Jan 02 2013

On New Year diets

Published by under fatblogging

It is the New Year and time for resolutions, chief among them the annual promise to lose weight and get in shape. Having invested my share of brain cells to the topic of diet, and finding myself a bit of an amateur evangelist for reforming one’s health following my physical breakdown in 2006 following my bike vs. automobile incident, I thought I’d succinctly offer some unsolicited advice to those of you thinking about turning over a new leaf. My credentials? I went from a whopping, life-threatening 280 pounds in August 2010 to 228 in February 2012 by going on a disciplined regimen of paleo diet on Zone block calculated portions with vigorous Crossfit training. This is not a “diet” but a life style change.

1. Log:  You can’t manage what you don’t measure  so start a food log. Be religious about logging everything that enters your stomach. I use Livestrong’s “MyPlate” — it has a great database for calculating the caloric content of nearly every food imaginable.

2. Weigh:  Treat food like medicine — a drug you administer to yourself five times a day. You need to know your “dosage” so weigh your portions. After a while you’ll learn to eyeball it. Get a decent digital food scale.

3. Study:  nutritional theory is being turned on its head. The old FDA “Food Pyramid” is under attack and it is very likely that your doctor doesn’t know what he or she is talking about any more. Ignore the diet books — you need to stop thinking in terms of “diets” as in plans or gimmicks.  Get off the yoyo cycle of South Beach, Atkins, etc. and instead aim for a sustainable approach to eating for the rest of your life.

  • Why We Get Fat, Gary Taubes. This is the most important book to come along in years.
  • It Starts With Food, Melissa and Dallas Hartwig. These authors of the Whole30 challenge offer a good intro to kicking off a “paleo” regimen.
  • Enter the Zone, Barry Sears. The Zone was one of the big “low-carb” diets of the last decade. It’s formula of apportioning food into “blocks” of protein, carbs and fats calculated againt your lean body mass is the best method for determining how much you should eat. Combine it with the paleo principles of whole foods omitting dairy, sugar, grains, and legumes and you wind up with what the Crossfit community considers the A-1 best diet model for the rest of your life.
  • Robb Wolf: one of the “deans” of the paleo movement.
  • YouTube series of Crossfit and the Zone/Paleo Combination. This is very useful.YouTube Preview Image

4. Understand: To do that you need to understand the science behind nutrition and accept certain new emerging truths:

  • Eating fat doesn’t make you fat
  • Grains are not good for you
  • Hormonal response to food dictates where that food’s energy is stored.  Timing of meals is important.
  • Eating clean doesn’t mean eating organic, it means eating “whole” unprocessed food whenever possible
  • Finally — this is all quantifiable and comes down to the simple truth of all diets — to lose weight you need to expend more calories than you consume.

5.  Exercise:  figure out something that will burn a few hundred calories and keep you interested. If you’re really off track, just get into a routine of walking and work up to something more aerobic. Just get moving. Crossfit is not the answer for most people. It’s expensive, it’s a commitment, but it is effective for former athletes and type-A personalities. Just make daily movement and creating a calorie deficit as much a plan as the menus you build.

6. Commit:  Dive into the Whole30 January challenge. Purge your refrigerator, buy a scale, find a farmer’s market and load up on the essentials. Detox yourself for a week, then settle into a routine that can stay with you forever. There’s no weirdness — no cleansing, no grapefruits, bacon and steak — just a logical routine that once learned will help shape your most important contribution you can make to your health: your diet.

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Mar 17 2012

Personal Analytics: Track Thy Self

I’ve been logging my physical activities and diet for a while, moving from spreadsheets to programs to web-apps to device apps in search of the best way to keep consistent track of my progress in the belief that if I don’t measure it, I won’t stick with it.

One of my former rowing coaches, Tom Bohrer, an amazing oarsman and former Olympic-level athlete, told me the first step towards success in losing weight is to log every bite. The discipline of noting what one puts in one’s mouth forces an awareness of what is on the plate and the high number of random, thoughtless calories that can creep onto the plate during the day. Tom had me write it down in a simple $1.00 spiral notebook and not bother with calories counts, ounces and grams, or totals. Just have the honesty to admit to the bag of Swedish Fish and the courage to show that transgression to him every week.

