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.
Like lots of people who do CrossFit, I am an overachiever. I tend to turn the activities that I do for fun into stressful obligations. That is why when I get the urge to do more or to be more as a CrossFitter, I take a step back and remember that this is ultimately something that I do for health and fitness. If I feel like CrossFit is becoming just one more place where I’m putting undue pressure on myself, I go to therapy and work on accepting myself and realizing deeply that my value as a human being is not contingent upon my accomplishments.
Just kidding. What I actually do is rejigger things to fit in more CrossFit.
Recently, for example, I added some targeted CrossFit skill work to my routine. It will serve a few of purposes. It will help me to improve at some of the movements that pop up all of the time – wall balls, double unders, butterfly pull-ups, etc. It will also act as an engine builder by giving me extra work in the red zone. Much of what we do in CrossFit has us working when we are gasping for air and aching to stop. Putting myself in that zone under controlled conditions outside of a WOD should help me to manage the panic and desire to stop that it brings. Basically, I’m going to practice getting comfortable when I feel like I’m about to die.
Unfortunately, this targeted skill work has crowded out my prior routine of doing 30 to 60 minutes of mobility work after a WOD. I have made vast improvements in my flexibility by doing all of that mobilizing. When I started CrossFit I was about as flexible as a 2×4. I’m not saying that I’m Gumby now, but my relative flexibility is much, much better. My toes no longer look like foreign objects existing beyond the orbit of my personal space.
So I shifted my mobilizing to nighttime. I now do it at home, after dinner, when I am otherwise wasting time watching reruns of the updated Battlestar Galactica (highly recommend it). This way I am improving my CrossFit skills while still working on my flexibility.
If this works, I will be that much closer to being the CrossFitter that I want to be. And if it doesn’t work, there’s always therapy.
ADDENDUM: For those who may be interested, here’s what I have added for skill work:
-50 wall balls with a 30 lb. medicine ball
-Butterfly pull-ups practice
-As many reps as possible (AMRAP) of double unders in 7 minutes, with no more than a 10 second break between max effort sets
Cavemen didn’t need CrossFit. We need CrossFit because we are still biologically cavemen. This is a basic theory that underlies our need to spend most of the day on our feet, preferably doing low-level activities, and to make sure that a few times a week we lift heavy things and do insane workouts. But this raises a question: if we need to eat a certain way and live a certain way for optimal health, and if our modern way of living doesn’t allow for that, then why in the hell are we living this way? Wouldn’t it be better to order the world so that we could all focus mainly on CrossFit or things like it, and on eating healthy all the time, instead of working like crazy people? Why do we live in way that maximizes the stresses of making a living and paying the bills?
This may be a fleeting thought for most, something said over brunch to fellow CrossFitters in the form of a joke. Nobody seriously thinks such a thing is possible. We all know that we have to have jobs and that those jobs will take up most of our time. We know that we must squeeze our fitness into the few hours we can spare for it. But I’ve done a fair amount of thinking about this work/fitness conundrum, and it has had a profound effect on my view of work and the modern world.
We are wired for the kind of nomadic, tribal, hunting and gathering life that humans lived for eons before civilization. We are also wired to find meaning in that life. A sense of meaning in this context is our brain chemistry telling us that we’re doing something similar to what our ancestors did every day in order to survive. Our modern economy is not designed to bring us meaning. Our modern jobs are not designed to simulate tribal life. They are designed to produce something of value to be sold in the economy. Very different, and by and large very unrewarding. People may love their jobs, but they wouldn’t be doing them if they weren’t getting paid. So we work all day, then spend our free time doing CrossFit, or watching or playing sports, or playing video games, or doing any number of things that trick our brains into thinking that we’re having a tribal experience.
Our economy is based on the profit motive. That is not a judgment, it’s a fact. (See John Adams, The Wealth of Nations, on this point). And for owners, that is a perfectly rational incentive. But that incentive does not apply to us. We workers are not making a profit, we’re earning a living. In economic terms we are, quite literally, resources used by someone else to make a profit.
