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Archive for May, 2012|Monthly archive page

Functional in Formosa

In General, Rhetoric, Writing on May 27, 2012 at 10:52 pm

As fun as kipping pull-ups are, after I’ve incorporated more strict pull-ups into my regimen, I have to admit that they’re not at all the same beast as the real thing. One’s a conditioning movement, one’s strength…

Fortunately, I had a chance to return to Formosa Fitness, where I got to sit down and speak with the owner– Dave Chesser. To be honest, I was relieved to have a conversation in English for the first time in a significant while, and to talk about “functional fitness” which seems a foreign language in and of itself sometimes. Moreover, I was really impressed by Dave and the amount of thought and devotion he has put into his business. Though still somewhat of a niche market in America, CrossFit seems downright mainstream there compared to the fitness culture in Taiwan. When I tried explaining what I was studying to my aunt and uncle (the seminar paper I wrote last semester on CrossFit Sri Ram Ashram), they– very generously though misguidedly– brought me to a tour of the highly exclusive gym atop Taipei 101. There, we were given a small tour of the facilities (a glut of elliptical machines and some globo-gym weight machines). Our neatly tailored, three-piece-suited tour guide informed me that “weight training is not just for men” and “these days, women are starting to try strength training. Women should not be afraid of using the weight machines because they would not make you bulky.”

Anyway, Dave articulated to me precisely the reason I had a difficult time explaining to my aunt and uncle the philosophy behind CrossFit (though eventually I think I almost managed it). The concepts are so foreign here, there aren’t any terms for things like “metabolic conditioning.” Poor Dave first has to define his services before he can market them to the public. Nevertheless, it seems like he’s done pretty well. He talked about what limited access he has to equipment, but (as I mentioned in my last post) he has virtually everything a CrossFitter-away-from-home could hope for, and then some. All the equipment is in stellar condition, and though they’re not branded by Rogue or Again Faster, they’re damned more than I could have wished for thousands of miles from home.

It’s also worth noting that Formosa Fitness is not a CrossFit affiliate. In truth, that’s probably a good choice. The word “CrossFit” has virtually no value here– at least not in any of the conversations I’ve had, so there’d be no reason for Dave to shell out the affiliate fee. Moreover, Dave seems to exercise more freedom in his own programming, tailoring it to the needs of his clients in their setting.

For example, Formosa Fitness seems to make more frequent use of kettlebells– something I actually envy because I wish I knew more/had the technique to actually employ kettlebells to their full potential. KB’s suit Taipei rather well because they take up less space than fully-loaded olympic bars… and space is a rare commodity in this city. Moreover, it may just be my personal experience, but for some reason Taiwanese people seem more intrigued by kettlebells than powerlifting. When I showed CrossFit websites to friends and family, they were immediately curious about the black, steel bells.

I’ve also made no secret about the fact that I have certain reservations about some CrossFit practices. Heavy lifts in AMRAPs, for example, invite poor form and injury. It could be that my own technique and ability just aren’t there for these elements, but I tend to avoid movements that I think carry too much risk. Because Dave operates independently from any overarching “program,” he has even more room to breathe when helping his clients. Just from the materials around the gym, I saw elements of traditional CrossFit, Gym Jones, 4-hour body, Tactical Athlete, and of course Dave’s own approach.

Our conversation also gave me some more ideas about my dissertation research. I’m not going to go too in-depth here, but I’m thinking about looking at the various manifestations/interpretations of “functional fitness”– considering the physical practices as rhetoric and seeing what values are produced, performed, or resisted in different cultural settings…

Also, as a random note on “functional fitness,” I really haven’t done much CrossFit here– if any– but small moments here remind me of what I’ve gained in the past year. I’m certain that, before CrossFit, I couldn’t have cleaned and pressed my mom’s carryon luggage into the train’s overhead bin. I also couldn’t have deadlifted my grandfather in his wheelchair over the curb to get him from the hospital to the restaurant across the street when taking him out for lunch. I would’ve also possibly not made the mad sprint to the bus stop so that I wouldn’t have to wait another 20 minutes for the next one. Not quite the same as chasing mastodons and hunting sabre-tooth tigers, but still… functional fitness in practice :).

Formosa Fitness

In General, WOD on May 23, 2012 at 5:30 am

The travels continue to progress well. Mostly my days are filled with eating and socializing (which happens around more eating) and walking about Taipei. I’ve been pretty shamelessfully neglecting my work, but hopefully my adviser will forgive me for that when I return to reality America.

Really, food is just better here– everything from duck-tongue-on-a-stick from stands on the side of the road to 7-course meals where every course incorporates toro (tuna belly– in America, sometimes $20 for two pieces).

Today I paid a visit to Formosa Fitness, which– according to my extensive googling– is the closest thing Taiwan has to a CrossFit gym. The owner, Dave Chesser, has his Level 1 cert (along with what seems like a very thorough kettlebell background), but the gym isn’t an affiliate. Unfortunately, Dave wasn’t around when I dropped in, but hopefully I’ll catch him sometime before I leave the country. Nevertheless, I couldn’t surpress my mile-wide grin when I walked into the facilities and saw two Concept2’s sitting on the main floor. Downstairs, Formosa Fitness boasts an extensive kettlebell collection, two squat racks, bumper plates, medicine balls, a punching bag (with gloves and focus mits/pads/etc), and two prowlers. There were also rings and ropes and tires and all such things that delight a CrossFit-sick Jo.

