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cfopenAs a CrossFit coach, my favorite part about CrossFit is seeing the improvements of others, and seeing the excitement in people when they accomplish things that were seemingly impossible to them. The CrossFit community is unlike any other. It offers support, motivation, encouragement, and competition. At no other time throughout the year is the excitement and anticipation higher than during the CrossFit Open. As coaches we always encourage athletes to participate and sign up. People usually balk at the idea and they feel they’re not ready, don’t see the point if their not planning on going to the games, or just don’t want to drop 20 bucks. I am sad to see so many I’ve talked to,  plan on not participating this year. With new modified, teen, and other divisions, i think EVERYONE should be doing the open for the following few reasons.

  1. Motivation. When you have invested something (even as small as $20) you will work harder and force yourself to do more than you would without any personal or monetary investment.
  2. Competition- Competition increases motivation. When you are going head to head with others, whether one or tens-of-thousands, we can accomplish amazing things during competition, especially the open. How many thousands of people got their first muscle up last year in the Open when the pressure of competition raised performance? Ask runners when their last PR was not during organized race. The same principle can be applied to the CrossFit Open. Many of us competed as kids. When we become adults, we often feel like we need to move on. We may compete for jobs and accounts, but more often than not, we have forgotten the thrill of competition.
  3. Accountability – If you don’t sign up, you can’t compare yourself to the rest of the field. Sure, you can do the WOD and look to see where you would finish up, but that would be a false representation, as the judging standards are not the same, and you must take into account all of the other thousands of people doing the same thing. Simply put, if you want to accurately compare yourself to the field, you must be accountable to the standards of the workout, which means signing up and giving it your all. Additionally entering the games exposes weaknesses. There is something more ‘real’ when your weakness is exposed by results on the leaderboard. The games will show you where you really are right now!
  4. Appreciation: After competing with your box, community, region and the world, you gain an appreciation of how far you have come and it feels good to compete and accomplish something competitive, regardless of the results. Additionally, you gain an appreciation of the fitness levels of the Games Athletes, and their level of dedication, commitment and fitness.
  5. Fun: Lastly it is fun. It is fun to gather on Thursday night, watch the announcement, strategize, encourage, and ultimately attack a WOD that means something.cfopen2.png
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One of the things that really surprised me when I began CrossFit, and perhaps one of the main points of criticism from mainstream fitness, is CrossFit’s use of “benchmark,” “prescribed,” or “rx’d” workouts, without respect to individual differences like height, weight, body type, current fitness levels etc.

After my level 1 Seminar (taught by an all-star team made up of Chris Spealler, Eric O’Connor, Miranda Oldroyd, Jason MacDonald, and Tommy Rudge) I was even more confused since CrossFit HQ doesn’t teach coaches to prescribe that way. In fact, the CrossFit training manual closely resembles typical prescription methods and specifically focuses on “Macro View” of constantly varied functional movements, “Elements of Modality,” “Workout Structure,” “Application” and “Scaling”.  In fact, as you can see in my personal notes from my level 1 seminar it says: In order to reach virtuosity you have to have: Mechanics, Consistency, and Intensity; and as a side note it says “Don’t focus on Rx, Progression is needed by everyone.”

Since it is the most well-known WOD, let’s take a look at Fran. The name enough sends chills down my spine. “Fran” (21-15-9 of Thrusters and Pullups) sucks pretty bad no matter what; let’s just throw that out there. That being said, there are biological and biomechanical factors that will make it suck more or less depending on the person. To demonstrate this idea, let’s take the equation used to determine Work (weight x distance), and apply it to two different individuals with different heights. (Keep in mind this equation only demonstrates work output, and does not take other factors, like limb length, joint angles, or basal metabolic rate into consideration).

Subject 1 is shorter than subject 2 and weighs approximately 135 pounds. Subject 2 is taller and weighs 185 pounds.  To measure their work output for Fran both athletes were recorded to allow the distance to be observed. Next we multiplied the distance by the force/weight (for thrusters it was 95 pounds and for the pullups, it was the athletes body weight.) Evaluating these athletes demonstrated that the shorter/ lighter athlete’s work load was 8% less on thrusters, and an amazing 36.5% less on pullups, for an average workload of 22.25% less than that of the taller/heavier counterpart!

Thruster FinalPullup Final

 

I initially started thinking about this after my Level 1 seminar, but more recently have seen it in my own CrossFitting. It is frustrating for someone like me who is tall (specifically with longer femurs and shorter torso) to continually struggle with my deadlift, and have someone walk into the box and deadlift just shy of 500 pounds their first deadlift workout! (Yes, that really happened) Speaking of deadlifts, lets pair it with another of my least favorite movements, the hand stand pushup, and evaluate the same subjects for the workout “Diane” (21-15-9 of 225# Deadlift and Hand Stand Pushups).

Ultimately the workload results for “Diane” were similar to those in “Fran.” The shorter and lighter athlete performed 17% less work in the deadlift, and 40% less when performing the hand stand pushup in comparison to the taller and heavier athlete. This means in a workout like “Diane” the smaller athlete completes and average of 28.5% less work than the larger athlete.

