Sprints

Last night’s workout was not posted on the whiteboard. Dave told us to get two kettlebells each and follow him out onto the astroturf, where kids play indoor soccer sometimes. (The gym is in a separate room and takes up only a tiny part of the huge hangar.) Not knowing what was in store made me a little nervous.
We did three sets of 10 thrusters with the kettlebells, mixed in with lots of equipment-free calisthenics. I used a lighter pair of kettlebells than I will when my shoulder is completely back to normal—I think these were 8 KG. In between sets of thrusters, we went back and forth with a lunge-walk (which got incredibly difficult after the first 40 feet or so), with a high skipping step (a sprint warm-up), and with a high-stepping run. Also mixed in were a few sets of burpees and a flexibility drill that went like this: lie down on your stomach, reach backwards, and grab your ankles. Pull them toward your shoulders, trying to bow your body into a rocking position, and rock back and forth. This was almost impossible for me to do, let alone get any kind of a rocking motion going. I remember doing that as a kid, though. I wish I could regain the back flexibility I had when I was 10 or so—it wasn’t extraordinary, but it was better than it is now.
After all these calisthenics, each of which was a surprise—Dave was coming up with them as we went along, I think—he had us do some sprints. We all raced each other across the astroturf and back. It was only 40 or 50 yards each way. The first sprint was fun. The second through sixth or eighth or however many we did seemed unbearable. Strangely, the awfulness wasn’t the sprinting itself, it was the 15 or so seconds of recovery in between, when I felt so spent that I didn’t think I could possibly do it again. Each time I was in total disbelief that he was going to tell us to sprint again, and then he did, and I wanted to find an excuse to quit. It seemed like just too much. I was breathing so hard that I felt like I couldn’t breathe fast enough, would never recover, and I had this tightness in my throat that made me wonder if I was going to throw up. And then it was time to sprint again.
After we finally stopped, though, and I’d fully recovered, I realized that the sprints had actually been really fun. It’s way more fun to just let loose and run as fast as I can—when I’m all warmed up—and really fly for a short distance, than it is to run around the building or the track. And it was fun to informally race with the other people. I felt fast and competent, and super-competitive, unlike when I run 400 yards and feel like I’ve been beaten with a meat tenderizer. I wonder why I coped with the sprints better than with the recovery moments in between. I didn’t feel the breathless misery while I was running, but when I stopped, especially knowing I’d have to start again so soon. Now, with 24 hours of hindsight, I feel I’d rather do that many sprints any time than do two or three runs around the building.
After the workout, I spent some time working on headstands. Someone suggested practicing those as an easier way to practice tightening the stomach, back, and legs to hold the balanced position for the handstand. When practicing a handstand, I can’t stay up long enough to fine-tune my posture and legs, so I was wondering how to make progress there. I think I’ll work on holding a long headstand and pay close attention to what works or doesn’t work with respect to the legs and core, and will wait a while to try to apply it to a handstand.
I experimented with jumping to grasp the pull-up bar and doing just a couple of slow pull-ups. I’m going really slow with trying dynamic shoulder movements like pull-ups or thrusters, or jumping to grasp the bar, because that’s the one remaining thing that causes the shoulder twinge.
A friend and I worked on our ring dips for a few minutes (because that was all we could manage). The rings are at chest height. To do a dip, I stand directly between the rings, grasp them, jump, press my shoulders down, and lock my arms, to support myself on the rings and hold them steady. Just being able to do that has taken several weeks of practice. When I jump, I have to feel a total sense of commitment to locking my arms and staying up there, or I’ll collapse down. I can now do that reliably. So then I slowly, shakily let myself down—not very deep at this point—keeping my shoulders pressed (not shrugging) while bending my elbows. When I feel I can’t go any deeper without collapsing, I try to push all the way back up and lock my arms again. If I’m doing well, I can do that three times, usually with the second one being the deepest. It feels great to be able to do that. I think that so far, it reflects a skill I’ve learned (holding the rings steady enough to control my own movement), not a great increase in strength.

