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Pump Up Your Lifts With a Belt

by Geoff Rand

Hopefully I’m not dating myself too much here, but the Saturday Night Live skit of Hans and Franz ranks as one of my all time favorites.  These two meat heads hosted an informative exercise show where they would call people “girlie man” in their Schwarzenegger voices all while flexing and posing in their grey sweats and lifting belts, proclaiming “…and we are here to pump you up!”

While this may be the image many think of when looking at people wearing lifting belts, it’s not always the case.  Just like any other piece of equipment, the belt is a tool, that when used properly in the right situations, can help prevent injury and increase the weight you can move in your lifts.

Let’s get some myths out the way here.  The belt is NOT a brace that supports your torso so your core muscles don’t have to.  And, it does NOT contribute to weakening of core muscles.  In fact, the opposite is true.

Lifting belts should be adjusted so they are tight around the core, but not so tight you cannot breathe.  When you inhale deeply, your abdominal muscles and lower back muscles attempt to push outward, but the belt limits them.  The effect of the core attempting to push against the belt is that the forces pushing off the belt stabilize the spine.  It is a combination of proper breathing and proper positioning of the belt that makes lifting belts effective, not the belt alone.

If you remember from several blog articles ago, we talked about the Valsalva maneuver as it pertains to breathing and lifts in this post.  In short, the technique involves exhaling against a closed airway, which generates pressure in the core and stabilizes the spine.  When you breathe this way, the belt actually amplifies the inward stabilizing pressure, making your lifts safer and more effective.

You need to position the belt properly so that it doesn’t get stuck in your hip crease when squatting or push up against your rib cage.  For tightness, make it tight, but make it so you can still slide a hand between it and your body.  Adjust as needed.

One tip with the belt is to wear the metal buckle slightly offset so you don’t scrape the bar against it during cleans or snatches.

I’ve noticed the belt also functions as sort of reminder to keep the core stabilized.  You can’t inhale deeply without feeling your core push against it, and it just reminds me to focus on spinal stability, which I often neglect when thinking about all the other parts of a complex lift.

Belts can be worn for any lift that involves the need for spinal stability, which is pretty much all of them.  However, you should be developing the ability to stabilize your core by itself, without the need for a belt, for all but your heaviest lifts.  A rule of thumb is to keep the belt off until you get to about 85% of your one rep max.  You should be increasing the weight you can lift without the belt over time, so this 85% number will need to be adjusted periodically.

So if you are noticing back pain in your lifts or have been stuck at a plateau weight for awhile, a lifting belt might be for you.  Try one out and see if it helps to pump up your lifts.  Grey sweats and fingerless gloves not required.




The Equipment of CrossFit: The Right Shoes

By Geoff Rand


The explosion in popularity of CrossFit has spawned an endless sea of branded sport-specific gear.  Shoes have a strong foothold on the gear market.  Every athlete wears shoes and the apparel companies are definitely aware of this, some cranking out new models every six months, with ever-enticing fancy-sounding features and flashy colors.

But do you need CrossFit shoes?  What benefits do they offer?  What about those lifting shoes?  I’ve got answers.

To answer the first question, no, you don’t need CrossFit shoes; you could show up at the Box with your standard sneakers and complete the WOD.  You could also hammer in a nail with the battery of a drill, it's just not the best tool for the job.  You will find you will perform better with a CrossFit-type shoe and your lifts and movements will be more efficient, stable, safer, and effective if you wear them versus the standard “squishy” shoe.

The typical sneaker is made for walking or running.  It incorporates a cushiony foot bed that is designed to absorb impact and lessen the force you feel when you move.  While this may feel comfortable for a long run or for people who stand on their feet all day, when you start lifting weights, it becomes less than ideal.

Whatever the type of lift you’re doing, when you pick up weight, the force of the bar gets transferred downward to the ground through your feet.  If you’re standing on a bed of foam, gel, or air cushion, you will have an unstable foundation supporting everything pushing down on top of it.  I’ve heard it likened to standing on a giant marshmallow.  The same thing happens when you land from a jump.  If your base is unstable, it makes every part of the movement weaker, less efficient, and potentially unsafe.  You want a shoe that allows the force you absorb when lifting or jumping to be transferred directly to the ground forming a solid, stable platform.

I’ve used the term “CrossFit shoes”, but really I’m talking about any minimalist shoe, not just the ones labeled specifically for CrossFit.  When we talk about minimalist shoes, you will hear the term heel drop or heel-to-toe offset, and this refers the difference in height between the heel and the forefoot.  A typical cushion-sole sneaker will have a heel drop of 10-12 millimeters.  Minimalist shoes often have drops of 6, 3, or even 0 millimeters.  If your shoe doesn’t provide a heel drop measurement, more than likely it is not a minimalist shoe.  The lower the heel drop measurement, the closer your feet are to being in contact the ground.  The best shoes for our sport will have little to no heel drop.

Other features of the minimalist shoe are a sleeker shape and conforming fit.  You’ll find minimalist shoes don’t have extra protrusions or excess material and you probably will wear a size or more smaller than your normal street shoe or sneaker you’ve been wearing.  They should fit fairly snugly.  This tighter fit allows you to feel the surface you’re on and push against that firm base to accomplish your lift.

One CrossFit-specific feature I’d strongly suggest looking for when choosing a minimalist shoe is a rope guard.  I know that Reebok and Inov8 have added a durable plastic grippy piece to the inside of some of their models to keep rope climbs from tearing up your shoes while increasing the grip you can apply.  You can tell the people who are climbing in shoes without these guards because they have what look like huge half-moon bites taken out of their shoes.  The coaches will thank you for choosing shoes with rope guards, as it’s less debris they have to vacuum up under the ropes at the end of the day.