Deadlift Finalhandstand pushup final

 

As demonstrated in the examples above, there is an advantage for a smaller athlete in these two workouts. So benchmarks are only benchmarks for athletes who share exact characteristics. But that certainly doesn’t mean that smaller athletes have an advantage across the board. There are several movements and exercises that benefit a taller athlete. I would much rather throw a wall ball 2 feet to hit the ten foot target, than three or four feet. For rowing, a taller athlete is going to get more meters per stroke than a smaller athlete. Last year, I did the half marathon row with one of my coaches who is significantly shorter than I. After we were finished I was blown away to find that while I only finished about a minute ahead of him, he had rowed three strokes for every two of mine. Advantage definitely favors the tall in rowing.

This type of constant variability in both exercises/movements and advantages/disadvantages is part of what makes CrossFit unique, and using benchmark and/or prescribed WODs works well in competitions where athletes are performing many workouts in a short period to make sure to level the playing field as much as possible. That way, the best all-around athlete becomes the victor.

The issue, then, becomes that the large majority of CrossFitters are not games athletes or even potential games athletes. Most of us just want to be part of community, work hard, and improve our lives. Sure we will compete with ourselves and others, but as coaches and individual athletes we need to recognize that “Rx” is just a couple of letters, and “prescribed weight” isn’t the result of some magical exercise science equation.

Shouldn’t we look to prescribe our WODs a little differently? Why not use the simple work=force x distance equation to prescribe exercise. Adding time to the equation will still help with power production… It does require a little more work, but I think that injuries would decrease, and results would continue to increase. Instead of prescribing “Grace” (30 clean and jerks at 135# for time), maybe we say “choose a weight that you feel comfortable with, and perform x amount of clean and jerks until you hit 4,050 pounds, for time. Whether we are talking about 30 reps at 135#, or 60 reps at 68#, it is the same amount of work! Or maybe we say “Perform 30 reps for time of the clean and jerk at 60% of your 1RM.”

We looked at height, and saw that there are some real differences in work performed. There are other factors that could be evaluated to show even greater differences. Things like limb length, joint mobility, anaerobic and aerobic condition, motor skill development etc. Hopefully we as coaches and athletes can get back to the focusing on individuals and recognize that there are some real quantitative and individual differences in our work. If we can shift our viewpoint and not get hung up on always Rx’ing the WOD or trying to best everyone else in the box, we can expect to see real progress.

 

running-poserunning-pose

Perhaps the biggest criticism of CrossFit, whether merited or not, is that CrossFit training is dangerous, and high-risk. I regularly hear things like “it’s not a matter of ‘if’ but rather of ‘when’ you will be injured.” Before starting myself, I may have believed these types of comments. In fact, recently there was a “study” done by NSCA about the efficacy of CrossFit training. The study demonstrated that CrossFit training increase fitness throughout many domains, but also mentioned that a significant number of participants failed to complete the study because of injury; which was later discovered not to be the case. (You can read about it by following this link: http://journal.crossfit.com/2013/05/acsm.tpl) The more I have become involved, the more I realize how over-blown these statements are, and in addition, I believe that many “CrossFit injuries” can be traced to other factors outside of CrossFit’s training methodology. One specific and major factor that I believe plays a role is the movement biomechanics of running and if/how running gait affects the occurrence or risk of injury.

Good CrossFit programs and coaches spend a lot of time training beginners on the skills that CrossFit training demands. Countless hours are spent on form of Olympic lifts, gymnastics movements, double-(and now triple)unders, rowing and many others. All of these skills are important and time should be spent on perfecting them. We regularly see ‘running’ in CrossFit workouts in varying distances from 10 meters to a mile or more, but with very little, if any, time being spent on the skill. Don’t get me wrong, the information is out there. There is a lot of great information on the subject including the POSE method followed and taught by Brian MacKenzie and a lot of other associated information on www.CrossFitEndurance.com/run . The Lord of the Supple Leopard Legion Kelly Starrett, along with MacKenzie, recently talked at length with Dean Karnazes, (Ultra-marathon Man) about running form and function on their pioneering series “Genetic Potential.” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=duUo8fRarQ4) There is a great article from the CrossFit Journal from 2008 titled “Form for Runners, from Head to Toe (http://library.crossfit.com/free/pdf/65_08_Runners_Form.pdf). We are seeing many in the CrossFit community embrace running as a skill and while we have a lot of great information on the subject both within and outside the CrossFit community, little time and effort is spent by coaches and members alike on perfecting a skill that I believe will translate performance in many, if not all, other CrossFit skills.

It is not my purpose here to argue CrossFit Endurance vs Conventional training; there is enough of that out there, but if you want to follow one person’s perspective in training that way, you can follow my other blog and personal experience as I use the method to train for a Marathon in the fall at www.mycrossfitenduranceexperiment.wordpress.com . The purpose of this entry is not only to (1) identify proper form, but also to (2) isolate common flaws in running gait, (3) how to correct those flaws, (4)discuss how those flaws might affect the performance and efficiency of other CrossFit skills, and (5) how/if they may increase injury occurrence if not corrected.

To begin, I wish to outline what I believe, and what are becoming, the generally accepted standards of biomechanically efficient running, as well as the factors that have limited or played a role in not applying them earlier.