Study of 20 Subjects by 150 Researchers Finds Fidgeting Fitness Friendly; No Agreement on Implications

Warning: common-sense incompatibility ahead. Abandon all common sense now.
This just in: moving burns more calories than sitting still, and moving more can result in weight loss! How surprising. What is the value of this new, radical finding? Get overweight people to fidget more, and they can gain the degree of control over their weight that they may be missing.
A Mayo Clinic research staff of 150 cooked for and, using sensor-equipped underwear, monitored the physical movements of 10 lean couch potatoes and 10 “slightly obese” couch potatoes. The underwear—sports bras and briefs—was developed and tested by study director Dr. James Levine and “a colleague.” Dr. Levine wore the underwear around the Mayo clinic, over his suit, in order to “test them for comfort.” He says he especially enjoyed wearing them outside his clothes in the face of Mayo’s strict dress code.
Besides collecting underwear movement data, the team also studied whether the amount of each person’s fidgeting was “innate” or was itself caused by leanness or obesity. This necessitated using controlled diets to force subjects to gain or lose weight at different times.
Among the team’s findings:
-To control what research subjects eat while modifying their weight, you have to cook their every meal for months at a time as well as “have them pledge not to cheat.” This amounted to 20,000 meals.
-Fidgeting burns about 350 more calories a day than not fidgeting, “enough to produce a weight loss of 30 to 40 pounds in one year without trips to the gym.”
-Lean couch potatoes “innately” fidget more, always getting up to pace around. In contrast, the tendency to sit still also “seems to be biological…. It is the predisposition to be inactive that leads to obesity, and not the other way around.”
How this is news we can use:
Study director Dr. Levine: This offers hope to overweight people. They can make small changes “like making an effort to walk more and ride less” to control their weight. The obesity trend is due more to decreases in daily exercise for average people than to increases in eating. Putting his money where his mouth is (New York Times – use a login from here), he’s mounted his computer over a treadmill and walks while he works. Has he lost weight? He claims not to know. He was already thin.
On the other hand, says obesity researcher Dr. Eric Ravussin of Pennington Biomedical Research Center: “because the tendency to sit still seemed to be biological, …you cannot tell people, ‘Why don’t you sit less and be a little more fidgety,’ because they may do it for a couple of hours but won’t sustain it for days and weeks and months and years.” He thinks it would help if neighborhoods and shopping districts were organized in ways that would encourage walking.
Yet another, presumably highly paid researcher, Dr. Rudolph Leibel of Columbia U. Medical Center, offers the third hand: “People can be taught and motivated to change their behavior in service of their health.” He says it is plausible, but not proved, that the urge to sit still is innate.
Rockefeller U. obesity researcher Dr. Jules Hirsch uses the fourth hand to point out that studies in the 1950s already found that thin people move more than heavy ones. He doesn’t think this new study is going to help increase understanding of the obesity problem.
What about the study participants? What do they think? One of the overweight subjects, a 41-year-old Minnesota man, said he finds the results encouraging. To him, these results mean he doesn’t have to join a gym to lose weight; he can lose weight by moving around more. He’s skeptical that there’s a sitting-still gene. “I personally believe in self-determination over detrimental biological predisposition,” he said.
One more study joins the cumulative proof that, look at it however scientifically you want, staying thin is just plain difficult. Just what we needed. Well, at least the 150 staffers and 20 subjects got paid. Maybe movement-sensing undies will yet prove to be a boon to society.

