The CrossFit Tween

Every day you come into UB to do a class, you make a choice - to RX, or not to RX?

For the high-level CrossFit athlete, RX’ing a WOD is usually a foregone conclusion. On the other end of the spectrum, a CrossFit newbie relies on the scaled version of a WOD to ensure they can actually perform the movements and get the work done safely.  But what about the CrossFit tweens?  How do the awkward middle grounders scale? Who have a bar muscle up not 15? Who have double unders but not consistently strung together? Who have a clean clean, but not at 185 for reps? 

If you fall into the tween category, there are a couple of questions you should ask yourself as you approach your daily workout:

  • What is the intention of the workout? 

Your goal of the WOD is never to RX or not.  Instead, it should be to satisfy the intention of the workout.  Is the WOD after a high intensity sweat-fest?  Is it focusing on serious strength gains?  Is it a skill-tastic WOD day?  The intention of the workout is a great guide for how to apply your efforts and scaling decisions.  If you can't tell, ask your coach!  That's what we are here for.  Our scaling answer might surprise you, but our recommendations are based on our combined knowledge of the intended purpose of the WOD along with your skills as an athlete. 

  • Can you stay safe and consistent?

Safety is another crucial deciding factor in choosing to scale.  If you can only string together one or two deadlifts at 185, should you really struggle through 45?  If you lose form on a kettlebell swing after a few reps, should you commit to that weight for a workout?  If you just got your muscle up, should you really spend 5 minutes each round flailing on the rings? 

When you approach the WOD do you think “screw it, I’m racing the clock and I’m go to finish THIS WOD with THIS WEIGHT and no ones going to stop me,” or do you calculate risk?  Yes, we want you to challenge yourself, but it is very important to us that you can leave the box under your own power and come back the next day for more.  Doing a WOD inefficiently and inconsistently with repeated reps just to say you did RX is asking for trouble, and it feeds the CrossFit trolls when you invariably get hurt. Don’t feed the trolls, people.

  • Can you split your effort?

Scaling doesn't have to be black and white.  You can split how you scale in a workout.  This is especially the case for skill-based scaling.  Here are a couple scenarios where you might try it out

- If you always go for singles instead of doubles because just aren't that consistent.... you will never get consistent.  But if the idea of fighting for each and every double under in a WOD makes you want to punch a wall, perhaps you can split your effort.  In a 5 round WOD, do singles on rounds 1, 3, 5 and doubles on rounds 2 & 4.
- In a WOD with 7 HSPU per round, consider doing 3 RX HSPU every round and the scale the remaining reps in each round.
- If the rhythm of a full snatch is getting you down, maybe you break down your 10 reps into 5 power snatches and 5 hang squat snatches so you can work the components.

The point is if you sell yourself as always scaling a movement and never try it, how will you ever get better at it?

No matter where you are on the scaling spectrum - remember, scaling is never a point of shame.  It is a matter of getting the most out of each and every workout and aspiring to be the best version of yourself.

So You're Starting to Plateau....

Starting out in CrossFit is great - everyday is filled with new challenges and skills. Then you start to get the hang of it, and it's PR city. You can't touch a barbell without PRing. You feel stronger and more capable everyday. You are on the fast track to badassdom, and it just keeps coming. You are unstoppable. And then, just like that, it happens... PRs start to slip away, the weight loss slows down and the frustration kicks in -- you wonder why CrossFit isn't working anymore. And then one morning you decide it's cold outside and you elect to battle it out with your snooze button instead of coming in for your morning WOD. Then one missed class turns into two, and suddenly 2 weeks have gone by since you have come into the gym and we coaches have gotten the torches out and are ready to send out the search party.......

