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Archive for June, 2011

Genetics and Your Own Improvement

Thursday, June 30th, 2011

Like my last post, this one is about progress. One of the great things about our gym is that we draw clients from such a unique background of sports and activities. As our new member John said the other day, the classes are a great way to improve your performance and get motivated because “everyone here is good at different things.” While this provides a great atmosphere for us all to learn from each other, it can also be slightly disheartening. Some people can do muscle ups and double unders by the end of foundations, while others may work for years before getting these skills. Some make jumps in weight on their lifts consistently, others hit plateaus quickly. This can cause frustration over seemingly slow progress when others jump into CrossFit and make gains with ease. It always makes you wonder, how is it so easy for them?

Genetics and Sport

There is a big genetic variance in our species. From hair color to height to coordination and beyond, there is a wide range of differences among everyone on Earth. In the sport and fitness world, the eternal question that’s asked is, ‘are great athletes born that way or are they made?’ Of course this question is a fallacy because an athlete that gets to a world level must have a tremendous amount of innate talent in addition to years and years of hard work.

I think a better question to ask is: which aspects of sport and fitness are better developed through hard work and which are predominantly a genetic blessing? Interestingly enough, I think quite a bit of what we do in CrossFit is based on what we were blessed with genetically. These genetic blessings exist in our physiology and can be tested for in very simple ways. Those blessed with a high capacity for strength and power usually have muscular, mesomorphic builds and can put on muscle and lose fat with even an average diet and training program. They are likely to have a larger proportion of explosive type 2 muscle fibers and thicker bone structure and connective tissue, evidenced by large wrist circumference. Simple testing will show these people to have phenomenal strength and power at young ages. Benedikt Magnusen, the deadlift world record holder, supposedly pulled over 450 pounds in his first workout as a teenager. You can see Benni has another physiological advantage, long arms, which make deadlifting much easier.

Benni Magnusson

At 14 years old, Usain Bolt was only 1 second off the world record 200m sprint. He and Benni Magnusson put on muscle easily and have a very high proportion of explosive muscle fibers. In terms of endurance, the physiological gold standards are VO2 max, lactate threshold, and cardiac metrics like stroke volume. Lance Armstrong, Steve Prefontaine, and world champion rower Rob Waddell have three of the highest VO2 maxes ever recorded. Waddell has the best 2000m time ever on the indoor rower, clocking at 5:36. After winning gold in Sydney in the single sculls, Waddell took 8 years away from the sport then returned to defeat the current world champion single sculler.

Rob Waddell

The point is that even when all of these athletes were very young and untrained, they already had physiological capabilities that a majority of men couldn’t achieve with 15-20 years of training. They could also likely take many years off from training and still be miles ahead of an average athlete in their sport. This shows just how wide the variance is among our species in terms of fitness for athletics.

Genetics and CrossFit

CrossFit presents a very interesting case study for genetics and physiology. All of the athletes I mentioned above compete in sports that involve very specific movements and physiological adaptations. You could say that CrossFit is a combination of all of these sports and more. Lifting, sprinting, and rowing are all major elements of CrossFit. So the ideal CrossFitter is someone who is built to do all of these things (in addition to gymnastics) concurrently. For that, you’d want a muscled frame, to be relatively short with a long torso, a high strength to weight ratio, a good mix of type 1 and type 2 fibers, very high VO2 max and lactate threshold, and good hormonal signaling and metabolism to build muscle and recover quickly between workouts. And you see exactly that in the best CrossFitters…

Mikko Salo - 2009 CrossFit Games Winner

Rich Froning - 2010 Second Place

Rich Froning - 2010 Second Place

Hard Work and Your Own Improvement

That’s not to say that hard work and skill aren’t also a huge part of the equation. Every champion I’ve mentioned above has been able to fully express their natural gifts by working incredibly hard at their craft. The more complex a sport or activity becomes, the more dependent it is on practice and hard work than it is on genetics. While someone may be blessed with excellent coordination, balance, and quickness, they’ll never reach advanced levels of sports like gymnastics and tennis without putting in many years of hard work learning the intricacies. Because of the sheer number of movements we do in CrossFit, hard work and skill play a huge role in your improvement over time. You will continue to improve your ability to do strength workouts and met cons concurrently while also getting technically better at the exercises. A great sign of your fitness and recovery is when you can do a hard met con one day then come in the following day for a strength workout and get close to your PR or even set a new one. This happened yesterday when Marcia PR’ed on her deadlift after putting in a great effort on Bulger the day before.