CrossFit Workout

I looked at the top 20 search phrases that led people to look at FitNotes in January. Of the 305 clicks coming from these 20 phrases, 184 came from searches related to how to do a handstand. Other common search phrases are “run two miles,” “CrossFit,” and phrases related to jumping rope or boxing workouts.
My shoulder is getting better, but I’m afraid to do pull-ups and most other dynamic over-the-head moves. Dave suggested I work on overhead presses with handheld dumbbells, a great idea. It is a deliberate, controlled move, and I can work up to heavier weights in small increments as I feel comfortable. Last night I did 10 presses with the 15-pound dumbbells. Lifting them overhead was challenging enough to make me really concentrate on holding them steady, by the time I got to about 8 reps. I’ll do at least that much every day and add weight when I feel really solid.
Regardless of that plan, I jumped up and swung on the rings for a few seconds last night. People have been goofing around with a sort of hula whirl on the rings: hanging straight, swinging the feet in a bigger and bigger circle with legs together, then bringing the hips and shoulders into it until you’re really whirling. The hard part seems to be letting go and trying to land without continuing to whirl.
The first thing we did last night, after our warm-up, was a bunch of back squats. I shared a bar with another woman and a 12-year-old boy who says I’m “beastly” because he’s surprised how much I can lift. I always tell him he’s going to surpass me within six months. What I was surprised by was that I could lift a lot more than the other woman could, though she’s more experienced and younger than I am. From other times I’ve seen her I know she has a lot more upper-body strength than I do. That’s what I need to focus on if I’m going to meet the goal of doing a muscle-up this year. Anyway, in last night’s back squat I got up to 162 pounds. Maybe I could have added another 15 to pass my max of 175, but we’d already done lots of reps at lower weights and were about to do a bunch of Romanian deadlifts, so I didn’t want to push my luck nor spend the extra time right then.
Romanian deadlifts are done with straight legs and a straight back. Dave told us to deadlift the weight normally, then pull the shoulders back, tighten the back, and bend at the hips to lower the weight and bring it back up. This was good for the hamstrings and also seemed to challenge the lower back, which was tired from the squats. Later, my lower back was so tired that folding laundry felt strenuous. Tom and I noticed that in a book about weightlifting that he bought years ago, the Romanian deadlift is shown with a rounded back and forward shoulders—just what Dave told us to make sure and avoid. I believe Dave. Maybe that pro football player in the photo was so strong that the weight was too light for him, and he forgot to pay attention to form.

The Exercise with No Name

Climb most of the way up the stall bars. Bend one knee and dangle the other leg straight down as far as you can. Your partner grabs your dangling foot. Now push with your bent leg until you straighten it, lifting the partner’s upper body off of the floor. Evil!
We did partner drills today after 3 sets of 20 kettlebell swings (I used 16 KG). The above nameless evil was the first drill. We had two minutes to do as many sets of four with each leg as we could. Next in the circuit came medicine-ball sit-ups. I did 39 in the two minutes.
Then came another nameless painful drill on the back-up apparatus. Bend at the hips and pick up the medicine ball from the floor. Straighten your arms over your head (more or less horizontal in this case, along with the rest of the body). Rear up as high as possible, as if to fling the medicine ball backwards over your head (but don’t let go). This one was especially terrible because the lower back was completely shot from all the kettlebell swings. I kept sagging down, putting my head on the medicine ball with a groan. If I remember right, I think I eventually got 31 of these in two minutes.
Finally, assisted pull-ups. I substituted a type of row because of my shoulder. I put my feet on a chair and put my hands on a lowered pair of rings, made my body a horizontal plank, and rowed myself up toward the rings while my feet were supported on the chair. I didn’t manage very many, maybe 26. Not only were my arms giving out (having already pulled so hard on the evil first exercise on the stall bars, trying to help my leg lift Nancy off the floor), but my lower back was tightening up and complaining loudly.
Later Nancy and I did some back squats. I got up to 165 pounds, not the most I’ve squatted but good enough considering my legs and lower back were already used up. It took me two tries; on my first try, I got stuck and had to drop the weight. Kind of weird to drop it off of my back! I sort of ducked out from under it. It rolled down my spine and clattered on the floor loudly. I’d moved forward as I let go, so it didn’t hurt me as it fell, but I should have arched my back away from it (chest out) as I moved, instead of ducking, and it might have missed me altogether. Dropping the weights is not a big deal, but it feels like a big deal because it makes so much noise.
Then Dave had various people and himself try some tumbling and rope-climbing techniques while being photographed, trying to capture the phases of each technique. It was fun to goof around, and to try out their camera too.
I may go back tomorrow night because I have to skip Wednesday this week. On Wednesday I have plans with a few friends from boxing to work out and then go to dinner.

