7 Things I Learned from 7 Years of CrossFit

Traveling recently, I dropped into a CrossFit box and the owner asked how long I had done CrossFit. I responded, “Almost seven years” and he said, “Whoa, you’re old!” Of course he didn’t mean it as an insult, but gone are the days that names like Josh Everett, Nicole Carroll, Freddy Camacho, and Jolie Gentry are recognized by everyday CrossFitters. Two years ago I did a write up for my 5 Year CrossFit Anniversary. In that post, I describe my first workout on Jan. 30, 2008 which called for 95# thrusters. I dropped the number of reps from 15 to 10 and used 65# at first, but had to drop to 45# after the first round. Don’t even get me started on the deadlifts. At one point I wrote in a forum “Never liked doing big lifting, but after feeling my lower back during dead lifts, can see the value in them.” Three months ago I squatted 400# and two weeks ago I deadlifted 501.5#. Oops, I guess now I LOVE big lifting!

 After 7 years of CrossFit, 5 years of coaching hundreds of athletes, and more workouts than I care to count, I feel like I’ve learned a thing or two. Here are seven. These are not necessarily aimed just at beginners (that might be a post for the future), but general observations and things anyone can take away. I’d be curious to know what you’ve learned, whether you’ve been doing CrossFit for a week or ten years.

2014-09-06 CrossFit Thermal high res-2913-2

© Chris Plentus

#1: Squat heavy and often. And sprint.
If you only have time for one thing, squat. As in squat with a heavy barbell on your back. Do it for 3-5 sets and 2-8 reps, depending on your goals. I’ve found that heavy back squats transfer a great deal to other things: running faster, jumping higher, cleaning heavier, deadlifting more. Plus, it hits your CNS (central nervous system) and hormones in a good way that you can recover from quickly. If you don’t have a barbell and weights, then sprint. It will have a similar effect. But really, find a barbell.

2014-01-18 CF Thermal Grand Opening high res-5258

©Chris Plentus

#2. If you want to be good at something, you need to do it.
Is this an obvious statement? Maybe not. I was once intimidated by the 70 lb. kettlebell. The idea of swinging a piece of metal that was half my bodyweight over my head was not all that appealing. But there came a point where 70 lb. kb swings were showing up in WODs more frequently. I knew I needed to swing it, so I just DID. At first, I only did Russian swings (to eye level) and once I got comfortable, I went a little overhead, and a little more. Eventually I could do a few reps and then have to set it down. Some time after that (probably 6 months or so), I did “Eva” which includes 150 kb swings at 70 lbs. While I don’t suggest just picking up a 70 pounder if you’ve been using a 26, don’t be intimidated to do something heavier or more difficult. If you want to be better at double unders, practice them. If you want to be better at cleans and snatches, you need to do cleans and snatches. If you want to be better at rowing, you need to row! Wishing something to come true isn’t nearly as effective as actually practicing it. In the past few months, we’ve seen an amazing number of members get their first rope climb – because they actually tried it instead of just doing the regular substitute of rope pulls! Related: What Malcolm Gladwell has to do with Olympic Lifting 

exc-52648ebae4b03ca6473ae614

#3: Consistency is key.
Whether it’s nutrition, strength, endurance, or skill, consistency is key. I can be on-point with my nutrition for 3 months, but one bad week can set me back that entire time. Same thing when it comes to working out. Recovery days are absolutely vital, but taking an extended period of time off will set you back months or even years. (I do advocate a few days-week off every few months, but that should include getting good sunlight, going for hikes or longer walks, etc. and NOT sitting around and eating junk) After my shoulder surgery in 2012, I went on a pity party for myself and barely worked out for 2 months. When I finally did a mini-metcon that lasted about 4 minutes, I almost puked. Consistency is key, so do whatever you can to avoid playing catch up.