The key here is to always continue to focus on your own progress and not get discouraged by the feats that others are able to accomplish. We all have such different backgrounds, body types, and genetics that the rate of improvement in CrossFit will be different for everyone. Try not to question yourself or get frustrated if someone comes into the gym and immediately beats one of your PR’s. Be thankful that you have someone that will push your own performance and motivate you to improve.

Sesame Carrots with Basil Chiffonade

Tuesday, June 28th, 2011

carrot_stirfry1Lately I’ve been trekking to Berkeley each week to shop at the Berkeley Bowl. If you’ve never been – or even if you have – it’s absolutely worth the trip. To me it makes Whole Foods look like an over-priced corner grocery store. Don’t get me wrong, Whole Foods is great, but this is above and beyond at prices well below. It’s produce nirvana. I’m a bunny in the headlights when staring down one long isle dedicated just to peaches. And speaking of bunnies, their carrots are so delicious that I made a double batch of this week’s easy and delicious recipe:

4 medium carrots peeled and sliced in diagonal rounds
olive oil to coat pan (about 2 to 3 tsp)
2 Tbsp water or stock
1 Tbsp toasted sesame seeds
1 Tbsp densely packed or 2 Tbsp loosely packed fresh basil, leaves thinly sliced

Heat oil at medium-high in a wok or equivalent. When hot, toss in carrots and stir-fry for 3 to 4 minutes. Add water and reduce heat to medium low. Let simmer for another 2 or 3 minutes or until carrots reach desired tenderness. Stir in sesame seeds and basil. Serve.

Making it Work

Tuesday, June 28th, 2011

A few weeks ago, we did an AMRAP workout that called for pull-ups.  There were eight people in the class and somebody asked me how they could do pull-ups because there were eight people and only seven pull-up bars.  I think I made some sarcastic reply, “Guys, it ain’t rocket science.  Find some horizontal surface, preferably one anchored over your head, and pull your chin over it.”

I used to train like this.

I used to train like this.

Now, I started doing CrossFit with equipment that you could typically find in a hotel gym, just a couple of sets of dumbbells.  I had to improvise for just about everything.  Pull-ups were done under the stairs or on a tree branch, box jumps were done onto hand rails or fire hydrants.

Given the huge variety of exercises called for in CrossFit, it’s not at all surprising that we don’t have certain equipment or that we don’t have enough equipment for everyone to use at the same time.  This is less a statement about how our gym needs an equipment upgrade, and more a statement about how many different tasks we train for.

I don’t see this as a problem at all.  CrossFit is supposed to be training for the real world.  And in the real world you’ve frequently got to use creative problem solving.  Consider it a challenge to figure out a way to get a good workout despite lack of equipment.  This is never more true that when you’re traveling or on vacation.  Find a heavy rock and a tree branch and do “Field Fran.”  Climb the chains on a swingset instead of climbing a rope.  Do dips on handrail corners.

Do I need to say more?

Kyle Maynard making it work.

Of course, it’s not just about equipment.  It’s also about making the workout work for you, despite physical limitations.  With a little creativity and some determination, one can circumvent nearly any obstacle.  Kyle, here, is a great example.  He was born with stumps for arms and legs, but has been able to develop amazing work capacity.  Sure, he can’t deadlift, but he can chest press over 500lbs.

So, the next time you’re without equipment or suffering from a physical setback, remember: be creative and make it work.

How Much Power?

Saturday, June 25th, 2011
A Giant Fusion Reactor

A Giant Fusion Reactor

Warning: Science Content!

We often take for granted that our entire existence is utterly dependent on this giant ball of mostly hydrogen that is about 150 million kilometers away from us. If this thing misbehaves at all we are in a heap of trouble and all of our complaints about political issues, the economy or whatever else won’t make a whit of difference.