Many things have contributed to the collective poor running mechanics that can be observed in most runners, let alone crossfitters. The first may be shoes in general. There has been a virtually linear correlation between the occurrence of running injuries and the “advances” in running shoe design over the last 30-40 years. Another is a society designed to make things easier. Sedentary lifestyles of sitting and desk-jobs have led to poor hip and shoulder mobility, tight and overactive hip flexors and chest muscles, and weak/underactive glutes, hamstrings, abs and back. Dress and athletic shoes with raised heels have screwed up the length/tension relationship of the calves. These factors, as well as others have wreaked havoc on the movement system and accelerate the rate of the overuse/chronic injury cycle. Recognizing all that is, and has gone, wrong, the following is an outline of a biomechanically correct and efficient running gait.

1)      Foot Strike: The foot should land softly, underneath a bent knee, on the mid or fore foot. Improper foot strike, specifically with the heel under a straight and locked knee, is the most common, and potentially most dangerous, running error. The easiest way to stop heel striking is to avoid over-striding by shortening the stride and increasing the cadence. (Think about running “quicker” and “quieter”)

2)      Knee Movement: The knee joint is classified as a hinge joint; that is it moves in a single fixed plane of motion. Although it is a single plane joint, there are occasionally varus and valgus forces on knee caused by heredity, and well as lifestyle factors that may have caused the imbalance. At foot strike, the knee should be slightly bent, causing the muscles of the upper leg to work synergistically with the lower leg muscles to eccentrically decelerate the movement. This type of movement minimizes the stress on the knee joint structures that often cause inflammation and pain. If the knee is locked at the point of impact all of the concussive force travels up the lower leg leading to shin splints and/or stress fractures, and continues through the knee structures and can transfer up the kinetic chain into the hips and lower back.

3)      Hip Position and Mobility: I like to think of the hips as a suspension bridge. In order for the suspension bridge to remain flat, the cables holding it need to remain balanced perfectly between being too tight or too loose. If a cable is pulled tight, it is going to carry more tension and stress and will be more likely to break. In addition the bridge will be pulled off of the level plain and other cables become loose, causing a structural imbalance. Our pelvis is the same, and through lifestyle factors many people exhibit some form of a pelvis imbalance to some degree. Very commonly we see anterior pelvic tilt caused from living in a sitting society. As a result of extended sitting, the hip flexors become overactive and tight, pulling the hips forward and ultimately leading to back pain and weakness. Hip imbalances and subsequently injuries, are compounded in individuals who run incorrectly without correcting excessive pelvic tilt.

4)      Core/Torso Stability: The common, and incorrect, running posture that can be observed in many runners typically includes the things mentioned above (ie, heel strike, over-extended knee, anterior pelvic tilt etc) but perhaps the easiest thing to observe is an upright torso. If the torso is upright (perpendicular to the ground) the vertebrae is stacked and the concussive force travels up the spine and can lead to hip, low-back, and nervous pain. By simply leaning forward, and keeping the torso and shoulders in front of the hips, it will carry the momentum forward, force a shortened stride will assist in proper foot strike, and decrease stress on the knees, hips and back. The easiest way to figure out the proper forward lean position is stand upright and lean forward until the point that you have to take a step to prevent you from tipping over; that is your forward lean position.

5)      Arms: There is a great article on arm mechanics here but I will paraphrase it for my article: (http://blog.altrazerodrop.com/ltrchat/adamstpierr/ ). Arm mechanics are sometimes ignored but can play a large role in efficiency and decreasing lower-body injury and imbalance. The most basic “rule of thumb” when it comes to arm mechanics while running is: keep it tight. Much less energy is used if the elbows are bent to 90 degrees or less and kept close to the body moving in the sagittal plane. The straighter the arm, or the larger the swing (especially if the hands cross the body’s midline), the larger the lever, and more energy is needed to control the movement. Another important thing to note is that the angle of the elbow should not change throughout the stride, but should remain a constant angle.

better-running

 Now that we have talked about the most biomechanically efficient way to run, let’s explore if/how running form affects the performance of other CrossFit exercises. Just like above, we will start with the feet and work up, and I am going to focus on three areas that people commonly experience injuries that are related to CrossFit: Achilles tendon/calves, knee and back, but before we talk about the specifics, I want to introduce a concept that plays a role in each of examples I list below.

The difference between walking and running I basically two-fold. Natural walking gait is typically heel strike and roll pattern, and with walking there is always at least one foot in contact with the ground all the time. In jogging and running, the natural and biomechanically efficient gait is fore-foot strike, and only one foot is in contact with the ground at any one time. Running is done at a higher velocity (speed) than walking and as a result creates exponentially more force at foot strike as the foot is required to eccentrically decelerate, stabilize, and concentrically accelerate the movement. This additional force can wreak havoc on the joints of runners who utilize conventional training programs built around long-slow-distance, especially if they heel strike. Now let’s build on that idea as it relates to CrossFit training. One of CrossFit’s training principles is “high-intensity.” When it comes to running, this means that the training is prescribed to be at higher speeds (greater force) for shorter distances. If we take crossfitters without efficient running training and have them run at higher speeds, we are ultimately perpetuating the rate of injuries in ways that are listed below.

Another item that will play a role in all of the examples outlined below is that an upright/ heel strike running posture doesn’t allow for the balanced development of the calves and glutes in balanced ratio to their antagonists creating imbalances and leading to reciprocal inhibition and synergistic dominance that, if go uncorrected, will decrease performance and increase imbalances and injuries.