If any part of this sounds familiar - don't fret. Despite your frustration, this is a temporary phase - a growing pain of your fitness journey. The important thing to remember is you are the tortoise, not the hare. Just because you have stopped making regular gains does not mean you have met the maximum of your fitness potential. What it does mean is that you have hit a plateau. But I will repeat - this is not permanent. There are some simple changes you can make to your routine to break this barrier and start feeling like a badass again:

  • Talk to your coach - Your coach sees you on the regular, and they might have some insight as to where you should be focusing your attention.  Be accountable for your fitness journey - schedule 5 minutes with them and ask!
  • Change your class time - sometimes getting out of a rut can be as simple as surrounding yourself with different athletes and a different coach. New people in your routine might help you push yourself and give you the boost you need.
  • Mix-up your intensity - if you have been choosing heavier weights for WODs to push your strength, try going a little lighter and turning up the speed (with good form). After a couple weeks, try switching back and test it out.
  • Tweak your nutrition - maybe you've been allowing more cheat meals. Maybe you've been eating the exact same thing every single day. Just like with your exercise, you need to have variety in your diet. Mix it up and dial it in.
  • Focus on recovery and mobility - the right mobility work will do wonders for you. The only hard part is figuring out which one you need. Talk to your coach and take some extra time to make sure you are addressing your issues. They just might be what's holding you back.

With any changes you make to your routine, overall remember to be patient. Most people have the potential to be good or even great athletes if they allow themselves the patience to stick it out.

Decoding Pain: Discomfort V. Dysfunction

Scenario: You are mid WOD. It's rough. You are 7 overhead squats in on your last round. You have 3 left before you go on your run. Cue a numbness in your right thumb and a twinging pain in your wrist and forearm. Do you stop? Or do you suck it up and do your last 3 squats?

Rarely do people elect to not finish a workout. And why would they? CrossFit is designed to push our limits - so working through a little discomfort is just part of the deal - right? ...Well? Yes and no. It is important to know the difference between discomfort and dysfunction.

Discomfort is the result of challenging your physical capacity. It's a natural part of high intensity workouts. Working through your discomfort causes physical adaptation and mental fortitude. Finishing despite it means next time you will be faster and stronger. Discomfort, and learning to deal with it, is good.

Dysfunction on the other hand is trouble. It is the pain signifying technical faults, mobility limitations, and improper muscle firing. The pains of dysfunction are little red flags, which if ignored, lead down the path to injury.

The trouble is, both discomfort and dysfunction can cause pain. Actively listening to your body's signals is the only way to diagnose and handle pain appropriately. When you feel something start to hurt. Take a quick mental second to check in. Is this good pain or bad pain? Is something wrong or do you just need to suck it up? For example, in the scenario above, you should have the awareness to stop yourself before you injure yourself. You might be strong, fast, and fiercely fit, but you're not immune to injury.

There's only one you. Train smart!

There's only one you. Train smart!

Get a Grip

At the end of a solid CrossFit week, I expect some of you have some unhappy forearms. While we feel your pain, we also want you to hear the wake up call to get a grip.

How is your grip? No, I'm not talking about your handshake (but if that's weak too... get on it). I am talking about your actual grip strength - the most commonly overlooked aspect of athletic training.

Having a hearty grip and developed hand strength is indispensable to every sport - even down to synchronized swimming. As a lifter or CrossFitter, your grip is essential to the intensity of your strength training.

There are four different kinds of grip strengths. Just like with anything else, you should strive to have a balance.

PINCH STRENGTH

Your pinch strength is your ability to pinch weight between your thumb and fingers. Try gripping two weight plates together in one hand - work up to two #25's.

CRUSH STRENGTH

This is the must popular grip to train. This is the strength you feel when you shake someone's hand and squeeze. The "gripper" is the most popular training device to develop crush strength.

SUPPORTING STRENGTH

Supporting strength is the grip strength used to hold things like a barbell, tennis racket or pull up bars. Farmer's walks are a great exercise to develop supporting strength. Things like bar hangs are good to develop grip endurance.

OPENING STRENGTH

This is your ability to open your hand. It tends to be the least practiced in terms of building strength. The best exercise for this is rubber bands around the fingers and spreading them open.

So go grab something. Be creative. There are fun activities that can help (think rock climbing, bouldering, or tug of war). Just remember - don't practice on your friends - they'll practice back.