In this Moneyball era, some sports are very number/goal based and others are getting more so. Any of the racing sports — swimming, rowing, running are stark time-over-distance efforts that can be timed, charted, and plotted over time.  Team sports — football or lacrosse for example — are subjective and don’t lend themselves to improvement-metrics the way baseball does.

I’m most interested in the trend of personal tracking and the rise of technology that allows a person to track every step taken during the day, every session completed on the machine, every moment spent in deep sleep, down to blood glucose levels. Tim Ferris’ bestselling The Four Hour Body exemplifies the degree to which a person with enough motivation and money can obsessively test one’s self. This is a guy who flies to Central America where he can gets a lot of expensive tests performed cheaply. A guy who is open to any device or toy that will help him plot performance and levels over time.

I learned the discipline of logging early on thanks to the early efforts of Concept2 — the Vermont maker of the Concept 2 rowing ergometer, the standard indoor rowing machine adopted by most teams because of its high quality and very capable digital monitor, a device called the PM4 which was developed for Concept2 by the Pennsylvania company Nielsen & Kellerman who also make monitors for on-the-water rowing and portable meteorological instruments. Concept2 was smart in opening up the code interface to the PM monitor and equipping it with a USB and ethernet jack. Third party software such as RowPro followed, giving devoted rowers and coaches even more data about their performance. Concept2’s smartest move, in my opinion, was serving up an online logbook that allows a rower to enter their workouts and compare themselves on public leaderboards against other rowers of the same weight, gender, age over set benchmark times and distances. The online logbook at Concept2.com sees billions of meters logged every year, and gives a disciplined rower a clear sense of progress and goals.

For more than a year I have been logging my diet through a free tool offered by the Livestrong Foundation called MyPlate.  The web-service is designed and managed by Demand Media and is buried in a content site that delivers nutrition and health stories and social network functions which I pretty much ignore.

The calorie tracker combines the functions of a log book with a deep database of calorie counts and nutritional levels for essentially any food one could imagine, including branded food such as a quarter cup of Trader Joe’s organic dried white peaches to a Five Guys Bacon Double Cheeseburger. I can combine ingredients into standard meals to ease the logging of frequently eaten combinations, set nutritional targets ranging from the amount of sodium to the number of net calories consumed per day, and log and plot my weight, body mass index, and specific physical measurements such as the diameter of my neck, check and abdomen over time. MyPlate will calculate calorie levels to achieve specific weight loss or gain goals and does a good job of plotting progress on X,Y charts. A subscription version offers richer functionality.

To log my exercise progress — I could and do use MyPlate as it calculates calories expended and deducts those from my gross calorie count. Hence I can log a two mile run at 13 minutes, 43 seconds, and it will cough up a calorie expense of 438 and subtract that from the inputs.

Since I am spending most of my workout time in Crossfit — I also need to track my performance and progress against a lot of benchmarks ranging from my personal records for weight lifting such as deadlifts, back squats, snatches, presses and cleans, as well as specific Crossfit workouts such with names like Fran and Kelly. I had been logging that work in a paper notebook I leave at the gym, but a fellow crossfitter introduced me to a site called Beyondthewhiteboard.com which does an excellent job of letting me log my progress against my gym’s prescribed daily workouts. There is a food logging capability on the site, but it isn’t driven by a crowd-sourced calorie database, so I tend to ignore it. I do throw my weight in there though to keep a record of progress there as well.

The Four Hour Body piqued my curiosity about the role of supplements in physical well being and improvement. Ferris prescribes some fairly outre tips ranging from his so-called PAGG Stack (policasonol, alpha-lipoic acid, garlic extract and green tea extract) to induce a state of fat-burning thermogenesis , to eating three brazil nuts in the morning and at night to improve selenium levels and testosterone production. I personally agree with the man who said people who take vitamin supplements have the most expensive pee in the world, but I also spend a lot of cash on stuff ranging from Omega-3 fish oil to all sorts of pills, protein powders and vitamins. Since I don’t have the free cash to spend on a lot of blood tests to see exactly what is going on in my metabolism I take this stuff as an article of faith.

