Prologue: The Shadows of Lascaux

Trxbal is the result of two things: my experience as a crossfitter at Pioneer Valley CrossFit and my need to write about that experience.  What I hope to relate is an image of a CrossFit box as a place that strikes an ancient chord in our being.  We are tribal by nature.  We express our best selves within communities that foster a shared sense of purpose.  My CrossFit box is such a community for me.  This is my attempt to explore why this is so.

If I have done my job well, this blog should also be full of humor.  The tribe that I have found at PVCF is an interesting cast of characters.  I hope that I have fairly captured and delivered the funny exchanges in our CrossFit lives, because humor is as essential to a good life as community, health, and having a great set of guns to display when you rip your shirt off during a WOD.

I am haunted by the cave paintings at Lascaux that appear on the home page.   Were we our best selves – physically and spiritually – when our lives were closest to nature and art?  Are we so removed from the elements of life that what is left is all simulated experience?  If so, how do we best live a fulfilling and meaningful life?  These are the questions that confronted me as I began to write about the deep sense of purpose that I found in CrossFit, which is really just a form of exercise.  I do not have any definitive answers to these questions.  But I have discovered that writing about them is somehow redemptive, cathartic, spiritual.  I write in the shadows of Lascaux.

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1.37 The A$$holes Poisoning Us and How To Beat Them*

We have a growing health crisis in America. Millions of us are chronically ill because of all the sugar and processed foods we eat. The food industry makes billions of dollars a year in profits by producing, marketing and selling foods that make us sick. They have a vested interest in continuing business as usual. The healthcare industry treats the sick, not the healthy; and it now represents almost 20% of the American economy. It would be foolhardy to wait for Healthcare leaders to develop wellness programs.

It is up to us to change the way we eat. Food is the basis of community and culture. It is perhaps the most fundamental aspect of our daily lives. We eat or we die, it’s that simple. Our relationship to each other and to our planet therefore begins with food. When such a foundational aspect of our existence is damaging the health and lives of millions, and when those responsible for it cannot or will not solve the crisis, we as individuals are compelled to do what we can to make it right.

It is apparent that very few of us as individuals can avoid the unhealthy choices with which we are bombarded every day. To find the power to make better choices, I would suggest, we should seek to live as members of thriving and healthy groups. We could then leverage the power of community and science to collapse the present, corrupt structure.

Dr. Robert Lustig has written a book explaining the science that allows our food industry to keep us eating poorly, as well as the science that could help to beat the food producers at their own game. Here’s how he does it: He explains the difference between happiness and pleasure in terms of neuroscience. Happiness is the feeling of contentment that comes from things like connecting with others. It is chemically driven by the release of serotonin. Pleasure, by contrast, is the short-lived feeling derived from getting what we want. It is chemically driven by the release of dopamine. When that system gets out of whack, it causes addiction. We want the addictive substance more and more and derive less and less pleasure from it when we get it.

Dr. Lustig shows us that the food industry sells us foods laced with sugar, which triggers the dopamine system and leads to addiction for millions of us. The result? They become rich while we become chronically ill. But he also points us to a way out. We can do the things that drive our serotonin instead of our dopamine. He gives us his “four C’s”: Connecting with others, cooking for others, contributing to the lives of others and coping with life by exercising, practicing mindfulness and taking adequate rest.

Unfortunately, Dr. Lustig doesn’t suggest a model that could help people to do this on a large scale. Here is where CrossFit can close the gap. The CrossFit model is fundamentally tribal, which is to say, it is an approach driven by the power of a community to positively impact the lives of its members. At CrossFit, we show up more often, we work out harder and we feel so much better because we are building connections with people as we become fit. CrossFit gets results by building community instead of addiction. It is an elegant solution because it does not require directly taking on the countless corporate products that keep us sedentary. It just gives us what we want and need at a deeper level – it increases our serotonin instead of spiking our dopamine – which over time dampens the temptations of unhealthy pursuits.

