Monday, February 14, 2011

Outside the box

Outside the box: Some training experiments beyond the CrossFit affiliate

Having spent 2 and a half years doing CrossFit at one place, and now being forced into making a change, I decided it was time to do some research. Specifically, time to try something that was NOT CrossFit. Here I was, the biggest CrossFit advocate you could find, but maybe I was missing something. There are a lot of people who knock CrossFit for a lot of reasons. Is there something better? Specifically, is there something better for me?

You see, there are many, many different goals that someone who goes to a gym can have. They may want to be healthier or address a specific health problem. They may want to lose weight and look great in a swimsuit. They may want to get really strong. They may want to get big muscles. They may want to be really good at sprinting, or really good at endurance. They may want to be competitive at a specific sport. They may want to prepare for activities at high altitude. Or they may just want more energy for the activities they like to do. There is no one-size-fits-all program that will help all of these people to meet their goals.

So what are my goals? Well, I want to look good. I want to get a sense of energy and excitement and accomplishment from my workouts, and I want some skills that will transfer to activities I like to do - climbing, snowboarding. I want to be reasonably strong. And I want to feel good and be healthy - no feeling worn out or getting injured or sick. I'm willing to sacrifice elite performance/strength or sport-specific training. I'm not too concerned about endurance, as long as I can do the things I want to do (no marathons or mountaineering treks for me).

For those goals, CrossFit worked really well, except that I latched onto the competitive atmosphere, which made me yearn for elite-level performance and strength. Despite a lot of drive and hard work, that goal was elusive and ultimately frustrating.

My first experiment (Phase I) was a place that trains primarily climbers/mountaineers, skiers, and cyclists. This is a group that needs to train for strength and stamina. Exercises were similar to CrossFit exercises, but the focus was less on heavy weights and power output and more on sustaining high intensity for a full hour. Typical workouts were like four to five CrossFit workouts in a row, with only a minute or two of rest in between. The upside is that doing this two times a week is plenty. Not many trips to the gym. And it certainly will help to build stamina. The downside is that you can't get as much intensity as you can with a short session, so you tend not to train those sprint pathways. And it is so much volume that it can wear you out, not allow sufficient recovery and raise your cortisol levels over time.

I'm on my second experiment now (Phase II), and I'll withhold judgment until I've given it some more time. But with just one comparison made, I feel like I have already learned a few lessons, and I'd like to share them.

First, it is easy to misunderstand someone else's approach. You don't really know what works until you try it. Training for stamina sounds great but when it makes you feel worse over time and you start to dread the hour-long drain, it might not be the right answer, especially if your goal is to feel good and have fun. If your goal is to not get your ass kicked doing treks in the mountains, the pain is probably worth it. But trying it out is the only way to know how it will make you feel.

Second, learning skills and proper form can't happen during a workout. The way that many people made it through the workouts at the new place was to sacrifice form and range of motion. There wasn't time devoted to skill work and getting the movements right. On pure strength or sports movements, like holding planks or push-ups or box jumps, everyone did better than me. But on anything that required finesse and efficiency of movement, like cleans or overhead squats, I could zoom ahead, plus get a lot more out of the exercise with lower likelihood of injury or soreness. There was certainly top-down guidance on what correct form was, but it's hard if not impossible to learn correct form or new skills during a crushing workout. Performing movements in the context of a high-volume workout means that you don't really learn body position and technique, you can't get your proper one rep max, and you're never really testing the limits of your strength and coordination.

Third, recovery is key. More exercise is not always better. The only way for me to recover from those workouts was to not go in for several days, but I'd still be gassed partway into the workout the next day I came in. A typical day at CrossFit might have me lifting heavy and then doing a metcon workout, but it would be just the two, and there would be a chunk of time in between to recover. I was able to go to CrossFit four days in a row, and I might be tired or sore, but I wouldn't feel drained. Adequate recovery is unfortunately not a feature that all CrossFit programs share. I would argue that the volume in the crossfit.com (main site) workouts, which many gyms follow, is excessive and does not allow for adequate recovery. Despite my positive feelings about CrossFit, all CrossFit affiliates are not created equal, and this brings me to my fourth point.

Critical analysis and evaluation are the keys to a successful fitness program. You can never sit back and say, well, we all know THAT works (or doesn't work) so I don't need to question it. You just don't know until you experiment. This applies whether the guidance is coming from CrossFit HQ, conventional wisdom, or the exercise science community. You should know WHY you are doing what you're doing. Know the difference between good and bad programming, the difference between good and bad form. Know why GHD sit-ups and SDHP put your body in compromised positions, know the different reasons for doing a kipping vs. a deadhang pull-up. Understand why inverting into a handstand might feel more dangerous than jumping onto a box holding a weight, but the latter actually puts you at much higher risk of injury. Understand the difference between slow reps and fast reps, when and how you should use momentum. Understand why certain movements come up rarely and why others show up more often. Understand how you move and why you move and how skills transfer to other skills. Be willing to try something new even if it's hard or weird, and be willing to cut something from your programming that does not feel right even if it seems really hard or badass or if everyone else is doing it.

In what I'm doing right now, I'm trying to stay open-minded but also listen to my body for what feels safe and effective. I'm doing some of my own programming. I'm taking some classes and doing new things that really challenge me in terms of balance and body weight strength. I'm thinking more about how the work I do in the gym transfers to stuff outside the gym, rather than being an end in itself.

In a couple of weeks, I'll report back about how Phase II is going.

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