A good source of deep and usually impenetrable advice about supplements comes from the forums at Longecity.com which is where I learned about the online log service, CRON-O-Meter. This service is essentially MyPlate taken to another level of specificity for total nutrition geeks with automated tracking of very specific vitamin and protein information for those who believe food is essentially culinary pharmaceuticals and who like to geek out by reading every word of Dr. Barry Sears, the Zone diet founder or Gary Taubes, the au courant dispeller of the why we get fat myth. I tried CRON-O-Meter for a while, but I’m just not that anal retentive or well-heeled to figure out if I need more lysine or niacin or vitamin D in my life and then buy it.

Rising in popularity are sleep monitors as the fitness-measurers are pushing the idea that sleep quality and duration has a big effect on health, recovery from exercise, and general well-being.  The owner of my Crossfit gym, Mark Lee has been using a sleep monitor, and there are some that track the time it takes you to fall asleep, how many times a night you wake up, when you go into deep sleep, etc..  One brand I’m aware of is Zeo with a $150 bedside setup.

Then there are the new breed of pedometer like devices that track every step, capture all the data, and can be uploaded and tracked online. Fitbit is probably the best know of these, and at a $100 seems reasonable enough as it also purports to track sleep but I’m not compelled to wear one on my belt.

One can obviously go overboard on the personal tracking obsession and I know I am coming close to being too geeky about the whole thing, but you can expect to see and hear about more of it, not less, as awareness over dietary and supplement chemistry rises thanks to people like Tim Ferris; the paleo diet craze expands because of Reebok’s commercial embrace of Crossfit “the Sport of Fitness (Crossfit, aka “Cultfit” to its detractors, embraces paleo principles as part of the program); and the device makers push their meters, gauges, wireless scales and pedometers at you more and more.

My personal testimony to whether any of the tracking works is this: I’ve dropped 50 pounds in 18 months, cholesterol levels have plummeted (I took myself off prescribed statins and have yet to see if I can manage my HDL/LDL levels through diet and exercise alone), and I eat a fairly strict paleo diet that restricts calories to around the 2,000 per day level. My rowing times are as good, if not better than they were ten years ago, and my running times have improved from a sluggish ten-minute mile pace to a 7 minute mile in a matter of months. Yes, this is insanely narcissistic, but it is efficient, it beats the old method of carrots and cottage cheese, little paper calorie counter books, and endless jogs around the block with a daily visit to the bathroom scale.

 

5 responses so far

Jan 12 2012

An unexpected experiment in disabled computing

Published by under Personal

A 45-minute MRI inside of what felt like a 110 degree microwave oven, and an examination by the guy who does Tommy John surgery on Red Sox pitchers, and it has been confirmed that I ruptured my bicep tendon on Dec. 30; the muscle was ripped off of the bone in my forearm by my messing up a move in the gym called “toes-to-bar” and now needs to be surgically reattached as soon as possible before the tendon retracts too far up inside of my upper arm.

This is what happens when 53-year old men try to do things meant for 23-year old men. It happens to 3 out of 100,000 people, mostly men who lift weights in their 50s or 60s, and has an elevated risk for smokers (which I am not) or anabolic steroid abusers (which I am also not). There is some suspicion that anti-cholesterol statins may also play a role in weakening the tendon, but I have ceased taking those in a three month experiment to see if I can hold my HDL/LDL levels where they are today with a strict paleo diet.

Yes, I am depressed that this happened right on the eve of the annual indoor rowing season. No Cape Cod Cranberry Crunch at the end of January, no CRASH-B sprints in February. I’m looking at four months of rehab and another five months of work before I can return to 100%. The good news is I will return to 100%. Eventually.

Fortunately for me, there is a great online forum of distal bicep tendon rupture survivors with a lot of amassed wisdom on how to cope with the procedure and ensuing rehab.  And I am also lucky not to make my living through manual labor, but I won’t be able to drive while in a splint/sling and I am going to have to adapt to life with one arm, my non-dominant one at that.