Callus Maintenance

If you are a CrossFitter, chances are you have some mean looking callused hands - especially if you did Friday's pull ups and kettlebell WOD madness.  You probably wear them with pride - after all, they show your dedication because they took time to build.  And calluses are good.  They will protect your hands and allow you to handle higher numbers on your barbell and your pull ups.  But in order for them to serve their purpose, you need to maintain them.  This means keeping them thin enough that they don't raise or pinch while using them on a bar or a kettlebell.  And how do you do that, you ask?  Sure, you could pick at them at your desk in your cubicle (yes, you are still in public) - or even better, bite at your palm while on an awkward first date.  But generally you want to shave, grind or file them down as you start to notice them getting a little thick, keeping them thin and smooth.  People use all sorts of tools for this - a Ped Egg, strong nail file, pumice stone, callus shaver, sanitary scissors, or even sand paper at the gym for a quick, pre-WOD fix.

When Your Callus Strikes Back

Sometimes you over-grip, or you forget your callus maintenance, and you tear or get a blood blister.  What then?  If you have a simple blood blister, I recommend you leave it.  After time, it will get pushed to your surface skin, and you can peel it off like a scab (I know, sexy, right?).  If you tear however, there are a few steps you should follow:

First, cut off any flaps of skins and clean out the wound.  Apply some stinger spray or other type of antiseptic. To cover it, I see people using all sorts of different band-aids, liquid band-aids, tape, etc., but I recommend Nexcare Waterproof Tape because you can wear it during a workout and it adheres to the form of your hand better than other types of bandaging.

That night do a hot salt water soaks with Epsom salt.  Then soak a black tea bag in water then tape it to your tear over night.  Ignore the discoloration - it'll go away in a couple days, but the tea will actually help.

Try keep it moist with a salve like Kiehl's "Superbly Restorative Argan Skin Salve" to prevent it from the top layer drying out and cracking open.   Continue to keep it covered -  this is will also speed the healing process.

That's it!  So maintain your calluses... and happy healing!

Food for Thought: Breathing Air Before Fire

We've been talking to you about bracing a lot lately in class... Here is another article on how to breath properly and putting it into practice.  I knowOriginally published on the CrossFit Journal.

Other than bracing for a heavy lift, most CrossFit athletes don’t pay much attention to breathing technique—inside or outside the gym.

Jill Miller has studied anatomy and movement for more than 27 years, working on the links between the worlds of fitness, yoga, massage and pain management. She is the author of “The Roll Model: A Step-by-Step Guide to Erase Pain, Improve Mobility and Live Better in Your Body.”

“Breathing happens automatically about 20,000 times a day,” Miller said. “Think about doing 20,000 burpees (with bad form) in a day. What havoc would that wreak on your system?”

We are born breathing perfectly, but over the years many people develop poor breathing techniques. Breathing is a foundational movement that provides both trunk control and mental acuity, and Miller said an athlete who practices breath mechanics has a performance advantage.

“When the crushing pressure of competition deflates capacity, the skilled breather can inflate him- or herself to rise above any challenge,” she said.

Note the deep belly breath on the left compared to the engaged abdominal muscles on the right.

Note the deep belly breath on the left compared to the engaged abdominal muscles on the right.

(Both: Colleen Baz/CrossFit Journal)

(Both: Colleen Baz/CrossFit Journal)

How to Breathe Correctly

First, the bad news: To breathe properly, you have to inflate your belly.

If you’re anything like me, you’ve spent much of your adult life holding your stomach tight, hoping to avoid the slightest appearance of a belly. Shallow breathing, using the chest and not the diaphragm, does not allow you to get as much oxygen as you could. This can increase heart rate, which causes stress and anxiety and can contribute to high blood pressure.

When you breathe in and your belly expands, your diaphragm contracts, allowing space in your chest cavity for the lungs to fill. This causes a decrease in pressure, allowing air to flow into the lungs. Breathing out moves the diaphragm back to its original position. With shallow chest breathing, you aren’t making as much room and can’t fill your lungs as much as when you take a deep belly breath. As this video shows, we are born knowing how to belly breathe. It’s something babies do instinctively, expanding their bellies with each breath.

