CrossFit Certification Seminar, Puyallup, Washington

I spent all weekend in a CrossFit gym, along with some friends and loads of other CrossFitters. The place was packed with students and trainers with about three trainers for every four students, so it was hard to tell how many of which group were present. This was a lot of time to spend in one place with so many people I didn’t know, and a few years ago I would have been too intimidated to do it, but faced with this challenging seminar I just told myself I can roll with whatever happens, because I’ve been working hard at CrossFit North for two years.
It was more difficult to maintain that frame of mind on day two, when I was sore and fatigued from day one and knew we were going to do a hard workout at some point, ready or not. At the same time, I knew that working out would make me feel better, no matter how difficult it might seem going into it.
CrossFit founder and coach Greg Glassman is the main presenter at these seminars along with a very accomplished trainer named Nicole. Both days contained alternating talks, demos, and workouts or skill drills. Skill drills were done in small groups with several students and at least three trainers. I was not able to take notes, and it is already hard to remember everything we did and in what order. Every minute of it was engaging and valuable.
Some of the ideas I want to hold onto:
Evaluate new trainees by watching them exercise. This elicits better information than any questionnaire. Coach Glassman walks upstairs with them and puts them on an exercise bike. If they’re winded just by going up stairs or very easily on the bike, he knows to start with a greatly scaled workout: concentrate on the basic movements such as air squat, light deadlift, easy row, very light overhead presses or reaches.
Build skill before adding weight. Example: a fire-station crew was doing CF workouts and got their commander involved. They rashly had him snatch the KB and he wound up in the hospital (with shoulder problems, I assume). He hadn’t been taught the skills leading up to slinging a weight over your head. I can imagine this mistake could be made by a lot of DIY CrossFitters who charge full-speed ahead without enough practice.
Goal setting might not come from a new trainee in a meaningful way. Goals might be obscured by fears–I don’t want to get bulky muscles, I don’t want to do exercises that might hurt my knees. Talk about their idea of goals, but also ask them after they’ve gotten hooked on the workouts and seen the examples set by other trainees. (For instance, first the trainee didn’t want to get big muscles, but six weeks later she wants to be able to do a muscle-up.)
Programming (how you pattern or mix up workouts over time) is important in several ways. For client retention: Give new people a workout that will challenge them but will not make them refuse to come back. For content: Always use large muscle groups, but vary the emphasis. Example: Day 1 is a series of deadlift sets going from heavy to light and from few reps to many; day 2 is handstand push-ups and farmer’s walk for three rounds. For scalability: Design each workout for the firebreathing CrossFit monsters and scale it for others, not the other way around. For skill: Scale the workouts for new trainees in such a way that you can teach and reinforce basic skills as thoroughly as possible before start adding intensity and weight.
Approach a goal from any and every direction you can think of. For a five-minute mile: run a mile; next time try to run it faster. Run for five minutes; next time try to run farther. Run at a five-minute-mile pace and see how long you can maintain it. Eventually you get a five-minute mile. This may be oversimplified but I like the clarity of the approaches. Another example: To get Nicole up to the ability to do “Fran” using 95 pounds like the guys use, and to get a similar fast time on it, Coach Glassman took a similar variety of approaches. Do the whole workout as fast as possible with no weight at all and with “pretend pull-ups” (pulling the arms through the air); over time, get the speed down to the guys’ real-life speed. Build up to the 95 pounds going slowly, then add more reps over time. Build up the speed using light weight. Do the whole workout with big breaks in between sets, then start shortening the breaks.
