Use it or lose it

Ding ding ding. In many CrossFit gyms around the country, there is a bell you ring when you hit a personal record (or a PR). When you squat 10 pounds more than you ever have. When you shave four seconds off of your Fran time. When you get your first double under. Why are these milestones special and what do they mean to you as an athlete?

Yesterday’s workout seemed not to be too bad. But I have been CrossFitting long enough to realize that this probably meant pain. Oh well. Get it done. I got home late due to some unexpected issues at the hospital, so I started off around 1800 with my warmup. Done with my warmup, I got after the first series. This was a training cycle focusing on moderate weight snatches. After a 10 minute walk, the second series was the CrossFit open 11.1, a 10 minute AMRAP of 30 double unders and 15 power snatches at 75#. I was pretty tired after this effort. Another 10 minute walk, and the final series was working up to one heavy deadlift. My lifetime maximum is somewhere around 365 and my recent PR (in November) was 325. I got 205, then 255, then 285. Each of these felt pretty easy. I went for 315 and I pulled it up with no problem. Finally, I set up 355 (having run out of plates I had to hang kettle bells from the ends of the bar), and stood it up, more easily than I would have imagined. It was only then that I noticed I had not even put on a weight belt. I set up 375 and tried a couple times, but no go.

But going from 325 to 355 was huge! I texted Chris immediately and he was very excited also. Was this a pure strength gain? Probably not. I am sure there was a good deal of neurologic training involved. But it felt incredibly good to get that amount of weight up again. I am focused on 405 now. That will definitely be a lifetime record.

So that brings me to another topic, and that is gain maintenance. Last summer when I was training for selection week in the unit I am now working with, I spent several weeks working on my ability to carry heavy ruck loads, to perform short, intense workouts, and to tolerate the heat and humidity that I would be experiencing. While I made great progress and was ultimately successful, I did not maintain that progress. A few months later I shifted my focus to strength and followed a Wendler program for several months. I again saw some strength gains but watched my conditioning progress slide.

That pretty much exemplifies my frustration with the training I have pursued over the past several years. I gain in strength and lose in conditioning. I gain weight and feel out of shape. Then I lose weight, lose some of the strength gains, get a bit faster, but have more trouble with heavier loads. Occasionally I will make inroads on certain gymnastic moves such as hand stand pushups, but if I do not work on them daily, I lose them.

That is, in essence, what caused me to seek out Chris. I told him that I am tired of falling back to square one. His programming is targeting my weaknesses, so I am hopeful that over the next year, and in the coming years, I will see a steady forward progress in all areas.

One of the first things he did was collect a bunch of information about me. I gave him some of my workout times for standard workouts such as Grace, Fran, and so on. If these are unfamiliar to you, look up CrossFit benchmark workouts. They will make more sense. His analysis is that right now, I actually have a reasonable amount of aerobic fitness, despite my body mass, but my major weakness is, well, weakness. For example, he pointed out that my Fran time of around 8 minutes (it has been a while since I did it) is limited by the fact that the 95# thrusters are so close to my maximum weight I can handle for that movement. If it was a smaller percentage, I would be able to storm through it faster and rely more on my aerobic conditioning to get me through, but right now, I am redlining my strength on almost each repetition, which slows me way down.

So what does this mean in terms of general principles, in terms of what would be useful to anyone? I think the following principle would apply.

Principle #2. Identify what limits your ability to perform and then train that area specifically. For me at this time, it means focusing on strength. Body composition is a big concern of mine, as I feel the need to decrease body fat percentage an increase muscle mass to be able to lift heavier weight faster and have a lower bodyweight to improve my bodyweight only movements. As they say in endurance sports, it is all about power to weight ratio. I have to increase my power and decrease my bodyweight to improve my performance.

I think another vital component to this process is to keep track of your successes. Do not lose sight of them. Record them somewhere that you can see on a regular basis and make sure you do not give them up. It takes a serious amount of work to achieve a PR and it is very frustrating to make progress, hit the milestone, and then lose it again.

The idea behind CrossFit is that by following the training methodology, you will make progress in multiple areas simultaneously. You will main gains in deadlifts by doing cleans. You will make gains in pull ups by doing kettle bell swings. And so on. But my bias is that you need to spot check yourself from time to time. They call them benchmark workouts for a reason. So if you have not checked your Grace time in three years, how do you know what your baseline fitness is doing? It does not mean that you train clean and jerk exclusively; the entire idea is to avoid specializing. But if your deadlift maximum has dropped by 60#, as mine had done, you have to sit back and ask yourself what is happening? What principles of progress am I violating? In my case, I think it was probably a combination of not eating enough (I was cutting down to about 2000 calories per day, trying to lose body fat) and overtraining (in Bagram I was working out 2 and sometimes three times per day until I got sick).

The plan now is as follows:

  1. Eat sufficiently to support muscular growth. I am experimenting with 2700 – 3000 calories per day (I currently weigh 220#), with 40% fat, 20% carbs, and 40% protein. I know most experts suggest a 30/40/30 split (e.g. The Zone diet), while some propose a ketogenic diet (almost completely avoiding carbs), but as a start a 40/20/40 diet seems to be something I can fairly easily accomplish with foods I enjoy.
  2. Supplement minimally with proven supplements. Aside from the protein powder I use to increase my protein intake daily, my other supplements are 5 gm of creatine (2.5 gm in the morning and 2.5 gm in the evening), 5 gm of fish oil (3 gm in the morning and 2 gm in the evening), and a sport multivitamin. I take these supplements regardless of whether I am on a recovery or a workout day, as the same metabolic processes need to be supported.
  3. Optimize my sleep. I am trying to get at least 8 hours of good sleep per night. That is not always possible, but that is the goal. I tried Dr. Parsley’s sleep cocktail last night for the first time, and I can say I did get a restful night of sleep. About 15 – 20 minutes after taking it, I was ready to close my eyes and I drifted off easily. Maybe true, true, and unrelated, but we shall see. I also used the Sleep Cycles app on my iPhone for the second night to document my sleep quality and quantity. Finally, I have a request in to a colleague to discuss a sleep study, to see if apnea is contributing to poor sleep.
  4. Exercise with intensity. One of the hardest things I have had to do was learn to let go of the volume mentality. Lowest effective dose is the term Chris uses. I have seen this concept in many other good, reputable books. And it makes sense. If I can build the body and the physical capacity I need for my job in three thirty minute workouts per week, why would I exercise four, five, or six times per week, or for longer? The answer is (a) because it is fun, (b) because it makes me feel tough, and (c) because then I cannot blame lack of effort on any failure to achieve whatever goals I have established. If I cannot walk into the gym and give 100% effort, I am not ready to work out. It is time to focus on more recovery. Better eating. More rest. That is very, very hard.

Well, that is all for today. We will see where this journey takes me. But at least I can say I can deadlift over 350# again.



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