It was a typical Tuesday night at the climbing gym in August, and by that I mean the small space was cramped with large men sporting fast metabolisms. The higher up the wall one climbed there was a distinctive change in climate as a thick musk began to coat pores. Dropping off from the top felt a bit more like coming up for air, but for locals stuck in Southern California there just wasn’t a lot of options on days like today.
Sitting on the bench to let my head stop spinning from the heat, I overheard a converstation at the counter about tendon injuries. The two guys were taking turns slathering their joints in tape, mumbling about “hot fingers” and warm weather being the major cause of an A2 pulley tear.
Just as I was hearing the goods on how he greased off a bad mono I heard a loud ‘thud’ followed by a horrible scream from off in the bouldering cave. A friend had blown a heel-hook over her head and landed weirdly on the edge of a pad, crushing her talus bone in the process.
Needless to say the rest of the workout was shot as the handful of us that didn’t start to puke helped her to the hospital. We drove right past a Crossfit gym that opened very close by, at about the same time as well. As we slowly ambled over painful speed bumps speed metal blared out of the opened bay doors and energetic accountants were screaming through dead lifts and Olympic lifts with spines so bent and out of position they looked like Escher’s interpretation of Fitness.
Sure, Crossfit seems to be filled with eager bunnies bright eyed and ready to learn, and true that these impressionable and fired up individuals tend to hurt themselves rushing through a very regimented sport such as power lifting. These situations are not unique to Crossfit and if anything show a fatal flaw in humanity – newbies getting themselves into trouble.
Sound familiar? As climbers, our house might be made of glass.
What is Crossfit?
Crossfitters will proudly tell you that their specialty is not specializing. In reality, it is a somewhat-structured set of exercises designed to keep your body guessing and simulate real world situations – what we in the bid’ness call Circuit Training.
Now, that’s a very simple way to describe a complex idea that’s far more scientific than my pay grade allows me to dive into. The benefits of circuit training, on almost any reasonable level, is something that every athlete should consider regardless of their sport.
Why add Circuit Training?
Even high-end technical rock climbing requires more than gnarly finger strength and polished technique. There are often ‘fitness requirements,’ athletic mantels and dynamic movement that are difficult to replicate outside of a single move on a single route. How can a climber prepare for body-contortion movement and powerful presses bunched up in a weird posture?
Strong in Every Position
Check out my 3-part weight loss story Here
Check out my 3-part weight loss story Here, and part 2 and part 3 as well.
The number one reason why a climber might consider a program like Crossfit is to create strength in a variety of positions. Shoulder-y presses, dynamic underclings, one-legged squats on small nubs peppered on a slab, it isn’t difficult for a climber to wish they could increase strength. The best training possible would be to find rock that simulates all of these positions and movements – but for most of us stuck on a granite Batholith or sandstone basin we are limited to our potential for unique movement on rock.
I first heard the phrase “Strong in Every Position” while listening to an interview with Crossfit Coach Kelly Starrett. After a few years of on-again, off-again pain in my shoulder due to misaligned muscle groups and insufficient antagonistic muscle work, I started incorporating his ideas of proper positions and a stable shoulder into my training, but also my long hikes and lifestyle at home. The biggest change in my understanding of physiology came because of an idea 2,000 years old blasting through my iPhone headset while on a jog. Good information is better late than never.
Why Does Everyone Hate Crossfit?
Nothing is more fun than bagging on a fad. I’m a big fan of it, so much so that I’m often a parody of myself, getting choked out in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu classes by 10-year vets thinking I know what I’m doing and laughing all the way. The best way to live is to be happy and if there is humor to be found in something, I highly recommend acknowledging it.
The Problem – Crossfit is a Fad
in 2001 when I started climbing it was the official boom of the sport. Chris Sharma had just finished Realization, the best climbers on the planet were young American kids and gyms were sprouting up like herniated discs in Industrial Park gyms. Before this jump there was a very distinguishable path to climbing, an apprenticeship followed by many hours of experience on real rock before a transition to becoming a mentor oneself. Now, a quick Google search and a few how-to videos on youtube and anyone can be competent enough to mail themselves, and that’s the problem.
Fads Breed Nincumpoops
Nincumpoops aren’t there for you. In heart they may be, or at least until the check clears, but learning to avoid nincompoops is a great life skill. I would wager a Las Vegas local would be more keen to spot a shoddy climbing or Crossfit gym long before an impressionable kid from Iowa. The get-rich-quick mentality is happy to jump onto whatever fad or industry is booming, and whether Crossfit or Climbing or MMA there can be some real difficulty separating the bad from the good.
There is some talk about getting Rhabdo, however we again have to understand the conversation of how and why this is happening. Like a climber heading out into an alpine peak with a minimal kit of gear in their pack and only a few thousand hours of training to see them through, those who push the possibilities of human performance flirt with bodily harm. If you would like to work out so hard that you literally die, that’s on you, however I don’t have the capabilities to work that hard. I’ll quit and grab a beer long before that, regardless of a trainer screaming at me. Knowing your body and when to say “no,” again, is always YOUR responsibility.
A proper gym will teach the right form and will take time to develop a complete understanding of the physiological demands of the body. An improper gym will cause life-long damage to major components of your body that you probably will miss.
Is Crossfit Right For Me?
This is the easiest question to answer. Do you want to do it? If so, then yes!
There are a lot of large, burly men out there that would benefit from a membership to Curves and 2 Zumba classes a week. The silliness of those activities is irrelevant – they will get an overweight biker in his 60’s hiking again. Crossfit is nothing like these two estrogen-infused alternatives, but the truth still applies – if it can help, consider it.
Just like I wouldn’t climb on gear sold by Bill and Ted’s Excellent Equipment I would do some research on which gym you end up picking. The gyms looking to take your money might lure you with lower prices or multi-level-marketing type schemes relying on gullible friends joining in. Gyms focused on training athletes will have qualified instructors and can be easily looked up under Crossfit Affiliates.
Basic Crossfit Style Exercises to Add
Skip all the way to the end for Cliff Notes? Great, me too! If there were three basic exercises commonly performed and perfected by Crossfit individuals as well as many athletes the world over. All can be done with a single kettlebell, a great fitness tool that can be left in the trunk of a car and brought along to Camp 4 in Yosemite or Indian Creek to offset rainy days and oppositional muscle group training.
Deadlifts are great for adding strength and power in the upper arms and back muscles as well as reinforcing proper spinal alignment under heavy load. Take several weeks moving up from about 20/30% bodyweight (~40lb for me at 160lb) to 100% bodyweight. I like to take the bar or a PVC pipe and film my technique to see if my back is in the proper position. Athletes looking for lean and useful muscle might consider using a large kettle bell or pair of kettlebells instead at much lower weight.
More so than the other two exercises the Squat should be performed with caution and a bit of humility. It’s an incredible exercise for leg power and creating good hormones for muscle growth and recovery. Like with deadlifts, a few weeks to a few months of practice should be performed, ideally with a trainer or professional, before attempting anything near body weight. Barbell back squats are the classic “squats” people do, however for lighter and leaner athletes I recommend racking a single (or pair) of kettlebells.
The Military Press
Climbers especially have issues with misaligned muscle groups – incredible pull strength, but wimpy push strength. The good news is that there isn’t a lot of weight required to offset the hundreds of natural pull-ups our sport requires, week-in and week-out. 20lb presses at 4×20 reps should be enough for even the fittest climber, and those beginning the exercise can benefit with very low weights found commonly around a campfire or home, such as a milk jug or small rock. Don’t drop them on yer head.