 152013

349If you’re looking at the trail in front of your tire, it will only slow you down. All the rocks and roots and hazards will overwhelm your vision and exaggerate your sense of speed. Keep your eyes up, and feel your lines and flow get smoother, and your speed and confidence rise.

If you’re looking at the ground in the weight room, your shoulders will follow and your form will collapse. You’ll be working just to stay upright and balanced, and the weight will seem impossibly heavy. Keep your eyes up, and the weight will stay centered, allowing you to use all of your strength for power.

If you’re climbing a hill, looking at the ground only makes your misery seem indefinite. You end up inside your head, inside the pain, enduring instead of attacking. Keep your eyes up, and pull the summit back to you with your mind, and you’ll be surprised at how quickly you get there.

When life gets difficult; when you’re struggling, distracted and stressed by the problems lying all around you, it’s hard not to get discouraged and look down, defeated. The details and petty periphery of day to day life can infiltrate and demoralize even the most motivated people. But keep your eyes up. Focus on your goals and your progress, and keep working, keep grinding, keep fighting. The only way to fail is to look down, get discouraged and quit. You’re better than that.

Eyes up, and go get what’s yours.

Dec 072013
That is every bit as heavy as it looks.

That is every bit as heavy as it looks.

I’ve long held a theory that I could maintain my overall strength for months after ceasing a weightlifting program, so long as I stayed active with other things. I’ve come and gone from the weight room enough times over the past several years to know that I can usually move close to the same amount of weight after a break. At least for a few reps.

What I did not expect was to get a little stronger. The last time I pulled heavy weight off the floor was at the end of May, and on that occasion I banged out 10 reps of 265. I hadn’t really come to a one-rep max this spring before race season overwhelmed my weightlifting schedule, but I doubt I could have pulled much over 305.

When the board at CrossFit Dedication read “PR Something” (meaning athlete’s choice) for the strength portion, I immediately thought deadlift. Not just because it’s my favorite lift, but because I wanted to see where I stood, after six months away from it. I figured I could still pull a decent weight, but I never expected to get this heavy! I warmed up with small sets of 135 and 225, then started single pulls. 275 came up easy, and 295 wasn’t much worse. 315 was work, but I was surprised at how quickly it came up and I was able to lock it out. I would’ve been happy if I stopped there, since 315 was my deadlift goal at the beginning of the year, but I didn’t feel like I was done.

I added two more 10 pound plates and got lined up. I didn’t have total concentration on my first pull, and stopped before the plates left the ground to reset. But my second pull achieved liftoff, and before I knew it, the bar was past my knees! I locked it out with a yell, and held it for a second before dropping it. 335 pounds! That’s an all-time PR by quite a bit, and it felt so, so good.

I have a dream of a 405 deadlift that I once thought unrealistic, but now that it’s only (?!) 70 pounds away, and at the beginning of my strength training season, maybe it can happen, after all.

Nov 232013
Warming up.

Warming up.

As much as I’m trying to fight it, the offseason is upon us. I’ve spent the past few weeks doing a lot of thinking about what I want to accomplish over this winter, and what might be the best way to go about it. Above all else, I want to come out next spring stronger and lighter than ever. This year, I stretched my endurance to places it’s never been, but for next season, it’s time to add speed and strength. I want to be a better hill climber and sprinter, both on my bikes and on foot. Endurance is always going to be the focus of my racing, but I do enough short (less than an hour) races that I’ve been able to realize my weak points.

Adding strength training to my offseason program last winter paid huge dividends this year. I followed Wendler’s 5-3-1 program for about 4 months and saw really solid gains, but the program is not without its drawbacks. Because it relies on incremental progression, you have to be in the gym 3-4 days a week to make it work. As the race season spooled up I tried to make do with less, but found myself faltering.

Another issue I faced is that I worked out almost entirely by myself. I could usually find a spot for bench press, and overhead press is sort of a yes or no question, but my squats and deadlift need coaching to get better. Especially my squats, which are embarrassing in their lack of power. While those 4 movements (plus a little bodyweight work) are certainly enough to make you strong in almost every muscle area, it also gets a little dull to do them, and only them, over and over and over, week after week. Variety is what keeps me going, and the lack of it has been a big reason that I haven’t stuck with a single weightlifting program for more than 6 months.

