Check Your Math

Last night at my CrossFit gym, to mark the conclusion of the Smolov Jr. cycle, we retested our 1 rep maxes in the push press and back squat.

"Tough guys don't do math. Tough guys fry chicken for a living."
“Tough guys don’t do math. Tough guys fry chicken for a living.”

Everyone was excited. Inherently we all knew that we were stronger, especially those who had done the full Smolov Jr. cycle of lifting four times per week for the past three weeks. I was raring to go and at the end of the day saw gains in both lifts.

My previous 1 rep max for the push press, when we tested it four weeks ago, was 130 lbs. Last night, I went up by 20 lbs. to set a new PR (personal record) of 150 lbs. In the back squat, my previous 1 rep max was 180 lbs. and I went up 35 lbs. to set a new PR of 215 lbs.

Throughout the day, people posted their numbers on Facebook. One gym member even offered a prize for the biggest percent gain. All vying for the win, we calculated the difference between our original 1 rep max and our new. Overall, I went up by approximately 118%.

I had achieved significant gains over the course of one month. So why was I unhappy?

The problem was that I let others enter my equation.


Left and right people were posting gains throughout the day. It was truly awesome. People were going up by 20-30 pounds in the push press and 40-60 pounds in the back squat. And I let all their achievements get into my head. I figured if they were going up by so many pounds, then naturally I would to. I was letting other people’s success dictate what success meant for me.

So when I got to class and it was time to start attempting one max reps in the push press, all I was focused on was the number rather than my form. Thankfully, three weeks and over 400 hundred reps later, my form had greatly improved to let me naturally make some gains. But, when it came time to concentrate and think about form and stop worrying about what other people had done, I failed. I failed at the lift and my ego was crushed.

My coach Peter asked me why I looked so dismayed. I explained that I wanted to lift my body-weight in the push press. He asked what I had done so far and when I said that I had gone up by 20 lbs., he laughed. Not because my gain wasn’t impressive but because I was being ridiculous not celebrating my own personal success.

I admitted to him that after seeing all the numbers people posted all day, I expected to lift more. He reminded me that my gains were significant and that should be my only concern.

In my calculations, I had let others become part of the denominator. My math was wrong. I should be the only person in the equation. I needed to focus on what I did compared to what I had done.

It’s a hard lesson in life. It’s so easy to see the success of others and believe it should be our own.

  • “I work just as hard as him. I should also get that raise and promotion.”
  • “I work out just as much as her. I should be the same dress size.”
  • “My kid is just as talented as theirs. He should get that gold star too.”

The fact of the matter is that we need to be happy for others’ success but realize that we can’t by default expect the same results in life, no matter how hard we work or train or sweat or suffer.

I can only compare me to myself in terms of achievements. Am I stronger than I was before? Am I smarter than I was before? Am I happier than I was before? Am I a better person than I was before?

Others can serve as models or mentors or just pure inspiration, but they cannot be barometers.

I need to calculate my personal equation again and see what type of difference I have made so far in my training. That is the only thing worth comparing to.

More Weight


One of my favorite plays is The Crucible by Arthur Miller. It is about the Salem witch trials and an appropriate literary reference as Halloween quickly approaches. At one point during the play, the mass hysteria of the townspeople leads to Giles Corey, a honorable elderly man in the community, being accused of witchcraft and subjected to pressing. Giles refuses to admit he is a witch or wizard and as punishment more and more stones are laid upon his chest. In an act of defiance, he ignores all the pain and anguish he is suffering and simply says, “More weight.” He refused to give in and was crushed to death.

It’s a brilliant moment, especially in the film version starring Daniel Day-Lewis and Winona Ryder.

For whatever reason, my nerdy English-major sense of humor always thinks of this quote when doing any sort of heavy lifting at the gym. The context is clearly very different than the witch trials of the late 1600s, but I always think of Giles and his ability to stay strong and absorb the pain.

“More weight!”

Now as I enter week two of Smolov, Coach Teddy advised, “If you were able to finish every rep on Week 1 and your range-of-motion is above reproach add 10 to 20 pounds on squat and 5 to 15 pounds to push press.”