Ankle:  Mobility and the length/tension relationship of the calves muscles group. Last year in the Crossfit open, one of the workouts included box jumps, and as a result of thousands of people participating, there were several reports of calve and Achilles tendon ruptures and injuries. As a result, we have seen a shift away from box jumps because of fear of injury; and participants in the open this year were allowed to step up and step down as a modification (a modification that proved to enhance performance and improve the scores of many athletes who did it multiple times). I am not going to say that everyone should do full box jumps, but I believe that there are two contributing factors related to poor running mechanics that would significantly decrease the risk of this injury. A heel-strike gait, coupled with shoes that have a raised heel (lifting shoes included), accelerate the problem because the posterior chain is shortened. As a result of the shortened posterior chain, the length/tension relationship of the muscles of the lower leg are not conditioned to prepared for the stress and range of motion demands of an exercise like box jumps. Correct running gait, as outlined above, assists those muscles with the demands of eccentric deceleration loading that is required for the exercise. Having a shortened posterior chain (wearing oly lifting shoes) may be an advantage for lifting, but can be a great disadvantage and lead to injury in other exercises.

Knee: Occasionally in CrossFit we see knee problems arise, but more often than not they are associated with, or caused by, some other force entirely. One such factor may be heel-strike running. As mentioned above the forces associated with running are exponentially greater as speed increased in relationship to walking. That impact travels up the kinetic chain causing problems from the bottom up. These include shin splints, stress fractures, soft tissue overuse injuries of muscle and tendon units, Joint pain and inflammation at the knee, hip and back. The faster the heel-strike gait speed, the greater the impact, and further up the kinetic chain the impact travels. The impact of a heel-strike does not allow the muscles of the leg to softly transition between strides, but instead the muscles are forced to stabilize a violent impact that reverberates up the kinetic chain. That added impact can damage shock absorbing structures like the meniscus of the knee. If someone has meniscus-related injuries or are lacking cartilage in their knee due to improper running mechanics; or if they have chronic low-back pain and anterior pelvic tilt because they run upright, it will make it painful and nearly impossible to squat, lunge and jump as prescribed in CrossFit WODs, and as a result, their progress will be limited to the degree in which they can’t perform the exercises.

Back: The back is probably the area of that we most hear about injuries as they pertain to CrossFit. While poor running posture and gait are probably not the leading contributor to back weakness and injury, it does play a role that can make or break the back (no pun intended) strength. The lower back (specifically the SI joint and the surrounding structures) are often the subject of CrossFit-related back pain. Heel-strike running has been shown in studies to accelerate degenerative back disorders and increase the occurrence of low-back pain. In addition to the additional shock, upright runners displayed lower levels of low-back muscle mass, strength and stability. When you take those variables into consideration, adding a regimen of weight-lifting may compound the problem and increase the occurrence of low-back injury. As mentioned about upright and heel-strike runners have underdeveloped glutes in relationship to the hip flexors. Tight and overactive hip flexors anteriorly rotate the pelvis forward increasing low back pain and the chance of injury, especially when weight is added. There are also significant and observable upper-back issues to be discussed. An upright runner’s shoulders are directly above the body’s center of mass, decreasing the need for the muscles of the upper back to stabilize the shoulder girdle. This type of running weakens those muscle and lead to a rounding of the upper-back and shoulders. Those who run with their shoulders and chest in front of the hips must engage the muscles of the upper-back to stabilize the body from falling forward. This will assist during lifts like the deadlift, power clean, snatch etc.

Conclusion: Running efficiency and economy may not be greatest factor or contributor to injury in CrossFit, but it is a skill and should be looked at as such. All skills should be regularly coached and critiqued, and special instruction should be provided for those skills that transfer to others, especially when performance can be enhanced and injury decreased. In order to get your running legs up to speed you need to train your body to utilize proper biomechanics and emphasize the overall movement from the hips. All power activities rely on producing power from the hip (ie. Glutes, quads, adductors, abductors, and hip flexor/extensor groups) in the form of the triple- extension. The triple extension involves the three major joints the hip, knee and ankle which transfer force from a flexed position to an extended position. Now just think about this transferred into your running mechanics. The more powerful your triple-extension the more force you can effectively transfer into the ground and the faster you will move.  Therefore running and CrossFit lifts and exercise transfer directly to each other. At the very least, running deserves more coaching then simply “run 400 meters.”

References:

1)      http://www.thebodymechanic.ca/2011/03/19/barefoot-forefoot-strike-and-heel-strike-a-biomechanics-summary/

2)      http://demotu.org/pralados60/files/2011/05/DuganPMRCNA05running.pdf

3)      http://blog.nasm.org/fitness/running-shoe-or-minimalist-shoe/

4)      http://cptsmashfitness.com/bodyfat-loss-basics/ranger-pt-shorts-make-you-run-better/

5)      http://www.elitetrack.com/article_files/biomechanicsofrunning.pdf

6)      http://www.sfecrossfit.com/resources/articles/crossfit-and-running-shoes/

7)      http://www.altrazerodrop.com/webapp/wcs/stores/servlet/StaticContentView?langId=-1&storeId=15151&catalogId=18952&pageTitle=Learn+To+Run&pageName=LearnToRun