Six for Seven

I had lots of energy this week and I worked out four days in a row (six days in the week): Running and calisthenics last Sunday, CrossFit on Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, and boxing today. My shoulder is slowly getting better. I haven’t been doing hanging exercises or overhead lifts, until today when I used 5-pound hand weights to do some rotator-cuff strength exercises.
I hadn’t been to boxing in almost three weeks. I told Cappy I’m still going to the other gym and trying a bunch of new things and that I’d hurt my shoulder. He helped me look at my habitual shoulder position and how they want to curve forward, whether at rest or exercising. It is as if the strong pectoral muscles pull the shoulders out of position thanks to both my daily job of sitting at a computer and to the pecs being stronger than some of the back muscles. It’s all a little vague in my mind, but I find it easy to believe that my shoulder joints, given my age and sedentary working life, are not seated properly. That can’t be good for overhead lifting.
The boxing workout seemed long—not surprising, considering how intense but short the CrossFit workouts tend to be. The boxing workout is an hour of sustained effort. The thing about CrossFit, though, is that I can always stick around and do more work after recovering from the really intense part. I like having both a structured, demanding workout and flow time to try whatever I feel like trying.
I mostly felt strong at boxing today. The first thing I noticed was that when we did our most demanding jump-rope round (out of several consecutive 3-minute rounds of jump rope), I never stopped. In this round we alternated 30 seconds crossovers and 30 seconds doubles (the rope goes under your feet twice per twirl). That was always an especially difficult combination for me. Crossovers require more precision with the feet and more stamina in the shoulders than regular jumping, and doubles of course are a huge cardio spike. After the first 30 seconds of doubles, crossovers never seem like enough of a rest. Then before it seems reasonable you have to start the next interval of doubles. Three minutes is a long time.
Recently I’ve been able get through this combination without stopping. This is not an especially meaningful benchmark, except to me because of its familiarity. By “not especially meaningful” I mean it hasn’t made me a fast runner. Surely it has increased my stamina, speed, and coordination in other areas to some degree, though. Everything we do at boxing is part of the reason I was able to start CrossFit and enjoy it right away instead of feeling like I was going to die.

Make It a Lifestyle

A new person on the CrossFit message boards asked how people find time and energy to get to the gym often. In response someone observed, “It has to be a lifestyle, not just something you feel like doing.” I like that. Calling fitness a lifestyle is a clearer, more positive way of saying “make it a priority” or “make a commitment.” The latter two phrases sound like tedious job obligations and stressful household projects. But a lifestyle is the thing you love, the thing your free time (or all your waking hours) revolves around because you choose it over and over again. “Make it a lifestyle” is a good way to approach anything that you think could improve your life. It could be working out, gardening, building a relationship, raising children—anything that requires time and practice to deliver its reward.
When I was single and taking group guitar lessons in Chicago, the lessons and the open-mike nights (where I was too shy to play) became my whole social life. My guitar acquaintances said the same. In my twenties it was Rollerblading, when I persuaded my closest friends to get skates too so that we could skate everywhere together. Three years ago my husband and I joined a local boxing gym and became obsessed with boxing. With both of us obsessed, there was no need to keep it under control, and we devoured all the boxing movies and books we could find. We put up a speed bag and boxing posters in our basement. It all reminded me of the way kids and teenagers can get wrapped up in their favorite things to the exclusion of all else. At the same time, we got stronger and stronger from the workouts and felt fantastic.
My obsessions with my interests felt healthy. They were fun. They made me feel enthusiastic and happy with no need to second guess my enthusiasm (am I a huge dork?) as I would have as a teen. It felt good to be completely wrapped up in something unrelated to life’s logistics and chores.
Enthusiasm, and the ability to dive into a new interest and make it a lifestyle, started to feel like a skill. My most compelling hobbies, most recently boxing and now CrossFit, have not only benefited my physical health, but have shown me that I still have the capacity to find and take advantage of the things that make me happy. In hard times, such as after a significant loss, this skill could be a desperately needed skill for sanity and recovery.
The enthusiasm skill is useful in daily life too. People who don’t have major enthusiasms are more vulnerable to getting wrapped up in unhappy situations—petty rivalries, bad relationships, blame. Sometimes I hear someone talk about a frustrating situation that never seems to change and I wish they would get obsessed with something positive instead, whatever it might be. When The Rules was published, the awful book about how a woman can make a man propose, one of my friends mentioned it every so often with respect to her own dating experiences. I wished she would not poison her mind with such negative reading material. I wanted her to take up Rollerblading or guitar lessons and stop worrying about The Rules. Just like replacing a bad habit with a good one, maybe it’s possible to replace the focus of a mind onto better topics. But any suggestion would have been irrelevant. There’s no way to know what would be as compelling to someone else as guitar lessons were to me.
Lifestyles like my current thirst for fitness workouts and information, which will be a lifelong interest, are good for me in another important way: they give me the incentive to push myself past my social comfort zone. It wasn’t easy for me to join the boxing gym, and less so to join CrossFit. Every time I go to the gym, I’m nervous—about social issues, not about the physical challenges. Who is going to be there? Will they be nice to me? Do I annoy the people I like the most by talking too much, or appearing too needy? Let’s be honest: it’s my inner sixth grader, mocked by other kids, who is nervous. She vowed never to show enthusiasm or state an opinion—let alone enter a gym—again. She’s worried about being picked on and humiliated.
It’s true what the psychology people say. We go through life finding opportunities to have another shot at difficult situations from childhood. Sometimes these new chances amount to having the same bad relationship over and over again. But if it’s a healthy obsession, it can be a chance to find some really good news: those mean kids were wrong.
Making fitness a lifestyle means I can get stronger physically and learn new physical skills, which I love to do. Just as important, it means I’m diving into situations over and over again that seem to have a dangerous similarity to miserable, damaging grade school society, and finding joy, accomplishment, and friendship instead.