When I scratched the surface of modern economics I learned that homelessness and hunger are necessary to make the system work, because we are not wired to do the jobs that we do. We have to have to do them, or face homelessness and hunger, otherwise we wouldn’t do them. (See Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation on this point). Don’t get me wrong – I believe that we are wired for hard work and we are wired to contribute. We just aren’t wired, by and large, to do the kind of jobs that exist in the economy in which we find ourselves.
I have a rewarding job: I sue insurers who wrongly deny people their long term disability benefits. But the context in which I do my job – sitting at a desk, writing against deadlines, worrying about making mistakes that will cost my clients their livelihood, running the office as a business, etc. – is not conducive to healthy living. I am often stressed, which compromises my sleep, my energy levels, the quality of my diet and so many other things. When I follow my fitness journey to its logical conclusion, I find that it provides a deep critique of the modern world and the way that I personally live my life. Like so many other people, I love that I am able to work, to help people, to contribute. But like so many people, the work that I do is killing me.
I am now trying to the bridge the gap between modern living and healthy living in my life. This is not easy. The world demands so much of us and is not designed with enough play in it to allow many opt outs. But to the extent that I can create my own life in this world – to the extent that I am free – I am trying to do so in a way that feeds the ancient spirit that lives within me. I am trying to live a CrossFitter’s creed.
If I am not strong; if I am not fit; if I cannot handle long, difficult physical work; if I cannot participate in vibrant community; if I cannot set out and achieve personal goals; if I cannot eat fresh, healthy food; if I cannot get enough quality sleep; if I am too tired from work and from stress; if I am too addicted to social media and sugar and television; if I do not arrange my life to the extent possible to allow for the things required for optimal health; if I do not challenge those who promote a diet and lifestyle that causes chronic disease; if I do not do my part to ensure that we can all live healthy, meaningful lives, then I am not embracing the wisdom of CrossFit as I have come to understand it.
Fitness is multifactorial. As far as I know, there is no universal resource containing everything you need to know for a lifetime of fitness. Even if there were, there certainly is no universal software program or app for tracking all aspects of fitness in one place. It is up to us as athletes to figure out everything that goes into fitness and to discover the best sources of information for each. It’s a messy process. It simply does not allow for uniform, steady progress.
I am the kind of person who does not feel comfortable if I can’t see the big picture in some area of my life or with respect to some body of knowledge that interests me. It drives me crazy. I suppose I should just ‘enjoy the journey’ or try to ‘be in the moment.’ Or get therapy. But in my mind it makes more sense to organize the sum total of fitness knowledge than to accept a world that does not easily admit of universal knowledge. We all have our quirks.
My starting point for understanding strength training, a central component of fitness, is Mark Rippetoe’s Starting Strength. Mr. Rippetoe is an unabashed advocate for the virtues of barbell lifting. He minces no words about who should do strength training and why:
“Physical strength is the most important thing in life … Exercise is the thing we must do to replicate the conditions under which our physiology was — and still is – adapted, the conditions under which we are physically normal. In other words, exercise is substitute cave-man activity, the thing we need to make our bodies, and in fact our minds, normal in the 21st century.”
Mr. R. is smart and funny. My kind of guy. When it comes to the mechanics of squats, presses, deadlifts and other barbell lifts, there is an elegance to his vision of what the human body can and should do. And he delivers the essentials of strength training with wit. To wit, “Looking up at the ceiling when squatting has so many detrimental effects on proper technique that some law against it will eventually have to be adopted.” If you’re going to read 58 pages about the squat, believe me, you want it written by someone as colorful and opinionated as Mr. R.
If Mr. Rippetoe is right, then we all need barbell training. It is typical of experts to suggest that their area of expertise is important, or even the most crucial thing in the world, next to good coffee and well made martinis. But the idea that our genetic makeup is mismatched to our modern lifestyle, and that we are designed for and need exercise, including strength training, is now solidly backed by science. Mr. R. may be right: lifting is for everyone, and we ignore that fact at our peril.