8)      http://blog.altrazerodrop.com/ltrchat/adamstpierr/

9)      http://www.crossfitintrepid.com/2012/10/02/how-walking-gait-differs-from-running-gait/

10)   http://blog.evidencebasedfitnessacademy.com/2011/01/23/synergistic-dominance–low-back-pain.aspx

11)   http://library.crossfit.com/free/pdf/64_07_PoseRun_Techniques.pdf

12)   http://www.bettermovement.org/2013/barefoot-running-squatting-like-a-baby-and-pygmy-feet/

13)   http://home.trainingpeaks.com/articles/running/ground-contact-time-and-running-performance.aspx

14)   http://woman.thenest.com/forces-hip-midfoot-vs-heel-strike-running-gaits-14361.html

15)   http://www.runnersworld.com/running-tips/footstrike-and-its-possible-effect-lower-back-pain

Since the creation of CrossFit, a central focus of CrossFit methodology and philosophy has seemed to involve returning to a primal human state. Mostly this comes from the Paleo Diet that is doctrinally ingrained in CrossFitters across the board; and while diet may have been the initial driver of the desire to return to the primitive, it has crept into other areas of life as well. One area that I want to talk about is that of Biomechanics.

We live in a culture of enhancement; dietary enhancement (supplementation), performance enhancement (supplementation and equipment) etc. Although these enhancements might temporarily increase health or performance, eventually, the improvement will plateau and cause us to seek out further enhancement, thus facilitating an endless cycle of always looking for the next best thing. This perpetuates a dilemma for every person by never being satisfied. Ultimately we will all find that a return to the ‘primal’ way of life (with some exceptions and comforts) is the solution that can be both acceptable and sustainable. The endorsement of the Paleo diet in CrossFit is the nutritional answer to the dilemma, with a focus on very clean eating and whole foods, and avoidance of sugar and processed junk.

I believe that the same reasoning should be applied to the way we train, with a specific focus on foot and ankle biomechanics. The inception of the modern running shoe was created with a raised sole to cushion a heel-strike gait and theoretically lengthen one’s stride, and thus increase speed. This idea propagated and shoes got more high-tech and cushiony; additionally more injuries were occurring. Other sports and activities followed suit with specialized shoes. Basketball shoes got more sole padding, high ankles, and reinforced sides. Lifting shoes got solid soles with raised heels. Each example above offered an enhancement to performance and training in the given sport. For many, the benefits gained are worth the enhancement. It makes sense for a football or soccer player to wear cleats because they will increase performance in the sport they are training for. The same could be said for any specialized shoe in any sport: rock-climbing, cycling, bowling, power-lifting, ice skating, dancing, and the list goes on and on.

CrossFit labels itself the “Sport of Fitness,” and the goal is functional fitness, or being a “jack of all trades and a master of none” when it comes to fitness. CrossFit describes itself as “constantly-varied, high-intensity, functional movement” with the goal being increased “work capacity across broad time and modal domains.” So if the goal of CrossFit is improving/not sucking at life, doesn’t it make sense to train in a way where we are not constantly looking for an enhancement/ short-cut? Even within CrossFit we are starting to see a lot of the athletes use Olympic lifting shoes for weight centered wods; but in doing so, aren’t they training for a strength bias? (Certainly, athletes will not wear their lifting shoes all the time, and what will happen if they are used to wearing a lifting shoe, and something happens in “real-life” when they are wearing a pair of flip-flops?). This reason, I believe, is why we are seeing that more and more CrossFitters are looking toward minimalist shoes like Vibram, Inov8, and Reebok Nanos. And while I believe that minimalist shoes are the way to go for CrossFit/Life training, each of those listed above has strengths and weaknesses.

Coming from the angle of a pro-minimalist shoe wearer and advocator, I have used a lot of shoes for standard cross-training shoes, bare feet, Vibrams, and Inov8s, I have found a shoe that I like more for CrossFit than those listed above, and believe it or not it is a running shoe. Altra shoes (www.AltraZeroDrop.com) were designed to enhance biomechanically correct running gait. They are designed with the heel and forefoot on the same level. And while they are gaining traction in the running world, I love them for CrossFit for a number of reasons. 1) They are comfortable. 2) They have a wide toe-box which allows the toes to move and react naturally without being compressed from the sides, and while the toes can move independently and comfortably, they still can work synergistically to generate force having the same sole (which is one of the reasons I don’t necessarily love five-fingers). 3) Because they are a running shoe, you can feel comfortable running any distance that you will ever see in a CrossFit wod. 4) They are zero-drop shoe which enhances correct movement biomechanics across the board, and decreases the chance for both chronic and acute movement-related injuries. And while they are zero-drop, there is more sole padding than other minimalist shoes which make them more comfortable for running, box jumps, power lifts that use a jump, dropping off the pull-up bar etc. 5) They are durable. Because they were created and developed as high-mileage running shoes, they last longer than other minimalist shoes. Ultimately I have found that my Altras enhance CrossFit/life performance, without having to make concessions elsewhere.

