Watch Your Numbers

The following is a guest post from Michael Deem, a fellow athlete from my CrossFit gym who is also training to compete in the Freeze Fest Team Challenge. Michael was a rower for all four years of high school, attempted rowing in college, and quickly got distracted. After more than four years of neglecting fitness, he’s relearning what it means to be an athlete.

With just over a month left to go until Freeze Fest, I’m not sure if I’m anxious or excited for my first (unofficial) CrossFit competition. (I had just started cross-fitting and so I didn’t have a clue what I was doing during last year’s Open Games, so let’s not count that.) However, I can say with certainty that I am anxious almost every time I walk into the gym these days.

“Why would you be anxious to enter your athletic home?” you might ask. We have be training so hard for so long… and we still have almost 5 full weeks to go! Personally, I am exhausted after every workout, almost until the following one. And I know the programming will only get harder. (This Saturday, after a full Olympic lifting regimen, we did Fran. Just for fun. Because we could.)

Honestly, it’s not the exhaustion or pain that makes me nervous. When I dig a little deeper, I realize it’s the fear of not stacking up, of not performing my best, of having a little left in the tank because I was too nervous at the start to mash the pedal into the floor – probably from exhaustion, feeding this vicious cycle on itself.

Interestingly enough (or perhaps just because I’m a guy), one activity that doesn’t make anxious yet I do with more regularity is stepping on the scale even though I’ve increased my bodyweight 10% since starting this ordeal. You read that correctly: Ten. Percent. I was about 200 pounds when I first got under the bar for Smolov Jr. Now, granted with more muscle and less flab, I weigh more than when I started cross-fitting. (I would say “210” if someone was daring enough to ask, but I was closer to 215.)

Embarrassingly, I gained almost all of it after Smolov, so I can’t say I feel” much stronger for it. (Although, I wonder what it’s like to “feel stronger.” Do Olympic lifters and bodybuilders “feel” stronger when they wake up in the morning, instinctively sensing that they could flip the bed their significant other is probably still sleeping on with one arm? Or do they have to look in the mirror before they can grasp the magnitude of their strength? More on that later.) I continued to eat like a racehorse, and gave myself too much slack over the holidays. I fell into the all-too-familiar and ubiquitous trap: “I work out. I can afford another scoop of mash potatoes. My body needs it!… There are cookies on the team table?! Oh alright, I suppose I am heading to the gym after work.” And now, to compensate and repent, I am cleaning up my diet a la Mark Sisson’s 21 Day Challenge meets Whole 30 and hoping this spare tire melts back away.

"Make up your mind that, at least for the first year or two, you're not going to worry about body fat levels if you're already lean, because lean is easier to reacquire than strong is to build" - Mark Rippetoe
“Make up your mind that, at least for the first year or two, you’re not going to worry about body fat levels if you’re already lean, because lean is easier to reacquire than strong is to build” – Mark Rippetoe

But the scale and the diet challenges and the flab all miss the point. You see, those aren’t the numbers that really matter – not when you’re an amateur, and not even when you are trying to “get in shape.” Unless you are literally an All-American, Olympian, or professional athlete who must make a weight class within 2 weeks, your body weight is the wrong number to watch. Assuming that weightlifting (not just lifting weights) is the optimal conduit to fitness (yes, over cardio), then the weight on your bar is what matters. (I despise call-outs to broad demographic categories, but, ladies, this applies to you, too.)

I realize that most join gyms to improve their body composition. I have. More than once. But muscles are literally fat-burning machines. Body composition is 80% what you eat,” a truism in the Paleo community, is another way of saying that if you send your muscles (and nervous system) the right signals by putting the right food in your body at the right times and lifting heavy things quickly and regularly, they will literally burn the fat for you.

I can’t wait for my scale to break. If it was mine (it’s my girlfriend’s), I would sell it or bury it in my storage closet. The scale sends the wrong signal. I don’t need to see that. And my body doesn’t need to hear that. It’s the wrong metric to focus on because it does not help me perform. 

We know that watching other people’s numbers is counterproductive, but watching your own wrong numbers can be just as bad. The way to “feel” strong is to be strong. Don’t wonder if you’re strong in the shower after a workout. The mirror and the scale can’t tell you. If you lay it all out on the floor, every workout, you are strong – and will you get stronger.

Throw your scale away. Or, better yet, buy another one, put them about 6 feet apart, and then rest a loaded bar on them to check the weight. Then deadlift until you break them or you can’t deadlift anymore. Watch the weight at the ends of the bar go up, and don’t bother to check your weight when you get home.

I Don’t Want to Lift Alone

spotter-teeThis past week was the final week of the Smolov Jr. cycle at my gym. I was traveling for work and had to find a gym where I could lift on Wednesday and Friday and not miss part of the cycle. Typically I would go to a CrossFit gym while on the road, but in this case I just needed a rack and some plates rather than a class. There was a L.A. Fitness near my hotel and it had the equipment I needed to back squat and push press. However, the setting proved to be awful.