If a trainee can’t get properly into a position such as a correct squat, gently rearrange them and support them if there’s a balance issue. If you are able to arrange them into position, the problem is not a flexibility problem, but one of balance, skill, or strength, and can be overcome through either practice (for balance and skill) or through training (for strength). I ran into this myself with the squat and with the one-arm overhead dumbbell squat.
A deadlift set-up does not use the same back position as a squat. In the deadlift, shoulders are forward of hands even though shoulder blades are being “pulled together” as part of midline stabilization. This position allows the bar to move straight up and down without the knees getting in the way.
How to explain to a skeptical acquaintance (my coworkers) that kipping pull-ups are more intense and a better workout than strict pull-ups: Have someone do 20 strict pull-ups and someone else do 20 kipping pull-ups. The kipping ones are faster and move the same (or greater) amount of weight the same (or greater) distance, so they’re a better workout. Or have the skeptic practice nothing but kipping pull-ups for a while and then rest up and try strict ones. They’ll be able to do more than before. This makes me think we should start calling “strict” pullups “bodybuilding pull-ups” since the only thing they do is isolate the lats.
What the hamstrings do: extend the hip flexors; act as a brake/stabilizer for the quads and knees (for example as you descend–not freefall–into a squat). Learning to sense and engage the hamstrings and glutes in a squat “is teaching your brain what your ass does for a living.”
The three best abdominal strength developing exercises (which also recruit the most muscle, not isolating anything): the L-sit; situps on the glute-ham apparatus; and sit-ups on the AbMat with soles of feet touching. The AbMat slips under the lower back to provide a fulcrum. Fulcrum schmulcrum, I could not do a single one!
I’m going to try to list what we did, though I may have some mistakes:
Lecture: Explanation and demo of the squat and the deadlift. Introduction of the midline stabilization concept: the back and pelvis are a unit. Strength and athletic versatility come from being able to stabilize them in the right position for the move. Midline stabilization also prevents injury. Strength and power flow out from this core to the extremities.
Small-group practice: squat, deadlift , military press (put your shoulders in your ears).
A workout: bottom-to-bottom Tabata squats. (Video–not of our group). My score: 14 (i.e., lowest number of reps from among the eight sets). This killed everyone’s legs and made the upcoming workout harder.
Lecture: More on midline stabilization in various activities and exercises. Discussion of various people’s (in the fitness world) idea of what core training means. Description of “Swiss balls” given to the gym by well-meaning friends being destroyed/devoured by his dogs, implying that’s all they’re good for. (“We like the red ones best–it’s easier to see the pieces in their poop.”) Demos and discussion of the next three movements.
Small-group practice: front squat; sumo high-pull deadlift; push-press (dip straight down, not forward, and drive straight up; put your shoulders in your ears).
Full-group warm-up outside in the sunshine: jumping jacks, etc.
Workout: “Strung-out, backwards, and upside-down ‘Fran'” (no relation–“Fran” happens to be the name of the workout)
For time:
Run 800 meters; 9 pull-ups; 9 thrusters, 65 pounds (for women)
Run 600 meters; 15 pull-ups; 15 thrusters
Run 400 meters; 21 pull-ups; 21 thrusters
My time was 19:27. Everything up through the 400-meter run was just “normally” difficult. Doing 21 pull-ups and 21 thrusters (thrusters video) at the end, though, made me feel like I was going to fall over with exhaustion before I finished. I broke those sets up quite a bit. Two female coaches were cheering me on the whole time, which was great!
Lunch break
More lecture and demos: how to get something from the ground to shoulder height (the clean). How to get a weight overhead.
