Archive for October, 2011

Livestrong takes on CrossFit

Posted: October 26, 2011 in Uncategorized

Somehow I missed the month-old post at Livestrong on CrossFit, called “The Fall of Fitness?” As the title indicates, the initial discussion, as well as the pullout quote, would leave the casual reader (in other words, the majority of people who scan the headline and first couple of paragraphs of the story) that CrossFit will hurt you and should be avoided. To be fair, if you read the entire article, it doesn’t actually say that, but there are plenty of studies out there that will tell you that few people will read that far.

The author begins with a dramatic account of an athlete that experiences rhabdo. CrossFit has been doing a lot to increase awareness of the problem, and, yes, it is a very serious problem when it occurs. However, beginning an article with an uncommon scenario (and one not limited to this particular form of fitness training) is going to leave the reader with a mistaken impression of the overall fitness program.

In “Strategic Copy Editing” by John Russial, a classic text on shaping stories on journalism, Russial notes:

Researchers have found that people remember anecdotes and examples better than they remember facts and that the impressions they take from anecdotes can significantly influence their view of the story. Stories should not appear to be taking sides, either by failing to provide one side or by their structure.

The italics are mine. I believe that this article, by beginning with the serious but relatively uncommon experience of Ryan Palmer’s Rhabdo, and the headline, “The Fall of Fitness,” does not fairly represent CrossFit in the way the story is structured. I was rather surprised by that, as the email link I got for the story was entitled “An Inside Look at CrossFit.”

The second anecdote told, after the huge pullout quote which unfortunately likens CrossFit to the Mafia, is a much fairer beginning, as it’s a very common occurrence for people.

A little more than a year ago, I pulled up to a garage one evening ready to get my ass kicked. I wanted to try a CrossFit workout. I’d heard the rumors. I knew what was coming was probably more than I could handle—and that not even my athletic background as a gymnast, weightlifter, running back or point guard would prepare me. So, I ate a light dinner that wouldn’t taste horrible if I ended up hurling it onto my sneakers after overworking myself. And I sucked up my fear.

Not my experience, but I am not your typical CrossFitter. However, this anecdote gives a fairer view of the typical first time CrossFit, and it’s one that some people would say “Oh, cool,” and someone like me would say “Hell, no.”  The rhabdo story is important to include, but to start out with it (and the Mafia quote) misrepresents the overall CrossFit experience (at least in my opinion).

I’m not saying that the article doesn’t have some legitimate criticisms; many of them are things I’ve addressed in this blog. For example, the article makes a great point here:

If most gyms struggle to have their patrons work hard enough, CrossFit gyms struggle on the opposite end of the spectrum. Searching for the words “pain” and “CrossFit” on Twitter yields hundreds of results, nearly every one praising the sting the workout provides. “There’s pushing an athlete to the point of discomfort that is challenging,” says Joe Dowdell, founder and CEO of Peak Performance in New York City. “But then we pull the reigns back. Vomiting is a sign that you’ve hit a point when it’s just too much.”

Again, my take on Pukey the Clown is that he should avoided, and scaling back should not be resisted. The model, in and of itself, is cooperative, but there’s a lot of competitiveness that works against common sense.

Another well-taken point is the following section of the article. Unfortunately, it’s way down the page, and should probably have been brought up earlier to avoid the appearance that the article is going to essentially say “CrossFit will hurt you, bad, man.”

This much is certain: When done correctly, CrossFit is not inherently bad or ineffective. Like other training methodologies before it, CrossFit is a form of high intensity exercise, an efficient model of exercise that has helped many people lose weight while improving strength and endurance. But due to its extensive popularity, many CrossFit gyms have diluted the system. Just as some first-time CrossFit athletes rush into overdoing exercises in a fatigued state and, thus, falter in form, CrossFit coaches and affiliates are rushing into setting up CrossFit gyms and are, thus, faltering in form.

The problems stem from inexperienced trainers. CrossFit level-1 trainers are certified after completing a two-day seminar and 50-multiple-choice-question exam. That’s all you need to open up a CrossFit gym and start training as many athletes as you want.

So the individual coach determines whether you’ll have a positive experience or not? Gee, wish I’d thought of that.


If you made it through my very long last post, you’ll know I went to see a woman about a knee.

More particularly, I went to see my physical therapist, Stephanie Thurmond, about my left knee, which is giving me grief. And I learned two new terms: arthrogenic inhibition and muscle fiber recruitment. I texted my husband these two new terms, which he helpfully defined as “Getting old and trying to get fit.”

