Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The Scoreboard

Yesterday, I posted a Facebook status that went something like this:

"I am essentially positive that I am not mature enough to sensibly and rationally approach today's one-rep-max back squat at CrossFit Aspire. I am headed off to the garage for some nice calm ego-absent three-rep sets on my own instead.

Followed by a spectacular lunch of everything."

Lunch was delicious. 

This, however, is not about lunch.

It's about the rest of all that. 

I really enjoy lifting weights. I'm even okay at it; I'm pretty sure my deadlifts and farmer's carries are something that I am at least better than the "average" 52-year-old dude at doing. But recently, while I was dutifully logging the results of another day's lifting into our gym's online tracking system, I thought to myself, "I'm not a competitive lifter. Why, exactly, am I keeping score?"

There is this quirky little thing that CrossFit gyms started doing a long time ago -- referring to all their members as "athletes."

I'm a lot of things. I'm a pretty nice guy. I am a decent writer. I might just occasionally make you laugh. I am a damn good drummer. I'm an even better lawyer (but we still never talk about that here). But, really, I'm just not, by any stretch of the imagination, an "athlete." 

To be clear: Rich Froning? Athlete. Me? Not.

So, in keeping with the notion that I am just a guy who does CrossFit because he likes being in better shape to do all the other fun stuff in life, and not to "compete," I repeat, "Why, exactly, am I keeping score of myself?"

"To know when you are doing better!" you say. But... why exactly do I care about "doing better" on some absolutist scale? Lifting, to me, is something that varies wildly day to day. There's the day that a 405-lb deadlift is doable -- nearly easy --and another when 365 pounds screams, "You're done for the day, son." And usually that type of variance has to do with things like nutrition and sleep and stress and all those other health/fitness categories that we would never "keep score" at. 

I mean, really, does anyone keep track of sleep PRs? Does anyone post, "Fuck yeah. Beast mode! Ate more kale than ever today!" to Facebook?

So again, why am I keeping score of my lifting? There are days when pushing a little to lift a non-PR, but still-challenging, amount of weight is just as rewarding in a "I did the best I can do today" sense as nailing a PR. And, absent a scorekeeping obsession, maybe I would stop occasionally making foolish decisions to go harder than I should to.... beat my old "score." You know, the "score" that doesn't really mean shit in the rest of my life.

It doesn't make me a better person, drummer, lawyer, hiker, husband, friend or father if I PRd my deadlift. Or my back squat. Or my strict press (as if....). And it sure as hell doesn't make me worse at any of those things if I didn't. Remember, I'm not a "weightlifter." There is a serious difference between "a guy who lifts weights" and a "weightlifter."

And there is a serious difference between a competitive CrossFit "athlete" and a guy who does CrossFit just to stay fit.

This isn't to say that you should follow my leadership on this issue. You may have tons of reasons to keep track of your "score" in the gym. You, quite possibly, think this is the stupidest idea I have ever had. But I'm going to go with it for a while. 

And maybe, after three or so months of not logging my lifting results, and, instead, just doing the best I can do on any given day, I'll decide that keeping score has some kind of a benefit for me. But right now, I'm not seeing it. So, like every other aspect of my life, for the next few months when I grab a barbell, I'm just going to do the best I can that day, and move on. 

And enjoy the ride.

Monday, July 28, 2014

The lemming state of mind, or why there's a valuable lesson in "Crossing the Line"

There's an ESPN video about CrossFit called "Crossing the Line" that is circulating the blog/Facebook-sphere. Your reaction to it is, quite possibly, going to be governed by your opinion about CrossFit itself.

If you are a CF hater, undoubtedly you will find something to rant and rave about. "See! CrossFit is dangerous. Women and children (and possibly puppies), are being killed by overzealous, untrained Olympic lifting and crazy gymnastic movements."

And if you are a CrossFit devotee, you may be a little riled. "How dare you, ESPN?! Right in the midst of the CrossFit Games that you are televising, no less! Heresy! Where is your loyalty?"

I'm going to go against the grain a little....

As you may know, I love CrossFit. It changed my life. 

But that video doesn't have me annoyed, feeling defensive or otherwise wound up. I think there is a lot to like about some of it.

As I just recently told you with regard to food choices, I don't think you should be ceding any of your health decisions to others. Sure, get all the good advice you can, but, in the end, whether or not someone else is telling you to eat, or not eat, something, it is going to be you -- You! -- who has to put on the big-boy/big-girl pants at some point and make the call whether a particular food item is going down your own piehole.