Small-group practice: medicine-ball cleans; push-jerk (dip/drive straight down and up, shoulders in the ears); overhead squat.
Powerlifting coach and author Mark Rippetoe’s two-hour lecture and demos (with audience volunteers) on deadlift and squat: When deadlifting, different people will have a different back angle–whatever allows them to reach the bar with their shoulders slightly forward of their hands and their butt high enough to keep their knees from getting in the way of the bar. When squatting, point your toes (thus your femurs) out to allow the kneecap to track in its groove. The correct set-up for a deadlift has three elements: which I tried to memorize but failed. Something about scapulas perpendicular to the bar (whatever that means), maybe the flat back (not rounded), and the knees far back enough not to get in the way?
Lecture: the importance of proper form in the overhead squat. A young, fit, male CrossFitter helped with this demo, which was an overhead squat contest between him and Nicole. They used the same weight. Coach Glassman told them to do 21 reps. The young man failed at around 12. Coach Glassman used this to make a point about what a difference it makes to use the right technique when lifting overhead: the shoulders in the ears, the weight accurately positioned in the frontal plane (which divides the athlete front to back), the athlete’s body evenly distributed in front of and behind the frontal plane, and the back straight.
Lecture: the L-sit. Learn this by starting in a tuck, then sticking out first one leg, then the other. Why is it that when both legs come out, the whole thing collapses? The legs aren’t connected to each other. And if you hold a weight in each hand and stick out one hand, then the other, they won’t both collapse like the legs do. Coach Glassman thinks this may be because a Golgi tendon organ somewhere senses the tension put on the back by extending both legs, and causes the brain to drop both legs. Really strong midline stabilization absorbs this tension and allows both legs out.
Demo of L-sit, glute-ham apparatus sit-ups, AbMat sit-ups.
Whole-group warm-up: 800-meter run, jumping jacks, etc. Whole-group training on medicine-ball clean and jerk in phases: set, clean and squat, stand, dip/drive/press, stand. We were made to hold the squat position several times for what seemed ages. This was like torture to the sore and tired legs.
Whole-group medicine-ball clean and jerk practice: 35 reps that had to be done in phases and in unison; if anyone got out of phase we had to wait in position until everyone had it right. Excruciating! Somehow we got through it.
Lecture: (???) What, was I brain dead by then? Apparently.
Demos and workout: Fight Gone Bad. Women’s weight for the push-press and the sumo highpulls was 65 pounds, I was told afterward. Wallball ball weight was 14 pounds. My score: 214. With the heavier ball and the fatigue from the previous day and the morning, this was the most difficult FGB I’ve ever done. I thought I was gonna die, as Rosanne Rosannadanna would say. Sean and I were each other’s scorekeepers. He was the second to work out. At the end of the last round of that second phase, all the coaches and scorekeepers were yelling so loud it was like a riot was breaking out. Fun!
Lunch (a well deserved long break)
Lecture: (???)
Small-group practice, rotating through stations: slam-ball and kettlebell swings; row and rope climb; dips, push-ups, and muscle-ups on rings; glute-ham apparatus and L-sits and AbMat; one-hand dumbbell snatch and overhead squat; handstands and handstand push-ups. I’d forgotten how exciting and fun it is to climb a rope! And it was easier than ever, even though I hadn’t done it in a year. Every time I do it I burn my ankle just a little bit on the way down, and that’s why I stopped doing it after I was satisfied I could do it more than once in a row. And I was really glad to have a chance to practice some handstands, as usual.
When and if I remember more of what I don’t remember right now, I’ll update these notes. (If I don’t post this now I never will.) It was a great experience and very informative, and an honor to be trained by and with such generous experts.

