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3 Ways To Beat the Winter Blues

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DON’T LET WINTER WIN!

Try these remedies for battling the cold months and stay positive!

 

1. LET THERE BE LIGHT
Seratonin is the hormone that gives you that alert and energetic feeling. Vitamin D helps encourage seratonin production and sunlight triggers D synthesis. But sunlight is in short supply during winter. So try and get outside as much as possible. Or sit by a window. Better yet, get a light box on Amazon and give yourself a dose of summer-spectrum, energizing light daily.

2. EXERCISE THE FROWN AWAY
There’s another tool you have to raise your seratonin levels, and that’s exercise! Just 20 minutes of rigorous movement each day can significantly elevate your mood and energy. And, if you stay consistent, you will gain momentum and keep feeling better and better.

Fallen off the wagon? Too tired to exercise already? Start small. Do 30 air squats each day. Just commit to showing up at the gym. Just go for a walk. Whatever it is, remember that you will gain momentum as you go, no matter where you’re starting from.

3. EAT YOUR WAY TO HAPPINESS
What’s your diet like these days? Comfort foods are favorites in winter because they temporarily make us happier in these dark months.TEMPORARILY.

The mood and energy swings you get after highly processed, high sugar foods are simply not worth it. Your joints will also probably ache. And when you feel tired and achy, your entire mood dips.

Focus on natural and minimally processed foods, especially when it comes to carbs. Sub spaghetti squash for pasta, or cauliflower for rice. Try fruit with honey and almonds instead of your normal dessert.

Eat lots of fish and/or take fish oil supplements for the mood elevating, anti-inflammatory Omega-3 too.

Exercising For Bone Health & Preventing Arthritis

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I was at the supermarket the other day and my buddy the butcher asked me about how he could improve his bone strength because he was on some medication that weakened it. He asked about what supplements or pills to take. When I told him that he should instead work on doing full range of motion squats daily, he seemed surprised, and I remembered that a lot of people don’t know about this relationship. It’s called Wolff’s Law, and it states that:

Bone will strengthen or weaken based on the stresses placed upon it.

Basically, your bones are dynamic living tissues that change based on what you do. If you do a lot of heavy, hard work, the bones involved will grow denser and stronger to adapt. But, this extra baggage takes more energy and nutrients to maintain, so from a survivalist standpoint, your body will also weaken bones that do not see hard work, because there is no need to maintain them.

You use it or you lose it.

The good news is that it doesn’t take a 400lb back squat to have strong healthy bones. Even basic body weight resistance work like air squats and pushups can help keep your arm and hip bones dense and strong. But, you must have full range of motion. And here’s why.

Arthritis (osteo) occurs when there is too much stress placed on bones, specifically at the joints where the stress is highest. Your body over-develops the bones in these areas and you get things like bone spurs (extraneous bone mass). The joint doesn’t move well because of this extra calcified build up and inflammation occurs. This joint condition is osteoarthritis. A lot of people incorrectly assume that this happens from over-training. It can. But, a bigger reason is because of poor muscle mobility.

When your muscles are chronically tight, they are constantly pulling on the bones they attach to. This is a constant stress on the joints that triggers density increases and ultimately leads to bone spurs and arthritis. Compare this to the individual with healthy, loose muscles who acutely stresses the bones for a couple hours each day while training. This person’s bones are not under as much stress for 22 hours of each day. And that adds up.

So to improve your bone strength and help avoid osteoarthritis, a pill is not usually the answer. Make sure that you are doing resistance exercise like squats, pushups, pullups, and anything else that places the body under a dynamic stress. But also make sure you are taking care of your muscles with foam rolling, stretching, and good full range of motion movement, otherwise  even the strongest athlete will most likely encounter bone and joint issues down the road.

Relieving Lower Back Pain With A Sled

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Sometimes, as a coach, you stumble upon natural and unexpected things that work. The reasons they work aren’t always apparent at the time, but these little surprises can yield big results.

Over the last year or so I have started to notice a very interesting correlation between lower back discomfort and the push sled.  The athletes that have issues during extension (leaning back) almost universally seem to feel better the day after pushing a heavy sled. At first I thought it was a mere coincidence, but when I started paying closer attention, the trend was in fact continuing.

We push the sled low and with fully extended arms, giving the athlete a nearly 90 degree bend at the hips and a flat back. I initially though that the back benefits had to do with the constant but stable and even compression force placed on the back while pushing the sled. And this smooth and even pressure just might force the athlete to engage their abs, reminding the body how to support the trunk with those instead of the lower back.

