Minute after minute of squats

After an extensive warm-up, including lightweight squats, we took turns doing back squats for two minutes to see how many we could do. We cycled through twice more for a minute each. We rested while others were using the same bar. I shared a bar with two other women so I had a good amount of rest. My reps at 40 kg:
2 minutes: 36
1 minute: 22
1 minute: 22
It was difficult. Whenever I do squats now, since reading the second edition of Starting Strength, I think of the author Mark Rippetoe’s description of his late teacher, who had cancer: “You have not witnessed determination until you have seen a man wearing an oxygen bottle do deep squats for sets of five across.” I love hearing about people who use their own desires and intentions to find out that something is possible that most people might not believe.
Tom and I, both having done that workout, went to bed very tired. Today we went to Scott’s Olympic weightlifting class. Luckily my program for today didn’t call for any type of squat until the last thing on my list. My O-lifting workout today involved cleans, military press, snatch pulls from blocks, and overhead squats (to 33 kg). Afterward, Tom stopped at the library and the bike shop on the way home, and I sat in the car. I felt too tired to stand up. Now I’ve had two naps this afternoon and am ready to go do something.
Also this morning I worked with a brand-new personal training client. She is young, flexible enough to squat well, has good movement patterns, and knows how to keep her back straight when exercising and lifting. But she was frustrated by being out of shape and seemed really down about it. I tried to convey to her how impressed I was with her completing the workout in spite of her frustration and with her potential for fast gains, given her innate advantages. From my perspective (at almost twice her age and having gone through an un-fit period myself) it would be a waste to stay unfit when getting strong would come so naturally. I hope she’ll decide to use her frustration to propel herself past this sticking point.

I’m offering a beginner’s kettlebell class in Seattle

If you’ve wanted to try working out with kettlebells, or try CrossFit-style workouts without joining the gym by the month, try my class. I’m offering a six-week, 12-session class for $125. In each class I’ll teach a few new exercises and then we’ll do a group workout.
Start date: Monday, Feb. 11
End date: Thursday, March 20
Times and days: Mondays and Thursdays, 7:00 PM
Location: CrossFit Seattle in Fremont
To sign up, email me at: fran at crossfitseattle dot com
Here’s the PDF flyer for the kettlebell class.

Protect your back by maintaining a neutral spine

I had the opportunity yesterday to talk with a group of trainees about what I’ve learned (so far) from Dr. Stuart McGill’s book Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance (3rd Ed.). I used my reading and yesterday’s talk to develop the article below. This is my understanding of Dr. McGill’s neutral spine awareness exercises and how to apply them on yourself.
You probably know someone who hurt their back while picking up a newspaper, getting up from a chair, carrying something, or doing other simple things. If this has happened to you, you can learn to protect your back and increase your chance of avoiding a recurrence. Give yourself permission to practice some posture skills. Posture may seem so basic that it should just happen, and should not require practice. But this is a misconception. Posture is so basic that if it’s done wrong in movement it causes injury, and if it’s done wrong at rest it aggravates old injuries or creates vulnerability for new ones. In any skill system, the basics are always worth practicing.
Find the neutral spine while standing
1. Stand with your weight on both feet. Put your thumbs on your hips and reach behind you with your fingers. Press the fingertips into the vertical muscles alongside the spine in your lower back. These are the lumbar extensors. Are they soft or hard in your normal standing posture?
2. Tilt your hips slightly forward, feeling the lumbar extensor muscles all the while. The butt pokes back and the back slightly arches; this is lumbar extension. You should feel the lumbar extensors harden.
3. Tilt your hips slightly back (pelvis pokes forward). You should feel the lumbar extensors relax and then stretch slightly. This is lumbar flexion.
4. Now adjust, or level, your hips (still feeling the lumbar extensors with your fingers) until you feel the lumbar extensors soften. They are relaxed, and this is the neutral spine position.
5. Without losing the neutral spine, carefully lower your hands to your sides normally and lift your chest. This should be a comfortable standing posture. It spares the lumbar extensors for other tasks and it helps keep your intervertebral discs healthy. Learn to stand this way.
How to practice: Whenever you find yourself standing, such as in line, feel the lumbar extensors and relax them, then carefully remove your hands (without changing hip position) and lift your chest. Learn eventually, through practice, to feel your way into this position without using your hands. Ideally it will become your natural stance.
Abdominal bracing: maintain the neutral spine during movement
1. Feel your lumbar extensors with your fingers as described above, and find the neutral spine position.
2. Contract your abdominals as if bracing for a punch. Don’t suck them in; clench them. Feel the abs harden and stick out a little. Feel the lumbar extensors harden when the abs harden.
3. Contract the abs hard and you have a girdle of support all the way around your spine from back to front. The abs have three layers; contracting them hard makes all the layers stiffen together, for an extra-stiff or solid effect similar to the layered stiffness of plywood. This is the “abdominal brace.” You’ve locked your ribcage to your pelvis, or locked in the neutral spine.
4. Put one hand on your tummy and one hand flat on your lower back, brace your abdominals again, push your butt back to hinge at the hips, and go down into a squat without letting your spine come unlocked. If your spine unlocks, you’ll feel it in the hand that is flat on your lower back. Stand up and correct it and try again. Don’t worry about hitting a really deep squat position. Go as low as you can without flexing (bending or rounding) your lower back.
The goal is to immobilize the spine and pelvis in relation to each other, or “lock the rib cage onto the pelvis.” Mobility comes from the hips and legs and not from the back.
How to practice: Try holding the neutral spine with the abdominal brace in different positions, such as (1) kneeling, (2) leaning on a wall, (3) on all fours, (4) while leaning down to lift something off of a chair seat, and (5) while picking something up off of the floor. If you’re in doubt whether you’re in neutral spine position before you start, then put your hands flat on the tummy and back as described above and do a few knee bends with your back straight and your abs braced before you lift anything or move to a new practice position.
Use the glutes
1. Contracting the large muscles in your butt contributes to the solidity of the abdominal brace and further protects your spine when you lift (or when you lift yourself up from a low position).
2. While kneeling, get into the neutral spine position and brace your abs.
3. Contract (stiffen) your glutes without moving your hips. Feel the added rigidity throughout your torso. Do this whenever you lift, especially if you lift something from below waist level.
How to practice: While holding the neutral spine with the abdominal brace, fold at the hips and knees to squat down. (It’s fine to hold onto something for balance.) Stiffen your glutes and then stand up straight. Do this several times to get the feeling for how to add stiffness to your torso while lifting something or lifting yourself.

Kettlebell Line-up

Dave lined up one of each size of kettlebell in order of increasing size: 8 kg, 12 kg, 16, 18, 20, 24.
Workout:
Do 10 two-hand swings with each kettlebell starting with the smallest, then go back to the start.
Do 10 one-hand swings (5 per side) with each, go back to start.
Do 10 cleans (5 per side) with each, go back to start.
Do 10 clean/front squat (5 per side) with each, back to start.
Do 10 clean and press (or push-press) with each, go back to start.
Do 10 two-hand swings as a cooldown (and appreciate how easy it is compared to the harder drills).
I got as far as doing all the cleans and front squats as prescribed but fell apart slightly on the clean and push-press. I did that with the 20 kg three times per side, and with the 24 kg, twice per side, with a short break in between where I set the bell down. I was really happy to be able to get the 24 overhead at all, especially with my weaker right shoulder, let alone twice.