I started experimenting with CrossFit about four years ago. Since that time I have learned much as I continue to discover CrossFit. However, in the past year I’ve had the opportunity to train, communicate, and coach with more CrossFit athletes than I once thought existed. This has exposed me to more information than ever, and here I present some of the larger conclusions I’ve drawn based on the past year of being a trainer and trainee at CrossFit Impulse.
Less is more. Many athletes, including myself, try to train too often, too intensely, with too little recovery. We try to force our bodies to adapt more quickly than they are able with the genetic, social, and environmental hand they’re dealt. If you are confident in your work ethic and dedication to fitness, then when in doubt, take a rest day. I think you may be better off in decades to come because of it.
Rippetoe was right. Renowned strength coach Mark Rippetoe once said, “Strength is the most general of the ten general physical skills.” The number one thing that beginning athletes are missing is strength. Number two is endurance. Perhaps this is why large fitness cultures exist centered solely around these two attributes: bodybuilding and running. In a perfect world I would start beginning athletes with a 12-week strength program similar to Rippetoe’s Starting Strength or Bill Starr’s Holy Trinity programs and include ample body weight assistance exercises. However, CrossFit training does build strength quickly and is a lot more fun.
The past decade matters—a lot. We tend to focus on our bodies’ relatively short-term adaptations. How many pullups can I do today versus last month? What is my Fran time compared to 6 months ago? However, we must acknowledge the role of general physical activity over a lifetime in preparing for those adaptations. I’ll use myself as an example, not because I’m special in any way, but because it’s the example I know best. My first job was hauling hay when I was about 12 years old. From then until I joined the USMC after college, all of my jobs save two were in manual labor. I also did regular globo-gym strength training throughout high school and early college. In short, I beat up my body consistently throughout 10 years. I was absolutely not a well-trained athlete, but I was indeed eliciting a response from my body, building strength in muscles and connective tissues and building some level of coordination. It’s only recently dawned on me that a long term, low-intensity history of physical activity can pave the way for high-intensity training like CrossFit. This explains why it’s sometimes difficult and painful for new athletes just to hang motionlessly from a pullup bar. This affects programming, scaling, work/rest cycles—everything. An athlete with 10 years of physical activity, even if it’s just the physical activity of a demanding daily life, can approach training much more aggressively than the truly sedentary.
Don’t be scared of fat. It’s been difficult for me to fully accept this contradiction of conventional wisdom, but fat on your dinner plate does not get sent directly to your waistline after digestion. Ample amounts of fat not only fuel our activity, but they provide the feeling of satiation that keeps us from overeating. In short, I’m now convinced that monounsaturated fat is definitely healthy, even in far greater amounts than prescribed by the Zone Diet. I’m still on the fence on saturated fat. I’ve found plenty of research on both sides of the subject that literally give sound, factually supported, contradictory conclusions. I am not satisfied with either side’s conclusions, as trials rarely control the participants’ diets closely enough to eliminate other contributing factors.
Total caloric intake is important. Yes, quality food is the first step. Yes, healthy macronutrient portions are the next step. I now think controlling total caloric intake is the third step. Furthermore, after the first two steps are mastered, total food intake has a lot of potential to affect body composition. This ties into eating plenty of fat. If you consume enough fat then you will feel full and not be driven to eat excessively. For example, I previously consumed 19-20 blocks per day with fat proportions exactly as specified by the Zone Diet. I then went to a system of adding 1 protein block to each meal and deleting 1 carb block from each meal. This seemed to improve my overall satisfaction with meals, but I still ate the same daily volume. Finally, I started adding fat and found I could not finish my daily allocation of food. I now eat 16-18 blocks per day with significant added fat in the morning and evening and 1 extra fat block per meal throughout the day. I think my body composition has continued to improve with this system, and my performance has not decreased. I’m also able to go longer between meals. Because of the added fat I eat in the morning, sometimes lunchtime rolls around before I’m hungry again.
The “Can’t Do” List. At the Southeast Regional Games I saw a tshirt from CrossFit Hardcore that said, “It’s not who you are that’s holding you back. It’s who you think you’re not.” This quote really spoke to me. I realized that throughout my journey in CrossFit I had often defined myself by what I could not do: I could not beat Hudson at metcons. I could not beat Kevin at anything whatsoever. I could not put 250 pounds overhead like Jakub. Over time I found that those tasks were indeed possible (albeit, quite unusual). However, acknowledging that something was possible changed each and every workout for me. After I stopped defining myself by how much worse than someone else I was supposed to be and started just doing my absolute best, my results started improving. However, I still have a “can’t do” list in my head, and every WOD is an exercise in getting rid of it. I urge you to get rid of your own “can’t do” list. Find the athlete that you think you can’t beat and try to stay one rep ahead of him/her the entire WOD. It may not happen the first time, but eventually you’ll succeed, and that will change the game for you forever.
A balance of fear. Fear is both friend and enemy. It keeps us from achieving all we can, but it also keeps us alive. Too much of it and you can’t achieve anything. Too little and you’ll quickly kill yourself. The amount of inherent fear in a human being seems to be tied to a lifetime of factors that transpire long before they enter our box, and as much as I’d like, I cannot change it. Even if I could, I have no illusion that my personal tolerance for fear is the one and correct way to exist. However, I do see people overcome fear every day, and it often happens in giant leaps rather than baby steps. I personally deal with fear by fully accepting that the outcome I fear is possible, but then equally accepting that it is very unlikely. I finish by acknowledging that with those odds I want the positive outcome badly enough to try, even if the negative outcome arises. Yes, I 100% understand that I may rack myself on a max effort box jump, but I want it enough that I am willing to try anyway. That probably won’t work for everyone, but it works for me.