Thinking about the adjustments that I made to my form and technique and how the lifts felt by the end of the week, I decided last night to add 10 pounds to my back squat and 10 pounds to my push press. Here are my weights and rep scheme for week 2 of Smolov Jr.:

Monday Wednesday Friday Saturday
 6 x 6  7 x 5  8 x 4  10 x 3
Push Press 100 107.5 115 120
Back Squat 135 145 155 165

Last night the push press was difficulty but I made it through thanks to the aid of Coach Andy who recommended I keep my elbows bent during the dip rather than turn my hands too early to prepare for the position overhead. The back squat felt good though supposedly Andy took a video of my form and I am interested to see what the tape reveals. More things to work on for sure.

Like adding more weight to the lifts, we also added more reps to the Cycle 1 progression, which we are doing every Tuesday for 6 weeks. For the 10-minute EMOM of wall balls, we added 1 more rep from last week’s number. For the 10-minute EMOM of toes-to-bar, I remained at the same number as last week as I had difficulty finishing all the reps. Finally, in the 8-minute EMOM of Russian swings and burpees, we added 1 burpee every minute. All in all, what I deemed last week as one of the most difficult hours of CrossFit suddenly became more challenging.

But to take liberties with an analogy, sometimes you have to fight through the pain and the sweat and the tears and say, “More weight.” Just don’t do it in the gym at the expense of form or range of motion as it will crush you.

The Baseline

This past week at my gym was Week Zero. It was all about testing.

As I have mentioned before, training officially begins tomorrow. The full 16-week training program has been carefully though out by Teddy, the head coach at my gym.  A necessary component of it was that we established our baseline numbers in a series of lifts and movements.  Going forward, the various workouts would be based on these numbers.

Here are my results:

  • 1 rep max Push Press = 130#
  • 1 rep max Back Squat = 180#
  • Wo(Man) Test = 14#
  • 2,000 meter Row = 7:40
  • 1 rep max Snatch = 65#
  • 1 rep max Clean & Jerk = 135#

Some of these lifts are going to require a lot of focus as I need to correct my form and improve my mobility before I can start to see real gains. Others will require pure repetition. No matter what it takes, it will be exciting in February to see how far I have come, especially since I clearly now where I am starting.

# of days to Freeze Fest: 110

Starting With Strength

Over the past few months, I have been trying to get bigger and stronger by lifting outside of my regular CrossFit classes. I sought out advice from some of my coaches and fellow gym members, which inadvertently opened the floodgates. While their eagerness to help is appreciated, it turned out to be too much data to process. I was trying to implement too many changes at once and saw little in the way of results.

I recruited my friend Rab to be my lifting buddy and we started with a recommended Power-Muscle-Burn program. We met two mornings a week. The first day was dedicated to chest and biceps and the second to shoulders and triceps. For example, the chest workout, courtesy of Muscle & Strength, consisted of the following:

Exercise Sets Reps
Bench Press – Power 4 3 to 5
Incline Bench Press  – Muscle 2 6 to 12
Dumbbell Bench Press – Muscle 2 6 to 12

While it felt good to get in these extra workouts, I was very weary of the movements, especially the “skull crusher”. Laying down on a bench and lowering a barbell with weights on it to my forehead seems very risky. Both Rab and I have multiple degrees between us and we both value our brains. Neither of us were happy to endanger them.

We reassessed the situation and have decided to focus on the three lifts that make up the CrossFit Total: the back squat, press and deadlift. For the past month, we have been meeting twice per week at 6:45AM and driving over to the local L.A. Fitness, which has the necessary equipment and a low “bro” count in the morning.  One day is back squat and bench press and the other day is press and deadlift.

warmupThe first few weeks we just did a few warm-up sets and then did 5 sets of 5 reps for each movement. This morning, we made a small adjustment and followed the suggested warm-up sets calculated by Starting Strength Warmup, a mobile app. All you have to do to use the app is enter what weight you will be working with for your main sets then all of your warm-up sets are automatically generated. It is based on Starting Strength by Mark Rippetoe, which I will discuss in subsequent posts.

Rab and I kept to 5 sets of 5 for our main sets for the bench press and the back squat today. We are now discussing whether to switch to just 3 sets of 5 as advocated by Rippetoe. Whichever we decide, it was a great way to kick-off the week.