Screen Shot 2015-01-29 at 1.26.57 PM

2009 (pic by Aimee Lyons) vs. 2012

#4: Mobility matters – a lot more than you want it to.
Weightlifting is a big part of CrossFit. Doing the cleans, jerks, and snatches play an integral role in being athletic, strong, and they are great markers for transferability (how well that athlete can do other things.) After coaching hundreds of athletes, the ones who have better mobility tend to succeed more at these movements. Being mobile doesn’t mean being the MOST flexible person, but good mobility establishes a foundation for being in good athletic positions. I can take a super strong dude who benches 315 for reps, but if he doesn’t have the mobility to squat below parallel, these movements are going to be really tough for him. Conversely, I’ve seen a plethora of supple athletes who had no idea what a clean was, but because they could sit ass to grass with a PVC pipe overhead, they were able to start with light weight and work themselves up to bodyweight+ snatches and 1.5x+ bodyweight clean and jerks in short time. Mobility is the one thing we all know deep down matters, but hate working on if we don’t have it.

caleb and me-1

#5: Abs are made in the gym, but revealed in the kitchen and the bed.
Get your mind out of the gutter! Very simply, if you “want abs” you need to fix your nutrition and sleep. Doing sit ups, crunches, or even toes to bar will work your midline, but will not “get you abs” like you want. Working out for one hour per day is still only 4.167% of your time. What are you doing with the other 95.833%? There’s way too much to cover here, but there are plenty of websites, blogs, books, and magazines out there that can help. And if you do decide to work on your nutrition and sleep, remember number #3: Consistency is key. Related: Guest Post: 8 Tips for Better Sleep by Dr. Jackie Halpern

exc-5137ff52e4b0908a3a97821c

2012 CrossFit Open – © Chris Plentus

#6. Women benefit more from lifting weights than guys do.
I’m absolutely stereotyping, but I think I come from a credible position. After training hundreds of women and running women-only strength groups, I love seeing women lift weights. Deadlifts, bench press, cleans, you name it. Kids, teens, twenty-year-olds, sixty-year-olds and up; not only is there a benefit for health and longevity (as we get older, what happens? We lose muscle mass), but they also get stronger mentally and emotionally. Most women do not train with real weights before CrossFit (2 lb. pink dumbbells do not count). But now it’s normal and expected that they deadlift 200+ pounds, bench press 100+ pounds, and do unassisted pull ups. This is cool! Unsurprisingly, they even lean out, don’t get bulky like they think, and suddenly stresses at work or home are easier to deal with because they think of that crazy-ass metcon they did yesterday. Teenage girls suddenly have a new definition of “beauty” and eat for performance instead of starving themselves. I’m not saying that guys don’t get the same benefits, but on average, I’ve seen the impact of weight training affect women way more than dudes. Related: BarBelles Testimony – Gina 

exc-5180647ce4b0337a302ba875

Olympian Natalie Burgener – needed a FAST shutter speed to catch this – © Chris Plentus

#7: Form first. Then Speed. Speed kills.
In CrossFit, being fast is better. You can’t jump on a 50″ box slowly. You can’t clean 225# slowly. The faster you are, the better. The caveat, of course, is that you need to have the form down first, then you can unleash the beast. It’s not worth going fast if it’s going to be slop. I’ve seen dozens of members hit PRs or breakthroughs when I tell them to move the bar quickly and they do it with good form. Deadlifts, cleans, snatches, box jumps, muscle ups, squats, presses – FAST UP is usually the answer. Build a good foundation of skill first, then go fast.

I could probably write another dozen or so observations, but I’m going to keep it at a manageable seven. I’m curious to hear from you though:

WHAT HAVE YOU LEARNED FROM CROSSFIT??

What To Drink On the Paleo Diet

Our CrossFit box is running a 30 day nutrition challenge and even though we hosted an information session with Q+A, there are always going to be questions about the Zone, Paleo, gluten free, and what “no sugar” actually means. One of the questions that has come up is “What can I drink on the Paleo Diet?” When you take away people’s soda and beer, they want answers! So here’s a line up of Paleo-friendly beverages!

FRUIT JUICE
I actually wanted to put this first because some of you might think fruit juice is ok since it’s made of fruit. If you actually take a look at Tropicana Pure Premium’s product label, you’ll see that a serving of orange juice contains 26 grams of carbohydrates and 22 grams of sugar. And that’s just for an 8 oz. serving which you are probably doubling since no one drinks just a serving size. If you are doing the Zone, you just consumed 3-6 blocks of carbohydrates (no more carb sources for the morning or even day!) not to mention the high sugar content. Fruit juice (even if you juice it yourself) basically hits your system with a huge dose of sugar and there is no fiber there to slow the process. Not a great choice for keeping your blood sugar and insulin levels steady.