If the key goal of a CrossFitter, or any other sport athlete, is one-dimensional, by all means, wear shoes to enhance the performance of that sport or event. But if the goal is to increase ability and functional fitness, where training shoes that will enhance your sport, and every other part of your active life.zero-drop

I am a product of Mainstream fitness. I played sports growing up, with coaches who coached the same way their coaches did twenty years earlier. I went to school in Physical and Health Education and became a trainer along the way. Coming from that background, I have always been analytical in my thinking about how to train and be trained.  I looked at components of fitness as wholly unrelated and separate from each other. Strength was different than flexibility, which was separate from cardiovascular endurance, etc. I looked at energy systems the same way, and made many assumptions about energy system training and limitations based on factors like muscle fiber type etc. Muscles each have a point of insertion and origin and perform singular (for the most part) actions, and are trained categorically based on those factors. My training background came largely from the National Academy of Sports Medicine’s (NASM) Optimum Performance Training (OPT) method of training. (Although NASM and James Fitzgerald’s training programs share the same acronym and name, they are unrelated). While I agree and use many aspects of the model, I have also come to question some of the methodology. One area that I have changed on is the concept of specialized training for very specific patterns of movement. Let’s use the squat as an example. I used to instruct people to never pass 90 degrees at the knee. My reasoning was that unless you were a Catcher in baseball, you had no business being in such a compromised position, and thus would not benefit from squatting past the square. This idea was based on information which I now know is archaic, outdated and based on data gathered from cadavers (dead tissue)! It’s also the same source that teaches that the knee should never cross the plane of the toe (another wide-spread misconception). Until I started CrossFitting, I would have held those concepts as law without exception.

Enter CrossFit. Ingrained in conventional fitness, I misconceived CrossFit as dangerous and ineffectual. I viewed it the same as other fad programs like P90X, shake weight, strippercise, body blade, and understood that it was only a matter of time before it too disappeared. Anyone who is reading this has most likely come to the same realization that I was wrong. I was so wrong. CrossFit’s training methodology went against everything I believed. The idea of “constantly varied, high-intensity, functional movement” was the exact opposite of the standard training methods of “structured and periodized, low impact, controlled movement patterns.”  Forget about “quickly moving large loads over a distance;” that would be unsafe! Right? Despite my reservations, I drank the “Kool-aid” and I started to see results. It caused me to rethink everything I have ever known about fitness. I was annoyed that I was wrong, and even more annoyed that I didn’t understand why it worked. I started to understand as I saw that the primary goal of CrossFit is to “increase work capacity across broad time and modal domains.” What the hell does that mean? I have found that it basically means that CrossFit’s objective is to improve life. As much as I am a convert to the sport, I still find misconceptions from my past fitness life creep up regularly. An example of this happened a couple of weeks ago about the proper execution of a skill having to do with the range of motion.

During a recent WOD that included Abmat situps, I was performing the exercise by coming up high enough to touch my feet before returning to the ground. One of my coaches cued me to come “all the way up” so that my hips were at 90 degrees and my back straight. I thought she was crazy. I mean, the exercise is designed to work the Rectus Abdominus, right?…. and that muscle only is designed  flex the spine a few degrees, right?….and going up higher is only going to use the hip flexors, right?…….. Wrong, wrong, and wrong. My preconceived idea of an Abdominal exercise was flawed by individualizing the muscle, instead of the function. I was worried about blowing through the reps, instead of performing a movement. It led me to ask: why are the movements in CrossFit designed to be performed through a wider range of motion than those in mainstream fitness and body-building? I came up with a few answers.

① Full Range-of-Motion exercises force muscle synergy. I already mentioned that muscle in themselves limited in scope and in the movement they can generate. For the most part, a muscle contracts and causes movement in a singular plane of motion. Daily living requires more than a combination of individual movements strung together, unless your job is dancing and performing  “the robot.” Living is made up functional movements that require muscles to work together to accomplish a task or perform a movement. Because CrossFit is about increasing the ability to live a fuller life, its training is based on movement s and exercises that are designed to take the body through the widest range of motion. Lets look again at the abmat situp when compared to the conventional abdominal crunch.  A standard crunch requires a person to lie facing up, with arms crossed at the chest, and knees bent. The exercise is performed by contracting the abs and lifting the chest strait up. It’s a simple exercise in one plane, with limited movement, limited and limited range of motion (and most likely limited results). On the flip-side, an abmat sit-up is much more involved. The starting position, with the assistance of the abmat, maintains the lumbar curve of the back, in an over or hyper-extended spine position. The knees are bent and the upper-leg is externally rotated so that the soles of the feet are together and knees are pointing out. The exercise is performed by quickly sitting up to an upright position before returning back.  The starting position alone exposes the body to a much wider range of motion. The execution of the exercise requires the coordination of more muscles than the abs alone, and because of the starting position, the recruitment of extra muscles to synergistically assist, and the speed at which the exercise is performed, makes the efficacy of the abmat situp much higher than that of a standard crunch. The same observation can be made for nearly any CrossFit exercise;  whether it be box jumps, thrusters or pullups, the wider the range of motion of a movement, the more synergistic muscles must be recruited for strength and coordination. Many fail to see that a kipping pullup is a different exercise, and shouldn’t be compared to a conventional, dead-hang pullup. Although they have different objectives, that won’t prevent those outside of the box (pardon the pun) from commenting on every CrossFit message board and youtube video about “proper form”

② Moving through the full range of motion increases proprioception (one’s awareness of their body in space) and coordination. By extending a limb through its joint’s complete range of motion, it changes the body’s center of gravity and forces the core musculature to work harder to stay stable; which is also why there is such emphasis on moving from the core to the extremity. In a study published in The Journal of Experimental Biology in 2010, it was found that there was significant correlation between coordinated movement and increasing power and muscular efficiency; which is also why there is such emphasis on form in CrossFit. During my Level 1, Eric O’Connor (who is an amazing instructor and person) talked about how after he had attended an Olympic Lifting seminar, he pr’d all of his lifts. He went on to discuss that it wasn’t due to the fact that all of a sudden he was stronger, but rather that the coordinated and efficient movement patterns allowed for his power output to increase.