If only because I was overenthused to see the squat rack, I tried doing 3×5 with 30kg loaded onto the bar. Unfortunately, I failed on the third rep of the last set. I’m thinking it could be because I’m out of practice, could be because I’m walking around a lot, could be because I wasn’t in the right headspace… but I’m not going to overthink it really. I’ll just see where my squats really are when I’m back home. After that, I did “The Chief” for the hell of it:

5 rounds of:

3 minute AMRAP

3 power cleans (I did 10 kg on a standard bar… something a little less than 70lbs?)

6 pushups

9 air squats

1 minute rest

At any rate, I hope to have a chance to drop in and actually meet Dave before I depart. Maybe I’ll try one of his WODs on the board. But for now, I’m off to the night market for more deliciousness. Best wishes to all.


In Food, Training, WOD on May 18, 2012 at 8:40 pm

A tasty spread at a Taiwanese restaurant. Guests select any number of vegetables, noodles, and meats (mostly organ meats– pig’s ear, chicken heart, pig intestines…) and have it cooked and sauced and plated. Delicious.

Well it didn’t take that long. Four days without CrossFit and I begin to get irritable. Don’t get me wrong… I love it here. I adore the pace of life, the food (omg the food), the atmosphere… Strangely enough, as much as I’d always resisted visiting Taiwan as a child, I now feel a sense of belonging here that I’d never had as a kid… it speaks to the part of Jo that must remain dormant for most of her life in State College. Unfortunately, CrossFitter Jo doesn’t have much of a place here. With no CrossFit gym– or, indeed, no access to a gym at all for the past few days and most likely the coming weeks, I miss lifting heavy things ;). It’s also the rainy season here right now, so it’s been pouring nonstop for the past four days. For those of you unfamiliar with weather on tropical islands, by “pouring” I don’t mean heavy rain; by “pouring” I mean God has upturned a bottomless bucket of water that is shitting indiscriminately over everything. I mean I wake up in the middle of the night to what sounds like waves crashing on the rooftop. Anyway… with the significant decrease in physical activity, I’ve actually started climbing the walls– literally. I’ve discovered that one can do dead-hang pull-ups by clinging to the edge of a door. Not ideal, but it absolutely prevents you from cheat-kipping, or even curling your legs up.

This morning, just before the drizzle rolled in, I took my jump rope to the park across the street and did a short AMRAP. 15 Minutes:

Sprint (a loop between two pagodas and stone turtle statues… I’d guess ~150m)

20 double unders

10 “ski-abs” (This is not at all a CrossFit maneuver, as far as I know… I stole it from my Shaun T “Insanity” days…)

I chose the ski abs because mountain climbers tend to wear my shoulders well before my abs and I never feel them in my core… but I don’t think 10 was enough of the ski abs to get much of an effect either. I have to figure out an effective core movement that doesn’t require me to sprawl down on the questionably black and slushy Taiwanese concrete…

That said, I’m so happy to be here and grateful that I had the opportunity and resources to save up for this trip. I’ve managed to not at all touch any of the work I’ve brought with me, but it’s still the first few days of “vacation,” right? Supposedly, I’ll have read through the entirety of a course syllabus I’ve drafted with my dissertation adviser by then (roughly 2 anthologies of articles and another 15ish articles, maybe?), I hope I’ll manage that…

Wishing all of you well back in the States.


In General, WOD on May 14, 2012 at 3:22 pm

Tomorrow morning, I will wake at 4:00am and travel to the State College airport. A miniature propeller plane will then convey me to the Washington DC airport. There, after a frantic dash between terminals, I will hopefully board a six hour flight to Los Angeles. I will then spend ten hours killing time in LAX until I finally trudge onto my fourteen-hour flight to Taiwan. Amazingly enough, because I’m actually spending the first few days in  Hsinchu with my aunt before returning to Taipei, I will then have a 3 hour drive before I can crash onto the hard, unfamiliar slats of a bamboo sleeping mat. I’m whining now because I’m trying to get the negativity out of my system. I’ve actually traveled rather often throughout my life. In college, when I was competing for the speech and debate team, we flew so frequently (~2x a month) that I’d streamlined by packing and unpacking process. I could get through airport security in one fluid motion. But… no matter how many times I’m ushered through the crowds and onto noisy metal tubes, I can’t get over my dislike of crowds, of sitting still in close quarters for such protracted periods of time. Worse yet, I’m uncomfortable with the structured rigidity of everything that comes with air travel and how brusquely everyone shoves through these environments.

That said… I’m very lucky to have fit a visit to Taiwan into my life agenda this summer, so I don’t want to pollute any of the experience with my travel-induced temper.

With my impending departure, today was probably also my last day in the gym for about a month. I realize some time off will do me good, but I confess that the monthlong hiatus worries me. I dread how heavy that bar is going to feel the next time I’m under it. So today’s last workout:


Deadlift 1×5, followed by 3 sets of strict pull ups to failure


15 minute AMRAP

3 deadlifts

6 hand-release push ups

9 lateral jumps over bar

12 overhead walking lunges (25lbs overhead)

It was an enjoyable little WOD. I think next time I’ll trade the lateral jumps for something more definitive though… I saw the movement on another CrossFit site and thought I’d try it, but because it’s just a short hop, it doesn’t feel as satisfyingly explosive as… say, a box jump or even double-unders. I considered subbing in burpee-smashballs, but I figured that might be too harsh on the shoulders following hand-release push-ups.