If one wants to gather the sum total of knowledge needed for a lifetime of fitness, one must begin somewhere. Since it is a messy and non-linear process, one place is as good as the next. So I will begin here. I am now creating a checklist of performance points for the squat from Mr. R.’s barbell training masterpiece. I plan to CliffsNotes the whole thing and build off of it as I continue my reading and lifting.
Some day everyone will understand that we are nomads trapped in a sedentary existence. We will complete the canon of fitness knowledge. We will create a software program that directly applies that knowledge to our own personal fitness journeys, which the software will program and track. Until then I will be like a fish, flopping on the deck of boat, looking up at the wheel and thinking, ‘There’s got to be a way for me to steer this thing.’
If you work at an office, you probably know someone who has a desk with a sit/stand option. This person eats kale salads and bikes to work. He takes the stairs instead of the elevator. He has a gadget on his wrist for tracking his heart rate and a garden at home where he grows the vegetables that he and his family just love to eat. You probably don’t like being around this person. Something about his preternaturally positive attitude just gets under your skin. I know. I don’t like being around him either.
I’ve done some digging and I believe I know what spawned these annoyingly effervescent people. They are doing something that Ben Greenfield describes as ‘ancestral living’ in his book, Beyond Training. Mr. Greenfield explains the science behind building endurance. There are two ways to do it: (1) long, slow aerobic training and (2) high intensity interval training (HIIT). Doing HIIT is a bio-hack: it builds up the density of mitochondria, which is what improves endurance, without the need for a ridiculous number of hours of running, biking or swimming every week.
But we still need aerobic activity in our lives, because it has some benefits that we cannot get from HIIT alone. The solution? Stay active throughout the day. This combination of HIIT workouts and low-level aerobic daily activities mimics the lifestyle for which our bodies were developed over hundreds of thousands of years before we all got desks, computers and corporate overlords:
An ancestral approach to training is based on the theory that we are naturally designed to perform lots of low-level physical activity with occasional bursts of very high intensity, which builds endurance without significant physical and metabolic damage. Living and training in this manner means respecting our ancestors and critically considering how the environmental and training stresses we place on our bodies affect our health in positive or negative ways.
This is no doubt where treadmill desks and the phrase “sitting is the new smoking” originated. These modern cultural adaptations and esoteric pieces of wisdom have their roots in the science endurance training.
I have been adapting an ancestral approach for about a month now. I must say that I actually like it. Walking to work feels more like a fun excursion into town than a commute to a desk job. Standing at my desk is harder than it sounds, but I’m building the capacity for longer times on my feet without getting a stiff back or tired legs. It may be the placebo effect, and it is definitely anecdotal, but I feel more energetic.
I am now the coworker with a stand-up option at his desk. The guy who comes into work flush from an invigorating walk and bops around the office looking positively jazzed to be doing paperwork. I don’t even like being around me at the office anymore. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to see about getting a plot at the community garden this summer so I can grow my own vegetables.
I am now four years into CrossFit and I have reached a place that could very easily become a plateau. I could keep doing CrossFit five or six times a week, eat healthy and just enjoy the community and health that I have gained in the last four years. How do I feel about that? I want more. I want to delve deeper into the world of fitness and nutrition. I want to apply that knowledge to my WODs. I want to attain higher levels of fitness, to get stronger and build a better engine. I want to keep growing, developing, striving.
Accepting that I have hit a plateau does not square with my view of life. I don’t think that I would actually be able to maintain what I have achieved without continuing to strive for new knowledge and new goals. For me, there is really no such thing as maintaining a level once it has been achieved. If maintenance is your goal, then you are not actually living. Maintenance is for machines; living requires something more. I think that living implies a continual striving to become my best self. When I am in a museum, I judge art from the starting point that without the art there is still a blank wall. Then I ask myself, ‘how amazing is it that some artist created this and it is now on this this wall?’ For me, life is like that blank wall, and I am compelled to keep imagining something amazing and trying to create it for that space.