Miller said when we suck in our stomachs while breathing, we keep tension in the transversus abdominis muscle, which runs along the front and side of the abdominal wall, deeper than the oblique muscles.

“The transversus abdominis is stitched into the same fascial fabric or fascial continuity as the respiratory diaphragm. So the respiratory diaphragm could be seen as the stocking cap on the top of the transversus abdominis,” Miller said.

The respiratory diaphragm is tethered to these abdominal muscles and can only move as much as they allow.

If your abs are constantly tight, the diaphragm can’t go through its range of motion, which is a descent on inhalation, she said.

“When the diaphragm goes down, your gut bloats and you get a little baby belly temporarily. And when you exhale, the diaphragm slides back in towards its rib attachments and hides away in there, and everything kind of gets suctioned up. If you are walking around pulling your belly button toward your spine or acting like you have a weight belt on at all times, you are going stifle the diaphragm’s movements,” Miller said.

The heart sits on top of the diaphragm; Miller calls the diaphragm a mattress for your heart. Shallow chest breaths don’t move the heart around as much.

“Your cardiac and respiratory tissues are interconnected—always have and always will be. When there is excessive tension on any tissue, it impedes tissue function. A restricted diaphragm that does not move well can impede the natural assistance it provides to the vena cava (your major vein running into the heart) to promote ease of blood flow,” Miller said via email.

Chest or clavicular breathing—which occurs when you lift your shoulders up to your ears and don’t fill your belly—mimics the type of breathing common during stress, in fright or after difficult physical exertion.

“You see this all the time in athletes. They will run up and down the court, and they will partially hinge over, hands on their knees, and drop their head down and try to catch their breath. And you will see their shoulders are up by their ears,” Miller said.

This is fine when we’re struggling to catch our breath during or at the end of a difficult workout, but it’s not a good way to breathe habitually. In a workout, athletes must often use thoracic breathing. Athletes need to maintain abdominal tension at times, and belly breathing isn't always possible. Imagine trying to take a deep belly breath while doing heavy push presses. At times like that, athletes must expand their ribs to take in air while bracing the spine with the core muscles. Unfortunately, most of us unthinkingly use shallow thoracic breathing when hunched over a computer or phone.

“And so you have this false-clavicular-breath posture that many of us are holding from a day-to-day basis, and that’s something you definitely want to address in your self-care routine and in your awareness of your breathing,” Miller said. “You don’t want to be breathing up into your trapezius or your scapula all the time. You want to have a rhythm of breathing that happens below the collarbone.”

This common post-WOD posture can be troublesome if you replicate it by elevating your shoulders and taking shallow breaths when working at a computer. (Piero Lupino/CrossFit Journal)

This common post-WOD posture can be troublesome if you replicate it by elevating your shoulders and taking shallow breaths when working at a computer. (Piero Lupino/CrossFit Journal)

Performance Breathing

Deep, diaphragmatic breathing helps athletic performance by sending more oxygen to the muscles, improving muscular endurance.

Another advantage of deep breathing: It relaxes the body. Anyone who has tried to do a high-skill gymnastics or weightlifting movement when panicked or anxious knows the value of relaxed energy in athletics.

So how do you break a bad habit you’ve been practicing most of your life?

You’ll need to start outside the gym—or at least not in the middle of a workout.

Miller said a yoga class is a good place to learn and practice breathing strategies. If yoga isn’t your thing, Miller said studying voice, hiring a vocal teacher or joining a choir can also correct breathing habits.

“You will probably learn some phenomenal breathing mechanics, and if you like being in groups, then that might be something that is actually fun,” Miller said of singing lessons.

Try taking a deep belly breath while slouched. It doesn't work well, so you can imagine what poor posture does to breathing over the course of a day. (Thomas Campitelli/CrossFit Journal)

Try taking a deep belly breath while slouched. It doesn't work well, so you can imagine what poor posture does to breathing over the course of a day. (Thomas Campitelli/CrossFit Journal)

To get the hang of diaphragmatic breathing, lie on your back. Put a hand on your chest and one below your ribcage. Breathe in slowly and deeply through your nose, making sure you can feel your stomach move with your hand. Exhale through pursed lips. Throughout, the hand on the chest shouldn't move much. After you get the hang of diaphragmatic breathing while lying down, practice the technique while sitting in a chair.