A community based model for creating healthy food habits could do for food what CrossFit has done for exercise. It could give people the power to overcome addiction by participating in a vibrant community. Our challenge is to offer healthy eating habits in a way that is powerful enough to overcome the unhealthy choices marketed to us by the food industry. The model pioneered by CrossFit just may be that powerful. The result could be a fundamental shift towards healthier food and healthier communities. Given the stakes and given the opportunity, I cannot think of a better use of our time or a more fundamentally healthy model for promoting positive change.

 

*This is the third in a series of four articles.

1.35 – The Community Hypothesis*

Most of us don’t exercise often enough or intensely enough to keep fit over a lifetime. Most CrossFitters do, because there is something about CrossFit that keeps members coming to their boxes and doing WODs. But exercise is only one half of fitness. When it comes to the other half – our diets – it is the same story: most of us don’t have the will power to consistently eat healthy foods. Unfortunately, there is nothing analogous to CrossFit when it comes to making good food choices. We know what we should eat, but we can’t stay away from the junk. There is a huge opportunity here: if we can identify the secret ingredient that makes CrossFit such a successful fitness program, perhaps we can use it to keep ourselves eating well.

Here is a hypothesis: CrossFitters exercise more intensely and more consistently because they have the support of the CrossFit community. Here’s how it works, as described on the CrossFit webpage:

CrossFit is constantly varied functional movements performed at high intensity … … By employing a constantly varied approach to training, functional movements and intensity lead to dramatic gains in fitness…The community that spontaneously arises when people do these workouts together is a key component of why CrossFit is so effective… Harnessing the natural camaraderie, competition and fun of sport or game yields an intensity that cannot be matched by other means.

https://www.crossfit.com/what-is-crossfit. It is true that a sense of community spontaneously arises when people do CrossFit together. And once that sense of connection and belonging forms, it becomes a powerful, added stimulant for us as athletes. As a species, we are hard wired to seek and participate in a community for mutual support and protection, and we light up when we find it. We find it at CrossFit, and the more we do it the more we feel a sense of well being that tells us we are doing something healthy for ourselves. We start CrossFit primarily for fitness, but the fulfillment of this other, primal need drives and sustains our commitment to intense exercise.

If community is the secret ingredient that keeps CrossFitters exercising, then perhaps it can also be used to encourage healthy eating habits. A program dedicated to healthy eating out of which a community arises could strengthen our resolve to maintain healthy eating habits. CrossFit made exercise into a social event and people have been thriving in it. If we do the same with healthy eating, then maybe people will thrive in that more supportive environment too.

The more I ponder healthy eating, CrossFit and community, the more I see a mutually reinforcing triumvirate. We are designed to eat a particular diet and have found it increasingly challenging to do so. We are built to maintain a certain level of fitness, but again we find our modern world distracting us from what we know we need. We are programmed to solve our challenges collectively and find deep satisfaction in working together for mutual benefit. Eating well, moving well and connecting well are vital to a healthy life, and we can do all three in conjunction with each other. Eat. Move. Connect. Three core concepts for creating the best versions of ourselves.

The programs that we see today – diets, blueprints, weight loss clinics, whatever – are not delivered with any answers to the biggest challenge to healthy eating: how to overcome the temptation to eat junk food and make eating healthy a habit. Perhaps the hypothesis suggested here gets to the root cause of our poor eating habits and points the way to a community based solution.

 

*This is the second in a series of four articles.

1.34 The Holy Grail of Healthy Eating*

Imagine a phenomenon so powerful it can challenge big agra and the entire processed food industry and win. Something so strong that it breaks our cravings for sugar and salt, soda and chips. Something so game-changing that, if properly implemented, would collapse the food industry and reorient our culture toward eating and moving well. Imagine that there is a holy grail of healthy eating, and that we can implement it right now.

Fitness is the result of two things, diet and exercise. Our lives today are largely sedentary as compared to our hunting and gathering ancestors. Or modern work doesn’t require us to move in a way that keeps us fit. Keeping fit therefore requires us to engage in exercise multiple times per week, so that we give our bodies the physical work for which they were designed and used for eons. Maintaining our natural physical capacity, in other words, is a choice.