The first bit, arthrogenic inhibition, is what I was referring to as “instability,” and it’s the part of the knee problem that had me wigging. Basically, because of the arthritic changes in my knee, and the weakness in part of my quadricep, when things got bad enough, my brain decided to shut down my entire quadricep. Boom.  Apparently the experts aren’t sure why this happens. But it does, so if you’re having pain and all of a sudden a limb gives out on you, give it up. Your brain doesn’t want to cooperate. Go to an expert, find out what the problem is, and get some help.

What happened to me that got me to get help and stop putting off seeing the orthopedic surgeon and getting the MRI was simply taking a pot from the stove to the sink.  I have a very small kitchen, so it wasn’t a long walk. But before I could get all the way to the sink, what I perceived as my knee giving out (which was actually my quadricep going on strike) made me wrench my ankle and hip a little trying to stay upright for another step. I was, not surprisingly, relieved this had not happened when I had something really heavy in my hands (and thankful that the pot was not hot).

There was no warning that I could sense. It just happened. Ever since, I’ve been a little jumpy it’ll happen again.

“Instability,” at least to doctors, refers instead to tendon weakness or injury. That does not appear to be my problem. Just age, weight and deconditioning.

The second bit, muscle fiber recruitment, is pretty much what it sounds like: you’re trying to recruit part of your muscle that’s not joined up with the rest of it. Apparently my inner quadricep doesn’t want to play with the rest of the muscle. It’s trying to be a hermit.

Interestingly, that failure of one part of the muscle to play along can be a result of isolation exercises, which are the antithesis of what CrossFit tries to do, at least according to Flex, a body-builder magazine. I love their teaser paragraph:

Conventional wisdom holds that different exercises should be applied to a muscle group from different angles for optimum development. Conventional wisdom, however, is notoriously unwise.

So the overall idea of trying to work muscles in a group is on target. But so was my husband: When you’re trying to get in shape when you’re old (and, I’d add, overweight), you may have developed some obstacles to getting there. My problem wasn’t doing isolation exercises; my problem was doing none.

Scaling down is a drag, since it feels like you’re going back instead of forwards. But it seems to be the same as rebreaking a leg that wasn’t set correctly: You’ve got to go back and fix the fundamental problem if you really want to improve over the long haul. I may not have as long a haul as I did when I was twenty, but there’s no reason to think I haven’t got some haul yet to go.

And, as always, I am not a doctor and not trying to play one online. Just sharing my experiences. YMMV.


I know I’ll age until the point at which I die, knowledge which causes fear and loathing at times, and not just in Las Vegas.

But do I believe it?

What do I mean? Let’s start with this: I once heard a preacher (I wish I could remember which one; he deserves the credit) make a rather provocative statement that resonated with me both then and now: Most people who would hold themselves out as Christians are practicing atheists. He went on to comment on how what we say we believe should be reflected in how we behave. At the time, I thought of it as a rather clever way of reframing the classic judging trees by their fruit.

But it has meaning beyond a religious context. What we believe does come out in how we act. Some people only believe based on what they’ve experienced; some are able to believe based on the word of others. Most of us are a mix. I don’t have to be smacked in the face with a crowbar to believe it would hurt, but I do have to have enough experience with any particular individual before I will trust past a superficial point.

So back to aging and death: Do I believe they’re real? My actions for most of my life would indicate I haven’t believed in aging, not really. I’ve watched many close family members die, in childhood, middle adulthood and old age, but that’s not the same as dying yourself. When it comes to dying, I think it’s rather like having children: You see other people doing it, you hear them talk about it, but it’s not until you have your own that you really get it. My father once said that he thought dying was kind of like being born: You manage to get through the first without a clue of what’s on the other side, so you’ll probably manage to get through the second.

But I was convinced, perhaps because of my much younger sister’s death at the age of four (I was fifteen), that I wouldn’t live past 21. Then 30. Then after I got through both of those goalposts, I thought it would be right after I turned fifty, which was my father’s age when he died. So I didn’t really believe I would age, and didn’t actually take care of my body as if it were a longterm investment.

Then I got past fifty earlier this year, and the additional month thereafter within which my expiration date should have come up if I were to follow in my father’s footsteps. And now I finally believe I will age before I die. I finally believe I should take care of this vessel in which my consciousness is housed, and chew on old bones of “if I’d only” on a regular basis.

I came to an epiphany and realized I could still change the trajectory of my health and fitness. Hence this blog. But coming to believe that exercise and lifestyle changes will be successful has been a challenge, no matter how much I “know” that is true.