③ Finally, and probably most obviously, is the role that full range of motion movements have on functional flexibility. There is a learning curve to being able to perform every CrossFit exercise correctly.  Someone who has spent 40 hours a week for 20 years sitting at a desk in front of computer is going to have tight hip flexors, weak glutes, and week core. There chest may be tight and back weak from always having the arms forward for typing. Those muscle imbalances will make it hard for that person to perform each and every one of the CrossFit foundational movements. Everyone has little imbalances, but the great thing about CrossFit and good coaches is that a person will be supported in their efforts until that functional flexibility is achieved. While other programs ineffectually use static stretching to increase flexibility, CrossFit uses actual movement, as well as specialized techniques like myofascial release with foam rolls and lacrosse balls taped together. A person who can safely and correctly perform all of the CrossFit exercises will be prepared, from a range of motion standpoint, for any of life’s hurdles, without the added risk of injury due to immobility.

So the next the time your coach yells “Ass to Grass!” or “Lock it Out!”, take it in stride and know that they have your best interests at heart, and ultimately you will improve in CrossFit and therefore, life.

As a newbie to blogging, and a relative newbie to CrossFit (just over a year now), I have written primarily based on my educational background in biomechanics, but also through personal experience about what has worked for me in developing new skills. One of the things that I really love about CrossFit is that every (good) coach has his/her own cues to help their members. There are many ways to teach skill and/or technique efficiency. Everyone responds to cues differently and what works for one, may not work for another. I have observed this firsthand doing wods at various boxes, and attending seminars and trainings. Recently I received similar feedback in response to my blog about double-unders, from the godfather (my moniker, not his) of CrossFit jump-roping no less. Dave Newman, the creator and owner of Rx Jump Ropes, responded to an inquiry and let me know while he agreed with a few points of my approach, ultimately he disagreed with biggest one! He explained that his method of teaching double-unders has worked for thousands of CrossFit athletes : “My philosophy is that efficient bounding and gaining the greatest distance between the athlete and the ground is paramount to learning efficient timing…with the most common error being focused on rope speed and not separation from the ground.” He went on to explain: “Practically speaking, the more distance one creates the better their odds for success. If one never leaves the ground they have zero percent chance for success no matter how fast they turn the rope. Leave the ground a little you’ve increased your odds dramatically. Leave the ground a lot and increase your odds exponentially.” The simplicity of this of his logic was like a revelation, and was a little bit embarrassing at the same time that I over-thought the skill as much as I did and failed to see this basic understanding. “This approach will allow the athlete to slow down their rope speed and learn better timing between their body’s reciprocating motion and the rope’s rotary motion. Imagine the difference between jumping out of the way of a car speeding at you at 50 mph or a car coming at you at 5 mph. There’s a huge psychological difference between the two.” Once again, I had a light bulb moment, followed quickly by another dose of humility. He concluded by explaining that once an athlete gets the timing right, it becomes easy to speed up or slow down.

The reason that I took the time to enter this blog is two-fold. First, the whole point of this blog is to provide information about CrossFit and its associated skills to athletes that may benefit in some way from this content. The explanation of performing the double-under by Mr. Newman offers a more logical and simple approach to a skill that I previously over-complicated. Secondly, Mr. Newman could have responded to my inquiry by saying: “you are dumb, this is wrong” but instead took the time to respectively explain his approach which I really appreciated, and  think is reflective of the CrossFit community in general, which I am proud to be a part of!

For more information on the skill of the double-under, Mr. Newman has an article in the November/December issue of WodTalk Magazine titled: “Double Unders are as easy as Air Squats. Really!”

Double-Unders: Friend or Foe?

Posted: April 20, 2012 in Uncategorized

Double-unders are commonly the first nemesis of every new CrossFitter; though they often don’t realize it until they have been sucked into the realms of CrossFit, from which no one leaves. The trainers don’t over-emphasize the rx’d double-under, and instead happily provide modifications of 2 for 1, 3 for 1, and even 4 to 1 singles for every prescribed double. The pressure to rX usually comes from within when we get sick of doing extra jumps, and we see what effect it is having on our times. We are intrinsically forced to start practicing but how and where do we start. What kind of rope should we use? How long should it be? How high should we jump? How do we increase our rope speed, and what should the cadence be? These are some of the questions that are commonly asked singularly but without the answers to all of them collectively, we can’t effectively string together a substantial run of double under repetitions.

For me, the process was a long one. Maybe it was because I am very analytical when it comes to movement and I wanted to understand every intricacy. Maybe it was due to the fact that I was looking in a hundred different places for any information or instruction. Or maybe it was due simply to the incoordination that is inherently part of learning a new skill. I will attempt to articulate how the process was for me so as to assist anyone who is struggling and would like to forego any plantar fascia, foot and calf pain, shin splints, or any other side effect of the dreaded double under. First we will examine some of the common mistakes that people make, followed by some tips, modifications, and progressions.