These problems speak to an overall issue I’ve noticed with non-customized training plans. Whether they’re for lifting, or running, or biking, they never seem to leave much room for variety. Most running programs for endurance athletes have you out on the road 4 or more days a week. I’ve tried that, but I end up just beating myself to pieces trying to log the required miles. Cycling plans are easier on the joints, of course, but they often require an investment of hours that simply isn’t practical for anybody with a full time job and other life responsibilities. And weightlifting programs, even the good ones, will definitely build strength, but often in ways I don’t need for what I’m trying to do. A 2x bodyweight bench press will help me out precisely zero on the bike, and the associated bulk will actually slow me down.

BE the wheelbarrow!

BE the wheelbarrow!

Over this year, I figured out two very key truths, at least for my purposes. First, cross training can cover a multitude of sins. A lot of running coaches will tell you that there’s no way to lower, say, your half marathon time, without doing a bunch of really focused running work. You could call my running “program” a lot of things this year, but focused is not one of them. And yet, I banged out PRs with regularity at every distance this year, including knocking 26 minutes off half marathon time from last year. All this, while logging less than 250 miles of running, racing and training all year long. How did that happen? I didn’t only run.

The second truth is that you have to consider where you’re trying to go when looking for a plan. In other words, if your goals don’t include looking like an Olympic powerlifter, or a Kenyan marathoner, or a Tour cyclist, then why follow any of their plans? Don’t misunderstand, I don’t work out for cosmetic reasons, ever. Looking better in the mirror is nice, but my wife loved me when I was fat, so I’m not worried about it. What I’m saying is that certain types of athletes will generally have certain types of bodies. Following a plan that got them there will not get you to a demonstrably different place, physically.

That leaves me trying to define exactly what it is I’m trying to be. I love my bikes, but they aren’t the only thing I do. I love to run as well, and I enjoy being strong enough to move myself around efficiently, for things like the Mud Ninja and, well, life in general. I know that weaknesses in certain areas of my fitness have, in the past, resulted in injury, something I’d like to stop doing.

So, bearing all that in mind, I came up with a list of requirements for my winter strength and conditioning regime:

  • It has to make me stronger. Not just stronger than I am now, at the end of race season, but stronger than I was last spring.
  • It has to keep me interested, with a variety of exercises.
  • It has to include at least some coaching of the more complex movements, and should introduce me to new ones, something that hasn’t happened since high school.
  • It can’t be terribly expensive. My bicycle habit is already expensive enough.
  • It should focus on leg and core strength, with a nod to endurance activity.
  • It should result in me being a more well-rounded, robust athlete.
  • Ideally, it should be something I can scale back on through the racing season, but still keep doing.

Which means,

  • It has to allow room for me to train in other ways.

A few of my friends would point out that I basically just described CrossFit. And they might be right. A few of my other friends will want to slap the freckles right off my face for saying that.

But I think it’s worth a try. I’ve watched a handful of people I know start up with CrossFit over the past couple years, and the results are undeniable. People who were not strong or fit at all made serious strides toward being both. People who were strong and fit when they walked in got better. One guy I used to be able to keep pace with on the mountain bike is now leaving me for dead without even trying, and he barely rides any more except for racing. What does he do? CrossFit, 5 days a week.

I dropped in at AKP with Katie earlier this year, just to see what it was about, and left impressed. Today we dropped in at CrossFit Dedication, a new “box” (slang for a CF gym) that recently opened only a few minutes’ drive from our house, to check it out. I was impressed again, especially with how much fun I was having. (Full disclosure: Saturday workouts at most CF gyms are both free and team-oriented, which is totally marketing. Every day is not like Saturday. But it’s effective marketing.) While the exercises we did weren’t terribly complex, they were still thoroughly instructed and effectively coached, something I was hoping to see. After talking it over with Katie, we decided to give Dedication a try for the month of December and see how it goes.

I’ve been very public with my concerns over CrossFit’s shortcomings and challenges. But in reality, a whole lot of those shortcomings are present in almost every program, and they boil down to personal responsibility, more than anything. Will CrossFit make me as outright strong as I could possibly be? No, but that’s not where I’m trying to go. Will it be my offseason answer, to make me a better overall athlete, which is where I am trying to go? I think so. Time will tell.