Comfortable in the water?

I’ve been in a series of Total Immersion-style swimming classes this week. They meet for two hours for four evenings, and tonight is the last one. There are only two students, myself and a guy who already swims (but not Total Immersion style). I never learned to swim properly, but last summer I decided I want to try a sprint triathlon. So there’s no more procrastinating on swim lessons.
The first thing we did was learn to back-float. No problems there. But as soon as we had to start turning onto the side, putting the face in the water, I wasn’t comfortable at all. I could not seem to stop myself from doing a half-swallow to close off my sinuses while holding my breath. This sucked a little water up my nose every time it happened, and sent me reeling to my feet to clear my head. It was frustrating to find myself growing less relaxed in the water instead of more relaxed, as the coach moved on to other drills. She assured me I would get the hang of it, and in the meantime, said I should get a set of noseplugs for the next night.
Also on the first night, the coach videotaped us doing our learned method of swimming. She had the camera underwater on a long arm. When we watched the tape, I saw that my body goes at a 45-degree angle with my head out, and my feet kick so fast I look like I’m propelling a tiny-wheeled unicycle. I knew my head was poked up, but I had no idea how vertical I was, and I had never known I was kicking more than will be necessary when I learn to flatten out using this new method.
The second night, Tuesday, we worked on aligning the body on its side while the face looks down at the bottom of the pool, with one arm extended, and then switching from one side to the other. I loved the noseplug; I was totally comfortable now that I couldn’t get water in my sinuses. I was able to concentrate on whatever the coach wanted the focus point to be. It was a completely different experience from Monday night, thank goodness.
Last night was the third of four nights. We put together most of a whole swim stroke and started to practice turning the head to breathe. The first time the coach had us try turning the head to breathe was while we were practicing a position called the Skate, which we’d already learned fairly well. With one arm forward and pointing slightly down, and the head hanging toward that armpit, with the other hand on the front of the thigh (“in the pocket”), we would turn the head to “take a bite of air.” After a couple of aborted attempts, I managed to travel the entire length breathing in that way.
This was exciting for me, for one thing, because I had never felt so relaxed in a pool for so long at one time, and two, because I was suddenly able to breathe without craning my head up and kicking like crazy. (Kicking like crazy, I found out, along with the previous inability to relax, is what makes be tired and breathless in the water.) Oh, and three, because I had never ever traversed the length of a full-sized pool with any semblance of proper breathing. It really felt like an accomplishment and I need to relish it and give up the old notion that I’d never be able to swim properly and breathe.
We then backed off of the breathing and went back to a drill we’d learned the previous day: trading arm positions, from trailing to leading, by pulling the ascending arm up the side of the body and alongside the head, while rotating slightly toward the other side. Then we learned to lift the elbow and drag the fingertips along the surface, putting the hand back into the water and making the body long, narrow, and gliding. The metaphor is that you pierce the water and swim through the hole. I think of it as slithering.
When the coach was reasonably satisfied with our alignment, stroke, and rhythm, she had us add the breathing back in. She said, count your arm strokes and get a rhythm: one, two, three, breathe, one, two, three… and on the three, you had to blow out and commit to turning the head to inhale. This worked in that I didn’t start coughing, but of course the form fell apart on the rest of the stroke, both for me and for the other guy. We took away the breathing again and ended on a successful note of re-practicing the stroke without the breathing. Well, not so successful for me because the coach is not yet able to get me to connect my arm and hip movements–but I’ll get it eventually. Water is an unfamiliar medium and body movements feel harder to keep track of.
We have now been through the rest of the drills, so tonight we will spend the time going through them again and putting them all together. I like this method of learning because it has broken down swimming into smaller components than lessons I’d had years ago, and I like that it removes the breathing problem until you’re ready to work on it. Until then, breathing is done by rolling onto the back in a previously practiced way. I can now rely on being able to do that instead of kicking upright and treading water to breathe, like I used to do.
This is a very long week. Besides the swimming class on four nights, I had the assistant-teaching of the Team Survivor class at the gym on Tuesday night as usual. That’s going well and I continue to appreciate how gracious the clients are and how hardworking, as well as how educational it is to work with a great coach like Dave. On Tuesday, I went straight from there to the swim class. As if the busy evenings this week aren’t enough, tomorrow and Sunday I’ll be in a CrossFit extravaganza all day both days. They call them “certification courses,” though in the past they haven’t focused on training trainers, but just in training people how to do the workouts properly–handy if you’ve been doing them on your own in your garage all this time. I’m happy to be going but it’s 40 miles away in Puyallup. No sleeping in for me this weekend.
I am going to be ready for some down time and some guitar-practicing time if I survive it all.

Team Survivor Fitness Class, Part 2

Last night was the second of the eight weekly Team Survivor classes at CrossFit North. Watching Dave with this mix of CrossFit beginners makes it more obvious than ever what a good coach he is. I hope I can absorb this and become a good trainer myself in the next few years. Some of the characteristics that I’ve noticed in Dave’s excellent coaching are:
Efficient communication of how to do an exercise properly and safely
Expertise: tell them what they need to know without going on and on
Listen to and consider questions and observations
Address statements such as “I can’t do that exercise” in a way that gets to the bottom of the problem without arguing
Respect for other people that lets him be expert without being dismissive
Good time management, accomplishing everything he said he would do within the class time
In two one-hour classes he’s covered the unweighted and lightly weighted (with a kettlebell) squat; sit-ups; kettlebell swings; pushups; hamstrings stretches; and lunge stretches. Last night I had a few opportunities to help individuals understand flexing the lats to stabilize the shoulders for push-ups, and how to help yourself fold at the hips for a hamstring stretch instead of bending at the waist and rounding the back. Other things I was able to do that I hope were helpful were to demo kettlebell swings and a good and bad lunge stretch, and to run the stopwatch during a circuit workout.