Also, in my last few days, as I’ve had final dinner/lunch/coffee dates with the people here, I’m realizing how much I’m going to miss everyone. It’s a little silly, since I’ll be back soon, but also not quite because State College is such a transient town and by the time I return I’ll only have a few weeks left with some of these people– or none at all in the case of those that will be leaving while I’m gone. Despite my too-frequent complaints about this city, I’ve definitely discovered its charms… but what I dislike most is the fact that everything feels impermanent. It gives life a feeling of precariousness… at least in my unbalanced mind ;).

Anyway, I’ll be back, most likely with news from the other side of the world.

Stay awesome.

Rx’d “Ideals”

In Training, WOD on May 12, 2012 at 4:22 pm

One of the earliest posts I wrote on this blog was a long-winded Jo-ified rumination on scaling vs rx’d WODs. I wondered why CrossFit workouts prescribed specific weights rather than recommending a percentage of the athlete’s one rep max. This discussion popped up recently on the CrossFit forums, and the general consensus seemed to agree with my suspicions– that CrossFit began regulating weights to make the sport a “competitive” one. Apparently, when CrossFit first emerged, a lot more of the workouts involved percentages rather than prescribed loads. According to the forum discussion, the “prescribed” numbers were conceived with the “elite” athlete in mind. This athlete (male) ideally boasts a 200lb Press, 300lb Clean, 400lb Squat, and 500lb Deadlift. If we scale for women (usually 70% of the men’s weight), the “elite” female CrossFitter has a 140lb Press, a 210lb Clean, a 280lb Squat, and a 350lb Deadlift.

If you’re even close to my size or skill level, or even remotely in the vicinity of a normal human being, those numbers are probably daunting at first. However, I reminded myself and I’ll remind you now that I know a number of athletes who are currently competing at regionals without those numbers.

However, even if we don’t take these as likely or even attainable goals, I think these rough estimations offer a useful perspective. This is purely theoretical on my part, but I want to experiment a bit with this information. For example, if I’m going to try a WOD for its metcon effect rather than a benchmark time, I can get a sense of how much I should scale in order to achieve the same metabolic stimulation. So… if Fran is ideally performed with 65lb thrusters by a woman with a 140 lb press… and I currently have an 85lb strict press, then 85/140 = 60%. 60% of 65 is roughly 40lbs. So… theoretically, if I wanted to do Fran for a metcon rather than to find my true Fran time, I would load the bar with 40lbs.

Anyway… yesterday I took it easy because I was a bit sore following lifting + striking class. I did:

Power Cleans 5×3

Ring Dips 3 x to failure

and the metcon I so enjoy: AMRAP 15 minutes, 100m sprint, 125m row, 20 double-unders


This morning, I went in for the Saturday WOD. We had an unusually large class for a Saturday morning, which was nice to see. We also had a visitor– a woman who used to be a member of Hybrid Athletics (of Rob Orlando fame). Her presence reminded me of both my ambition to and anxiety of visiting other CrossFit boxes. I’m so comfortable in this environment… some part of me still worries that I’ll misrepresent our gym and look like an incompetent idiot the first time I try to WOD in a foreign environment ;). Anyway, I enjoy the relaxed pace of our Saturday mornings, though today’s WOD was super short:

3 rounds for time

400m run

6 Thrusters (105lb/75lb)

8 Ring Pushups

12 Russian Swings (1.5pd/1pd)

My shoulders were still shot from striking… I think I could have done 75lb thrusters one by one, but I scaled to 65 so I could do them without dropping the bar. I figured more strain on my shoulders would’ve been counterproductive for recovery, and slowing too much between movements would’ve defeated the “conditioning” goal for my Saturday.

T-minus 3 days until I leave the country. And my apartment’s still a disaster…


In Training, WOD on May 10, 2012 at 2:57 pm

As of June 1st, I will have been CrossFitting for a year. With my impending anniversary, I’ve been thinking a bit about where I’ve come and where I’d like to go. Since last summer, my strict press has nearly doubled. My deadlift has actually doubled. I’ve gone from band pull-ups to eight strict or twenty-some kipping– though I’m not sure if I can count the latter as entirely unbroken since I do weird half-swings between every two or three kips. I conquered my fear of box jumps and heights rope climbs. I’ve begun to string together double-unders in clusters of ten or twenty… managed pistols, handstand pushups, and switched from a 10lb wall ball at an 8 ft target to Games-standard 14 lbs at 9 ft. Actually, typing this list in itself is pretty rewarding. But the point is that I want to figure out where I want to go from here. I think I’m going to continue my strength emphasis through the summer. Here are my goals for the end of the summer (~August sometime…):


2x bodyweight deadlift (just repped 1.65x for 5 last time, so… hopefully not too far)

1.5x bodyweight squat (did bodyweight for three sets of five across this morning and it felt light… again hoping not too far)

85 lb clean and jerk (right now doing 5×3 at 75, but so much of this is technique-based, that I’m not sure how far I have to go…)


Muscle-up (not sure how far fetched this is…but I can pull chest-to-rings and can dip on the rings. I should work a bit more on strength in both movements, but hopefully most of what I need is to master the turnover)

Smooth out my kips so I can link them more fluidly in all kipping movements (pull-ups, knees-to-elbow, toes-to-bar)

Butterfly pull-ups


Discover the hiking trails in this area!