So lets look at what’s going on here. This giant ball of mostly gas is really hot. This is due to compression from gravity. There’s enough mass there to smash everything together to a point where it gets hot enough that hydrogen fuses into helium, then helium fuses producing larger and larger atoms up to iron. Each time this fusion process occurs some matter is converted into energy. This is where Einsteins E=MC2 comes into play. This equation yields the astounding fact that 1 gram of matter converted into energy releases the equivalent of 85 Megatons of TNT. Yup, one gram releases as much energy as exploding 85 Million TONS of TNT. The bomb dropped on Hiroshima was a 20 kiloton yield to put this into perspective.

Ok, so I get it, the sun is really hot and releases a lot of energy. How much energy? Well lets do a little rough calculation to try and figure this out. So from measurements we get that about 164 watts/square meter of energy is hitting the average square meter of the earth from the sun. This is about 1/2 of the energy that hits the atmosphere due to reflection into space, absorption of energy by dust and so forth. So lets just be conservative and say 300 watts/square meter, or 300 million watts/square killometer hit the earth. The surface facing the sun at any given moment is about 250 million square killometers, so then we now have 75,000,000,000,000,000 watts of energy hitting the earth at any given time. (I’m leaving the numbers drawn out to try and give some sense of scale rather than using scientific notation). Approximate total energy use of the United states is about 10,000 times less than that (The energy usage of the US is staggeringly large BTW). So the incident sunlight hitting the earth could power 10,000 United States if we could capture it. (though by doing that we’d kill everything on the planet, but that’s another story). So get the idea that the sun emits quite a lot of power.

But wait. This is only the sunlight that’s actually hitting the earth. If we were to look at the surface of a sphere with the sun at the center and the outer edge at earth’s orbit, how much energy is hitting that. That is the total energy output from the sun at earth’s orbit. Ok, so the earth only takes up 1/625,000,000 of that sphere. So then if we use that number we get 46,875,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 watts of energy radiating from the sun. Now, keep in mind that the Sun is a relatively small, weak star. There are known stars that dwarf the Sun’s power output. Trying to get a sense of the scale of universal objects is somewhat futile. We simply can’t grasp how big these things really are.

Lets relate that to human capacity. Generating 500 watts on the rower is quite a feat and that could only be maintained for a few seconds by some of the strongest guys in the gym. So if everyone on the planet was able to pull 500 watts on a rower it would take 15,625,000,000,000 times the entire population of the earth to match the Sun’s output. And we could only do that for a few seconds.

(Now these calculations were rough order of magnitude type calcs, and I haven’t thoroughly checked my math so if I’m off anywhere, the point of the post is to just get a sense of scale, so if you find an inaccuracy, post and let others know, but no ragging on me about it)

Who can do Parkour?

Saturday, June 25th, 2011

Well, anyone who wants to, who’s not dead or paralyzed, and who’s joints are in reasonably good shape. I am often asked by people if I “…really think they can do parkour?!” and my response is invariably yes, but at your level of expertise and dificulty. I am often returned an incredulous look, largely because of all the youtbe videos and movies that promote parkour’s “big move” image. You don’t have to jump off a building, double kong a pick-up truck, or do a running 12 foot precision jump to a rail that’s ten feet up in the air to qualify as a parkour practitioner or traceur / traceuse.   I was looking for some pictures of Bill Nadal or Tom Hutchman to ilustrate my point, but since I didn’t find any, I’ll treat you to this hilarious video of three guys who, in their own words  ”…went running together one day a week for a few months… that was a few years ago now.  It started out as a joke, but we ended up really loving it. “  You’ve seen The Office, you’ve heard of “Pour-Quoi”, now I present to you, “Old Man Parkour Volume 1:” (Warning: explicit lyrics.)

Even though these guys are probably not going to be offered any serious hollywood stunt jobs anytime soon, they’re having a lot more fun than when they just went “running” and they’re getting in fantastic shape, developing new motor skills, body awareness, training a wider range of metabolic pathways, and developing upper body strength that they wouldn’t be if they were just doing “long, slow, distance”.  It’s almost a parody, but they’re actually doing REAL parkour moves and if you sneak a peak at “Old Man Parkour 8″, you’ll see that after a few years of practice, they’re a lot more fluid and almost graceful!  So grab your old man or lady, take them for a run, and have them traverse the rails, benches and playground equipment to see what they’ve got!