Unsurprisingly, I feel the same way about exercise.

Just as it's a bad idea to approach food with the attitude of "Just tell me what to do and I will follow your instructions like a robot," that same mindset is going to cause trouble in a CrossFit gym.

"I'm following a list of rules on The Paleo Diet" teaches nothing but blind adherence to someone else's dogma that may or may not be right for your body.

The same is true of unthinking worship at the altar of CrossFit. "I'm doing whatever the CrossFit trainer says is today's workout even if it hurts me" just may (surprise!) get you hurt.

On that video is a guy who tried to beat his old PR of 30 straight toes-to-bar by doing 40. Not 31, mind you. He wanted to go straight from 30 to 40. In one shot.

If I told you that a guy with a 300-pound max deadlift tried to PR with a 400-pound deadlift, what would you think? "Durrrrr," or something similar, I imagine, right? But this guy is blaming the "culture of CrossFit" at least partially for his resulting injury from the same percentage leap in a toes-to-bar PR attempt. (And I know... he fell on the 31st one, but he was aiming for 40. In his head, a 33% PR seemed just fine, and that's lunacy. And yes, to his credit, he seems to have learned, and changed his subsequent approach to CF).

Look, there's no doubt that the competitive mindset in some CrossFit boxes is greater than others. Hell, I regard the gym that I go to as being full of smart trainers who care about the clients, and, still, I see people trying to do things -- often because their friends are encouraging them -- that are nearly guaranteed to get them hurt. Whether it's trying to do kipping pullups before you have strict pullups, or doing high-speed Olympic lifts even though your body is screaming, "No more!" there are a myriad of ways to royally fuck yourself up in a CF gym.

But a little good sense goes a long way. And that good sense needs to come from you, not anyone else.

Because this is your life, and you're the one responsible for it.

If you get the idea that I am virulently against "just going along" and being a lemming about almost anything, then yeah, you're catching on. And I don't mean contrarianism for its own sake. I mean just simply thinking for yourself. Just because everyone else is doing it makes it neither correct nor appropriate for you.

Something to consider: there is no sport called "High-speed Olympic Lifting" just as there also is no sport called "High-speed Powerlifting." If high-rep/high-speed snatches (or cleans or deadlifts or whatever) leave you in serious pain, this may be a sign that you should sub in another exercise that day. Or maybe always.

An example: I love deadlifts for strength, but I rarely do deadlifts in a metcon. If I try to do them at high speed, I lose the necessary tightness in my abs and lower back and it hurts. In fact, thanks to various non-CrossFit injuries, mostly drumming-related, I often don't use a barbell in a metcon. If I do high-speed overhead work, I leave the gym with an inflamed elbow and in a world of pain. I feel the same way about high-rep pullups for time. I'd rather do weighted pullups with good form for strength.

It's all -- like your food choices, or like, I dunno, life -- a work in progress. You test your limits and sometimes you surprise yourself. But other times your limits rear their ugly heads on what may be a more permanent basis. Maybe, no matter how hard you want it to be otherwise, every time you eat gluten, you feel like shit. I'd suggest maybe permanently backing off the gluten in that instance.

Somehow, though, the ego seems to take more of a hit when the limitation is exercise-oriented, instead of based on food. You see your buddy doing high-rep/high-speed deadlifts with ease in a metcon, but every time you do them that way, you can't walk without pain for three days. The answer really may be that they just aren't your thing, and that you need to sub in something else that will give you just as intense of a workout without the accompanying discomfort.

We aren't all made of the same stuff. That fact seems more palatable to the average person when considering food tolerances, so when your bestie orders double-cheese fries and you're lactose-intolerant and fries always make you feel awful, you have the good sense to pass on that magic. Or if not and you slip up, you "get" that the only person to blame can be found in the mirror. But when your CrossFit friend does 30 butterfly pullups and you don't even have one strict pullup, somehow you still feel the need to try to match her by doing what Greg Everett calls "kipping labrum tears." And then the "fault" lies in the "culture of CrossFit?"

Yes, you should choose your CrossFit gym carefully. Yes, there are all sorts of different skill/competence levels out there amidst the CF trainers in the world. I'm lucky, like I said; our gym is awesome.

You can can still get hurt at our gym. 