Tabata Regatta

Last night’s workout was not hard on my shoulder, and it’s feeling a lot better. I have to make sure I give it a few weeks to get stronger, and not assume that just because it feels better that I can ignore it. It’s hard to remember to do the strengthening exercises at home, but they will pay off and I have to make time for them.
Last night was a Tabata workout, where you go 20 seconds, rest 10 seconds, go 20, rest 10, until 8 sets are completed. We did 8 sets in a row of each of three exercises: air squat, kettlebell swing (16 kg), and push-ups. We wrote down the number of reps for each interval. Between each group of 8 sets, we rested for at least a few minutes. So we did all 8 sets of squats in a row, rested five minutes, did all the KB swings, rested several minutes, and then did all the push-ups.
Like last time we did Tabata drills, I went bananas on the squats (several sets of 23 and 22, with my lowest score 19 for the last set) and struggled through everything else. Last time my low score on squats was 16, so I guess I had a little more stamina last night. For the squats, if nothing else.
The KB swings almost pulled me down flat on my face, I was so tired. (And I wasn’t swinging it overhead like the guy in the linked video!) Going as fast as possible for 20 seconds, on something strenuous, and doing it 8 times with only a few seconds rest in between, is so hard that by the end I felt like I was moving through molasses. With KB swings you descend into a squat position briefly for each swing, so with that coming right after the air squats, I felt barely able to walk afterwards.
On the push-ups, because I can normally do two sets of 10 before I break the sets any smaller, I decided to shoot for 8 push-ups per 20-second set. I managed three sets of 8, then did 7, 6, 5, 5, and 5. I don’t know why I was surprised. Maybe because I’d overestimated how much I could recover in the 10-second rest periods, which in reality was very little.
After that we did some (non-Tabata) bent-over rows with an empty bar and worked up to a small amount of weight on the bar. We didn’t try to go heavy, thank goodness. The position feels awkward to me, and it’s hard to pull the bar up “explosively” toward my chest. The idea is to really yank it, as if it’s a heavy weight and you’re trying to give it some momentum. It’s supposed to hit you in the rib cage, which means really tightening the back to pull the shoulder blades in far enough to pull the bar that high. Dave told us to start with a completely tightened back and lats as if doing a pull-up; in fact, this seems to be a non-hanging version of the pull-up, which was perfect for me and my tender shoulder. So I was pulling the bar up to touch my rib cage and feeling pretty good about it, when Dave walked by and said, “Hit yourself! Hit yourself harder!” I almost started laughing. I don’t think I’d ever been told to hit myself harder before.
Today my lower back is so stiff and tired from the KB swings, and my legs are too from the squats. It’s amazing how much of an effect 8 sets of 20 seconds of work can have. It’s fun to imagine how much stronger my back could get if I get to do KB swings more often.