There might be some truth here but I was just guessing and was still very curious. I started asking around with some people that know more about this stuff than I do. My friend and colleague Hank DeGroat CSCS LMT is a sports rehab and wellness coach with over 13 years of experience in fixing people’s muscles and movement. Surely he would know why this was happening. And in fact he did.

“Well yeah, it’s the glutes Rob.”

Oh yeah… Most of us know the delicate interplay between the glutes (butt) and the muscles in the lower back. A lot of lower back pain can be attributed to the shortening of those hip muscles from things like sitting too much. Improve the health and function of your hips, and your back will usually feel better.

As it turns out, our 90 degree hip angle ends up forcing the athlete to at once brace their back in a completely neutral position, and then use the glutes in a way that, in a lot of other movement patterns, the body may have forgotten.

We are, in effect, re-teaching the body how to properly use the butt to extend the hip, rather than relying on compensatory back extension to do that job. Why does it work? Well, there’s simply no other way to make that sled move!

And so the natural and unexpected success of the sled was explained. Big, compound functional movements like the sled, squat, and others can help the body relearn proper movement, reducing pain and restoring range of motion in ways that might not even be immediately apparent. And those little surprises, whose origins are eventually tracked down, can have big results.

Overview of The CFWC Program

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Sometimes people ask about the “method to the madness” behind what we do. It’s true that by nature, CrossFit is supposed to be a controlled chaos of sorts, constantly varying the input stimulus so that the mind and body never get a chance to overly adapt and thus stop improving. But, there’s definitely a plan above that level of chaos that is orchestrated with 2 major goals in mind: safety and improvement.

At the highest level, we do 1 month on a strength or skill program and 1 month on general physical preparedness (GPP).

During a strength or skill program, like the deadlift, squat, or jerk, our goal is to focus in on a few key areas that provide great benefit to other areas of our athleticism. For example, working on the low bar back squat will improve strength and stability throughout the body and will carry over to wallball, rowing, and more. We spend a scheduled month on these movements to help organize our efforts and better track performance and goals.

During this program, the WOD (metcon) at the end of class is generally shorter, usually between 7-9 minutes. This serves 3 purposes. First, it simply gives the athlete more time to work and improve upon the skill for that day. Next, it allows the athlete to really push themselves on the skill work and still safely get a metcon in. Knowing you have a 20 minute workout coming up will either make you hold back on the skill portion or slow you down on the metcon. And finally, it leaves the athlete in a state where they can come back for the rest of the week to push hard on the other days of the program. If you’re too sore to come in for the program, then the program will not work. By keeping the WODs shorter we leave enough time and energy to safely push hard each day. These 7-9 minutes will still be HARD, but they won’t be devastating.

After a program, we will begin the GPP program where the focus shifts more to cardio/metabolic conditioning and new skills. WODs will get longer and new movements will make appearances as we broaden not only our physical capacity but our movement repertoire as well. The first week of GPP will often be a deloading week with little heavy weight, so that the following week we can test the skills and strength we worked for the previous month on, and track our progress. By alternating months we continue to improve not only our overall fitness but our skillset as well.

The movements in the WOD are chosen to allow maximum effort as safely as is reasonably possible.

At the most basic level, we won’t do the same movement 2 days in a row. This can apply to general movements as well. For example, if we did Wallball on Monday, Thrusters on Tuesday would be a bad idea. In a very general sense, the movements will alternate between push/pull (pushup/pullup), knee/hip (squat/deadlift), and slow/fast (squat/boxjump).

The WODs are also usually set up with at least one “rest” movement. This could be situps, running, or a slower movement like squats that allow the athlete to briefly catch their breath and then push hard again afterwards. In this fashion, we can keep the conditioning more aligned with anaerobic interval training and less with long slow aerobic work, the former giving us much better improvement in overall fitness.

There are some movements that are, in my opinion, just not safe enough to reliably have a group of people performing them with intensity, and these include the full versions of the snatch and the clean. Due to their complexity, movement quality and thus safety quickly decline. However, through cautious observation, it would seem that by removing some of that complexity, these lifts can be performed with reasonable quality. The hang power versions of the clean and snatch in metcons will continue to broaden metabolic input and safely improve our fitness. The full versions with a squat and from the floor are still best left as skill work before the metcon.

Each class is designed as a complete module to your fitness. Piecing together these modules increases improvement, but each class should also stand on it’s own.

We start on time with instructor led foam rolling and mobilization. This is crucial towards preserving the quality of our tissue and range of motion before moving with intensity. After this, we move to a dynamic warmup designed not to exhaust, but to prime the body for more demanding work. This is a time to take your time but start to get warm, doing things like squats or specific low level alternatives to the skill work for the day, like PVC overhead squats before the bar.