Unless it is very (very!) early in your CrossFit "career" when you truly know nothing -- and I'd argue that if you join a CF gym (or, hey, anything else in life...) really "knowing nothing," you should be doing everything you can to catch yourself up to speed with research on your own time -- if you get hurt by pushing far past your limits, the blame for that is on you. Not on the "culture" of CrossFit. Not on your trainer. Not on your friends.

Use your head. Put your ego away. Your successes, and your injuries, are your own. Don't just blindly follow someone else's plan for food, exercise or anything.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

The day white potatoes made my head explode (or: "Usually I'm nicer than this")

Today, the smart folks over at Whole9 decided to modify the Whole 30 to allow for white potatoes.

Cool. I think that unless you have an issue with nightshades, white potatoes can be a fine thing to eat. They are a real, unprocessed food. You might want to use them to carb-load at night after a late-afternoon lifting session, or, on the other hand, you might want to go light on them in general (just like any starch) if fat loss is your goal.

Whatever. It is all a reasonable choice that you have to work through.

What makes me somewhat loony -- and by "somewhat loony" I mean "positively fucking stabby while yelling, 'What the fuck is wrong with you?'"--  is people's reactions, particularly the ones that go something like: "Oh, thank [Jesus, Allah, Baal, Yahweh, Flying Spaghetti Monster, Other Divine Being], I really wanted to eat potatoes."


If you "really want" to eat something, why don't you eat it? Or else decide that you don't really "want" it because it is going to do something bad to you?

We call that "being an adult about food."

In other words, isn't this whole paleo/primal/Whole30 deal an exercise in figuring out how you really want to eat? And I can definitely tell you that it's specifically not a lesson in being a robot who follows orders. We call that "dieting."

And we hate it.

In all seriousness, why are you treating Dallas and Melissa Hartwig like they are controlling your food intake?

You, motherfucker. You're the one doing that.

So grow up and do it.

(And yes, it's fine to look to them -- because they are good at what they do and know their shit -- for guidance and advice, but stop treating them, or anyone else, like puppeteers controlling what you put in your mouth.)

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Shock the monkey

Fifteen minutes.

Alone in a room.

With nothing but my thoughts.

It sounds.... Effing glorious is how it sounds. That's why I meditate. Because letting those thoughts free-flow and, ultimately, spending some time with an empty, less-cluttered mind is liberating, invigorating and helps me focus on what's really important.

But, apparently, there is another point of view. And it's making men particularly look really bad.

I saw this article entitled "Most men would rather shock themselves than be alone with their thoughts," and I initially thought, "Another ridiculous headline that distorts what really happened." So I decided to read it -- y'know, to see what really happened.

The headline was pretty accurate.

It seems that researchers would put a person in a room and tell the person to let his or her mind wander freely. "Think about anything you want for fifteen minutes" was the command. The participants had only one option: administering an electric shock to themselves.

48 people participated in the study, split evenly by gender. Of the 24 women, six shocked themselves -- a number I initially found fairly appallingly high. "That's ridiculous. One-quarter of these women couldn't bear to be alone with their thoughts for fifteen minutes!" I said.

But then there are the men. 18 of the 24 men shocked themselves rather than be alone in a room for fifteen minutes. One guy administered 190 shocks to himself in fifteen minutes.

Go ahead. Read those last two sentences again. And wonder if we are doomed.

Are you kidding me? Is this what we have become in the modern world? It seems that, on average, males are a gender so accustomed to having others amuse us that our brains are now so boring that two-thirds of us can't stand to be alone with ourselves.

Now I realize there are a couple holes in this study. The first is the small number of participants. It could be that this sample of 24 people included a greater-than-average group of dolts on the male side of the group. OK. But how much greater than average could it be? Remember, I think there is a pretty fair point to be made that even the 25% score that the women in this study got is pretty awful. So even if the men were particularly ape like, we should still be collectively ashamed. The second potential hole is that it's possible that if the "amusement" device were changed to a different type of unpleasantness, the women's scores would get worse. Maybe electric shocks just sound more awful to most women than men?

But still.... I think there is a simpler answer: whatever the "real" numbers are, a sizable portion of either gender is so pathetically used to shutting their brains down so something else -- television, video games, whatever -- can provide all their mental stimulation that their brains have atrophied to the point of being so boring that they would rather inflict pain on themselves than be alone with whatever thoughts their stifled minds can create. And most likely, men are significantly worse than women in this regard.

