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Practice Perfect Push Ups

by Geoff Rand

During my time in the Army, I became intimately familiar with the push up.  Move too slow, push ups.  Uniform not perfect, push ups.  This continued into the police academy.  Forgot a call clearance, push ups.  Shoes not shined, push ups…   It’s easy to see why this isn’t one of my favorite exercises.  It was always being done as a punishment.  On top of that, I never was showed how to really do them until coming to CrossFit.

To make your pushups better and easier, you need to concentrate on three areas, elbow position, hand position, and tight core.

Pretend you are going to shove someone across the room Elaine Benes-style (Seinfeld, anyone?).  Really, try it.  I guarantee your elbows aren’t going to be straight out to your sides.  It is much more natural and effective to keep your elbows down at about a 45 degree angle.  This is the same position your pushups should be done in.

For hand position, point your middle finger at the 12 o’clock position and spread your fingers wide.  Next rotate your hands outward slightly, screwing them into the floor.  This will help engage the lats and give your pushups a bit of a boost.  It also helps keep your elbows in the proper position.

Finally, keep those abs engaged.  This makes sure your back is being kept stabilized and moves as one unit with the rest of your body.  No wet noodles.  A slight curvature in the back is ok as long as you keep your abs tight to stabilize it.  You can also hold a yoga block between your thighs if you need a cue to stay tight.

Remember to focus on these areas when doing pushups.  With enough practice, the next time you get dropped for someone showing up to formation late, you’ll be able to crank out your punishment reps with ease.







Suck it in: Developing Your Secret Abs

By Geoff Rand

It just takes a quick look at all the fitness gimmicks promising to give you abdominal muscles, and it’s easy to see we have an obsession with that slim waistline or those 6-pack abs.  You’d be hard pressed to find many people who are satisfied with the current state of their midsection.  But those ab crunch machines, electric belts, 8 minute videos, and continuous wishes just aren’t going to get you where you want to be.

This might sound like the opening line to another infomercial, but what if I told you that doing just one exercise for only a few minutes each day could help flatten your tummy, strengthen your core, improve your posture, and take pressure off your back?  Research and many real life examples show it works.

Most of us are familiar with several areas of our abdominal muscles, such as the rectus abdominis (the six-pack portion of the abs) or the internal and external obliques.  But have you heard of the transverse abdominis?

The transverse abdominis (TVA) is sometimes called the corset muscle.  The TVA runs under the obliques and a portion of the rectus abdominus.  Its fibers are unique in that they run horizontally and they don’t connect to and move bones closer together like many other muscles.  Instead, the TVA acts like a belt that helps to increase intra-abdominal pressure and helps to stabilize the spine while holding our stomach and internal organs in place.

As you might guess, tightening and strengthening this muscle can lead to a smaller waistline.  The problem lies with the location of the TVA.  Since it is underneath several layers of abdominal tissue, it isn’t easily activated by traditional abdominal exercises.

To really hit the TVA, you need to suck it in.  No, really.  It’s called the stomach vacuum.  This is best done on an empty stomach, and some find that incorporating it into their daily routine first thing in the morning before they even get out of bed works best.

This video probably explains the technique better than I can in words.

Here are some tips for those starting out with the stomach vacuum.  Start off lying down.  Having your back supported by the floor, mat, or bed helps you to concentrate on proper breathing.  Move to hands and knees or seated position as you progress.  Make sure you completely empty your lungs as you pull the belly button towards the spine.  Start off shooting for 10-15 second holds for 5 repetitions.  Work up to 60 second holds.  Don’t let lack of oxygen mess up your holds.  Take small breaths if you need to, but maintain the contraction.  Eventually you might progress to being able to do the stomach vacuum at work or even while stopped in traffic.

This guy is an extreme example of what is possible with several months of stomach vacuum training.  You can skip to the 2:00 minute mark if you can’t stand how he talks.

The stomach vacuum might not fit the traditional mold of what many of us think of in ways of working our muscles, but this exercise has been in use for a long time and results have been seen by bodybuilder competitors looking to emphasize their features, moms working to get back to pre-pregnancy form, and average people, just looking to develop a strong core or slim down their waistline.  Like any exercise, it doesn’t work if you don’t do it.  And your results will be better when it is paired with a consistent exercise and proper eating regimen.

Having a strong transverse abdominis will help improve stability in your lifts, which translates to more weight you can move.  But, I suspect most people would be completely happy with achieving just the cosmetic benefits the stomach vacuum can provide.  By sucking it in, you might get to the point where you don't feel the need to have to suck it in.





21-15-9, The Story of Fran

By Geoff Rand

We see this rep scheme show up often, most notably with the benchmark WOD, Fran.  Ever wonder why CrossFit uses this odd number of reps or why it decreases as it does or how Fran was created?  I did some digging and found out why.

In the early 1970s, CrossFit founder and gymnast, Greg Glassman, was looking for ways to be better at his gymnastic routines in the off-season.  He knew that strength training would help him improve and wanted to replicate the intense workout he got from a two-minute routine on the parallel bars or rings.  Coach Glassman knew that points would be deducted if you appeared out of breath or otherwise looked uncomfortable after you dismounted the rings or bars, and he wanted a strength routine that would cause him to breath heavily and to be uncomfortable, which would be a great way to prepare for an intense gymnastics routine.  Glassman took his cement-filled plastic weight plates and bar and as he says, “stumbled upon” the thruster.  He coupled that movement with the pull-up, and after experimenting with some rep schemes, he came up with what we today know as Fran (21-15-9 reps of thrusters and pull-ups 95#/63#). 

