the spaz of fitness has arrived

Lessons from an Injured Jo

In Training on May 9, 2013 at 5:28 pm

Brace yourselves: Jo’s angry again. Mostly at herself, a little at CrossFit. A lot disappointed in both.

It’s been about three weeks since my injury, and the recovery has gone well. The referred pain has stopped, as well as the obnoxious aches that accompanied daily activities. Now it’s isolated to a single muscle that I must have abused terribly on that last deadlift. I’ve learned a few things from this experience that I think bear repeating:

1) Treat mobility as part of your training. We all have time for 20 minute AMRAPs or two-a-day WODs but somehow that time disappears when it comes to foam rolling, stretching, and flexibility work. Stop making excuses. If you’re serious enough about your training to commit to “going hard” 5-6 days a week, you should be serious enough to treat your recovery with equal respect. I’ve done a minimum of 30 minutes of mobility work every day since the injury and the difference has been phenomenal. I’m positive that it’s helped my back recover, but beyond that… I’m not nearly as sore as I used to be. The daily pains that accompany being a CrossFitter have diminished… If I push myself particularly hard and think that I’ll regret it the next day, I devote some extra mobility work that evening and am pleasantly surprised the next day when I wake with minimal soreness.

2) Taking a few weeks off won’t turn you into a pile of useless slush. You all know I probably have even more of a psychosis than the average CrossFitter, where rest sounds like a condemnation. I won’t lie– having to respect the fragility of my back has been frustrating. I haven’t deadlifted, squat cleaned or snatched close to my max for three weeks. I’ve slowed down all of my metcons to avoid aggravating the injury. But as I slowly ramp back up with my recovery, I’m finding that my “fitness” hasn’t really suffered– and, in fact, might actually benefit from the extra attention to movement virtuosity.

3) Virtuosity. This is a big one for me– something I harp on a lot. This is also the source of my anger. Let me explain.

I had a short session with a strength coach today, who generously offered to look over my deadlift form after the injury. So, as it turns out, I’ve been doing it all wrong. One of my few points of “pride” in my CrossFit career is a deadlift above 2x my bodyweight. But I’d like to retract all my boasting. My lift, it seems, involves mostly levering up the weight with my back. I use pathetically little legs in my deadlift. Though I’m pretty confident that I can (or could– past tense) lift over 230 with train-wreck form, with “proper” form, I couldn’t even get 145lbs off the ground. Because the first part of the lift actually should rely much more on the legs, and because my legs are so tragically understrong, I couldn’t even get the bar to my knees today. Granted, my back felt a lot better. I actually felt a lot more stable than I usually do during my deadlift. But… my “best lift” is now suddenly my worst lift. I wonder how long it will take to train back up. But this explains how my deadlift numbers could skyrocket without affecting my squat… I’ve just been pulling with all back. Apparently I’ve been unconsciously “skipping leg day.”

I’m furious with myself because I should have known to rebuild my foundation long ago. I’m frustrated with CrossFit because I feel like we’ve cultivated a culture in which this can happen. Again, I know I’m in the minority. I stumbled into a CrossFit gym as a sedentary idiot who had no idea what she was doing. Most people already knew how to breathe when they lift things… most people in tune with their bodies probably accumulate tension naturally when they approach a bar. My body’s an idiot. It never occurred to me that breathing was a crucial component of lifting. I never thought to build tension in places other than the muscles directly affected by the lift.

I’ve been a very vocal defender of CrossFit– speaking out against all the criticisms that we’re a bunch of reckless morons running ourselves into the ground. But there is a sort of worrisome culture of that in CrossFit. I’ve had the fortune of visiting a few powerlifting and weightlifting (Olympic) gyms, and from what I’ve seen of their methodologies, they would have never let a bumbling trainee like me add weight to the bar before perfecting my technique. There’s a reason the CrossFit movement standards are laughable to most powerlifters and weightlifters. If you watched the judge’s instructional video for the Open, the “snatch” didn’t even have to be a snatch– it should more properly be defined as “any way overhead.” An embarrassing video circulated over YouTube during the Open, promoted by the Games Facebook page, of a CrossFit athlete performing a “snatch” in which he fell onto his knees and then stood back up with the weight. “Good rep!”

I understand that the movement standards for competition are designed so that judges can very clearly and easily count reps. And I also understand that it’s actually not that harmful a choice in most CrossFit competitions because the professional athletes at the top of their game perform these movements with fantastic technique 99% of the time and only get sloppy sometimes at the end of workouts in competition. However, it does send a poor message to the general population. Is HQ really that surprised that there were so many disqualified videos this year if we create a world in which our “standards” endorse sloppy movements?

Training with Coach has opened my eyes to a lot of this. I’m trying to clean up everything that I’ve done messily for years– unfortunately, everything is messy, from my kips to my barbell work– let’s not even talk about the Olympic lifts. But it’s also eye-opening what a difference it makes. Coach has been trying to get me to do my butterfly kips with straight legs. “Straight legs?” you say, “but Chris Spealler teaches it with a bicycle kick! And it looks so pretty!” And it does, and that was how I learned it. It’s been frustrating trying to wrestle my uncoordinated self into submission and to maintain a tight body throughout the butterfly kip, but I’ve discovered how efficient the movement becomes that way. It’s a lot less fatiguing, and… a lot less jarring. One of the big problems I had with learning any kipping movement in the beginning was that they made my shoulders ache– the weight of your body crashing down on your shoulders again and again is just a lot to handle. But smoothing out the kip to eliminate excess movement also reduces that impact– at least, that’s my inexpert analysis.

So here’s the thing… I still maintain that CrossFit is fantastic, fun, and healthy done correctly. But because we’ve made a “sport” of fitnessing, we also get caught up in the competitive spirit of it. We want to see those numbers go up and the times go down, even if we’re just competing with ourselves. I think by making fitness a game, CrossFit really opens up the world of fitness to a lot of individuals who would otherwise never touch a barbell. But I think we also need to emphasize the importance of movement virtuosity even as we encourage the classic firebreathing CrossFit state-of-mind.

I’m… relieved, mostly, that I didn’t injure myself worse before realizing that my technique was all wrong. I’m appalled that I’ve been wrenching up 200+ pounds on a regular basis with a curved spine. I’m so angry at myself for being completely blind to all this, and for ignoring the importance of movement integrity. I’m also concerned about CrossFit as a sport in that it creates some environments in which these things are passable– not all CrossFit gyms, mind you… there are many fantastic, knowledgeable, and attentive coaches in CrossFit… but because we’re based in community and most of our learning happens in group environments, it also falls upon the individual to recognize when s/he needs help. In turn, responsible coaches and facilities should be sure to stress that– the importance of self-monitoring… and, in an ideal world, they could offer  opportunities for members’ self improvement– I like that some gyms out there have “office hours” where members can come in and consult a coach on personal weaknesses, or others offer specific seminars to address each of the many niches that CrossFit has consumed– weightlifting, gymnastics, powerlifting…

I don’t mind sucking. But I hate wasting time, and what crushes me most about this is that I’ve spent years digging my own grave– not just stagnating, but actually establishing negative habits that I now have to break. I’m trying to be patient through all this… at least I’ve figured it out now, at least I know where I need to progress from here– even if “here” is more of a “square negative three” than “square one.”

Addendum: If you really think about it, this is what CrossFit is supposed to be: functional fitness. At its core, we’re supposed to be teaching people how to move things and themselves safely and efficiently… Let’s not lose sight of that.

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