Might I find a home among these folks? We'll see.

Might I find a home among these folks? We’ll see.



Nov 072013



The jam-packed schedule of events through the fall racing season has meant that my weightlifting has taken a back seat. I’ve still been in the weight room here and there, but nothing that could be called a program. But now that the weather’s turning, and the races are nearly over, it’s time to get back at it. Today I did a short, simple upper body routine, just to see what the damage is from so much time off. Happily, it’s not that bad. I was still able to press these 60s on my last set of flat bench, for 10 good reps. I have some work to do to get my strength back to where it was in the spring, but it looks like weeks of work, rather than months. That’s good news.

Jul 182013
Feelin' jacktastic.

Feelin’ jacktastic.

I haven’t talked about it too much lately, but I am still lifting. Not as much as I’d like, and probably not as much as I should be, since my endurance training on foot and bike has been eating up the hours, but I’m in the weight room at least once a week. I can tell I’ve lost quite a bit of strength and mass since my high point back in April or so, but I’m still doing okay. And right after a workout, like when I snapped this picture, I feel like I still look halfway decent, too.

Next month is heavy into mountain bike racing, with the Fall FastLaps series and the JB 6-hour. I’m going to try to slip in a running race as well, so it’ll be a busy month, but I’ll still try to hit the weights 6-8 times, in addition to my regular bike and running training. After August, things start to taper off, and I look forward to getting back on track, shooting for my personal goals on the major lifts. I’m confident that the maintenance work I’ve been doing through the summer race season will pay off, and I’ll be starting from a much stronger point than I did last November.

Jul 092013
Harder than it looks.

It sounded simple enough. Hang from a pull up bar, then do a leg raise. Then keep going until your toes touch the bar. Repeat. But it’s harder than it sounds on paper and harder than it looks while watching it, I found out. I’ve always prided myself on having really good core strength, but this movement involves using it in a different way than I’m used to, in addition to grip strength and shoulder stability.

That last aspect has proved to be the limiting factor for me so far. Now that my body understands the motion, I can do quite a few of them, and they’re a great core exercise. If my hamstrings were more flexible, I could even make them look pretty good. But I can only get 7 or 8 in a row (no “kipping,” because kipping is dumb) before my shoulders start complaining, and I have to let them recover.

Nevertheless, the fact that they’re challenging enough that I can only do a few of them makes me want to do them more. Just like Double Crunches, the goal is now mastering the movement and getting to a point where I can bang out sets of 15-20.

Jun 122013

This is how hot it was in the weight room today.

The weight room in the main gym on my base isn’t air conditioned, a symptom of it being a converted engine shop from many years ago. This isn’t too big of a deal, since if you leave the double doors propped open from the cardio area and crank the huge fan positioned conveniently nearby, it’ll usually cool off enough to not be too oppressive. But that wasn’t the case today. Some jackwagon closed the doors, so that by the time I sauntered in this evening, the 90° temps and 80% humidity outside had made the weight room a veritable sauna.

It didn’t keep me from lifting today, but it did take the edge off of whatever enthusiasm I might’ve had. It’s about expectations, I guess. I’m more than happy to go sweat it out on the farm, or the mountain bike, or a run when it’s much hotter. But I don’t walk into the weight room expecting to be covered in sweat just warming up. But no matter. Gotta get the work in, regardless of conditions.

Jun 022013
This is what happens when the bar you’re deadlifting gets a smidge too
close to your legs on the way down.

I’ve found myself bloodied, battered and bruised more than usual, this year.

 I think that it’s an inevitable consequence of embracing the sort of lifestyle I have, with the level of devotion and effort I’m putting in. 
When you’re pushing yourself, you get scraped.
 You make mistakes. 
You crash. 
You fall down. 
Callouses tear and old wounds are reopened.
These are signs that you’re pushing your limits, not signs you should give up. 
There’s a strange sense of pride that accompanies my scars, scabs and bruises. 
They are the badges that prove that I am daily in the arena, contending against laziness, complacency and excuses. 
Against myself. 
And if the only prize I can claim is watching the blood trickle down my leg as I line up for another set, so be it. 
At least by it, I know I’m alive.