Food today is abundantly available without having to hunt or forage for it. For all of prehistory we lived with food scarcity. Over that time we developed a biological desire to consume sugar and fat wherever and whenever we found it, and the more the better. In a world where calories were hard won, this was a great biological adaptation. But today we can drive to the grocery store and forage the aisles for whatever we want, any time want. Worse, that food is processed, packaged and marketed to be addictive. Eating well has also become a choice, and a difficult one at that.

Knowledge isn’t enough: we can know everything there is to know about exercise and healthy eating, but it won’t do us any good if we can’t actually get ourselves to implement that knowledge. Yes, there are debates about the best exercise program and the ideal diet. But those arguments are purely academic if we don’t have the discipline to implement whatever we believe is optimal for our health.

The CrossFit model solves the challenge of exercise discipline. In a world where exercise has to compete with television, social media and video games for our time, our exercise program has to inspire us. Otherwise we won’t get off the couch. Herein lies the genius of CrossFit: it’s an incredibly intense, grueling exercise program, and yet people do it five and six times a week. Voluntarily. CrossFit is the holy grail of exercise.

There is no comparable model that solves the challenge of food discipline. We have gurus, we have doctors, we have diets, we have cookbooks, we have food delivery services. We have grocery stores filled with nutritious food. But is there an approach that turns eating healthy from something that taxes our will power into something that adds joy and energy to our lives? Is there anything that moves the needle in America away from our susceptibility to junk food and toward a healthy, sustainable diet? If there is, I don’t see it.

I suspect that there is a way of fostering food discipline based on the CrossFit model. I think that we can leverage community, friendly competition and accountability, and a no nonsense, evidence-based, data driven program to transform people’s eating habits. There is a holy grail of eating healthy. It is out there, waiting to be devised and implemented.

 

*This is the first in a series of four posts

1.33 Finally Straightened Out

The first month I was at CrossFit, Coach Perrin looked at my attempt at an overhead squat position with a combination of humor and disbelief. When I tried to squat, my ankles didn’t flex, my butt went back, my upper body, head and arms came forward and I found myself looking at the ground because I couldn’t pick my head up without risking falling backwards. I couldn’t get my arms any higher than parallel with the floor. Perrin had me hold on to one of the posts of the rig for balance. He told me to hang out like that for a while every day, and that I would progress quickly if I worked at it. Then he walked away shaking his head and suppressing a smile.

That was four years ago. Just this past week, I finally gained the ability to do overhead squats, a movement that requires enough flexibility to be in a full squat, holding a barbell straight overhead, with the chest up and arms locked out. Four years. To put that in perspective, it only took me three years to earn my law degree.

It took a lot of work. I mobilized after almost every WOD. I smashed my calves with a lacrosse ball to break up fascia and work out muscle knots. I did ankle flexibility exercises with an 88 lb. kettlebell on my knee. I would brace my back against a parallel bar, reach back and get a hold of the other bar and hold on to it, back arched, feet off the ground, looking like I was crucifying myself, and hold it for as long as I could. Basically, if it looked like a form of medieval torture or involved heavy weights digging into tender sinews, I tried to do it at least twice a week, for 2 minutes on each side.

When the time came to see if a coach would clear me to start putting weight on the bar to do overhead squats, I asked coach Mael to take a look. I grabbed a 45 lb. bar, took a wide grip, snatched it over my head and attempted an overhead squat. I could only squat down about 3 inches.

Me:     “Wow. I must look like an asshole.”

Mael:   “The bar’s too heavy.”

Me:     “It’s 45 lbs.”

Mael:   “It’s too heavy.”

Me:     “I squat 250. I press 140.”

Mael:   “Too heavy.”

Me:     “Really? Really? I have to use a 33 lb. bar? I’d rather limit myself to a 3                          inch over head squat.”

Mael:   “Grab the 15 lb. training bar and try it with that.”

Me:     “You have to be shitting me.”