That ought to terrify all of us, because besides meaning that there is a decent chance that the nearest male is a complete moron, it means that maybe we really are headed here.

Ugh. But really, go ahead. Fire up that Playstation. Or maybe you'd just like to press this button instead....

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Friday, July 4, 2014

"How can I lose body fat?"

I get asked this question a lot at the gym. Someone -- OK, every time it's a woman, because guys don't ask other guys this question for whatever reason -- says, "Hey Steve, I'm eating paleo. OK, I'm mostly eating paleo. I'm doing CrossFit. And I still am still fatter than I want to be. What can I do? I want to lose weight."

I usually quickly clarify that the person doesn't actually care at all about "losing weight." That phrase is a carryover from the diet-crazed age we live in. What she cares about is getting leaner. You know... losing body fat. Looking good naked. Looking good with clothes on. Happy with how she looks.

In fact, the question comes up so much that I can't believe I haven't done this post already.

So let's go....with two caveats:
Caveat #1:
I don't pretend that this is the only way to lose body fat. There are catastrophically stupid, dangerous and utterly unsustainable methods for doing almost anything in the fitness world. But this method has a few advantages:

--It actually works without endangering your health.
--It won't cause you to lose muscle mass and become skinny and sick. (In fact, it might make your ass look fantastic, but I'll leave that evaluation up to you).
--It shouldn't cause you stress.
--It really isn't very hard to do. It just runs against the grain of the "burn it all off" theory of modern fitness and it's not a "quick fix."
--It lets you live your life and stops an obsession with exercise that is actually counter-productive.

Caveat #2:

Even this simple, safe, natural method can be taken too far. There are all sorts of hormonal** negatives to losing too much body fat. If you haven't read Stefani Ruper's Sexy By Nature, you should. It's an empowering, relentlessly positive and well-informed approach to women's health that I reviewed here. I am going to assume that you really are carrying more body fat than you think is healthy or ideal.


1. Sleep more.
I don't mean: "Go to bed 15 minutes earlier sometimes." I mean shut your damn television, computer, iPhone and iPad off long before bed to give your brain a break from flashing lights. I also mean: "Get a lot more sleep than you do now." Seven hours is often touted as the minimum. That's to survive in a reasonably healthy way. If you are trying to get your body's out-of-whack circadian rhythms in tip-top shape for proper cortisol (and other hormone) regulation, you need to do a lot better than seven hours. Start with nine hours.

Yes, nine. And if that's impractical, decide what the best you can do is, and do it. But understand that nine hours' sleep is going to do more for your fat loss goals than perhaps any other single thing. Fall short of that, and this whole plan likely won't work as well.

I also mean: "Get into a rhythm of going to bed and waking on the same schedule most nights." If you want to party like a rock star on weekends (or whenever), fat loss is going to be difficult. And by "difficult," I may mean "impossible."

As one of my favorite philosophers said, "Buy the ticket; take the ride."

2. Eat paleo and drink water.
This should be mostly self-explanatory. Animal protein. Vegetables. Water.

Anything that you add beyond that has the potential to slow/stall fat loss. Carbs -- and this includes fruit -- are tricky. You can eat some, particularly on a day when you either lifted heavy or sprinted, particularly at night on those days, and, even better, within an hour of that exercise session. But go light on all that carb-y stuff otherwise.

If this sounds like "low-carb-ish" paleo and drinking a lot of water, yup. Like I said... it's mostly self-explanatory.

3. Eat to satiety, every single time.
Severe caloric restriction is a signal to your body to store fat. Your body thinks you are starving yourself to death. Stop doing that. Eating until you are full (to satiety) gets your hormonal/fat-storage regulation back where it should be. On the other hand, unlike some paleo folks, I don't think it's necessary to add a ton of extra fat to your animal-protein/veggie meals. But definitely eat fatty cuts of well-raised meat. Cook your veggies in butter, ghee or coconut oil. Fat doesn't make you fat. "Low-fat" foods do that. Fat keeps you full. If you are eating normal portions (enough to fill you up) of animal protein that hasn't been industrially stripped of its natural fat (no skinless chicken breasts, people!), you will almost necessarily get a proper amount of dietary fat into your system. And you will be full, and happy.

