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Thursday, April 29, 2010

Charlie Bit Me

I didn't feel too bad this morning. Maybe I'm actually getting in shape. Either that, or I've grown so accustomed to waking up in the morning feeling like I've been hit by a train that I don't even notice it anymore.

Here's yesterday's Crossfit “Workout of the Day” (WOD):

1-1-1-1-1-1-1 Clean and Jerk, at or near 1-rep max.

That's it, just seven single reps of Clean and Jerk. As you can see it was a strength workout. Crossfit workouts foster fitness in several areas including: cardio, strength, flexibility, endurance, agility, speed, coordination, and balance, ...but not all at the same time. I did 175#, which puts me at the low end of those in my class who reported their score. The previous WOD was:

5 rounds of:
10 Burpees
10 Kettlebell swings
N Hang Power Cleans, where N=(6-round #) * 5, i.e., 25 in the first round, 20 in the second, etc. Definitions of the exercises are below. Young David, son of Bruck, did it with me at home. We don't have a kettlebell so we improvised.

This was more of a combined endurance, strength, and cardio workout.

To see the typical workouts that Crossfitters do, check out WODs at crossfit.com

Crossfit is a holistic fitness training regimen that merges concepts from Olympic weightlifting, gymnastics, aerobics, and basic calisthenics into short, high-intensity workouts using basic gyms and equipment. It was started in Santa Cruz, CA in 1995 by former gymnasts who at the time were on contract to train police personnel in that city. Over the past few years, Crossfit popularity has exploded; there are now approx. 1700 official affiliates worldwide, and many more unofficial affiliates and household/neighborhood gyms.

Our gym is located on the Air Force Base where your faithful editor works. Three classes meet each weekday, two before work and one at lunchtime, and the student body is comprised of service members and DoD civilians (who else would be there?). I've been doing workouts with this group since September '09, so for about 7 months. I thought I was in pretty good shape prior to that, as I regularly worked out with free weights, exercise machines, and racquetball. My first Crossfit workout informed me otherwise. It was about three days before I could walk upright and raise my arms above my shoulders.

Things have gotten better since then. Just ask the long-suffering Mrs. Bruck. I started out doing, or attempting to do Crossfit on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. My daily whining was at about 70 decibels and lasted for up to an hour at a time. I now do Crossfit every weekday, schedule permitting, and sometimes do some ad hoc workouts on the weekend. My whining is down to under 30 decibels and only last for several minutes. Some days it's barely audible.

Fortunately, there are more objective ways to quantify performance and improvement. Crossfit exercises and workouts are all designed to be measurable in some way, either in reps, duration, weight, or some combination thereof. For example, a workout may be to do as many rounds as possible (AMRAP) within a specified time interval, of a certain sequence of exercises. In this case, your “score” would be the number of rounds you completed. A component of the score may also be how much weight you used, if that applies. A more common workout is to do a set sequence of exercises, in which case your score is your total time required, with a weight dimension where applicable. And in some cases, for strength-only workouts, your score is simply the weight you were able to lift for one, or for a small number of reps.

We've done quite a number of interesting and different exercises over the past half year. Here is a sample – some may be familiar to you and some will be new:

Box Jumps – jump up onto a sturdy stool or box, then jump or clamber back down. The boxes are either 20” (recommended for women) or 24” (men) high.

Pullups – just get your chin over the bar. There are also the more difficult “chest-to-bar” pullups, which are just what they sound like. Crossfit pullups are a bit unconventional; unlike gym class pullups, where most of your body hangs limp during the exercise, in Crossfit you're supposed to kick and swing your way up. The same amount of work is done, thermodynamically speaking, but there's less strain on the pecs and biceps.

Lunges, brought to you by the Ministry of Silly Walks™: Walk, touching your knee to the ground with each step. A challenging but rewarding variation is to do this while holding a weight plate over your head.

Kettlebell Swings – a kettlebell is basically a big iron ball with a loop handle. In this exercise, you hold the ball with both hands and swing it from between your legs up to about eye level in front of you, with most of the lift power coming from your hips. I'm not going to tell you what the coach compares this to. A variation is to do it with one arm at a time.

Situps – the Crossfit variation is to lie on your back with the soles of your feet together, and alternately touch your hands to the ground behind your head and to your feet. It's okay to use the momentum of your arms, unlike the way your phys. ed. teacher probably taught you.

Pushups – regular old chest-to-deck pushups. Sometimes they do pushups with your hands in rings hanging from the chinup bar, but this really messed up my elbows last time I did it, so next time “Ring Pushups” appears in the WOD, I'm going to sit in the bleachers and claim that it's my time of the month.

Burpees (should be named, “Barfees”): From a standing position, squat down and do a pushup, stand back up, and jump, clapping your hands over your head while jumping. Sounds easy? Tell me how you feel after doing 20 of them.

Wall Balls – while standing up from a squat, throw (2-handed) a medicine ball (20# for men, 12# for women) at a target line on the wall 10' up from the floor, catch it while squatting down again, rinse and repeat.