Mael:   “Tony…”

Me:     “But people will SEE!”

Mael:   “The 15, if you please.”

So I pulled out a 15 lb. bar and proceeded to do about five solid overhead squats.

Mael:   “Those looked great. You can start putting on weight.”

Me:     “Huh. And to think it only took four years. What now?”

Mael:   “Do them after class twice a week at first, adding 5 lbs. a week.”

Me:     “Great. So in a year I’ll be able to overhead squat 275.”

So now I have overhead squats, and the humbling task of building up from a 15 lb. training bar. But you know what? It feels good to have so much progress ahead of me, and a great personal accomplishment behind me. I will check back on the blog in a year. I am quite sure that my max OHS will be 275 by then. Mael said so.

1.32 Olympic Lifting for Mannequins

I tend to be a minimalist about technique in the world of CrossFit. I just like to get after it. The fun is in the doing, so once I can do something I try not to stress myself out about making my technique perfect. But Olympic lifting requires practice and refinement of technique; otherwise, you can spend years or decades slowly hurting your body because of bad form. So, grudgingly, I am now attempting to learn Olympic lifting. Meh. Sassuum. Hurrumph. Grrrrhhhuh. Fine. But I don’t have to like it. And nobody has to know about it.

Olympic lifting is tricky. There isn’t much that happens, but there’s so much going on. Getting a heavy weight from floor to overhead requires the recruitment and coordination of a number of different muscle groups.   The transition from getting the bar past the knees through the opening of the hips and driving the bar up before dropping back under it for the catch is vexingly simple, yet difficult. It is referred to as the scoop and second pull or the ‘second knee bend.’

The power of that second pull doesn’t and shouldn’t come simply from taking the back from a bent-over-at the-waist position to a vertical position. Doing that generates power forward, not up, throwing the bar away from the body when you are trying to project the bar vertically towards your shoulders. It also puts serious stress on the low back, which is not a good idea if living a life without pain is something that interests you.

One of the coaches trying to teach me these lifts is Ari. Ari is meticulous, articulate and unwaveringly supportive. He would take what he has to teach and deliver it directly to the synapses in your brain – with a pizza and a 2 liter bottle of coke – if it were possible. He would spend an hour explaining technique to someone with the aptitude of a mannequin. Perfect, in other words, for coaching someone who thinks he can check in and out of learning CrossFit skills with the rationalization that he ‘just likes to get after it.’

“Tony that looks amazing. Soooo much better than last time. Now what I want you to do is take your hands and instead of having them like this – with the hands in line with the wrists – I want you to have them like this – with the wrists bent forward, so that you’re already sweeping the bar back towards yourself. The way you are now is fine, but see how my shoulders push forward toward the bar and my back slackens when I have a straight grip? Instead, curl the hands over and feel how that locks your shoulder back and allows you to tighten your back in your setup position. It’s a much stronger pull from there. It will come more from your legs and hips. The other way forces you to take up the slack in your back first and try to make the lift with your arms.”

I gave it a shot. I immediately felt the tighter position, which translated to more use of my legs and less reliance on my shoulders and low back. Ari’s tip also helped me to integrate into my lifting something that I learned from a video of Greg Glassman, the founder of CrossFit, about the ‘scoop and second bend.’ Glassman’s message was: get to a vertical position with your spine stacked and strong and then explode upward like a crazy person. Ari’s tip allowed me to get the bar into a better position for this second pull, which allowed me to explode upward (or as close to ‘explode’ as a novice Olympic lifter with a preference for fitness ignorance can get to it).

When it comes to working out, I like to get after it. I am learning that that has to mean more than just grabbing a bar, a kettle bell or whatever and having at it. Ari is helping me with this, god bless him. I’ll probably see him again on Friday. He will have lots of technique to teach, and I’ll be ready to get after it. I just hope he doesn’t forget the pizza and coke.

1.31 Jackass

The first thing I said to Colette on Sunday morning was, “who was that jackass at the bar last night talking shit about wearing a weight vest for today’s WOD.”