CrossFit founder, Coach Greg Glassman

CrossFit founder, Coach Greg Glassman

Coach Glassman tried out this workout in his garage gym blasting through it as fast as he could.  He promptly threw up all over the floor, which his German Shepherds gladly cleaned up for him.  His neighbor happened to come over and asked what was all over Glassman’s shirt.  Glassman told him not to worry about it and to try the workout.  Glassman’s neighbor also threw up immediately upon finishing.  Coach Glassman and his neighbor then went over to the neighbor’s brother’s house.  The brother asked why they both smelled like vomit and declined to try the workout.

If you dissect the scheme, it starts to make sense.  It’s a total of 45 reps, not a huge number and one that is quite reasonable to accomplish.  The scheme is based on the “decay rate” or the fact that as you fatigue, you are able to do less work, as the load remains the same.

You start out with the highest number of repetitions.  Assuming you are fresh and rested at the start, you should be able to get through the 21 reps unbroken.  As you get to the second round, you are starting to fatigue, and 15 reps should feel of similar difficulty in that round as the 21 reps felt in the first.  The final round of 9 is set at that number for the same reason.  Even though each round has fewer reps than the previous round, they are at a sufficient number to still be challenging.

Looking a little deeper, we find that each round is divisible by 3, so the rounds could be broken up as 7-7-7, 5-5-5, and 3-3-3 if you weren’t able to complete them unbroken and were looking for a strategy.  However, Fran is designed to be an all out kick in the balls, and you’d be better served to choose a weight you can do unbroken and move up towards the Rx load as your ability improves.

If you were curious, here are the accepted time ranges for completion of Fran if you wanted to know where you stand.

10:00+ Beginner

10:00-4:30 Intermediate

4:30 – 3:00 Advanced

3:00 or less Elite

The 21-15-9 rep scheme shows up in all manner of combinations of exercises and there’s no way I could include suggestions for each that you’d encounter.  But, if you want to be better at Fran, here are some tips.

1.  Mobilize the thoracic spine and open the hips before the WOD.  Kelly Starrett shows how you can make sure you are fully loosened up before Fran in this video.  He mentions that especially for people coming from a hunched over position at a desk job, this 4-5 minutes of mobilization will not only help your Fran time, but is key to keep you from getting hurt by either collapsing too far forward because your spine is tight, or damaging a knee because your hips aren't opened up.

2.  Know that the second round, 15 reps, is mentally the most challenging.  Keep the intensity up and don’t stop for a break because it will be that much harder to get started again.  Feed off the music or coaches encouragement.

3.  Don’t put the bar down in the middle of a round.  Doing so will cause you to waste energy by having to clean the bar again before getting into your thrusters.  If you have to stop during the thrusters, pause with the bar in the rack position.  If you need to catch your breath, do it during the pull-ups where there is no bar to pick back up and thus little wasted energy if you stop momentarily.

On average, Fran takes between 3-10 minutes to complete.  Someone who doesn’t do CrossFit might not understand how you can be totally spent after such a short workout.  The reason is the rep scheme allows you (or forces you, depending on how you look at it) to expel a high level of energy over a short duration of time, using a moderate amount of weight.  That all adds up to an intense all around burn.

When asked why he named it “Fran”, Glassman had this to say.  “Anything that left you flat on your back looking up at the sky asking what the f*%k just happened to me, deserved a female’s name.  They’re like storms.  If a hurricane that wreaks havoc on a whole town could be Fran, so could a workout.”




The Most Hated Exercise

by Geoff Rand

No other CrossFit exercise has anywhere near as many t-shirts or memes professing such universal hatred for a movement than the burpee.  But where did the exercise and silly name come from?  Surely there is someone we can all focus our anger on while we are slipping in a pool of our own sweat during a high rep burpee marathon.

There is.  Well, sort of.

Royal H. Burpee was an American physiologist and director of the YMCA in New York City.  For his thesis at Columbia University in 1940, Burpee developed a 4-count movement as a way to measure the fitness level of non-active adults.  His exercise consisted of a standing start position, moving into a squat with hands inside the feet, transitioning to a plank, a hop back to the squat, and standing back up.  There was no push up or jump as we see today.

Burpee was testing average, everyday individuals, and stressed that the movement should not be conducted with high repetitions, and in fact, he used only four repetitions and compared the heart rate taken after the four reps to a resting heart rate, among other measurements, as a way to gauge a person’s level of fitness.

Shortly after the start of World War II, the U.S. military adopted the burpee as a way to assess potential recruits’ fitness levels, and eventually incorporated it into their physical fitness tests.  They called it the squat thrust and it is still in the physical training manual in use today.  The Army initially administered it as a 20-second test with 8 reps considered poor, 10 reps fair, 12 reps good, and 13 or more reps considered excellent.  Remember, this was the 4-count burpee.  Don’t expect to hit these marks with a modern burpee.  Later, the Army increased the time to a 60-second interval.

Who added the push up and jump to an already challenging movement?  That secret seems lost to time, and it is doubtful that cruel, sadistic trainer will ever come forward for fear of becoming the most hated fitness professional in the world.

Coach Marcy mid-burpee over bar. 

Coach Marcy mid-burpee over bar. 

Today, we see tortuous applications of burpees in WODs such as 7 minute AMRAPs or 100 burpees for time.  Burpees are also used as punishment for CrossFit “profanity”, being late, or failing to note times on the board.

As if it wasn't bad enough already, the burpee has evolved to ever more difficult manifestations, such as burpees over bar, burpee box jumps, and burpee pull-ups.

So, next time you are grinding out rep number 96, and words are coming out of your mouth that would offend a sailor, take comfort in the fact that Royal H. Burpee would protest such a high repetition count and question the need for the additional steps added to his exercise.  Then, realize none of that is going to change didly squat right now, and reach down, suck it up, and finish the WOD buttercup.