Next, the coach explains and demonstrates the strength or skillwork for the day. They illustrate what to do, what not to do, and some tips for performance. Then they explain the program, how it should feel, and the total time and rest intervals prescribed.

Finally the coach gathers everyone up and explains the metcon, demonstrates the movement and the most common faults to avoid, gives some guidance on scaling opportunities, and gets everyone started together. From rolling and stretching to moving, skills, and then conditioning, each class should feel like a complete and fulfilling loop.

This is  just the tip of the iceberg or course, but it gives a good overview on how and why we do what we do. As always, CFWC looks to improve wherever possible, so this journey towards the perfect program will always be changing based on research, observation, and time. Any and all feedback from athletes and coaches is very much also encouraged.

Coach Rob

3 Tips to Improve Your Strict Shoulder Press

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The strict shoulder press is arguably one of the best measures of functional upper body pushing strength. I like it better than bench press because it requires more midline stabilization than laying on a flat bench, and thus translates better to sport and everyday activities where we seldom lie on our backs to push heavy things. I think the single arm press is even better in this regard, but that’s a different conversation. Today I’d like to share 3 tips that I have used personally and with my athletes to greatly improve press technique.

1. Become a Statue.

Before you start pressing anything, squeeze your butt, legs, and abs as tight as possible. This removes any extra movement (wasted energy) from the kinetic chain and ensures that when you start pushing the bar, you will be doing so with the full support and stabilization of your midline, which is important considering you are standing up. This also helps support and protect the lower back.

2. Stare at something.

You should pick a point about 15 feet in front of you either on the floor or slightly above it, and fix your gaze on that point. If you lock your eyes here through the entire range of motion, you will be much less likely to commit the most common and detrimental of press faults, which is looking up and thus leaning back while performing the lift. Fixing the gaze also helps ensure that you move your head back in space to get it out the way of the bar.

3. Shave your head with the bar.

Common wisdom tells us that the closer you keep the bar to your face, the more efficient the press becomes. Taking this one step further involves pushing the bar back and over the head as soon as possible. Think about trying to shave your head with the bar. As soon as it passes your eyes, start pushing back. Once the bar reaches the middle of your body and is fully supported by the rest of your musculature, the weight will feel surprisingly light and you can likely finish the lift.

See below for an example of these techniques in action and go lift something heavy!

The Miracle of Turkish Getup

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As my athletes know, I am a huge fan of the Turkish Getup. It’s an exercise where you start laying on the floor, holding a weight up overhead, and then you basically “get up” from the floor while continually pressing the weight overhead. See the picture below for some examples at different stages of the movement.

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There are 14 steps in the Turkish Getup (7 to get up, 7 to go back down) and each one gives the athlete a uniquely valuable lesson in stability, strength, and mobility. It’s crucial to focus intently on the mechanics and quality of each step, rather than simply the amount of weight you can technically stand up with. I have two examples illustrating this point and the value of the exercise.

First is the client in his 50’s who has had chronic shoulder pain for 20+ years. He scored a 1 on the FMS shoulder mobility screen, indicating a gross deficiency in movement quality. We started working on his mobility first using some lacrosse ball, foam roller, and other myofascial release techniques and his range of motion improved, but the pain under tension persisted. Next we looked at stability by adding the Turkish Getup to the program using only an 8# weight to start. We did Getups once per week for sets of 10-20 per side. The rest of the program consisted of lower body strength and metabolic conditioning.

Within a few weeks, the client started noting not only increased strength, but a remarkable lack of pain in the problematic shoulder.  A couple weeks later and it was nearly pain free and he is now using a 25# weight. After 20+ years of pain and discomfort, the stability and strength developed by the Turkish Getup solved a problem long since thought to be unsolvable by the client.

Then there’s the athlete who could not lift his leg. He had played football over the weekend, and, five days later, was still unable to lay on his back and lift his leg up past about 30 degrees. It was as if the hip flexor simply did not work anymore. I had him perform some Getups with a strong focus on the step that requires hip extension. I glanced at the athlete after a few reps, asked him to raise his problematic leg, and he was able to do so to about 90 degrees. The body awareness and movement patterning of the getup cleared up whatever neuromuscular issue the athlete was having (most likely hip extensors fighting his flexors). It was like witnessing a miracle.

These are just two examples of many that illustrate the utility of this amazing exercise and why we do them at least once a week at CrossFit Watch City. Take the time to work each step to its fullest and you will be rewarded with better quality movement in almost everything else that you attempt.