And why focus on CrossFit when there are so many other things in this life that I could pursue? Because moving and eating well is what gives me a sense of wellbeing. If I feel good in my body, then I can go on to the other things that matter: connecting with others and living with purpose. CrossFit is a pursuit that allows me to make all of this happen. I connect with so many people in the pursuit of healthy food and exercise that it provides me with the community and sense of purpose that I am wired to seek.
This formula for a meaningful life has its origins in the deep history of our species. Our ancestors hunted and foraged in tribes that ventured throughout a vast and unknown world. Their bodies were built for long journeys and intense struggles; their souls found completion in the companionship born of pursuing common goals. As their descendants, we have largely abandoned this framework for living, but it still lives deep within us. CrossFit activates these instincts in a way that the other offerings of modern life – office work, cell phones, schedules and the like – do not.
Our ancestors were magnificent physical specimens as a result of living as hunters and adventurers. Today the hunt for supreme physical conditioning and astounding athletic accomplishment provides the best context for deeply satisfying pursuits. Our ancestors had the hunt; we have CrossFit. Our ancestors painted on cave walls with ochre and pigment to sanctify their journeys. I use electronic ink to express what is meaningful about mine.
A man goes to see his primary care physician. She diagnoses him with metabolic syndrome and tells him that he is at risk for Type II diabetes, which could cause coronary disease and an early death. She tells him that he must change his diet and stop eating processed and sugared foods. He says he understands the gravity of the situation and promises to eat better. The physician goes on to her next patient. The man gets into his car and, on the way home, hungry and tired, orders takeout. He continues his bad eating habits, destined to repeat the pattern until it is too late.
There are some questions missing in this exchange. The man should have asked, “How do I do that? How do I consistently make better food choices? How do I put myself in the best position to achieve my goal of eating healthy?” Had he asked, the physician would have had no ready answer: There is no prescription she can write for healthy eating habits.
Perhaps it is time that we wrote one.
What I am about to suggest may be radical, but it rests on basic, uncontroversial principles. Most importantly, it addresses the foundational problem of obesity, diet discipline. It is not an easy fix, but it is a lifelong solution. It takes on the system that has made America obese without the need for political action, surgery, drugs or billions of dollars. It just requires people to develop what they know they want – a vibrant community – and gives them the tools to do it.
We should reorganize our lives to source, prepare and eat in small communities dedicated to healthy food choices. We need to create spaces where groups of people develop their meal prep and eating habits together. One could imagine spaces with a number of kitchen areas and a common dining area. This would allow for small groups to do meal prep and for larger groups to eat meals together. Members could come every day for a “Meal of the Day,” or they could just come two to three times a week, each time prepping a few days worth of meals.
These spaces could become an integral part of the lives of their members. The main activity would be the classes during which people would prepare their food. Just as people go to yoga or CrossFit to exercise under instruction, they would come here to prepare meals. They would be doing it at a place dedicated to health and wellness, where they would learn what to cook and how to cook for a lifetime of health.
These spaces would provide a powerful added stimulant to eating healthy: the sense of well being that comes from working with others toward a common goal. Preparing food as part of a class would positively reinforce healthy eating habits with healthy social connections. People would join to eat healthy, but they would stay – and develop good eating habits – for the sense of community that would nourish them at a deeper level.
This would be a holistic and evidence-based approach to healthy eating habits. Members could track their health indicators, their meals, their exercise and other factors related to health and fitness. The spaces could track data from members (on a voluntary basis), which could be used to determine the effectiveness of the program and to make evidence based changes. They would be able to show results, over time and across diverse demographics. They could also source their food directly, from local producers or well-vetted companies, to suit their ethical, environmental and health concerns. They could even have their own gardens, so that members could have a closer relationship to food than is typically afforded in our modern world.
Such a program would be born of the recent neuroscience suggesting that cooking and community can drive healthy eating habits. It would be built on the supremely successful CrossFit model of providing an atmosphere in which community spontaneously arises. It would create vibrant communities founded on healthy goals. Finally, it would leverage the tools of social media and technology to give its members a tribal experience in the modern world.