(If I’m to be a responsible scholar, I should probably think about the non-CrossFit goals like completing my novel revisions and assembling a comps reading list for my PhD… but that requires activating the half of my brain that’s dormant right now)

After August, if I meet my strength goals, I’d like to start working on my endurance again. I’m addressing my strength problems now because it’s very obviously my greatest weakness. But I think, just due to my size and build, it may always be my weakness and once I establish a foundation for that I’d like to cultivate my strengths so that I can be at least the tiniest bit competitive. That goes to bodyweight exercises and endurance. When I first started, the one advantage I had was just that I didn’t stop moving… not because I was masterful at anything or more physically adept than anyone, but because I’m stubborn like that. Unfortunately, flailing skilllessly around wasn’t that useful, so we’re working on strength now. Hopefully this will eventually translate into more dextrous, powerful flailing 😉

I think, theoretically, my ability to persevere should make me an okay runner if I can rehab my IT band and strengthen my legs. So… hopefully I’ll continue to build that explosiveness throughout this strength period and then work on my ability to sustain it in the fall and winter. Granted, this scheduling is not altogether ideal. I’d much rather be running right now, while the weather’s lovely, but there’s pretty much no point for me to work on endurance while my strength has so far to go.

Right now I’m a little irked that, just as I’m about to reach PR territory in these lifts, I’m going to leave on vacation. I mean, one can only be so irked about vacation, but I have no idea what 3 weeks without access to weights will do to my strength gains. I hope to do a 10% reset (decreasing lifts by 10%) when I return and progress back up from there… I welcome any other suggests if this doesn’t seem like a good idea.

Yesterday was a rest day. I went to the gym and rolled out and jogged a few 800m loops. Again, I’m reminded of how much my endurance is suffering because 800m didn’t used to get me winded– especially not at a light pace. But… I’m reminding myself that it’s a sacrifice I’ve chosen to make to address greater weaknesses in my fitness.

Today’s strength work was:

Back Squat: 3×5

Press: 3×5

3 sets of strict pull ups to failure (8,7,6)

Now I’m going to do some reading about material rhetoric until tonight’s striking class. I’ve considered cutting striking from my schedule because it falls on heavy lifting days, but I enjoy it too damn much that I just can’t. Fortunately, the WODs are usually fairly short, and I try to pace myself through them. I know striking is a bit of an anomaly in the CrossFit world and that a lot of gyms actually don’t offer striking, so I’ll write a longer post explaining it next time. In short, it’s MMA-meets-CrossFit. I call it “stress relief for CrossFitters.” Our first class, the Cyborg noticed that I brought a different type of intensity to these workouts, and I consistently find that I naturally adopt that “intensity” when I’m told to hit something… (remember the always angry post?)

I’ve noticed that some people tend to set tangible, concrete goals and work towards those while others just progress casually. I used to shy away from articulating my goals for fear that I wouldn’t hit them… but I’m accepting that, even if I fall short, they give me something to aim for. And I’m not naturally gifted enough to intuit what will help me progress and what will not… What about you? Let’s hear some goals for the summer. Click that comment box!


In Training, WOD on May 8, 2012 at 6:54 pm

Yesterday was a PR type of day. After a lovely brunch with lovely people, I arrived at the box and set a new deadlift 5 rep max, as well as a new thruster 1rm. I’m actually a little disappointed by where I stalled on the thruster 1rm because the bulk of my thruster is still shoulder-driven. I have trouble transferring that power from my legs to the overhead position. It may have something to do with my tendency to press out instead of straight up… I think I’m afraid of clocking myself in the jaw (which I’ve done), though it’s not a conscious fear or adjustment– probably just a motion that I need to pay more attention to.

The WOD was a good one, and probably one I’m going to adopt for my conditioning days throughout my strength-emphasis period:

11 minute AMRAP

6 Thrusters (65/50)

6 burpees over bar

6 Russian kettlebell swings

Thrusters feel like an entirely different motion when they’re light… I’d argue that they’re actually more hellish because you can move quickly enough that they become a conditioning movement instead of a strength exercise. I think when I repeat the WOD in the future, my OCD will compel me to bump the time to a round 12 minutes.

Tuesdays are conditioning-only days based on my current schedule. I was hoping to run 800m repeats, but the State College weather disagreed with me. Luckily, the box had a quick WOD that suited my sub-12-minute metcon goals.


10 false-grip ring rows

8 push-ups

6 pullups

4 clean and jerks (95/65)

[5 Rounds for time]

My false grip kept slipping. I’m getting increasingly frustrated with my muscle-up progress (or lack thereof) because I can pull to the point where I feel all I need is the transition. I’m so close I can almost taste the dip (ha! Pun!) but I just can’t roll my shoulders over the rings. If I had better mind-hip coordination, I should be able to kip over the sticking point (I’d also be able to dance, but I suppose that’s irrelevant), but right now I’m stuck swinging from the rings like a moron.