Jogging in Mud

I wanted to work out yesterday so I biked to the high school track to try the two-mile run again. I was slower than ever at 18:48. The track was wet and soft, with outright mud puddles taking up most of the short ends of the oval. I had to tiptoe through those. I ended up with muddy shoes and mud splashed up to my knees.
Tom came out a few minutes after me, with a plan to redo the last Suffer on Saturday sequence of drills: run around once, 50 squats, run around, 50 push-ups, run around, 50 sit-ups, run around, 25 pull-ups. He had to scout around for a dry, firm piece of ground to do the calisthenics, and he found a metal utility trap-door in the grass that was just big enough. I was done with my run, but I did the squats and push-ups with him. For his final run, he ran home to do the pull-ups in the basement. I followed on my bike and then did the 50 sit-ups without stopping, with Tom anchoring my feet. It was the first time I did all 50 without taking a couple of small breathers. Having a person holding my feet instead of a pair of barbells made me work a little harder.
Trying to give my shoulder time to heal, I didn’t do the pull-ups. I’m going to minimize any hanging exercises for a couple of weeks at least, take Ibuprofen, and avoid overhead squats completely. When my shoulder stops twinging, I’ll start doing some rotator cuff exercises with my 5- or 10-pound hand weights to try to build rotator cuff strength, and then be very conservative with OH squats in the future. Dave said he’ll give me some good substitution exercises to replace the hanging and overhead ones so I can still work out while this is healing. He also suggested fish oil as an alternative to Ibuprofen, saying it has been used safely for muscle repair for many years. I’m skeptical of supplements other than multivitamins and calcium, but I’ll try a conservative daily dose for the short term. Tom, also a skeptic, read up on it and it seems it’s been established as safe.

CrossFit Friday

Tonight’s workout went 15 rounds, a new round starting every minute and a half. If you completed the round fast, you got a longer rest before the next one started. Each round consisted of:
10 push-ups (I did only five each round)
10 mountain-climbers
10 one-handed dumbbell deadlifts
5 hanging leg raises (I substituted V-ups because of my sore shoulder)
I tried to keep up with Dave, which I was able to do because of my fewer push-ups and the substitution of V-ups. The challenging part of going fast was to do the push-ups and mountain-climbers fast enough. Those are two drills I tend to slow down on without noticing. Thankfully we do mountain-climbers frequently enough at boxing that although they’re still brutal, at least they’re familiar.
This workout was hard, but I felt it was missing something. It’s possible I should have used a heavier dumbbell than 35 pounds for the deadlifts and that I should have done more than 5 V-ups per round. I should not have been able to keep up with Dave. Not that I’m complaining. It’s hard to get everything adjusted just right when you’re looking at 15 rounds. You know it will get tiring but you don’t know how much it would take to render the last few rounds worthless.
Last Monday we did a bunch of overhead squats with the PVC pipe, tensing the whole body and locking the arms as if holding a heavy weight. Afterward, my shoulders were really sore. Over the course of this week, as the muscle soreness wore off, I realized that the ache in my left shoulder isn’t going away. Yesterday it was a little worse, and today I noticed I was favoring that shoulder—lifting my bag or a book with the other hand, shifting my body along with the shoulder when I was putting things into the car.
I told Dave about it before today’s workout and that’s why he had me substitute the V-ups for the hanging leg-raises. Afterward I asked Kristen and Nancy if they could suggest any ways to strengthen the rotator cuff or to protect it. Kristen said to try to do any overhead lifts with dumbbells instead of with a bar. That was what made me remember how hard the PVC overhead squats were on my shoulders, and that’s why I think those squats are the cause of the ache. I have to be sure to rest it for a while and avoid hanging exercises like pull-ups. That’s going to be hard to do, but worth it I guess.
After the shoulder feels better, when we do any overhead lifting, I’ll have to minimize how much I do with a bar. I don’t think I have to avoid that altogether—I just think the many “practice” overhead squats we did Monday, combined with 25 rapid ones, were too much. That was a really long time to hold the bar up with my arms spread and locked out. Also when it feels better I’ll find out some exercises to strengthen it and prevent this from happening again. Kristen showed me a few things to try, like lifting a light weight out in front of the hip at an angle.