Single Leg & Single Arm Stability

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We do a lot of single leg and single arm movement here at CFWC and I thought it would be helpful to explain why, since not many other CrossFit gyms do this stuff. It really comes down to two things: improving our quality of movement in daily life, and increasing practical strength.

One of our goals as functional movement athletes is to improve how we move both inside and outside the gym. I think it stands to reason, then, that we should try to mimic movement that we encounter in everyday life. When we run or even walk, we are not supported by both legs at the same time. On the contrary, we are bounding from one to the other, or at the very least, we are in a split leg stance. Yet, how often are we training in the gym using one leg? This is a position we are in nearly every single day!

In the upper body, when we pushing things overhead, or throwing, it is more often than not using one arm, as in putting something away up on a high shelf or throwing a backpack over our shoulder. But, how often do most people practice pushing things overhead with one arm? Training with one leg and one arm better prepares us for these everyday challenges and makes us better at life. But that’s not all.

By training unilaterally we also increase our stability and coordination, giving us access to more of our usable strength. There’s an old adage that goes “If you can’t stabilize it, you can’t lift it.”

This is why athletes who have used chest strength machines for years on end have trouble transitioning to single arm presses, ring dips, weighted pushups, or even standing military press. But, if you have done standing military press for years, I assure you that you will be strong on the machine.

By training one leg and one arm, you are exploring the epitome of stability. If you can press a 100lb kettlebell overhead with precision, just imagine how strong you will be with the luxury of 2 hands on a barbell!

These are not replacements to barbell movement but rather an extremely valuable complement. By training with one leg and one arm, we get better at moving in sport and everyday life, as well as unlocking more of our strength on 2 arm and 2 leg movements. It’s a win-win.

 

Working Out On Vacation

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Vacation Workout sounds like a bit of an oxymoron. But, I think that most people would find that they actually enjoy their vacation much more with some mood elevating exercise sprinkled in. The only hard part is getting the will to actually start moving.

Here’s what happens on most vacations. You arrive, physically and mentally exhausted from travelling, and all you want to do is unwind with some comforting food and drink to ease the pain. You deserve it, right?  Tomorrow you’re going to work out, you think to yourself. One thing leads to another and you wake up feeling less than great. This is where you have a choice. You can either A. start moving, or you can B. succumb to your psychological state and decide that vacations aren’t for working out anyway.

We know what happens with option B – more food, more drink, more justification that we’re on vacation and shouldn’t worry about exercise anyway. We’ve all been there, and I’d agree that vacations should be about letting loose and having a good time. But let’s talk about how option A can turn a good time into a great time.

You decide that despite how you feel, you’re going to at least start moving. You get up and decide to go out for a walk. After about 5 minutes you muster the strength to do 5-10 air squats and then continue walking. Then 5-10 more, and maybe you jog for 10 seconds or so and do a few more squats. All of a sudden, something magic seems to be happening.

The squats, which felt like the End Of Days a few minutes ago, are starting to feel easier. You’re loosening up. You start thinking, “this isn’t so bad.” On the way back you feel better jogging than walking, and the squats are starting to feel great. That could be your workout for the day on its own and if you don’t want to do anything else, don’t!

But, I think most people will find something very curious happens after that warmup workout. Once you start moving it feels really good to keep moving. You may decide to do some pushups, or burpees, or get creative and find something else to do. I absolutely love rocks and cinder blocks.

Here’s what’s happening in this whole scenario. Your brain is still hardwired to keep you prepared to fight off a saber-tooth cat or some other threat. It says “Hey, you better rest so that you’re in tip-top shape in case Big Fangs comes back.” Your brain is pretty persuasive, and gives you some soreness and maybe a headache or stomach ache to really drive home the idea that the last  thing you should do is start moving. But, guess what would happen if Big Fangs the saber-tooth cat walked in that morning?

Your brain would change its mind real fast. It would release hormones like adrenaline and dopamine to numb your pain, give you energy, and prepare you to to fight or flee. The worst hangover in the world would disappear in a flash. When we override the initial thought to stay sedentary, the brain starts putting some of these things into motion and, really, like magic, we start feeling better. But it doesn’t stop there.

If you get into a good work out, not only do you get the mood elevating, pain numbing hormone release, you also kick-start your metabolism and accelerate the process of flushing out all the crap you had the night before. Your hangover/food-over will be considerably diminished as a result, so that even when the hormones die down, you’ll feel better and more energetic than you did before.