Last night we did a bunch of dumbbell/kettlebell overhead presses in order to get some traditional strength work in. I started with 12 kilos, pressed it on the left with no problem, and was stunned to find I couldn’t press it at all on the right. The weight sat at shoulder level as stubbornly as if I’d never pressed anything in my life. Sheesh! And I’m right handed. I switched to 8 kilos to warm up that side and did a lot of unweighted shoulder circles, then pressed the 8 kilos some more. Eventually I was able to press 12 kilos, and then 30 pounds, on both left and right. The fact that my right side is weaker when pressing tells me I really need to do more pressing.
Then for our main workout we did “Helen,” one of a few workouts where you win a Sub-10 t-shirt if you take less than ten minutes to finish.
Run 400 meters
21 kettlebell swings (16 kilos, for women)
12 pull-ups
…for three rounds. I finished in 11:10 and was happy with that. My first two runs were stronger than on previous Helens, although my last run was slow and painful. It’s been impossible for me not to focus on the cramp and on the desire to stop running on that third round. I suppose my slowness on the final run might be a large part of why I haven’t come close to ten minutes. To be sure I would need to be timed on each round.

Team Survivor Fitness Classes

I’ve been working out at CrossFit North for two years now. After one or two of Dave’s assistant trainers moved away, he asked me if I would help out with the Team Survivor fitness classes. They meet once a week for eight weeks at a time and consist of 20 to 25 women cancer survivors. Dave asked me about this back in July or August. At first I didn’t think I was competent and didn’t want to take on one more weekly scheduled activity, but I soon realized what a great opportunity it is to learn something new. Who knows, I might love training people. I should gravitate toward it because in the past I’ve chosen jobs in tutoring, technical writing, and now the helpdesk, all related to communication for the purpose of training.
Nancy gave me an interesting book on animal training to read, “Don’t Shoot the Dog,” which sounds inappropriate to training people, but is applicable because it goes into the psychology behind the ways people communicate. This is so interesting for its own sake that it didn’t matter that only part of the book’s focus was on humans. Training and learning are inherently interesting. Coincidentally, I had been starting to visualize teaching guitar some day (when my skills are more well rounded) when this Team Survivor opportunity arose.
The class started last night with training on an effective and healthy squat. It is so basic, but most people can’t do it well. Hip function and hamstrings and back flexibility are impaired by sedentary jobs and lack of exercise, so we squat balanced on our toes to avoid folding the hips and arching the back. Dave starts all training with the proper squat–weight on the heels, back upright. It takes a while (months, for me) to do it adequately, let alone comfortably and naturally. Last night Dave seemed very pleased to see that many of the women, most of whom had taken a similar class last year, either had a decent squat or improved quickly.
I found that the movements of 20 people who are exercising go by so fast that it’s hard to offer any tips at all. Often, by the time I had made up my mind to say something and had gotten close enough to say it, it was too late. Fortunately for me the women were all extremely nice and even seemed happy to have me there trying to help. I know they really like and trust Dave, so I guess whoever he chooses to help is all right with them. Anyway it made me feel good.
A few other exercises were covered during the hour and I felt optimistic that I’ll be more able to help as time goes on. I’m really looking forward to this learning process.

CrossFit Kettlebell Workout

Last night we did a kettlebell workout that I loved. (I love kettlebells!) These rounds were alternated with a partner so you had a short rest between rounds.
5 rounds, 10 each arm kettlebell snatch (16 kilos for me, 24 kilos for my young male teammate)
5 rounds, 5 each arm kettlebell clean and jerk (same weights as above)
5 rounds, 15 kettlebell swings (32 kilos for my partner, 32 for me on rounds 2, 3, and 5; 24 kilos rounds 1 and 4)
It felt like a classic CrossFit workout because when we started, the number of rounds seemed impossible. Five rounds of any one of those things would have been a workout. You just have to resist the urge to “do the math” or calculate how many of each drill you’re about to do.
My partner, Jackson, is a very nice young guy who has become a real powerhouse over the past year of eating the Zone diet and doing CrossFit. Everybody likes him. When we got to our five rounds of kettlebell swings, and I swung the 24 (the same as he used for his first round), he went into the storage room and trotted out a 32 for his next round. “This 24 is too light for us,” he said. I was flattered to be included, but really the 32 is very hard for me to swing. I can’t pop my hips forward fast enough to really sling it up there, so I use my back enough to tire it out. That’s why I went back to the 24 for round four. This was a fun workout and everybody seemed worn out by it. Which is a good thing.