Though I waxed sentimental in my last post about the merits of training alone, I’m often motivated by company. I like to think I can see the appeal in training with almost anyone. Beside someone who might be a little slower or a little weaker, I feel as if I absolutely cannot slack off; if s/he is in that much more pain, if each motion is so much harder for him/her than it is for me, I have no excuse to drag my ass through it. Obviously, beside a firebreather, I can see where I’d like to go–be inspired by the strength of her movements, by her command of each skill. But these days I’ve been grateful to work out with J1 (we’ve noticed there’s a proliferation of girls at our gym with J names. J-o makes me J-zero, right? We’ll call her J1). Anyway, beyond being an all around awesome gal with a great sense of humor and a general openness that I’ve appreciated, she’s a pretty perfect workout buddy for me. She’s better than me at everything, but I’d like to imagine that I can almost keep up. I’ve noticed that, when I work out alone, I can lose any gauge of how fast I’m really moving. But having J1 around gives me a sense of pace– something to shoot for. She’s fast enough that it inspires me to keep pushing, but not so fast that it leaves me in the dust and I give up on trying to follow. Of course, she’s also nursing a shoulder injury right now. Who knows, when she recovers, maybe I will be coughing up her dust. Let’s hope not ;).

These past two days of programming have also reminded me of the merits of training with lighter weights. I like the idea of dividing strength work and metabolic work. Since I’ve been separating strength and metcon, my WODs are typically conducted as conditioning. Keeping the weights light makes sense… If those clean and jerks had been 95 instead of 65, I would have slowed down enough for my heart rate to drop and it would have become a strength workout awkwardly sandwiched between bodyweight movements.

Happy Monday you all. I’ve spent the whole day in conversation with the English department trying to make life decisions about what I will or will not do with my next four years. Trying to strategize one’s life to form the perfect CV is just frustrating.

If you haven’t already, please consider reading my post about the Ask Athletes’ facebook competition and liking my Facebook comment. Unfortunately, I don’t think I have a shot at this thing unless I resort to obnoxious pursuit of everyone’s help…

That’s My Secret

In General, Training, WOD, Writing on May 6, 2012 at 3:43 pm

Saturday’s conditioning work was actually a hero that’s topped my wishlist for a while.

Rahoi: 12 Minute AMRAP (As Many Rounds As Possible)

12 Box Jumps (24″/20″)

6 Thrusters (95/65)

6 Bar facing burpees

I realize it’s not a particularly heavy hero, but it still feels nice to be able to Rx the weight for a hero WOD. I also particularly enjoyed yesterday because I got to work out with a few friends I haven’t seen in a while just due to scheduling chaos. It’s remarkable how much more fun a workout can feel in the right company. Don’t underestimate this one– it’s only 12 minutes, but Rahoi packs a sneaky punch. The trio of explosive moments gets exhausting quickly. By the third round, that bar felt unusually high to jump over.

Today was more strength work:

Back Squat: 3×5

Bench Press: 3×5

Dips: 3 sets to failure. I’m up to 3 sets of 10 on the dip station, so I think I’m going to move to the rings to add instability, and hope that helps me build towards the ever-elusive muscle-up.

Then, a quick metcon. Have you ever started a workout and realized two movements in that you want to be doing something entirely different? I was going to repeat the WOD I tried a couple weeks ago (1o rounds of 3 front squats @ 65 lbs, 100m sprint, 60 second rest), but after the first round, I decided that each segment of the round felt too short. I wanted something slightly less ADD today. I’m sure I’ll regret saying this the moment I get to commit to endurance work in earnest, but for right now I really miss longer, focused workouts (as opposed to short bursts). So… still keeping it within a “sprint” framework, I revised my workout to the following:

5 front squats at 65 lbs (Power clean from the ground)

400m run

2 minutes rest between rounds

Felt great. I have to confess that I’m pretty shamefully behind on my work right now because I did nothing  yesterday but read all of book one of The Hunger Games and watch The Avengers movie. I make it a point at the start of each summer to read something less self-consciously “literary” than the stuff I read all semester. I actually don’t have anything against either camp– the “genre” fiction, or the “literary” register… they’re composed differently with different audiences in mind. I can enjoy both, though during the semester, I tend to miss the exhilaration of being able to consume an entire novel in one day. While I can (and have in a pre-seminar panic) fly through an entire volume of Pynchon in one afternoon, it leaves me feeling drained and headachey whereas… spending an entire day visiting Panem’s dystopia just provides a thoroughly satisfying adrenaline rush. I’m now trying to hold off on the latter two Hunger Games books until my trip to Taiwan so I have some good airplane material… somehow, I don’t think rhetorical scholarship will be as good company during a 13 hour flight (not counting the other 10 hours I’m spending on two slightly shorter flights and in three different airports– State College, Detroit, L.A…

If you’ll bear with me, I’m about to launch on a long bout of self-analysis. This is where those of you just here for the fun CrossFit tidbits can sneak off ;). Actually, I’m about to conflate some exercise philosophy with teaching experience, with comic book trivia, and some overly personal confessions– that should give you some insight as to the strange matrix of interests and experiences that informs my worldview. It’s strange to be inside my head.* Anyway buckle up–we’re about to get crazy.

There’s an article I love by Henry Rollins called “Iron and the Soul.” It’s oft quoted and often abused in service of poor arguments, but it’s a beautiful meditation on strength and training. Here are some of my favorite excerpts:

I have never met a truly strong person who didn’t have self-respect. I think a lot of inwardly and outwardly directed contempt passes itself off as self-respect: the idea of raising yourself by stepping on someone’s shoulders instead of doing it yourself. When I see guys working out for cosmetic reasons, I see vanity exposing them in the worst way, as cartoon characters, billboards for imbalance and insecurity. Strength reveals itself through character.

Muscle mass does not always equal strength. Strength is kindness and sensitivity. Strength is understanding that your power is both physical and emotional. That it comes from the body and the mind. And the heart.