WATER
In terms of the approved liquids, we might as well start with the obvious. Take more in if you are doing hard workouts and sweating a lot, but be cautious of people who say you need to drink enough to be peeing every 5 minutes. There are a lot of “experts” on hydration, but very few can agree on anything. Since I don’t consider myself an expert, I’m going with the vanilla answer of “if you’re thirsty, drink more.” If you are eating Paleo or Primal aka consuming real foods, you are getting a good deal more water through your food compared to a SAD (Standard American Diet).

water cucumber

FLAVORED WATER
My good friend and health coach, Laura Pappas, showed me this trick: water + _____ = homemade flavored water, where _____ can be mint, lemon, lime, cucumber, strawberry, or any other fruit/veggie or herb that you’d like to flavor with your water. Just cut up a couple of lemons and stick them in a pitcher of water. Even if you refill the pitcher, the lemons should still give enough flavor to last you a week or even more. As you transition away from a SAD diet, your taste buds will change and you’ll pick up on the subtle flavors of real food. Feel free to combine some of these too – Cucumber +lemon + mint = delicious! Buy an infuser bottle and take your flavored water on the go – no more Crystal Light!

A flavored water that is popular amongst CrossFitters is coconut water from brands such as Zico or VitaCoco. This is a good substitute for drinks like Gatorade and Powerade, but should be used in certain situations like after a tough workout, especially after longer, aerobic based workouts or runs. Coconut water is a good way to replenish electrolytes, but comes with a decent amount of sugar as well. So don’t go reaching for coconut water at every meal, but feel free to use it in place of Gatorade.

Screen Shot 2015-01-16 at 11.09.13 PM

COFFEE & TEA
Ah, my lifeblood. While I know I can (and have) hold myself from coffee for a week+ with no withdrawal symptoms, it’s really just too delicious to keep out of my life. Coffee and tea are fine on the Paleo Diet as long as you’re not having it with creamer, sugar, milk, etc. “But black coffee is so strong!” you say. Well that’s the point! If you don’t like coffee for the caffeine or the taste, then you were probably more attracted to the 3 sugar packets that you put in your coffee and just fooling yourself. Personally, I have a collection of coffee devices at home: burr grinder, Aeropress, French Press, Nespresso Pixie machine, but I’m also not afraid to ask for a Venti Black Eye from Starbucks (20 oz. coffee + 2 shots espresso). Ok, maybe I do have a problem!

ALCOHOL
Take away my soda, fine. Even take away my sugar in coffee, I’ll deal. But take away my alcohol?? Before you light the torches and grab your pitchforks, let’s say this is a grey zone topic. While doing a challenge, I really do think to get the full benefits of “cleansing” yourself (I hate that word, but you understand what I mean), you should abstain from all alcohol. And no, you can’t use the “but red wine is supposed to be good for me!” excuse. Keep it out and see how you feel. THEN and only then, you may reintroduce alcohol following some guidelines:
-BEER – in general, stay away from gluten. So this includes most beers – sorry hipsters, your craft beers are probably making you sick. (and not just from drinking too much)
-CIDER – has become more popular and I wonder if it’s because many people are identifying as “celiac” or “gluten intolerant.” Whatever, the case, cider is a better choice due to the gluten free nature, but some contain more sugar than others.
-WINE – is usually fine, but also know it’s loaded with sugar. Better than beer because of the lack of gluten.
-HARD ALCOHOL – runs the gamut: some like tequila are gluten free while others are made from grains (whiskey, bourbon, scotch, gin, and many vodkas unless it’s made from potatoes). Personally I will either drink red wine or the classic Norcal Margarita, made famous by Robb Wolf: tequila, soda water, and lime.
At the end of the day, just know that you don’t drink alcohol to make you healthy, you drink it because it tastes good and it makes you feel good (briefly).

Overall, people wonder what they can drink besides water, but for the most part, the answer is: water! The same people wonder what they can eat on the Paleo diet since so many options have now been eliminated. While that may be true, just imagine a life where those options like soda, cake, and Coco Puffs were never there to begin with. Instead, imagine a life where we grew all of our food and either had to hunt or forage for it. That’s the idea of the Paleo/Primal diet and that’s why your choices may seem limited. Give it 30 or more days though, and you’ll see some dramatic changes to your body, mental state, and athletic performance.

More knowledge:
Ultimate Paleo Guide to Alcohol
Whole9 Alcohol Manifesto
Paleo Plan: What Should I Drink?

What do you normally drink? What do you drink on the Paleo/Primal Diet?