I anticipation of being out of commission, I’ve installed Dragon Naturally Speaking on my ThinkPad to allow me to use the PC and continue “writing” with my voice. I’ve never had much luck with voice recognition software in the past, mostly because I haven’t been willing to put in the time to adequately train the system, and because I am such a fast typist. Blogging will either be drastically reduced for a month, move to Vlogging (I don’t like cameras), or be voice driven. We’ll see next week following Tuesday’s surgery.

Thanks to YouTube I can watch some orthopedic surgeons narrate examples of the procedure. I’m not squeamish, but it looks like pretty delicate and major surgery involving two incisions on my forearm and the back of the elbow.  The severed tendon is cleaned up and then anchored into some pins drilled into the forearm. The bone grows back, the tendon is re-anchored, and I’ll be doing heavy deadlifts by summertime.

With five days remaining I need to figure out how to clothe myself, put away enough meals in tupperware to sustain me until the splint is removed seven-days post-op, and clear my decks for the nasty, pain killer filled fog  that always follows surgery. My iPad and Kindle will be key to fighting off insanity. I’m already putting together a training plan to keep me in semi-shape during the recovery — lots of air squats, box jumps, sit-ups, and one-armed work for my good arm — but was advised by the surgeon that I would not be running or lifting much of anything for a while.

 

 

9 responses so far

Jan 07 2012

Four words I don’t like: Distal Bicep Tendon Rupture

Published by under General

Silly me, hanging like an orangutan, swinging and touching my toes to a bar at the Crossfit gym and POP! something important breaks inside of my left arm. A big bruise ensues, then deadness, then all sorts of pain. Now the arm is hanging useless by my side.

My selt-diagnosis: a rupture of the bottom of the bicep tendon, causing it to separate from my forearm. I’m waiting for an MRI to be scheduled to confirm it, but right now it looks pretty messed up and destined for surgical reattachment.

So there goes the 2012 ergometer racing season and my quixotic pursuit of a personal record. From what I’m reading in the support-forums the recovery will take four months.

Sucks getting old.

7 responses so far

Dec 28 2011

Burpees @ Dawn

Published by under General

Maintaining any kind of exercise discipline while travelling can be hard, even more so during the holidays, but for the past 12 days I was able to stay on the work-out wagon thanks to San Francisco Crossfit.

One of the first Crossfit affiliates, the “gym” is tucked away behind the Sports Basement across from Crissy Field in the old San Francisco Army base, the Presidio. It consists of three repurposed shipping containers, a tarp stretched into a facsimile of a roof, the biggest, best decorated porta-potty I’ve ever visited, and a lot of pavement lined with outrigger canoes and assorted San Francisco Bay watercraft. The place is owned by Crossfit legend, Kelly Starett, or “K-Star” as fans of his daily Mobility Work Out of the Day (MWOD) refer to him, and he’s assisted by a half-dozen trainers who stand around acting pleasant while shivering in puffy down coats and thinking of more demonic exercises for the class to perform.

I’d been a fan of the MWOD blog and YouTube series for more than a year, so meeting Kelly was a bit of a fan-celebrity shock, especially when his sense of humor was enacted right in front of me as he imitated an old Chinese lady waiting at a bus stop, or people in an aerobics class goosestepping to Jane Fonda. Kelly is fond of words like “grotty,” “capsule,” “leopard” and “activate” and combines them to get you stretching and hurting like you’ve never been stretched or hurt (in a good way) before.

I was there on a ten-day visitor’s pass. Filled out a waiver absolving them of responsibility should I kill myself (which is possible in theory), and was immediately accepted as just another old guy trying to keep the wolf from the door with a daily dose of Xfit. I hit the 7 am class — perfect for witnessing the dawn light hit the Golden Gate bridge and the Marin headlands all pink and orange and …. Kelly forced us to stop and regard the sight at one point, for no where can I think of a more inspiring back drop for weight lifting, rope climbing, burpees, and running.


As for the rope climb. Faithful readers know I am inordinately proud of my hawser ascending powers, so when the workout of the day sent me up three stories on a two-inch manila rope tied to a fire escape hanging off the back of the Sports Basement, right over a dumpster full of what looked like old rusty rebar, I was all gung-ho but illprepared and while successful in ascending, came down precariously enough that Kelly had to intervene and ban me from further feats of strength as I had burned a bloody six-inch groove into my right shin.