Yukio Mishima said that he could not entertain the idea of romance if he was not strong. Romance is such a strong and overwhelming passion, a weakened body cannot sustain it for long. I have some of my most romantic thoughts when I am with the Iron. Once I was in love with a woman. I thought about her the most when the pain from a workout was racing through my body.

Everything in me wanted her. So much so that sex was only a fraction of my total desire. It was the single most intense love I have ever felt, but she lived far away and I didn’t see her very often. Working out was a healthy way of dealing with the loneliness. To this day, when I work out I usually listen to ballads.

I prefer to work out alone.

It enables me to concentrate on the lessons that the Iron has for me. Learning about what you’re made of is always time well spent, and I have found no better teacher. The Iron had taught me how to live. Life is capable of driving you out of your mind. The way it all comes down these days, it’s some kind of miracle if you’re not insane. People have become separated from their bodies. They are no longer whole.

I believe that when the body is strong, the mind thinks strong thoughts. Time spent away from the Iron makes my mind degenerate. I wallow in a thick depression. My body shuts down my mind.

The Iron is the best antidepressant I have ever found. There is no better way to fight weakness than with strength. Once the mind and body have been awakened to their true potential, it’s impossible to turn back.

The Iron never lies to you. You can walk outside and listen to all kinds of talk, get told that you’re a god or a total bastard. The Iron will always kick you the real deal. The Iron is the great reference point, the all-knowing perspective giver. Always there like a beacon in the pitch black. I have found the Iron to be my greatest friend. It never freaks out on me, never runs. Friends may come and go. But two hundred pounds is always two hundred pounds.

So Rollins (a bit like me) has a penchant for hyperbole. But the sentiment resonates with me. Though I don’t technically prefer to work out alone (and often miss the company when I do it too often), sometimes I love these Sunday mornings when the box is silent and it’s just me and the bar (and the Mean Machine or Jefe vacuuming somewhere 😉 ). These mornings are the only time I can feel my thoughts slow down. I overthink everything; I know. I’m overly sensitive and spend too much time inside my head. These mornings, I can narrow my world to just the pounds of iron and rubber in front of me. I can erase everything but the next five reps, the next 400m loop, the next 12 minutes before the clock sounds and calls me back to earth.

And the thing is… some mornings I shatter PRs, sometimes I fall drastically short. But it’s not about that. I find these sessions satisfactory regardless of the total weight lifted or the time of each round. I spend so much of my time dealing with abstractions and theory that there’s something profoundly comforting about the reality of the gym. Here I’m rewarded for my efforts, struck down when I’m overeager or overambitious. Here, I can try and dream, but two hundred pounds is two hundred pounds and if I don’t have the strength and mass to move it, I won’t.

I wrote a difficult email this week to a student who protested the A- she received in my creative writing course. I struggled with it because… she’s been a fairly diligent student. She’s obviously done the reading, turned in everything on time, and attended office hours. She answers questions in class and cares about her grade. Unfortunately, writing is not her thing. In fact, I was rather proud of how far she’d come throughout the semester– from writing almost purely expository essays to at least understanding the concept of a scene vs summary. But her characters were single-dimensional, her conflicts buried or nonexistant… I couldn’t in good conscience give her an A when I’d held her peers to a certain standard for the quality of their work… She’d argued in her email that she tried. She mentioned nothing about the final product, but that she put in so much effort. I accounted for that effort in her participation grade– balanced out her quiz scores and figured out extra credit opportunities that would improve her course average. But it’s also an awful fact of life that… the end product still matters. Her process was fine… given another year of this effort, I could actually see her writing A stories. But… she’s not there yet. Yes, grading writing is very subjective, but contrary to many accusations, it’s not as if we’re throwing darts to determine grades… All good writing instructors I know have thoughtful approaches to their grading and they evaluate based on a set of standards for what the piece does or does not achieve. But I wanted to tell this student that I was sorry… that I understood, that I felt like I’d failed her somehow for not helping her get there faster, but that she should still take pride somehow in how much she’s achieved this semester. Strangely, at this time, all I could think about was how the gym has taught me that… effort isn’t everything. I can yank on the bar all I want, but a 135lb clean is still well beyond my reach. It will take a lot of patience, a lot of intelligent training, a lot of recovery and nutrition, etc to get me to that point. And when I’m ready, hopefully, someday I’ll drop below 135lbs and bear it up across my shoulders. But there’s no… “I tried.” The Iron doesn’t give a damn.

And yes, Henry Rollins, that is my antidepressant too. The greatest comfort I can find in the harsh realities of life is the reification of it in something I can touch, can lift– or fail at lifting, whatever the case is that morning.

My friends who do yoga talk about the revelatory moments they’ve had during stretches or poses where all the tension, all the trauma of their past releases and they just can’t stop crying. I’ve found similar moments in WODs… a few of them. The WOD I talked about with The Cyborg– back when I could scarcely front squat 65lbs and he coached me through 12 rounds of 4 reps each minute followed by V-ups. More recently, 12.3, which I conducted a lone on a Saturday after I returned from a AWP (a writer’s conference) in Chicago. Sometimes, in “digging deep,” I unearth more than I intended. Like Rollins, I find working out as a way to deal with feelings of isolation, frustration, inadequacy… Sometimes something snaps and each movement feels like an exorcism… the burn becomes a slow bleeding out of the toxins I’ve unconsciously imbibed.