When Progress Slows Down

Wednesday, June 22nd, 2011

This morning, Nora showed yet again how amazing the progress can be in the early stages of CrossFit. She ended up front squatting 60kg for a set of 5 and 70kg for a single, both huge personal records for her. With determination and a strong ability to pick up movements quickly, new CrossFitters can make fast progress across the board in their lifting, gymnastics, and conditioning levels. This can be a double edged sword, however, since these early gains will begin to slow down and possibly grind to a halt as you reach more intermediate levels.

The reason this happens is because we train a large number of exercises across the full spectrum of energy systems. To make this point clear, consider Olympic weightlifters, powerlifters, pole vaulters, and discus throwers. They rely on very short bursts of energy that need to be as powerful as possible. The energy they draw on comes mainly from the creatine-phosphagen system and is completely anaerobic (no oxygen necessary). By specifically concentrating on their sport, not only do they excel technically, but their body also adapts by growing in a way that supports their training. This could involve the growth of very explosive type 2 muscle fibers as well as the creation of new nerve fibers that help them recruit more muscle during that short, explosive burst required in their sport. These things all combine to allow athletes in these sports to continue to improve their performance over time for many years. The same is true of endurance athletes on the other end of the spectrum. Their aerobic training not only improves their technique in running, biking, and swimming, but also shifts their body towards endurace adaptations such as improvements in mitochondrial density, VO2max, lactate threshold, resting heart rate, and a greater proportion of type 1 muscle fibers. Similar to the explosive athletes, this specificity allows these athletes to continue to improve their performance over the course of many years.

With this in mind, consider the difficulty of training for the Olympic decathlon. First of all, you’d have to split time between training your skill in 10 different events, a much more challenging task than a track and field athlete who only does one event. Additionally, you’d have to accept the fact that you can’t develop your energy systems in a specific way. A decathlete training power and explosiveness for the 100m dash and the long jump will hinder their ability to improve the aerobic qualities needed for the 1500m run, and vice versa. This isn’t to say it’s impossible to improve at both at the same time, but the improvement will be much less than if they concentrated exclusively on one or the other. This is why the best decathlete in the world wouldn’t even come close to challenging the best 100m sprinter or best mile runner in the world at their respective distances.

Now extend this to CrossFit and think about how many different exercises we learn and the scope of energy systems we use. With all this in mind, it’s no wonder progress starts to slow down after we’ve made those initial gains. Hitting these plateaus can be very frustrating (I know). Here are some tips on how to deal with them:

Focus on Quality with High Skill Movements

One area we see people run into plateaus is with high skill exercises. These include snatches, cleans, overhead squats, jerks, muscle ups, free handstands, and kipping, all of which require coordination, flexibility, explosiveness, and balance (a.k.a. skill). Even doing these exercises exclusively, as gymnasts and olympic lifters do them, takes years of practice before they can be mastered. It’s crucial that you take a long term approach with these exercises and do the correct progressions. If you jump through the dip of your muscle up, always do handstands on the wall, or snatch the heaviest weight you can poorly, it will hinder your progress and you’ll ingrain poor movement patterns. The key is to leave the ego at home and take a lot of satisfaction in small levels of progress. Just mustering up the courage to do a handstand on the floor with someone spotting you is a big step in the right direction. The same can be said for snatching an empty bar and catching it in a full overhead squat. Even if you can power snatch 40 kilos, catching an empty bar in the full squat position is better progress toward learning the full lift.

Be Content With Smaller Increases in Strength

As I talked about before, building strength and endurance concurrently can be a difficult thing to do. Doing longer metabolic conditioning workouts will both tax the recovery ability of the body and limit your ability to adapt in ways that best express strength. That said, it’s still possible to make progress in both, but the progress will be smaller and less frequent. For instance, say you came in for a 5×5 back squat workout after taking 2 rest days and a great night’s sleep. You might push your last work set up to 100kg for a 5 kilo PR. 3 weeks later, you might come in for the same 5×5 back squat workout after two days of training including the Filthy Fifty the day before. On that day, your last set might be a struggle at 90kg. This doesn’t mean you’ve gotten weaker in the past 3 weeks, but rather that your recent training and recovery didn’t allow you to express your strength on that given day. This is why the mental outlook is extremely important in CrossFit. If you allow yourself to get overly fixated on short term PR’s, then a few days of substandard performance might get you in a mental funk that will really start to affect your training. Try to approach every PR, even if it’s a single kilo or a single second, as a significant achievment to be celebrated, rather than taking it for granted as an every day occurence.