“No more rope for you. That’s going to fester.”

And fester it has.

Anyway, it was very cool to stay in shape in such a primal place; to experience a different Crossfit box and get pushed in new directions for a few days. Now I’m back on the Cape, ready for a return to my home box for some post-redeye redemption.

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Sep 07 2011

First barefoot run

Published by under General,Personal

My friend Phil Odence has been blogging about barefoot running for well over a year, but it wasn’t until last Sunday that I found the courage to try it myself. The suggestion of another friend that I use the local ball park’s infield for a full-grass experience made me motivated to give it a try along with a recent reading of Born to Run, the story of the Tarahumara runners of the Sierra Madre who kick ass in ultra marathons running in nothing more than a huarache fashioned out of a strip of old tire.

The deal with barefoot running is this: running shoes with their gel inserts, foam padding, and other high tech advances have been murdering runners’ feet since they were introduced in the 1970s. If one subscribes to the whole paleo-movement that argues that homo sapiens has been at it for 200,000 years but ruining itself in the last fifty with processed food and too much technology, i.e. running shoes, then eating and running around like a hunter gatherer on the veldt makes some sense.

I have been easing back into running over the last nine months through the local Crossfit gym which throws in a couple running workouts every week. Rowers are notoriously bad runners, I’ve heard the act referred to as the “rower’s shuffle” by one Olympic gold medalist, but there’s no denying that a good run is not only good exercise but good practice. I suck at it, but can remember a time, probably when I was eleven or twelve, when I was actually good at it.

I took the first step towards barefoot running with the purchase of a pair of Inov8 F-Lite 230 running flats. They look a little goofy — like ballet slippers on my fat feet, but they are awesome for Crossfit.

These things are very minimalist with a mere quarter-inch of hard rubber sole between my foot and the pavement. The reasoning behind doing away with the foam and the shock absorbing principles of a traditional running shoe is two-fold: your foot needs to find the surface and padding it only delays that contact and second, all that orthotic padding causes the muscles in the foot to go soft and unused. A side benefit of Inov8’s and their hard sole is on the ergometer — serious indoor rowers have long held that padded soles diffuse the explosive power of the drive and that a rower is better off barefoot, an opinion voiced by Olympic gold medal sculler Xeno Mueller. The first bad habit to break is landing on the heels — heel strike is bad and the entire POSE and Chi running disciplines try to teach a runner to land on the front of their feet and use the elasticity of their legs to cushion the impact, not the foam in their shoes. I can’t get the hang of POSE running. You’re supposed to fall forward and increase your cadence with your heels kicking up high towards your butt. It looks goofy but I try to keep some of it mind as I flap away. This before and after video might help visualize the difference between traditional and “new” running.

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I’ve logged a few miles in the Inov8’s, but on Sunday I drove up to Elizabeth Lowell Park, home field of the Cotuit Kettleers, parked, unlatched the infield gate, and started running around the inside perimeter of the field — about a quarter mile all told or 400 meters. I did ten laps, finding that as my mind got over any fears of stepping on a foreign object I started to accelerate and settle into a very comfortable pace. Being barefoot naturally forces you to land on the ball of the foot, not the heel, and I definitely felt my toes starting to dig in and flex and add some power to the stride that I don’t feel inside of an Asic or Nike.

All in all I liked it and will give it another try. I am not so sure about going barefoot on pavement, but Phil assures me it’s great as long as I start out slowly over short distances.

2 responses so far

Aug 02 2011

Fixing Yourself

A year ago I could barely raise my right arm over my head due to a partial tear in my rotator cuff suffered one icy day when I slipped and fell on my ass while filling the bird feeders. A trip to the surgeon, a claustrophobic half hour in the MRI machine desperately fighting the urge to squeeze the claustrophobia panic bulb, and next thing I knew I was scheduled for surgery and what veterans of the procedure said was a nasty multiple-month recovery involving sleeping upright in a chair and being incapable of performing a certain unmentionable act of ablution.