Then we get to the geekiest reference in this post… if you’ve seen the Avengers movie (not-much-of-a-spoiler alert), the skittish (and very well-acted) Bruce Banner (The Hulk) eventually says “That’s my secret… I’m always angry.” Randomly, throughout my life and in very different groups of friends, I’ve always drawn many references to The Hulk. I think mostly people find humor in the irony of imagining a 5’3″ Asian girl converting into a colossal, florescent-green tank of rage. But the thing is… there’s a little more truth to it than that. I mean, I don’t have an invulnerable, radiation-induced alter ego (though how cool would that be), and I’m not constantly angry. But I feel like I’m constantly… contained. It’s not a feeling I’ve always had– more like something slowly accumulated in the past couple years of trying to become an “adult.” I’ve always had a penchant for overexpression. I attach very easily and completely to people. I want to state everything with probably too much honesty (hence… the blog). But I’ve slowly accepted that mostly that doesn’t work in real-world settings. That, as we get older, people become more reserved, more protected. And a lot of our interactions are dictated by more social forces and precautions than I care to tally. But that leads often to me feeling… silenced. I suppose “the iron” is my way of working through that– so that, unlike Bruce, I don’t become constantly angry. But it’s why, when I spend too long away from the gym, I start to feel edgy– breakable… perhaps about to morph into hullking green terror.I don’t suppose that’s a healthy state of being and I’m trying to figure out a way to be more balanced. Perhaps this is a stage we must all progress through? Or… at least one that I must before I find more stability. Until then… I’ll try to keep it to more productive smashing.



* It occurs to me if I actually had to paint the landscape of the inside of my head, it would be an hazy assemblage of Minas Tirith, Gotham, and Stormhold. My mindscape would be frequently visited by the Fellowship, the Justice League, and the Avengers. Occasionally, it would be raided by the Joker. Also, there would be an arctic training facility a la Rocky IV, and every morning, Rocky and I would conduct focus mitt rounds to Eye of the Tiger.

Shameless Self-Promotion

In General on May 4, 2012 at 12:25 pm

Well… I’m trying not to use this site as my own pulpit (not too much, anyway), but I couldn’t resist this small opportunity. My box, CrossFit LionHeart is participating in the May Madness competition run by Ask Athletes. The premise is this: individuals post 4 sentences on the Ask Athletes’ facebook page about why they would like the free membership. The posts with the most “likes” wins a free month’s membership, funded by Ask Athletes.

I’ve posted my four sentences here: (I believe I’m comment #52ish, or close…)

This fall, I will downgrade my living space to a basement studio in order to keep paying my gym fees. It was not a difficult choice. CrossFit LionHeart has helped me reclaim my body from years of abuse and neglect; the coaches, the athletes, and the community inspire me daily to shed my limitations and to have faith in my abilities. If I could blanket myself in the rubber floor mats and wake to the alarm of the wall timer, I would—because no other place has ever felt this much like home.

I think I’ll use this space for a little more justification. I hesitated before posting because I’m… not actually sure that I deserve a free membership. I’ve been a member since the gym’s opening and I visit it on a daily basis– just to hang around sometimes. The amount of time I spend abusing their hospitality and patience probably means that I should pay more. However, I’m hoping that the box also has something to gain from its participation in this competition (perhaps even just increased visibility?), and at the very least the gym knows that I’m not going to take the free month and run. With at least four more years left in State College, I’m going to be a constant there, whether they like it or not. And, of course, I’m not going to pretend there’s not a great deal of selfishness in this pursuit. Who doesn’t like free things? I’ve been feeling a little guilty about my spending habits this month, as the trip to Taiwan (May 15-30!!!) has ripped a significant chunk from my savings. I started my MFA unaware that I’d eventually choose to pursue a PhD. The idea of spending 6 years on a grad student’s salary isn’t particularly appealing to me, but I didn’t exactly go into English for the glory and money ;).

I’ve also at times felt guilty for the amount of time I spend at the box. I worry that I’m in the way or a nuisance… but I stay because it’s the first place in State College where I felt visible or empowered. If I’m going to be entirely honest here, I came to State College at a weird time in my life, following some major familial issues and interpersonal conflicts. I’d resorted to exercise as a form of self-flagellation, in a way… It was cathartic because it hurt because I wasn’t allowing myself to think about the other things that hurt. This CrossFit gym– its observant and understanding coaches– were the ones who brought me out of my unhealthy routine. After graduating college, I spent six months in New York City and encountered a real-world beating that I needed but wasn’t ready for. Afterwards, I moved to State College– degraded, demoralized, and pathetic. The box was the first place where I saw myself as capable of anything. Confronting fears like box jumps and rope climbs (heights!) reminded me what it felt like to be strong— reminded me that fortitude comes from within, and that I have to stand on my own rather than waiting for someone to come along to prop me up. And even so… as I staggered on my trembling knees, the community formed my safety net. The trainers and the athletes here supported me when I needed it– and yelled at me too, when I didn’t know I needed it.

This past week, I conducted my MFA thesis reading for the completion of my degree. Traditionally, MFA candidates read excerpts from their theses for a small audience. Most MFAs invite family members. Mine couldn’t attend. I received a few odd critiques from peers in my department that I had invited CrossFitters to my reading– that, instead of parents or siblings, I had the friends with whom I grind out thrusters and pull-ups each morning. But these people have pried my sobbing, trembling body off the ground. They’ve helped me bind ripped hands and torn shins. They’ve caught me when I staggered, nudged me forward when I strayed, and pulled me back when I stumbled too close to the edge. If that’s not family… what is?