“Pretty sure that was you.”

“Shit. That’s what I thought.”

“Are you really going to do that?”

“Of course. Sean said he was up for it.”

“Is he really going to do that?”

“Of course. You saw him. He looks like Captain America and I’m pretty sure he’s better than the Cap’n at metcons.”

The night before I brought Colette, my new girlfriend, out with the CrossFit crew for the first time. Ethan was in town too. Although he has dropped in to our box a few times, he didn’t really know everyone that well. I love bringing people together and was looking forward to it. It was a cool night, but warm enough to be outside. Steph wanted to go to the Deck as part of her birthday celebration, so that’s where we went. Ethan chatted away with Katie M on one side of the table, while Colette talked to Dave and Steph on the other. I was at one end, catching up with Mark, a Marxist economist friend of Mael’s who was back in town for a few a days. Sean and Liz, Mael and Michele filled out the early group; Bryan and Katie were latecomers.

The conversation went general and someone asked about the Sunday WOD. “It’s a partner WOD,” Mael told us. “Run a mile together. Split 100 slam balls with a 40 lb. ball, then split 200 pushups, then split 300 kettle bell swings with a 53 lb. kettle bell, then run another mile together.”

There are a lot of things I could have said at that moment. Or nothing. “Wow, tough WOD” now comes to mind. Or, “Could you tell us about these slam balls Mael? We’ve never done them before.” Instead I went with, “I’m going to wear a weight vest.”

Really Tony? You’re out drinking. You’re hosting a brunch for 20 people after the WOD. Your new girlfriend is visiting. Ethan is in town, staying with you. And you come out with, “I’m wearing a weight vest?” Jackass.

“Really?” asked Sean. He was like a dog coming to attention at the mention of a treat.

“Yep. How hard can it be? I’ll run 10 minute miles.”

“You’ll run 8s,” said Katie.

“He’ll probably run 7s, on his hands,” said Dave.

“It’s a team WOD, so maybe we can take a golf cart for the mile runs,” I said. “Then we could do them in 4s. 3s maybe. Mael, can we use golf carts for the mile runs?”

“No, Tony. You have to run on the runs. That’s why it’s called a run.”

“I’m in. It’ll be fun,” said Sean. “Should we bring our golf clubs?”

“Sure,” said Mael. “Strap them on over your weight vests.”

“But we’ll never be able to get into the cart wearing weight vests and golf clubs,” I objected.

“I said no golf carts!”

“Spoil sport. How about roller blades?”

“Run.”

“Matching Segues?”

“Guys, what did I say?”

And that was that. So we wore 20 lb. weight vests for the Sunday WOD. It was brutal. My low back tightened up during the first mile. But Sean stayed with me and carried me through the WOD. When we got to the kettle bell swings, it was excruciating to put the weight down after each set. That last bend to the floor was just torture on my low back. We started out alternating sets of 10.

“How many?”

“That’s 30.”

“How many total?”

“150 each.”

I laughed. “No, really.” I had forgotten what Mael said the night before and I never pay much attention at the white board going over the WOD before class.

“Really.”

“Please tell me you’re fucking with me.”

“Sorry, bud.”

“Fuck. Let’s do sets of 5.”

It went on forever. Just forever. At one point I dropped the 53 lb. kettle bell to the floor from the bottom position. My back was hurting so much I just let it go. The sound it made when it hit and cracked the rubber-covered cement floor was seismic. The whole box looked at me. I instinctively looked at Ayn, who is the manager of PVCF. Alpha fem. Very cool. Most Badass CrossFitter at the box. Very protective of the equipment, including the floor, which was just redone. I immediately set a 3 year date in my mental calendar for when I figured I would stop hearing about that one.

Strangely, I felt better on the second mile run than I did on everything else. We finished over the time limit, but I think in the middle of the pack. I couldn’t wait to get back into the box. I immediately started struggling to get the vest off. It was almost as bad as the WOD, trying to peel that sweaty, heavy ass thing off of me.

