This Week In Running A Gym - June 1, 2014

This week my biggest challenge was trying to design an obstacle course for the Throwdown. It's got to be physically challenging and test skills like agility and balance, but not be so high-level that it eliminates everyone except ninjas. It should be able to accommodate 300 athletes and somehow be a partner workout. Oh, and it can't harm the grass. I think I've got it though, and I'm looking forward to testing it out.

Someone took me up on my offer to practice some self-defense drills that I put in last weeks column. It was the first time I've tried to present these concepts as a lesson unto themselves and so was nervous about it. My background is in traditional Jiujistu, or as I prefer to call it, "Dirty-trick-fu." When I first learned about Tony Blauer and the psychological side of self defense I was practicing Jiujistu daily and these drills and ideas simply became a part of the martial arts training. But what about when somebody has no martial arts training? What if they aren't here to learn a fighting system, but instead just want to learn to proactively defend themselves? It's a radically different starting point and it scrambled my assumptions about what to teach and how to present it. I spent more time talking than I'm comfortable with. I feel that a training session (whether self-defense or CrossFit) should be spent practicing the actual skills, and if I'm talking, you're not practicing. Some talk is necessary of course, but my goal as a teacher of movement is always to keep my coaching precise and concise so we can get back to moving. So I was definitely outside of my comfort zone, and although I hate that feeling, I know that when I've been challenged like this in the past, it's usually a golden opportunity for growth.

Someone who was contemplating opening their own gym once asked me what I thought some of the keys to success were. My answer included the willingness to fail publicly.

On another note, another “Why I don't do CrossFit” article made the rounds on Facebook this week and I saw it pop up on the feeds of several of you. I skimmed through it, but didn't spend much time reading it closely. It seemed more like click-bait than anything interesting or new, trying to play up controversy in order to attract attention. But since those ideas are in the air, I thought I might try to address them here.

Basically it boils down to three things. These are responsibility, technique, and injury. Really it all comes back to injury.

The responsibility question usually gets presented in the form of an example when a workout calls for a certain weight or skill which is beyond the ability of the athlete. Critics look at this situation and point out how the athlete is being pushed beyond safe boundaries and needlessly risking injury. The subtext is that the trainer is the one responsible for putting the workout on the board and is therefore responsible for the athlete putting the weight on the bar. I agree and disagree with this idea. Yes, training in a group and the authority of a coach can put heavy social pressure on a person to conform. That's a reality that a coach needs to be mindful of and to find ways to mitigate it. We can do that by not prescribing weights or offering scaled versions along side the main workout. But the athlete is also responsible for him/herself. You are ALWAYS responsible for your own actions, especially when you bear the consequences for them. If you disregard all of those mental doubts about whether you can or should do something, even as you do it, then I have a hard time blaming the system for what happens as a result. We have to assume that you're a responsible adult who won't willingly hurt yourself when you know better. We'll call this one a shared responsibility.

Next is the question of technique. Some people like to claim that CrossFit doesn't promote good technique. But let's clarify what "good" means here. Good technique is what is efficient and safe. Sometimes by people's language I get the impression that they mean good in moral terms as in good versus evil, like they have a mental picture of what technique should be and any deviation from that is sin. But it's a mistake to think in those terms. Good technique is efficient and safe. That's it. It may not look the way you want it to, but you have to evaluate it for what it is, not what it isn't.

Within our proper parameters, we have some wiggle room. Bending arms early on a power clean is inefficient but not unsafe. If I see someone with that problem I will say something, but I won't restrict their freedom to choose their weight and I won't beat them over the head with it. That's one of those problems that tends to iron itself out - just add more weight and it gets harder to keep bending your arms early. Now if they're unable to keep their back in a stable position, I will intervene and tell them to drop weight or switch to a regression. But what if they won't listen?

True story from a couple months ago: A guy comes in and talks his way into class. He insists he did our beginner series last year, has been deployed since then, and he does Crossfit all the time on his own anyway so he knows what's up. We were doing a Clean and Jerk ladder and very quickly I realize this guy has no clue what he's doing. I give him a regression (hang power clean) and suggestions for weight (65lbs). I move on to observe and help elsewhere. Literally after two minutes, I turn back and he's putting 45lb plates on the bar. Which he then tries to pull from the floor with bent arms and a back so rounded it reminded me of a snail. I walk back and say pointblank, "That's too heavy. You should take that weight off." He looks at me and nods his head. I turn away again and when I turn back he's added 20 more pounds! I shit you not. I walk back and say again, "I think that's too heavy." He nods and shrugs, apparently thinking that since he successfully got it up it can't be too heavy. At that point, I figure I've done my job, I've told him several times what he should do and he's chosen to ignore my advice. I could either draw a line in the sand and tell him to conform or get out, or let him risk hurting himself. I chose the latter, if I kick him out it's just ego vs ego. If he stays he might learn something like, ignoring good form leads to injury. Now this guy is an extreme case- he had terribly unsafe form and refused to use a weight or regression that was appropriate despite my direct command otherwise. But you'd be amazed at how often this happens on a more subtle level. People have their own will and will often ignore coaching. See my earlier point about athletes being responsible for themselves. If you wanted to hate on CrossFit and you came in during such a class, you'd see plenty of bad form to write about. But that overlooks the subtle realities I've just discussed.

Lastly comes injury. This is a tricky topic to speak about as a trainer. On the one hand, I am never okay with injury; my goal is always a 0% injury rate. And like a boxer going into the ring, part of my mental preparation is to believe that my goal is attainable, despite the fact that when I look at it objectively I can see that it might not be. I don't want to admit that injuries can happen despite the best efforts of athlete and coach. But the reality is that they do. You can progress slowly, show perfect technique, and still find yourself nursing joint pain or a sprain. Here is something to remember- ALL sports have injuries. Running has an injury rate of about 66%, two out of three runners will lose training time to an injury every year. (Runner's World) Yoga? I was just visiting an uncle a couple weeks ago who was nursing a yoga injury, and this a guy who lived in India as a sadhu for 6 years and has been practicing yoga for over 30. What if you don't do anything at all? What if you sit on your couch and do nothing strenuous? Well, then your hip flexors will shorten, your spine will curve, and your muscles will atrophy. Less muscle mass means lower metabolism and you'll put on fat. That will carry it's own host of additional problems. You'll end up living a lower quality of life, but at least you'll die young.

Pick your poison. What if scar tissue in your shoulder from an injury you don't even remember prevents you from getting full lockout when holding a bar overhead? It's nothing big, but the cumulative effect over months and years leads to a bigger shoulder injury, one that requires a PT, rehab, and missed training time, maybe even surgery. Prior to that you were fit, healthy, and active. You'll get your shoulder back too if you do the rehab and stay smart about it, it'll just involve a period of recovery. What do you think? This is the worst case scenario, but even so, in the final analysis is it worth it? Which path would you take? Remember, risk of injury lies down every path you choose. Some paths include additional benefits such as fitness and fun, although those paths also carry a higher level of risk. It's almost like life isn't fair and shit happens even when you do everything right.

Which seems like a perfect place to end this week.

By Morgan on Sunday, June, 01, 2014