Remind Yourself How Well Rounded You Are

Though it can be difficult to make progress when you concentrate on many different things as in CrossFit, specificity definitely comes with a price. Powerlifters make huge progress in the squat, bench, and deadlift, but they usually have to put on a huge amount of bodyweight, often tear muscles and ligaments, and are not in good cardiovascular shape. By the same token, endurance athletes develop stress fractures and postural problems, and have relatively poor flexibility, bone density and muscle mass compared to people who lift weights. So even if you’re frustrated with plateaus in performance, remember that your current fitness level is very well rounded and gives you the opportunity to do tons of sports and actvities outside the gym that rely on endurance, flexbility, strength, and conditioning.

An Option: Get More Specific

If you’re really enjoying a particular aspect of CrossFit and want to improve it, we highly encourage it. The great thing about the skill intensive exercises I mentioned in the first section is that they won’t really tax your recovery. If anything, practicing them will serve as a great warm up for a CrossFit workout. If want to get better at snatches or muscle ups, come to the gym 10 or 15 minutes before class and get some practice in. I’d be happy to watch your form and help out before class. For more focused work, come to the gymnastics classes or optional skill training nights.

“When you have completed 95% of your journey, you’re only halfway there.”

- Japanese Proverb

Seared Ahi With Japanese Salsa

Tuesday, June 21st, 2011


I pulled the page for this  recipe out of a Sunset magazine so many years ago and have made it so many times, that I can barely read it anymore for all the food stains on it. But I know it now by heart. Those are recipes to share!


2 tuna steaks about 1 1/2 inches thick, 5 to 6 ounces each
1 tsp minced garlic
2 tsp olive oil
1/4 cup sake (omit for strict Paleo and increase lemon juice to 1/4 cup)
2 Tbsp tamari
3/4 cup finely chopped tomatoes
2 Tbsp green onion
1 Tbsp chopped fresh cilantro
1 Tbsp lemon juice
one firm avocado peeled and sliced

Rinse tuna and pat dry. Rub garlic into both sides. Add oil to large frying pan set to medium-high heat. When oil is heated, add steaks and cook until lightly browned on both sides, about one minute per side. Combine sake and 1 tablespoon tamari and pour mixture around steaks. Remove from heat. As fish cools, turn a few times in pan to absorb flavors. Meanwhile, in a small bowl combine tomatoes, onions, cilantro, lemon juice and remaining tablespoon of tamari. Remove tuna steaks from pan and slice in 1/4 inch slices across the grain. Fan the tuna slices onto dinner plates and dress with salsa and avocado slices. Bon appétit!

Welcome to Summer

Tuesday, June 21st, 2011

It’s Summer again (finally) and it’s probably going to be a long and hot one.  I hope that you enjoy the warm weather both in and outside the gym, so here’s some tips to keep you from getting sick and injured because of the heat.


Looks like fun.

First, acclimate.  It takes most people one to two weeks to acclimate to the heat, so don’t be shy about actually going out and spending some time outside.  Continue your normal workout and recreation  schedule, but modify intensity as needed.

The most dangerous heat-related injuries that you can get are heat exhaustion and heat stroke.  When you’re working out or playing in the heat, it’s best to do so with a group of people who can recognize the signs and symptoms.  Just like hypothermia, heat injuries can effect your cognitive functions so sometimes you don’t even know when you’re getting sick.  These injuries typically happen in three stages: heat cramps, heat exhaustion and heat stroke.  Here are the typical symptoms:

Heat cramps - cramping of major muscle groups, usually due to lack of salt caused by excessive sweating.  You can usually prevent heat cramps by acclimatizing to the heat and maintaining good nutrition and hydration.

Heat exhaustion - heavy sweating, dizziness, headache, nausea and vomiting, tingling sensations in the extremities.  Sounds like the aftermath of a good workout, which is why you need to be extra careful when exercising during the Summer.