Part of it is because I didn’t used to believe you could learn to be physically fit. Sounds absurd, right? I knew, from a long time ago, that Howard Gardner’s  multiple intelligences theory included physical/kinesthetic intelligence among the types of intelligence there are. But it had been presented in the context of “how to help your students learn by assessing their strengths,” not in the sense that it could be taught. People are naturally better at some things than others; these include which intelligences are their strengths. The first test I took assessed my physical kinesthetic intelligence at practically nonexistent. I was not surprised.

On the one hand, I believe anyone without specific disabilities to the contrary can learn to write and reason to some level of competency. Not everyone can be, oh, say Zora Neale Hurston (just reread “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” and struck again by the beauty of her imagery), but clear and simple writing is within grasp for anyone willing to work at it. Some have to work harder than others, but all writers, even the very best, have to practice their craft.

But, for some reason, I could not apply that same belief to physical fitness and ability until recently. I knew that exercise and eating right would make you healthier. But I didn’t believe I could do it. I didn’t have the skills, didn’t think I could obtain them, didn’t believe I could be successful. The epiphany arrived, and I believed. I demonstrated that belief through actions. But, like any belief, it faces challenges.

Silence, of late, spoke very loudly of my long, dark teatime of the soul in which I have had serious doubts about my relatively new belief. When I’m nervous, I babble far more than the proverbial brook. When I’m frightened, depressed or full of doubt, I shut down and shut up.

My knee was the start. I’m sort of in limbo at the moment: The radiologist and the orthopedic surgeon have yet to come to a consensus about what the MRI actually said. I may have a small tear in the back of the meniscus, I definitely have edema in and around the knee cap (patella). I may have a bone spur at the top of the patella. I was sent off to physical therapy with a “well, we may have to do surgery, but even that may not fix it.” And, to boot, I’ve got arthritic changes in my knee.

The orthopedic surgeon also told me I needed to lose weight. Really? And here I thought I had a gift for stating the obvious.

Well, crap. So I have been rather half-ass at keeping up with my workouts, even though I’m cleared for upper body ones. Why? Because this has thrown my belief into doubt. Can I actually fix my body? Is it really too late? I’d think about paraplegic athletes, or the amputees, and think, now, Jodi, come on: Other people have far more challenges than you do and do more with what they have. But that’s thinking, not believing. The first challenge is to transform what you know into what you believe and then into what you do.

The amount of control we have over our lives is distressingly small. That’s the second challenge: To stay optimistic about what you can control and not be overwhelmed by that which cannot be controlled. Sort of a corollary to Reinhold Niebuhr’s “Serenity Prayer”:

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

Perhaps for me, it is “the optimism to believe I can change the things I can and the courage not to be overwhelmed by those I can’t.” Silence is not always serenity. It’s often a very deep place to think loud and dangerous thoughts. And listen to old patterns of thinking, temptations to revert to old and familiar beliefs: Eating that ice cream will make you feel better, you’ll never really be able to lose the weight (have you seen the statistics?), every time you’ve lost weight you’ve put it back on…blah, blah, blah.

So now I’m speaking (okay, for you literalists out there, writing) again. What’s changed?

I’m not entirely sure. Things got a lot worse before they got better. I started having muscle spasms, the painful, charlie-horse kind, on my good knee, waking me from a deep sleep last weekend, which ended up spreading over all the major muscle groups. It’s been coming and going since then. I went to my wonderful internist, who is concerned the spasms may be symptomatic of drug-induced liver dysfunction. That would most likely be from the wonder drug that’s kept my migraines at bay, and if it is, I’m facing a long period of getting off that drug and then trying  out something new, with the distinct possibility of finding the semi-permanent migraine making a reappearance.

I tried to walk with the nice new knee sleeve/brace I’ve got, and ended up wanting to cry. I went ahead and did the upper body workout, and the spasms decided to join me. Took forever to get through the workout and had a bunch of swelling afterward. Was this doing something good, or was I just injuring myself more?

Today I saw my physical therapist, Stephanie Thurmond, the one who I quoted once before as saying “There’s no time off for good biomechanics.” She poked and prodded, as must needs be, and told me I had calcium build-up in the tendon over the patella and that my inner quadricep was weak, even though the rest of my leg had decent strength in it.

And then there was the good news: Both of those problems can be fixed. I have my handout of things to do twice a day.

I think that’s what gave me a change of heart. Stephanie gave me something that was within my control. I can do these exercises, I can improve, I can get back to working out. We discussed walking; she told me if I was swelling, to reduce the intensity and increase the time. We discussed the various upper body things. No problem. No squats until she gets to see them. Can do.

Recognizing what I can do: check. Now I need to put a check next to what I am doing.