I decided to cancel the operation and fix the issue myself. I think I’ve done it. How exactly, I can’t say, but for the most part it’s been a lot of work focused on shoulder strength, stretching, and some quasi yoga poses. A piece in today’s New York Times by Jane Brody confirms what I learned myself over the past eight months: you can fix yourself with some simple moves. A basic yoga stretch promoted by a New York physiatrist, Dr. Loren Feldman, has helped other rotator cuff sufferers avoid the knife (or scope).

I’ve gone through physical therapy for various muscular-skeletal ailments over the years, stretching rubber bands and lifting light weights, but nothing has done more to help me fix my messed up body more than Kelly Starrett’s Mobility Work Out of the Day, or M-WOD blog. Starrett is the owner of San Francisco CrossFit and a guru to CrossFitters for his simple message that “every human being should be able to perform basic maintenance on themselves. If you have a lacrosse ball, a foam roller, some pylometric bands and the will, his daily video posting will unmess your joints and muscles in no time. His first work out of the day, posted a year ago, is humbling and very, very primal — sit in a squatting position like an Afghani villager in the dust for ten minutes. Try it. I made two minutes the first time.

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I just read Tim Ferriss’ Four Hour Body,  an interesting exercise in one man’s obsession with understanding his physiology and improving it without wasting hours of fruitless labor and bad diets. The punchline is this: time expended does not equate to results. A paleo diet (no grains, sugar, dairy, legumes) administered like a drug (time the intake of protein, boost the metabolism with lemon juice, cinnamon and certain supplements), a CrossFit like regimen of short, intense, but functional movements, and an obsession with measurement can yield significant results in very little time.

Anyway, self maintenance is a good thing, it’s cheap, and it can deliver great results if you stick with it. So get a lacrosse ball, bookmark the MWOD blog, and read what you can about the science that is turning the FDA food pyramid on its head.

2 responses so far

Jul 22 2011

100 Days of Burpees and other proof that the body is evil and must be punished …

Nearly six months of formal Crossfit training and the results are pretty remarkable. I won’t post pictures of my oily muscles, but let’s just say the day I was able to execute an unassisted classic pull-up was a big personal victory. Now, it’s all about the Work Out of the Day and getting stronger and ready for the next big Churbuckian athletic goal — the 2012 World Indoor Rowing Championships.

Yesterday I embarked on what may prove to be my undoing: the 100 Day Burpee Challenge. If pull ups were my first goal, mastering burpees is next on the list (that and doing a lot of consecutive double-under rope skips, but that’s a digression for another day).  What is a burpee? The New York Times recently asked the question : “What is the best single exercise?”:

“Ask a dozen physiologists which exercise is best, and you’ll get a dozen wildly divergent replies. “Trying to choose” a single best exercise is “like trying to condense the entire field” of exercise science, said Martin Gibala, the chairman of the department of kinesiology at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario.

“But when pressed, he suggested one of the foundations of old-fashioned calisthenics: the burpee, in which you drop to the ground, kick your feet out behind you, pull your feet back in and leap up as high as you can. “It builds muscles. It builds endurance.” He paused. “But it’s hard to imagine most people enjoying” an all-burpees program, “or sticking with it for long.”

Burpees suck. Especially for big, tall people like me as it involves throwing oneself to the ground into a planked push up position, performing that pushup, and then leaping to one’s feet and jumping in the air with an overhead hand clap. Here’s the video demonstration:

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I hate burpees. Dread them. Nothing destroys me faster or more completely than a round of burpees. They make me feel sick, panicked, and woefully old. Hence I love them. This morning’s Cape Cod CrossFit WOD (called the “Airforce WOD”) was a simple round of five relatively light weight exercises, 20 thrusters, sumo high pull deadlifts, push presses, front squats and overhead squats at 95 pounds. Doing 100 lifts against the clock is hard, very hard. But leave it to CrossFit to make it horrible by specifying that every minute, on the minute, you stopped what you were doing to perform four of the evil Burpees.