Heat stroke - usually progresses after heat exhaustion, weakness and lethargy, confusion, hot and dry skin (absence of sweating is a late-stage symptom), weak and rapid heart rate, rapid breathing and unconsciousness.

Prevention and treatment are pretty much common sense.  Make sure you’re acclimated to the heat, don’t spend excessive amounts of time in the heat, stay properly hydrated and make sure to eat.  As for treating early stages of heat illnesses, get the person out of the heat and give them something to drink and something to replenish electrolytes (sports drink or some food with salt in it).  For more severe cases, get the person out of the heat and get them to a hospital ASAP.

Heat injuries are the most severe, but probably the least common of injuries associated with the Summer.  Don’t discount the lesser things that can happen, as well.  Probably the easiest to overlook is sunburn.  I know we’re all eager to go synthesize some vitamin D, but don’t overdo it.  A nasty sunburn will slow you down for a week or so (and set you up for the above-discussed heat illnesses) by messing up your thermoregulation system.

Whether you’re enjoying the Summer heat in the gym, or putting your functional fitness to use in other activities, stay safe!

Happy Father’s Day! - Oh, And Some Responsibility

Sunday, June 19th, 2011
Father and Son Training Together  (yes, it is an OLD photo)

Father and Son Training Together (yes, it is an OLD photo)

Happy father’s day to all dads. I hope everyone had a great day with their kids. Unwearable ties and other gifts aside, the time spent with family is the big deal. I was able to head over to the east bay to have dinner with my parents.

My father has given me my even keel temperament. Nothing ever seemed to phase my dad. If my dad got to the point of yelling it was because my brother and I crossed a line big time. Sure we’d get disciplined for all the little stuff, but my dad was always calm about it. I even remember tearing holes in the roof of his convertible Corvair because we were climbing on it and we’re still alive to tell about it. I’m not sure how he remained calm with that one. My fascination with physics, and the hard sciences comes from my dad. He was just into reading and talking about these things. I remember sitting and watching Nova with my dad. Thanks dad. I owe a LOT to you.

I’m privileged to know a huge number of great dads through CrossFit Marin. I have witnessed dads doing the best they can for their kids, often sacrificing their own personal gains. I’m honored to be able to witness this on a regular basis.

Last year I posted about the responsibility that we have as dads. I’ve read and studied a lot about childhood development, starting at infancy, and throughout the teen years. I try not to get too caught up in it because it all basically comes down to if your kids are messed up, its your fault and there are very narrow windows of opportunity to teach/develop/impart broad knowledge, abilities, aptitudes and if you miss them, then you’ve blown it. Oh great. I now have the responsibility to ensure that these little beings grow, thrive in life and reach their potential. Now, here’s the deal, this task is impossible. At least the task of accomplishing this to the degree that much of us initially think we can, or desire to. We can not possibly teach our kids everything we’d want them to know, expose them to all of the opportunity we’d like them to have and spend quality time developing the self-confident, socially conscious, environmental defenders that we picture. And we’d totally mess them up in the process if we tried to pull it off. Bottom line is we just need to spend time with our kids, let them know we love them every day and include them in as much of our lives as we can. Dads, we have a huge responsibility, and the biggest part of that responsibility is simply being there for our kids.

National Jam Arrival at CrossFit Marin

Saturday, June 18th, 2011
The group photo, many still inside playing

The group photo, many still inside playing

I am posting as traceurs from around the country run amok here at CrossFit Marin. We do not have a solid count of how many people are here. The photos do not do it justice. Estimates are somewhere between 110-150. There are people actively working in the stunt industry, traceurs with years of experience, and even some new initiates to the art. We are seeing some very creative use of the toys here in the gym. Spirits are high and everyone is having a blast.
The number of parkour communities represented here tonight is incredible. Here’s a list, and I’m sure I will leave some out so I apologize if I missed your group. SJPK, SFPK, SLPK, BPC, PKLA, Aeon, Las Vegas PK, Leave the ground, COPK/Sandman, PK Visions, SRPK, Urban Runners, College Prep PK, San Antonio, BAPK, SDPK, LBPK, APK/Primal, New york, PK Horizons. Some great folks from a lot of different groups. CrossFit Marin is happy to support the global PK community. We’ll lend a hand whenever we can.