I learned very quickly that lifting alone is no fun. My two early morning visits to L.A. Fitness made me appreciate how much better lifting at my CrossFit gym in groups of 2-3 is in comparison.

Here are a few reasons why lifting alone sucks:

1.) Lack of safety – First and foremost, it is very important, especially when you do a huge amount of sets and reps, as in Smolov, to have somebody be your spotter. While there are ways to safely drop weights and get out of the way, you are putting yourself in harms way if you don’t have someone who can help take the bar. Being stuck in a back squat with a huge amount of weight can be dangerous. It is very unlikely that the bro at the gym with headphones in doing bicep curls or the gal on the elliptical machine is going to notice right away if you are in trouble. And while it is okay to fail at a rep, the only hurt it should cause at most should be to your ego. Lifting alone means you are putting yourself at risk every time.

2.) Lack of Coaching – Ideally, every time you lift you would have a trained coach, like at a CrossFit gym. However, that isn’t always possible and there are many out there who lift at L.A. Fitness or the YMCA or home gyms. Even if you can’t have a coach, it is important to have a partner who can watch your lifts and help correct your form and technique. They can tell you if you aren’t in your heels enough or if you aren’t keeping your chest up. They might not be able to demonstrate the lifts perfectly, but they will know when you are doing it right and when you are wrong. Lifting alone means that you have no one to correct your form and help you improve.

3.) Lack of Encouragement – When the weight gets heavy, the body gets tired and the lifts get hard, it is nice to have a lifting partner cheering you on from the sidelines. They will yell at you to push yourself, to be more aggressive and to get back on the bar. While you can psych yourself up with the right music or right mantra, it’s amazing how much more you can do when others are committed to your success. Lifting alone means you have to be your number one fan and some days that can be really tough.

4.) Lack of Rhythm – For some reason there are no clocks to be found at L.A. Fitness, making it very difficult to leave enough time between sets to rest. If you don’t bring a watch, you end up counting to yourself over and over. Having a partner helps create a natural rhythm to your sets as you talk and switch out plates that allows you to take the needed rest and avoid rushing or going too slow. Lifting alone means you have to be really mindful of your time and nothing is more painful than having to constantly stare at a clock.

While on my business trip, I was conservative and stayed at the same weight both days, rather than going up as prescribed by the Smolov programming. I thought it was better to be safe than sorry.

At the end of the day, I am not going to discourage someone from lifting weights by themselves if it means the alternative is doing nothing. But on Saturday morning I was back at my CrossFit gym and thanks to having lifting partners, I was more confident and had much stronger sets for both lifts.

I never want to lift alone again.

What is Smolov?

“I must break you.”

Today is the official start of the 16-week training program that my CrossFit gym is using to prepare for the Freeze Fest competition.  We spent last week establishing our baselines, which the workouts will be programmed around.

We are going to be doing Smolov, a Russian squat routine that was designed by the Russian Master of Sports, Sergey Smolov. His name has been bandied about the gym for the past few weeks and I had no clue what anyone was talking about. All I knew was that it sounded Russian and it sounded scary.

The Smolov cycle was popularized by Pavel Tsatsouline when he published it in a 2001 issue of Powerlifting USA. People following this program have seen amazing gains of anywhere from 40-100 pounds.

Pavel writes about the cycle, “In case you got all starry eyed and bushy tailed having read the title beware that you cannot get something for nothing. Either of the two four week loading blocks of the thirteen week Russian cycle pack more work than most American squatters do in a year, no joke. You shall gain but you shall pay with sweat, blood, and vomit, Comrade.”

I am not well versed enough to explain the mechanics of this program nor the science behind it. For reference, you can read a copy of Pavel’s article here from the resource section of the Ontario Strongman Association website.

Breaking Muscle provides a nice short explanation: “The Smolov involves thirteen weeks of squatting, broken down into four specific cycles. After a short introductory microcycle to get the legs ready for what is to come, there is a four week, four times a week base mesocycle, at the end of which should follow a new max. After a two week switching cycle comes an intense mesocycle, very heavy squatting three times a week based on the new max, which should increase once again at the end of it all.”

In that same article about Smolov, its author Chet Morjaria says that the routine is brutal. In all my reading about it, the routine will clearly require a lot of focus and commitment. In addition, Chet strongly advocates that in order to be successful, one needs to do the following: “Eat big. Sleep well. Mobilize.”

The gym is going to follow the Smolov Jr., which is a slightly abbreviated version. It is a 4 day per week program that extends over three weeks.

Here is what Week 1 looks like in terms of sets and reps based on my personal 1 rep max:

 Lift 1 Rep Max 6 x 6 7 x 5 8 x 4 10 x 3
Push Press 130 90 97.5 105 110
Back Squat 180 125 135 145 152.5

Tonight I will encounter Smolov for the first time. It shall be the Ivan Drago to my Rocky. Cue the music. I am ready to enter the ring.

# of days to Freeze Fest: 109

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.