by T.J. Murphy
Last Saturday morning I parked in the back lot behind Mountain Strength CrossFit, about two miles from where I live in the Boston metro area. I was there for my first Base Camp session, an introduction to the movements and methodology of the foundations of training used at the gym. As I’ve mentioned in this column, I’m spending the next eight months of my training focus on restoring my general athleticism with the fun-for-me target of jumping into a Spartan beginner-level obstacle course event at Fenway Park.
If you’ve never been into a CrossFit gym, there’s a reason they are often referred to as boxes. It’s at the other end of the spectrum of what you’ll see at a 24-Hour Fitness or Gold’s Gym. As far as the latter, they seem to try and wedge as many machines as they can into the given space. A common CrossFit gym is more like an empty warehouse space with the equipment stored along the sides of the space or in another room. Even the machines used in CrossFit, like Concept 2 Rowing Ergometers, are of a certain kind: The rowers are light in weight, are easily wheeled around and can be stored in a vertical position so that it doesn’t consume much in the way of space. When it’s time to use them, they are wheeled out into the center and put to fast (and furious) use. If you’ve ever doubted the training impact of a minute or two on a rowing machine, that doubt tends to vanish about halfway through the first time you do a 500-meter time trial. MSC is exactly like this with an interesting edition stored near the back: A wall set-up for obstacle course practice.
Years ago I interviewed Nicole Carroll, a Co-Director of Training for CrossFit Inc. I’d asked her what advice she had for newcomers to CrossFit. She told me that one of the best things you can do is to shop around and find the best CrossFit gym you can, one that’s tailored to your needs. Ask around, she said, and meet with a coach and even watch a class. And compare.
Her advice was anchored on the fact that CrossFit gyms are not created equal. It’s an affiliate model, based on the founder (Greg Glassman’s) stated belief in the power of market system to produce excellence. In other words, as more CrossFit gyms come into an area, the good ones will thrive and the poorly run ones will perish.
I’ve been to my share of CrossFit gyms over the years and I’ve talked to many endurance athletes who signed up for CrossFit to get a read on their experiences. My point of view has been sharped by this and I have been constantly reminded about the value of Carroll’s advice. The good coaches and gyms are not the ones portrayed in some of the earlier mainstream media reporting. You don’t walk in and immediately get put through some sort of high-intensity torture test. The good gyms and coaches are organized, patient, excited to work with you, obsessed with good mechanics and teaching the movements, and friendly. They know that tempting injury is the last thing they want to do with a beginner. I’ve seen a woman who weighed in at 400 pounds achieve a successful transition into CrossFit (losing something like 150 pounds in the first year).
This stuff applies to endurance athletes for sure. Runners and triathletes might walk in with excellent cardiovascular fitness, but the experienced coaches know to look for mobility problems and also be sure to instill patience in an athlete that has developed a well of mental toughness. Functional movements performed at high-intensity require a patient approach. Especially with the older and beat-up veteran endurance athletes that can be incredible stubborn. I was a good example the first time I went through an on-ramp program.
To cut to the chase, Mountain Strength CrossFit is a very good gym—certainly one of the best I’ve been to in the above regards. I had already gathered this at my first visit, meeting with the founder of the gym, Rich Borgatti.
I was additionally assured in my first Base Camp session with Mike Flanagan, one of the coaches. The first thing you see at a Base Camp session at MSC is a large whiteboard that has a welcome message for you and the shorthand for what’s going to be learned in the session. Mike talked me through the structure of the hour: first we’d warm-up and go through some mobility exercises to prepare, second he’d teach me the positions and movements involved in a press and push press, first using a PVC pipe and then an empty barbell. And finally he’d coach me through a light met-con workout: 30-second intervals mixing lunges, push presses, sit-ups and rowing.
As I was reminded in being taught how to perform a good push press, a key skill in functional movement exercise is thinking of how the human body actually works—when work is needed to be done (lift, jump, pull, push, throw, run) muscle groups are recruited throughout the body in optimal patterns. This is the opposite of how fitness machines like the bicep curl are designed to isolate. While you first might try to generate power for the push press by using arms and shoulders you are taught and learn that the most powerful way is through hip drive—you use a tiny dip in the knees and then explode upward, transmitting the power through a chain of muscle groups into the bar so it basically pops straight up into the air and over your head. (See the bottom of the article for a video on how to do a push press). This focus on accessing the larger motor-pattern engines in the body like the hip drive is extremely valuable for the triathlete or runner—when you get a feel for how to channel this power into movement, you can apply it to your running, your swimming and your cycling. As Dr. Brian Hickey, an exercise science professor at Florida A and M (and top masters duathlete) was explained to me, the endurance athlete that has mastered the ability to recruit power from the trunk muscles for running alone is exceptional. The more work you can shift away from the extremities to the core the better—it’s hard to exhaust the larger muscles the way you can, for example, the calf muscles. So this core-to-extremity flow of power is one of the fundamental concepts you practice in every pretty much CrossFit workout.
It was a good session and the metcon was a nice introduction to the metabolic conditioning experience.
I also walked out with a great tip from Mike on how to work on a muscle imbalance I’ve had since I had knee surgery when I was 17 (football, cartilage, beyond the capacities of arthroscope). A simple yet very-hard-to-do mobility exercise that was the very first mobility workout prescribed on Kelly Starrett’s www.mobilitywod.com is a called the squat test. Sink down into a deep squat and hold it—building up 10 minutes worth. This is a killer challenge for the endurance athlete or someone who works sitting at a desk or both (me). Mike taught me a scaled version he likes, where you perform the squat test but use a band that you wrap below the hip girdle and then tie to a post—it gives you a bit support that can help you build a level of mobility and strength toward an unscaled version.
So Mike shared that per what he was seeing as I performed the warm-up mobility movements and had asked me some questions. It’s why it’s always ideal to work with a good coach—they can help you solve problems that either you can’t see or don’t know how to deal with.
T.J. Murphy is the editor of LAVA and author of the book, Inside the Box, a book about CrossFit.