Once you’ve practiced this style of breathing, either in a yoga class or at home, you can start incorporating it into your workouts.

Miller suggests isolating portions of the workout so you can observe how your body breathes in reaction to the exercise you are doing and the moments in between. At times you'll need to employ deep belly breathing for best results, but at other times thoracic breaths will help you perform better.

“Just let yourself be coached, but your inner coach is observing you breathing every time you breathe. That’s what yogis do. Every single breath is observed (during yoga practice). It’s an incredible way to sharpen your mind and get familiar with the behavior of your breath,” Miller said.

Miller recommends you pay attention to your breathing as much as you can during the workout, using it to stabilize during a heavy lift or to calm down during rest periods. Your focus will go in and out as the workout progresses, but make an effort to check in on the quality of your breathing as often as you can.

Another way to observe and control your breathing is to try a breathing-ladder workout. The simplest version of a breathing ladder is an ascending scheme of one rep followed by one deep, controlled breath. Kettlebell swings are most commonly used, but you can select other movements.

A one-to-10 kettlebell breathing ladder starts with one kettlebell swing followed by one breath, then two kettlebell swings followed by two breaths. You can breathe as much as you want while you’re swinging the kettlebell, but you can only take the prescribed number of breaths during the rests. So eight swings are followed by only 8 breaths, and then it’s back to the kettlebell. If done heavy enough and with enough reps, a breathing ladder induces a panicked type of breathing. Being aware of this type of breathing, and learning how to control it, is valuable when you find yourself in a situation where you’re gasping for breath.

Keep your breaths deep when doing a breathing ladder and see if you can resist switching to shallow, panicked breathing, even under stress. Then see if you can improve your breath control and avoid panic breathing in other workouts.

Grace Under Pressure

How might a belt affect your breathing before a workout? (Colleen Baz/CrossFit Journal)

How might a belt affect your breathing before a workout? (Colleen Baz/CrossFit Journal)

Practicing breathing isn’t a showy, Instagram-worthy skill, but it can be done anywhere without any special equipment.

The next time you walk into the gym and see something terrifying on the whiteboard, something that causes your shoulders to rise up to your ears, stop and take 10 deep diaphragmatic breaths. Then use that relaxed energy and go attack the workout.

Updated 11 a.m. PT, Jan. 26, 2018, to include additional information on thoracic breathing.

About the Author: Hilary Achauer is a freelance writer and editor specializing in health and wellness content. In addition to writing articles, online content, blogs and newsletters, Hilary writes for the CrossFit Journal. To contact her, visit hilaryachauer.com.

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Mastering Your Bodyweight

On the road to becoming a strong CrossFit ninja - people often take body weight movement for granted. Many consider it foundational, but not an essential part of everyday training. However mastering your body weight develops strength, coordination, proprioception, balance and flexibility -- just to name a few. The problem is when people think body weight movement, they don't see the whole picture. Rows, pushups, squats for the beginner and muscle ups and handstand pushups for the advanced athlete -- what more can there be? For those of you who are somewhere in the middle (most people), there are progressions that will can help you grow and bring you closer to ninja-hood.

So where should you start? I would recommend looking at the progressions on Gymnastics WOD by Carl Paoli. You can also check out Convict Conditioning, which breaks down body weight movement into great bite size progressions. You could also try Building the Gymanstics Body for even further reading. Start with the website, make one month, 3 month, and 6 month goals for yourself... and get to work!  Have other recommendations to becoming a body weight champion?  Post to comments!

Food for Thought: Control vs Concern

More delicious mindset food for thought from Comptrain.  Want your mindset to take you to the next level in the 2018 House Cup?  Get in on Coach Jason's Mindset Seminar February 11th!

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As athletes, there are only five things that we can truly control—our training, nutrition, sleep, recovery, and mindset. If it doesn’t fall into one of those categories, forget about it. Control the things you can control and ignore everything else. 