After laying on the box floor for about 10 minutes, I finally caught my breath and the world came back into focus. People were mobilizing and socializing, and I remembered that most of them were going to be at my place in about an hour expecting brunch, on the flimsy excuse that I had invited them all. Jackass.

 

1.30 WTF Are Macros?

The first time I heard people refer to macros at CrossFit I had no idea what they were talking about. I doubt I had heard anything new about nutrition since the FDA switched its guidelines from the ‘basic four’ to the ‘food pyramid.’ For anyone who cares to know, by the way, the ‘food pyramid’ has apparently been replaced by ‘my plate.’ I’m guessing the next one will be called ‘iEat’ and will be sponsored by Apple.

It is quite clear to anyone paying attention that our understanding of nutrition has been controlled by big agra and other special interests for decades. I prefer to get my nutrition science from people who don’t have a horse in the race. CrossFit certainly has a point of view, but generally speaking it is a libertarian culture and people are encouraged to learn for themselves and use an evidence based approach to fitness. So recently I decided to seek my own answers to nutrition’s most pressing questions, including the question that all novice CrossFitters eventually ask: WTF are macros? To that end, I attended a talk by Dr. Laura Hutchins Christolph, resident nutritionist at PVCF and all around fitness badass. Here is what I learned:

Experiment to find what works. The science of nutrition is fairly new. When Laura was in college not too long ago, nobody was talking about macros. Now they are an essential aspect of understanding nutrition, along with micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) and phytonutrients (the stuff in superfoods). Macros are the three sources of energy for the human body: protein, fat and carbohydrates. Our sources of energy are obviously a pretty essential part of nutrition. Their relatively late arrival on the scene – or at least the fact that there was never a focus on them as such until fairly recently – should give us all a healthy understanding of just how new the science of nutrition is. Most importantly, despite what we may hear from people trying to sell us on their diets, the science isn’t exact, and our bodies are quite variable. The takeaway: aside from some basic guidelines, follow your body, not someone else’s program.

Know why you’re eating. Laura pointed out that we eat for all kinds of reasons, including eating for pleasure and as a part of our culture. It is within that context that we eat for other goals, including health, performance and aesthetics. And that is OK. In fact, it is encouraged. There is plenty of play in the human body for all of the stuff of life. It helps to be aware that our goals may be divergent: a man who gets his exercise playing tennis will not build muscle like a bodybuilder and does not need a bodybuilder’s intake of protein. But with a little tweaking, we can find the right diet for our lifestyle and attain our nutrition goals without sacrificing the other important roles that food plays in our lives.

When you eat is as important as what you eat. We need energy and nutrients at the right time for them to be most effective. It makes more sense to eat at the beginning of the day, when we are about to start burning fuel doing the stuff of life. We also need energy before a workout. In terms of timing, our bodies absorb nutrition best when they are depleted right after a workout. Carbs help deliver nutrients, so right after an intense workout is a good time to eat them.

All bodies are not created equal. Our bodies come in three basic types. We are sorted into ectomorphs, mesomorphs or endomorphs. Which one you are is determined by the sorting hat at Hogwarts. Or maybe some other way. In any event, it helps to know whether you are naturally long and lean, curvy, or muscular and to eat a ratio of carbs to protein and fat accordingly.

Change habits, not diets. Laura advocates a gradual approach to improving nutrition: change one thing in your diet at a time. This is much easier to do than making whole sale changes, and it has the added benefit of helping us to identify when a change works and when it is the act of eliminating something yummy for no good reason. I have tried it the other way – eliminating everything that could possibly be unhealthy from my diet for a few weeks and then experimenting by adding back one thing at a time. Ever try that? After 21 days of salads, nuts and berries, on day 22 I gorged on everything with no ability to control myself. The net result: I was a cranky bastard for three weeks, a human trash compactor for three days and no healthier or wiser for the effort.

Now that I know what macros are, I can stop looking for them on food labels, at least until the FDA comes out with nutrition guidelines called ‘McMacros,’ sponsored by McDonald’s.