Because CrossFit is multi-dimensional, athletes are forced to learn to use their balance, strength, and flexibility differently for the imposed demands of different exercises. For example, the variations of the squat teach us to keep our weight in the heels; but for plyometric exercises like box jumps and double-unders, the heels should make minimal, if any, contact with the floor during reps.

Our muscles contract and relax in many ways to produce and slow movement. One quality is that muscles have a “spring-like” quality so as we are coming down from a jump, there is an increasing energy potential that will assist greater force in the opposite direction. Think about how a spring works; the more compressed a spring becomes the more potential energy there is to generate force in the opposite direction. Imagine a pogo stick without a spring, or a trampoline that is only 6 inches above the ground; all momentum would be lost and wasted. The same principle can be applied to the double-under if we are coming down flat footed each repetition. This type of jumping pattern is not musculo-skeletally efficient and can potentially increase the risk of joint problems and stress fractures because instead of the muscles using the force and momentum for movement, that energy is lost and the impact is transferred into the bones and joints of the legs. That is kind of a long and drawn-out way to simply say Stay on the Balls of your feet!

Another movement inefficiency or mistake has to do with the jump itself. Jumping should be a smooth movement without any locking or jarring, and very little flexion (bending) at the knees or hips. When people are starting out, they will do whatever it take to get high enough for two rope revolutions per jump. The most common jumping “techniques” are bending the knees to 90 degrees and the pike jump where the knees are straight but the hips are flexed and come forward so the body is bent at the waist. There are a few flaws in jumping this way. First, both are very inefficient and will cause fatigue very quickly. Second, the chance of injury is much greater; maybe not immediately, but over time and hundreds of repetitions, the constant force of landing from inefficient jumping will eventually cause joint and connective tissue injury. Lastly the idea that jumping higher will make the double-under easier is inherently flawed. This was an epiphany to me as I watched the Games Athletes; none of them were jumping any higher than they would on single jumping. Learning the double under has less to do with the height of the jump and more to do with rope position, speed, and cadence.

Another common problem with jumping is the speed of the jumping in relationship to the exercise. Most people, when trying to learn the skill, naturally speed up there jump as the increase the speed of the rope. Athletes will get the hang of the skill much faster if they consciously focus on slowing their jump down.

Now we will move to the most common mistakes athletes make with the revolution of the rope. We will first examine the speed and cadence, and finally the placement and movement of the arms, wrists, and hands.

When starting out, most athletes think that the rope cadence is an even-beat cadence like in singles, only twice as fast. This is not the case, at least for me. It’s hard to describe a cadence in words without the aid of sound effects or clapping etc. The best way I can describe the syncopated rhythm is by comparing it to a heart-beat. Each beat of the heart, if broken down, is two separate, but fast and consecutive beats. The double under is the same for me. I like to do two quick rotations in a row broken up by a very brief pause, rather than just a double-time, even cadence.

The arm position plays perhaps the most important role in finding your double-unders. The rope needs to short enough that there isn’t any lag in the rope to maintain speed, but long enough that it’s not getting tripped up at the feet. Too many times we blame the rope length when more often the culprit is our arm position. The wider we position our arms, the shorter the rope becomes and higher we have to jump. The same can be said if our arms are too far forward or back as well. The best way to avoid shortening your rope with your arms is to position the elbows so that they are just outside of contact with the side of your body.

I have recently seen and read about how the “sling-shot” bench press training aide, can be modified and used for several other exercises as well. In addition to “pushing” exercises, the sling-shot can be used to assist an athlete in keeping their elbows in and forward to help build muscle memory for the double under. If you don’t have a sling-shot, you can also use a power band, belt, etc to stabilize the upper arm and prevent the arms from moving back and out.

The fact that the elbows should remain close to the body shows us that the shoulders are not generating the movement of the rope. Instead, the speed of the rope’s revolution should be generated through the pronation (inward twisting) of the forearm, and circumduction of the wrist, both at high frequency.

As this is a new skill for many, all of the items discussed above can be a little overwhelming to consciously focus on all simultaneously, so I have broken down the skill and into steps that I used when learning.

  1. Rope Length – Standing on the center of the rope with one foot, the end of the cable should be close to the chest/arm-pit level.
  2. Start with Singles- Forget about any other way you may have jumped rope in the past (double jumps for every rope revolution, forward/back single leg jumping etc.) Jump in place using only minimal flexion at the knees and hips. Hold your elbows close to the body and use the forearms and wrists. Watch yourself in the mirror to make sure that you are not excessively bending your knees and hips.
  3. Speed up you Singles- After you feel comfortable with singles at a slow pace, speed up progressively to the point that you are going as fast as you can jump with only jumping 2 or less inches per repetition. Note that in order to reach top speed, you must maintain the proper technique discussed above. When you have solid form fast singles go to the next step.
  4. Transition into doubles- Start slow. Perform 4 singles and one double and repeat. When you can maintain this pattern unbroken, do 3 singles to 1 double. Follow this pattern until you work up to consecutive double-unders.
  5. Have someone watch you. Tell them to watch your knees, hips, and shoulders. They may be able to help pinpoint what is sabotaging your efforts.