There are several more “calisthenic”-type exercises; a brief perusal of WODs will give you a larger sample.

Then there are the weightlifting exercises. Crossfitters don't use weight machines, per se, or even benches. Sometimes we use racks, but our coach calls us sissies when we do. Generally, the weightlifting exercises consist of all or part of the Olympic weightlifting events, namely the Snatch and the Clean and Jerk. Both of these exercises start with the weighted bar on the ground and end up with same over the head with one's arms straight; the difference is how you get there, and I won't go into that here - other websites can do a far better job of explaining it than I.

We don't actually do a lot of complete Snatches or Clean and Jerks, but we frequently do components of them, such as:

Dead Lift - bar on ground, pull it up to about mid-thigh (arms hanging straight).

Weighted Squats – squat and stand back up while holding the weighted bar, either over your head (Overhead Squat), across your shoulder blades (Back Squat), or across your collar bones (Front Squat).

Cleans – various exercises that end with the weighted bar up at shoulder level.

Jerks / Presses – exercises that take the bar from shoulder level (clean position) to over the head.

+ various similar exercises with other types of weights such as dumbbells or medicine balls.

The workouts: doing Crossfit is like being married to a crackhead – every day it's a different story! The WOD, chosen or designed by the coach, typically combines a number of reps of a number of exercises, configured to work a particular set of muscle groups or emphasize a particular fitness area. Over the course of several weeks, well-chosen WODs will achieve balance over the whole body and across all components of fitness. There's supposedly a lot more to the science of workout selection and physiology, but considering what you're paying me, let's just leave it at that.


Sounds hard, Bruck! Well it is, but fortunately, most exercises are scalable, one way or another. For the weightlifting exercises, of course you can choose your weight, or just use the olympic bar (45#), or the women's bar (15#), or the PVC pipe. The calisthenic exercises are often “body weight proportional” but even some of them are scalable. For example, with pushups, you can do them off of your toes or your knees. For pullups, you can hook a foot in a “resistance” band, which is just a big rubber band, to reduce the effort required. Or you could do “jump” pullups, in which you push off of a stool with your feet to reduce the effort. For box jumps, you can do step-ups instead of jumps, plus there are a couple of different height boxes to choose from.

There are big advantages to this scalability. For one thing, it allows a group of people with widely divergent levels of experience and ability to do the same workout together (and believe me, it's hard to conjure up the motivation to do Crossfit alone!). Also, it allows you to build up your strength while exercising through the full range of motion, which is an important concept underlying Crossfit training.

Last September, when I started Crossfit training, I could do maybe one pullup on a good day. So I started with jumping pullups. Then I graduated to the green resistance band (~75# assist), and then to the blue band (~40# assist). By about mid-January, I was doing pullups unassisted. This was actually a pretty big deal – my classmates noticed and congratulated me profusely. I felt like it was some sort of fitness Bar Mitzvah. Colleague and workout buddy Tim “went strapless,” i.e., started doing unassisted pullups, about a month ago, and again, it was a big deal. He says he thinks he might have made the transition prematurely, but you know the old saying, “once you go strapless, you can never go back!”

Notwithstanding the fact that the workouts are eminently scalable to personal abilities, there are some broadly applicable standards. For one thing, it's expected that one does the entire workout if at all possible, and does each exercise properly, operating through the full range of motion as ability permits. Then there are “prescribed” (Rx) workout levels for experienced Crossfitters. The Rx generally takes the form of a recommended weight level (actually two – one for men and one for women). My personal goal, which I met, was to get up to doing at least some Rx-level workouts by the end of January of this year. Right now I do about half the workouts at the Rx level, and for the ones I don't, I try to get as close as possible. As a consequence, since there's generally a tradeoff between speed and effort, I usually finish pretty close to last in my class. That's OK, I'm also the oldest and richest.

So Bruck, that's just great, you're now able to leap over tall buildings and catch bullets in midair, but what of it? Well, being in shape has implicit rewards, particularly in the area of general health. In fact, according to Dr. Ray Strand, while the human body can withstand and even thrive under a wide range of severe stresses and pressures, the one thing it can't sustain is inactivity. As far as my personal health goes, I haven't lost much weight per se, but have redistributed it. I'm down a couple of belt sizes, from 6 months pregnant to about 3, and my suit jackets are all getting kind of tight around the shoulders and chest. My blood chemistry, which has been problematic throughout most of my adult life, is now as good as it's ever been.. And it is occasionally useful to leap over tall buildings and catch bullets in midair.

Okay, you've got my interest, how do I sign up? Well, the downside is this: unless you've got a free deal like mine thru the DoD (thanks, taxpayers, that's very generous of you), it can be a bit pricey. Prices in health clubs around here are in the $200-$300/month range, and that's in addition to your gym membership. But on the other hand, you could do what many “unofficial” affiliates do, which is to look up WODs on the web, or even invent your own WODs, and do them yourself or in a group in someone's basement or garage. But however you do it, I want to see you doing strapless pullups by December, Private!


  • At 1:18 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Ooh, let's see that buff bod!

    - A flustered fan


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