4. Stop drinking alcohol.
Or don't do it very much. As little as two or three drinks a week can stall fat-loss cold.

Understand: this is not some arbitrary rule fueled by asceticism. I love alcohol. In fact, I have one drink every day for reasons that have nothing to do with any of this body-comp stuff. But if you are trying to lose fat while drinking any significant amount of alcohol, you will likely be as successful as the guy trying to find an actual rock song at a Billy Joel concert. It ain't gonna happen.

5. Walk. A lot. Outside. Preferably in the sunshine.
 Jason Seib recently wrote that the optimal amount of walking is as much as you can do, and that's also the minimum amount. What he said.

Walking is a low-impact/non-cortisol-creating/low-stress activity that may do more than anything else except proper sleep to reach fat-loss goals. Do it every day. As much as you can.

Conversation I had with my trainer recently:

Me: "I learned on my hiking vacation that all I need to stay fit is to walk every day, lift weights a few times a week and sprint sometimes."
Him: "Yup."

(We're a wordy bunch, I tell ya).

The "sunshine" part? Vitamin D is enormously important. But if the only time you can walk is on a treadmill at night, do it then. Every day.

6.  Lift heavy three times a week.
Presses (bench or military). Squats (front or back). Deadlifts.
Really, those three powerlifts burn more fat than any other. Sure, you can Olympic-lift (snatch, clean, jerk) too, but while those are great fun and good for you, they are speed lifts. The pure power stuff stokes the metabolic engine the most efficiently.

If you are already a CrossFitter or gym rat, this stuff is likely in your repertoire already. If you don't know what I am talking about, go see a trainer, even if it's just for a few sessions just to get the basics down.

You will not "get huge." People who "get huge" lifting weights are following training protocols designed to do precisely that. No one ever accidentally got massive from lifting a barbell. In fact, no one ever thinks they are going to look like Ben Johnson or Carl Lewis from recreational sprinting. Why do people think recreational weightlifting is going to turn them into a freak? It isn't. It is one of the best ways to health and fat loss.

7. Stop doing "cardio" and long "metcons." Do sprint-based conditioning instead. Just two or three times a week.
It is the single biggest myth in fitness -- that long-grind "cardio" sessions are going to "burn" fat efficiently. That stuff creates cortisol, which actually causes fat storage. Sure, do a ton of it, and you may lose some pounds. Often those "pounds" were muscle. But even if they were partially fat, long cardio/metcon sessions are hideously inefficient, like taking four steps forward and three back, when it comes to fat loss. Cortisol is a fat-storage hormone. If it's out-of-whack, it disrupts everything hormonal. You are beating the living crap out of your body in a completely counterproductive manner if fat-loss is your goal and you are doing long cardio sessions to get there.

And I am not just talking about distance running or elliptical machines. CrossFit-style metcons that are more than 12 minutes long get you easily up into that cortisol-creating zone. So yeah, all those "Filthy Fifty" or "Lumberjack 20"-style long metcons? You may love them, but they aren't fat-loss workouts.

Sprints. High-intensity interval training. Short metcons. Two or three times a week. Yes, just two or three times a week. These sessions create efficient fat loss without beating yourself into cortisol production. That other stuff for fat loss? It's like someone trying to run with his or her shoes tied together. There's a better, less-laughable way to get the job done.

8. Lose/manage your stress.
Whether it's by meditation, flotation or some other means, stress-management is vital. You know how I said the "wrong" form of exercise triggers cortisol? Cortisol is a stress-created hormone, so what do you think stress does? Yes, stress makes you fatter. Get it under control. Stop unnecessarily creating it.

9. Throw away the scale (or save it for your next flight).
The only reason to own a bathroom scale is to make sure your luggage isn't overweight. If you think "weight" has anything to do with fat loss, just read this.

The basics of all this are sleep (nine hours!), food, walking (every day!), lifting (3x/week), sprinting (2 or 3x/week) and stress-management (always!). Chances are that I just told you that, if you want efficient fat loss, you should do something you aren't doing, stop doing something you are doing, or both. Chances are that you hate me for this. I'm OK with that, because I'm not the one who thinks you need to drop body fat. I think the the single most important thing is being happy. If you are happy now, great. Keep doing whatever you are doing. But if you are asking the fat-loss question of me or anyone else, then this is the best advice I have. Whether you want to follow it is your call. Have fun. Be happy.

**Speaking of hormones, if you happen to be on a birth-control pill, it's quite possible that your fat-loss struggles will be more pronounced even when following my advice.