Trust Me

In General, Training on May 4, 2012 at 10:40 am

I realized only a few hours after last post that revising my schedule would be stupid. I put the two heavy lift days on open gym days intentionally so I could find a spotter if/when I needed one. I should be back to this schedule:

Thursday: Squat 5×3, Press 5×3, Pullups 3 sets to failure

Friday: Power Cleans 3×5, Dips 3 sets to failure, Conditioning

Saturday: Conditioning

Sunday: Squat 3×5, Bench 3×5, Dips 3 sets to failure

Monday: Deadlift 1×5, 3 sets of Pullups to failure, Conditioning

Tuesday: Conditioning or Skill Work (on weeks when I feel strong, I use this day to practice lighter snatches)

Wednesday: Off

To get myself back on schedule, I didn’t do any lifting yesterday. Instead, I made up that partner WOD with Scotchy. It was a fun time, and not too exhausting. I’m a horrible shot with a medball to begin with, though, so the part about throwing it over the rig took some practice. Luckily, I had a patient partner who laughed at my frequent occasional misfires and steadily returned it back to me each time.

Since I started the morning with cleans, I thought I’d post some O-lift related advice. As my cleans have gotten heavier, I’ve noticed that lowering the bar becomes increasingly difficult. While I just drop it between power cleans, sometimes I’ve tried different series of hang cleans or snatches that require strategic lowering of up to 75% of my bodyweight from overhead to thigh, oftentimes wrenching my shoulder in the process. This article offers some helpful advice. I suppose it should be intuitive, but… like most things with fitness, I need the obvious stated outright:

When lowering the bar from overhead after a snatch, the athlete will begin by slowly bending the arms under control to bring the bar down as low as can be managed in this position. At this point, he or she will quickly flip the elbows from under to over the bar, keeping it as close to the body as possible. The clean will begin with this flipping of the elbows from under to over the bar. As the elbows flip over, he or she will pop up onto the toes or jump slightly to meet the bar with the thighs, absorbing the force by dropping back to the heels and bending the knees. The thighs will also create somewhat of a shelf to catch the weight and reduce the strain on the grip. From here, the weight can be lowered in the same manner as a deadlift. To further reduce the height from which the bar must drop, the athlete may choose to dip slightly at the knees while bending the elbows prior to jumping up to meet the bar.

The movement of the elbows makes me think of a reverse clean or a reverse snatch– as opposed to a vertical drop– and I never thought to catch the bars with my thighs.

The cleans felt light this morning, which is remarkable to me because they’re now 5×3 at 20lbs heavier than my old 1rm. I’d attribute that all to strength gains, but it’s not. My cleans should have always been stronger, they’ve also just historically sucked. I was thinking a lot today about how much– at least for me– CrossFit has been about learning to trust your own body. Perhaps because of my athletic inexperience, perhaps just as a product of my own personality, I’ve often been limited by confidence issues. I mean, yes, I wiped out on my first box jump– but for the next month, every hesitation occurred before my feet even left the ground. It wasn’t that Icouldn’t land on the box, it was that I didn’t believe I could. Similarly, I didn’t attempt a rope climb for the first month after we strung up the ropes just because I assumed they were beyond my capabilities. But the first time I actually approached the rope and gave it an honest effort, I discovered I could. I think, for those first awful months of failed cleans, I’d failed the lift before I even touched the bar. To be fair, my form was hideous and probably not suitable for hoisting anything off the ground, but still… after a few crappy tries, I convinced myself that the weight was too heavy and that I’d never get it back up. I plateaued at that one rep max for an absurdly long time. But ever since I broke the plateau, I’ve been able to steadily increase the weight every week… and rather than the weight feeling heavy, it feels like my body playing catch-up, like this is what I should have been able to do all along.

But a lot of movements in CrossFit are an act of faith in your own capabilities. After  the second pull of the snatch, you have to drop with full confidence that you can catch however tens or hundreds of pounds you’ve launched into the air. If you watch an athlete, you can see it– the slightest hesitation and he’ll sink too late or not enough. The weight will fall before he does, levering his arms askew, crashing to the rubber mats. Even smaller movements. You bend your elbows in the push-up or the dip with the prayer that you can push yourself back up.

I’m discovering how much CrossFit– or perhaps any form of athletic practice– teaches us to read our bodies… to know when that ache means you’re working and when it means you’ve reached your limit. You learn how loudly your body can scream before it chokes. You learn to find that apex– that peak where everything’s on fire, where your body burns and your lungs wail, and the adrenaline pumps so fast through your body that the world moves in slow motion. And hopefully you learn to stop before you fly over the edge.

Because I’m doing a strength program that doesn’t recommend lifting until failure, I’ve been doing some reading about different philosophies and why certain trainers advocate training to failure and others don’t. It seems like the methodology suits certain individuals better than others. Some bodies respond well to failure– others tear to the point that they inhibit recovery. Personally I like the avoidance because, though my strength keeps increasing, I don’t reach a soreness that impedes my performance the next day. But I’m also glad I had those few months when I did lift until failure each time (with good spotters, of course). I think athletes could benefit from knowing that feeling– from learning where your breaking point is so you have the confidence to push until you can’t… to understand your body and its signals enough that you can tell it to shut the hell up when it’s just being whiny, and can attend to its needs when it’s genuinely suffering.

… well that’s enough Jo philosophizing for today. Happy AVENGERS movie release day!