The origins of the Burpee are in dispute, but I like this explanation:

“The exercise may have been originated by a man named Lieutenant Thomas Burpee (1757-1839). He was an officer in the New Hampshire Militia during the Revolutionary War and was described as “having the innate Burpee fondness for martial exercises” in A History of the Town of New London, Merrimack County, New Hampshire. Lt. Burpee may have used the combination of pushups and squat thrusts as a means of drilling, conditioning, and disciplining the troops under his command. In addition, the exercise may have also been used by the troops as a way to stay warm during the winters in wartime New England.”

Being who I am and believing in attacking weaknesses head on, I am embarking on the dreaded 100 Day Burpee Challenge. Simple enough. One burpee on day one. Two on day two ….98 on day 98, 99 on day 99 ……

I am on day two and all is well with the world. Then again, I managed to have 52 inflicted on me this morning at  while doing the aforementioned “Airforce WOD.” I promise not to blog every dreary day ahead. And yes, there is a cult around this particular silly challenge or, at the very least, a blog.

 

3 responses so far

Jul 16 2008

Favorite things — lifting heavy stuff

Today’s WOD (Workout of the Day) for Crossfit is my new favorite thing to do — essentially picking up heavy stuff.  Crossfit, for the unitiated, is a fitness program developed by a guy named Greg Glassman which combined elements of gymnastics, Olympic weight lifting, and “functional movements” to build a definition of fitness which is pretty primal and controversial. CrossFit is used by the military, police departments, fire fighters, to build “elite” fitness (whatever that means). Me, I am trying to prep myself for old age and retain what dwindling muscle I have left before I enter that danger zone of elderly falls, broken hips, and nursing homes.

I started doing it in April at the suggestion of my rowing coach, Tom Bohrer, who occasionally contributes to the CrossFit Journal on rowing (CrossFit favors the Concept2 ergometer for building anaerobic fitness). Since then I’ve lost twenty pounds and developed some some serious upper body strength thanks to the first big weight workouts since I was on the heavyweight crew in college. It has taken a lot of time and ugly effort, but in a weird way it appeals to the sense of rower’s masochism which generally has propelled me.

My favorite exercise is the ominous sounding “deadlift.” As Coach Glassman says in his inimitable way: “this movement is baked into our DNA.” I guess cavemen practiced it by picking up big rocks.

You bend over a bar, you grab it, one hand gripping in, one gripping out, you curve your lower lumbar, and then you stand up. That’s it. Grab weight. Stand up. Put it down.

Having had my share of back problems in the past, I approach the lifting of anything with great care and trepidation. I was once bedridden for two weeks after lifting a television set. One bad move and twang, I’m down for the count. Years of rowing — a decidely back unfriendly sport — have set me up for issues, so when CrossFit put me back behind a weight lifting bar, I was terrified of the consequences.

Fortunately CrossFit’s site is loaded with good demonstration videos and coaching advice. The inhouse lifting coach — Mark Rippetoe — has a great book called Starting Strength which focuses on the technique used in Olympic lifting. I bought a copy, watched the videos, and set myself up in the garage gym.

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The result? Well, let’s say I am not going to lift 1,000 pounds ever in my lifetime, but I am happy to say I can now pick up, and set back down, without injuring myself, over 300 pounds (I think I can do more, but I ran out of weight and need to buy more) And I don’t feel like one of those body builder meatheads with a big leather belt around my waist when I do it.

As my old cycling buddy Marta puts it — “Strength is about three things. Pick heavy stuff up. Pick heavy stuff up and push it over your head. Pick heavy stuff up and carry it around.”

The net result of three months of hard work with the CrossFit program is a total vanishing of my lower back pain. The return to very elemental movements — true situps, pushups, pullups — and the emphasis on back-to-basics exercise based on lifting one’s own body weight has been a revelation. There’s no membership, no gym, no machine. No fad. Just stuff our grandparents did  like the Walter Camp Daily Dozen — only more evil because a lot of CrossFit is done against the clock to make it interesting.

This is all inspired by today’s NYT article on the great benchmark of fitness — the simple pushup. I’d include in the mix the humiliating pull-up, and now my new fave, the dead lift.

6 responses so far