Now to be fair, let’s not forget that we’re on vacation. The point of these workouts is not to punish ourselves. It’s to make us happier. So if you do a warmup workout and you’re still not feeling another workout, don’t force it! Psychological stress from a workout you don’t want to be doing will carry over to your day and you probably wont work out again.

The goal here is to end every workout feeling better than we did before, so that the mental energy required to start moving becomes lower and lower every day. The brain seeks to repeat good feelings, not miserable ones.

So, don’t let vacation on a tropical island get in the way of your training.

Start moving.

Training Athletes Using The FMS

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The Functional Movement Screen (FMS) is a ranking and grading system that documents movement patterns that are key to normal function. It provides scores based on the observed movement, and I wanted to give an example of how a coach can use these FMS scores to help guide their program.

One of my athletes, a hockey player, had difficulty executing movement like squats, kettlebell swings, and deadlifts without rounding his lower back. We had some theories, like tight hamstrings, a lingering hip issue from a past injury, or tight chest muscles. The beauty of the FMS is that it takes the guesswork out of the equation. Here’s what it revealed:

The athlete scored a well on single straight leg raise so the hamstrings were probably not an issue.

The athlete scored (surprisingly) well on deep overhead squat so the hip/chest/shoulders were probably not an issue.

The athlete scored low on trunk stability pushup, even though he was more than strong enough to do a proper pushup. Interesting.

Because the movement being screened is never demonstrated by the coach, and is instead simply described to the athlete, you can witness athletes in their native, default movement habits. In the case of this individual, he simply was not thinking about engaging his core by default. He raised his chest and shoulders completely before his hips even started moving in the pushup.

It was not a matter of strength but rather one of proprioception – a fancy term for body awareness. This lack of body awareness and control was most likely leaking over to other aspects of his movement, causing compensatory faults like lumbar flexion when his glutes and anterior core weren’t firing to  keep his back rigid. The FMS had given us a clue.

The first thing we did was work on some bracing drills to start training the neurological aspects of engaging the core. I instructed the athlete to stand, with about a 30% squeeze in the abs, squeezing his glutes and setting his shoulders back. We practiced getting into and out of this position repeatedly for 20 minutes. Then we put it to use by planking and I cued him on how to regain that brace in the horizontal position. We re-screened the pushup that same day and the athlete scored much better.

Moving forward, I added Turkish Getups and split squats to his program to further build up his core control. Within weeks, he was executing kettlebell swings, deadlifts, and even power cleans with remarkably improved movement efficiency. I re-screened him and he gained points across 3 different movement patterns, all from an increased body and core awareness.

We could have spent weeks or months working on loosening different muscle groups or sending him out to PT, but the FMS made the program design much more informed and as a result, more efficient. Rescreening also validates the effectiveness of the program and serves as a great measure of progress for coach and athlete alike.

 

 

Identifying Functional Movement

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As a coach I’ve noticed a lot of ambiguity surrounding what “functional movement” is.

My take is very simple. Looking at specific movement patterns is a red herring; rather, let’s look at the results of particular movement and work backwards to identify the extent of their functional benefit. It boils down to one question:

Will doing this make me move better?

Let’s work with some examples. People often debate whether Yoga is functional movement. Opponents will ask “when are you ever, in real life, getting into Warrior II?” Which is to say, when else are you in a split leg stance with arms fully extended and parallel to the floor? Surfing aside, I might agree with the argument.

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Me, in a not-so-deep, shoulders-too-high Warrior II

But, if we take a step back and ask ourselves whether doing Warrior II improves our overall quality of movement beyond just that particular pose, I think the answer is a resounding yes.

Core-to extremity control, rotational stability in the torso, and split leg stability in the hips are things that will make almost every aspect of your movement better and more efficient. You’ll be better at picking up and putting away groceries as you reach and rotate your torso, better at playing a pickup game of volleyball as you lunge and bump, and better at standing, because your back doesn’t have to work as hard when you have the body awareness and core stability that Warrior II can strengthen. Yoga is functional movement.

Will training the seated leg press allow you to move better in ways beyond the leg press itself? Not really. Improvement in the seated leg press will seldom if ever carry over to other movement like the squat, deadlift, or sport specific patterns like jumping and sprinting. The machine effectively removes the core and hip stabilization requirements that are so requisite to most other leg movement. The seated leg press is not a functional movement.

The squat, by comparison, which we do every single day when we get in and out of chairs, among other things, will make us move better. It will increase joint mobility and bone mineral density and increase all aspects of core strength because of the full body coordination required to execute it properly. The squat is functional.

So, the next time someone asks about functional movement, flip the question around and ask them whether or not it’ll make you move better. Easy.