The above diagram illustrates some of the most commonly overheard topics in the athlete warm-up area at the CrossFit Games (or any other competition). Most of them are concerns that lie outside of the athletes’ control.

This concept of control versus concern is the cornerstone of the process, and—like everything else—it requires some practice. 

Before the Games each year, as a mental exercise, CompTrain’s elite athletes (Katrin Davidsdottir, Brooke Wells and Cole Sager) make a list. They write down every possible thing they can think of that could go wrong at the CrossFit Games. No stone is left unturned—the final 2017 list had 101 items on it, and included things like the weather, alarm clocks not going off, nutritional distress, judges miscounting reps, travel delays, and shark attacks. We named the list “101 Things That Could Go Wrong At The Games,” then went through it one by one, categorizing each item into things we could and couldn’t control. The things we couldn’t control got erased from our mind, and the things we could control got a plan. 

A huge piece of chasing excellence is attention to tiny details, but the key distinction is that you pay attention to the right details, the ones within your control over which you have power. Most people go through life having no idea what they can actually control. They’re concerned about a lot of things, but that doesn’t mean they control those things. Many people struggle to recognize the difference between the two. Imagine a book of matches. A typical matchbook has 20 matches, and together, they represent all of your energy for the day. Energy is a finite resource; once it’s gone, you can’t get it back. If you burn through your matchsticks on things that are outside your control, you have less energy for things you can control—things that can actually move the needle on your performance.

In the sport of CrossFit, there is so much that lies beyond our control. All of the buzz in the athlete area falls into this category. No amount of concern will enable us to control things like the weather, workouts, standards, judges, or other athletes. Whether we’re training in December at home or competing at the Games in July, we train our mind not to focus on anyone’s performance but own own. At the end of the day, the only competition is with ourselves. 

Sleep Posture

As a very pregnant human, I think a lot about sleep and sleep posture... but this is a topic y'all should be considering!

You will hear us say posture is an important skill - you have to actively work to improve it. Posture influences how you move, think, and recover. But did you know it's a skill you can work on while you sleep? Sleep posture plays a big role in your overall posture and physical well being.  Think about it.  You spend a lot of hours on that mattress.  That position you habitually sleep is a big contributor to your mobility issues you have to deal with during your waking hours. Do you sleep on your stomach? This often creates a very asymmetrical cervical spine range of motion that influences the rest of the spine all the way down to the lumbar spine and the sacrum (low back pain anyone?).  Pile those pillows high?  Look for a forward head posture issues. Do you curl your wrists in and hug an imaginary teddy bear while on your side?  Watch for neck pain, diminished bad wrist mobility, and a whole lot of shoulder of issues.  Tuck your feet tight into your sheets so they point down like a ballerina?  Check your ankle mobility... you see where I am going here.  Don't take your sleep posture for granted.

How should you sleep then?  The answers vary. The two most ideal positions are either on your back or on your side.

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Side Sleeping

If you choose to sleep on your side, you’ll need enough support under your neck to keep your spine neutral and be able to maintain stacked hips. Some find using a body pillow is great support. If a big body pillow doesn't suit you, you can get away with a regular pillow or a bolster pillow for the knees, and a pillow under the neck. When you are in a neutral position, you should not feel the need or desire to curl your wrists to tuck under your head or neck, bring one leg down in front of the other, or sleep with your head on top of your arm or shoulder.

Back Sleeping

If you prefer to sleep on your back, make sure your neck is properly supported (too high can be just as bad as too low). Make sure your neck is not pushed too far forward by too many pillows.  If someone were to look at you from the side, your neck should be in line with your body and not in front of it.  You can lie with your head flat on the mattress if you’d like. A pillow under your knees can provide extra comfort (some people even prefer two pillows or a bolster to elevate their legs a bit more). Make sure the sheets aren't pulling your feet down, untuck them if you need to necessary. This position will maintain a neutral, supported spine while promoting optimal blood flow.

Do these positions sound crazy?  Are you willing to give them a try?  Changing your sleep habits takes time, but happy, healthy slumbers are well worth the effort and the postural benefits will pay you back in dividends!