What have you learned in your journey with CrossFit? Do you disagree with anything above? Let me know in the comments, so we can all keep learning.
10 thoughts on “A Year of Learning”
Jeff: This article speaks to me like that shirt spoke to you. I relate to each paragraph like you were writing it specifically to me in an email. I am using the titles of your paragraphs to subdivide my goals for the next year. I am going to pick one very specific goal for each of those paragraphs that I want to reach in the next year, with the ultimate goal being to compete in a Crossfit Competition on or around my 40th birthday (next summer). Thanks for putting your time and effort into each and every facet of the athletes that you train and teach and learn from.
Greg, I’m honored that you found the article valuable. I definitely feel like I learn from all of you as much or more than I teach, so thanks for helping me figure out all this stuff!
Great article as always Jeff. I concur in totality with each of the parts of your article. Two things specifically speak to me – 1. rest and 2. assessing the new athlete with an eye towards their specific makeup.
While each passing week sees me add weight and movements back to my repertoire after the injury to my disc I’ve decided that the rupture most likely occurred not during the deadlifts, but began with a large volume of 2 pood swings from the day before. My body told me to take the day off but I didn’t listen. Sometimes less truly is more.
I’ve also picked up two training partners who are new to CrossFit but seem to be ready to give it a go. Immediately I was able to see that my concept of training, even when I began CrossFit two years ago, was different than their concept of training and that if I wanted them to continue with the program there would be some concessions made to allow for a run up to full speed.
It is sometimes easy to take a myopic view on training as presented by the ultra athletes promoted on the mainsite as the ultimate end point, however I doubt that anyone got into the sport in order to stand on the podium at the Home Depot Center or crush a 2 minute Fran. As you point out, this is ultimately about the journey of life and how CrossFit can make that journey easier and more fulfilling.
If I could put each word of this on a t-shirt it would be on the screen right now. Nice Article! I agree with Greg, I felt like this hit home for me in many aspects of my CrossFit Journey. I am coming up on one year and I think I want to see if I can complete the workout that I got at the CrossFit Huntsville orientation.
Another awesome article Jeff. The attitude part really spoke to me. Definitely what is holding me back on a lot.
I am going to have to take you up on your offer to disagree with you though. Your paragraph about overtraining does address an important point. A lot of us tend to over do it to our detriment. On the other hand the greatest crossfiters train multiple times in a day. This leads me to believe that higher volume does contribute to greater fitness when kept in check with proper recovery.
Hudson, I agree that fact is at odds with my opinion in the article. I suppose that in most of us discipline for proper recovery may wane in comparison to discipline for training. Perhaps if I slept more each night and gave more emphasis to mobility work and normalizing tissue (foam rolling, deep tissue massage, etc) then I’d think differently.
John and Steven, great info. Thanks guys.
What are the tradeoffs in tinkering with macronutrient composition of meals?
In the caloric-intake paragraph, you decreased overall blocks but added fat, and this jibes with my recollection of Russell Berger saying he eats quintuple fat blocks. What’s the benefit of dialing up fat alone as opposed to adding more blocks of protein, carbs, and fat in balance?
Greg, my understanding is that it reduces total caloric intake while maintaining energy levels and maintaining (or improving) satisfaction with meals (the full feeling).
1 block fat = 1.5g = ~13.5 cal
1 block cho = 9g = 36 cal
1 block pro = 7g = 28 cal
You can see that you can add a lot of fat (almost 5 blocks) to replace 1 cho and 1 pro block together and keep the same caloric intake. What I did was remove a cho block (-36 cal per meal), add a pro block (+28 cal per meal), add a fat block (+13.5 cal per meal) to get an extra +5.5 cals per meal, or about +22 cals per day.
However, in conjunction I went from 19 total blocks per day to about 17 blocks, meaning I saved 2 blocks of fat, pro, and cho, for a total of -155 cals. So my net was 22-155= 133 less calories per day plus eating more protein and fat.
However, honestly, I don’t think a 133 calories swing in my diet is that big a deal. I probably get more than that in scale variance, or in the things I can’t or don’t weigh/measure. I think the real benefit is tied to your body’s energy production systems and your hormones. I think my body works better off the mono-unsaturated fat because that’s what we evolved eating: animal brains, organs, and marrow that are primarily mono-unsaturated fat. Our ancestors actually ate skeletal muscle last, after all the good stuff (brains, organs, marrow) was gone. I think the closer we get to those primal nutrients (in conjunction with using hormonal balance from the Zone by balancing cho/pro intake) the healthier we become.
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Great article Jeff.
“It’s not who you are that’s holding you back. It’s who you think you’re not.”
I struggle with this a lot and always have. However, I have done more in two months with CrossFit than I ever thought I physically could. CrossFit has definitely changed my life. I feel better and I sleep better at night.
I also want to let you know that you and everyone at CFI have helped me get through some really tough times in my life. You are appreciated more than I can express.
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