Some will argue that minimalist shoes don’t offer enough cushion for running and that their feet hurt when they run in minimalist shoes.   If you heel strike when you run, then yes, your feet will hurt as minimalist shoes aren’t designed to take a hard heel impact.  If you are landing softly on your forefoot, you should not feel discomfort while running in minimalist shoes.  Look at some of the Olympic athletes breaking world records while running barefoot.  It’s not the shoe, it’s your form causing the discomfort.

Examples of minimalist shoes either designed for, or acceptable for CrossFit are Reebok Nanos, Inov8 F-lite 195s, Merrell Trail Gloves, and Nike Metcons, to name a few of the more popular types.

The Olympic lifting shoe is a specialist shoe that has a place in CrossFit when doing Olympic lifts of the snatch or clean and jerk, or any type of squat.  This is not a shoe everyone needs to own, but it does offer some benefits to those who are serious lifters or those who have mobility issues.

The idea behind Oly shoes is to give you a solid base with zero compression and eliminate your foot sliding around inside.  They accomplish this by constructing the heel of solid plastic or even wood.  The straps on Oly shoes are called tarsal straps, and they are used to lock your foot in place to make your base even more stable.  They keep your foot from rolling and allow you to press out against the side of the shoe, which helps you to create additional hip activation, and translates into more power in your lifts.  A word of caution from experience…don’t crank down too tightly on the strap as you can cause your feet to go numb. 

Olympic lifting shoes have a ½” to 1” (13-25 mm) drop (or sometimes even more) so that you can sit back more in your heels without falling over.  This also helps to open up the hips and places you in a more torso-upright position, which helps you to better support the overhead lifts.  The drop also assists athletes with hip or ankle mobility issues, by allowing them to squat deeper, while still maintaining proper alignment of the spine and pelvis and discouraging overextension of the knee, which leads to injury.

Notice how the athlete can squat deeper while maintaining a better upright position in the Oly shoes versus the Chuck Taylor shoes without the higher heel.  He also looks more stable and comfortable in the photo on the right.

Notice how the athlete can squat deeper while maintaining a better upright position in the Oly shoes versus the Chuck Taylor shoes without the higher heel.  He also looks more stable and comfortable in the photo on the right.

Oly shoes are expensive and not everyone needs them.  If you have good ankle and hip mobility, you might be fine lifting in minimalist shoes.  A good way to see if you could benefit from Oly shoes in your lifts is to put 2.5 lb. or 5lb. weight plates under your heels and squat.  Have a coach observe the differences in your elevated and regular squats.  If the extra elevation helps you keep that chest up better and squat deeper, the shoes might be a good investment.

You may argue that in real life, you’re not going to stop what you’re doing and change shoes before picking up something heavy, so why would you need special shoes?  That is a fair question.  But, in real life, you are not repeatedly picking up heavy objects and lifting them overhead for 20, 30, or 40 minutes straight.  If your shoes help to keep you in proper form and prevent injury from repeated lifts while wearing them, you’ll be more likely to maintain proper form when lifting an object in real life without the shoes.

There are some situations where Oly shoes are not appropriate.   They are heavy and clunky and the heel drop is too high to run in comfortably (or safely).  They aren’t good for jumps or movements like toes to bar also due to their weight.  They aren’t good for deadlifts because the elevated heel puts your shin out of ideal alignment, which causes you to use more of your quadriceps in the lift than your glutes and hamstrings that you should be using.  The elevation also adds to the distance you need to pull the bar.  For deadlifts, stick to minimalist shoes or go barefoot.

Popular Olympic lifting shoes are made by Reebok, Adidas, Pendlay, Rogue, and Nike.

For most CrossFit athletes, a good minimalist shoe will cover the majority of their needs for daily WODs.  If you are getting into the heavy Olympic lifts, are serious about CrossFit competitions, or can benefit from increased range of motion while squatting with them, Olympic lifting shoes might be a good investment in addition to your regular CrossFit shoes.

Before you go out and buy new shoes, talk to some of the athletes and coaches in the Box.  Ask what they wear and why.  Many of us have tried several brands and models to get to the ones we like.  It will likely save you some hassle and money on returns.





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Caught White-handed


Caught White-handed

The Equipment of CrossFit:  Chalk 

by Geoff Rand


If you close your eyes and picture a CrossFit athlete, I’d bet many of us would come up with an image of a ripped guy or girl, dripping in sweat, maybe with various body parts taped up; with hands and shorts dusted in chalk like a powdered donut.  Whether it be strongman competitions, rock climbing, CrossFit, or gymnastics, it seems wherever feats of strength or athletic prowess are being demonstrated, chalk is involved.

So what is in this magical powder that makes it so special, how does it work, when should I be using it, and how do I apply it?  Boy, you’ve got a lot of questions.

Gym chalk is made of magnesium carbonate.  The chalk that your kids use on the sidewalk is made of calcium sulphate.  Now, my chemistry background is limited to knowledge of how to make bombs out of MRE (Meals Ready to Eat) heaters in college, but what I can tell you is the magnesium carbonate forms into a fine powder much more easily than sidewalk chalk.  I did once see a drop-in athlete pick up and use one of Sloane’s sidewalk chalk sticks, thinking it was for the WOD.  I never asked him how the pink chalk worked versus the white the rest of us were using.  But, maybe you could use sidewalk chalk in a pinch.

Chalk works by absorbing sweat, which in turn helps you keep a better grip on whatever you are trying to hold onto.  If you are finding you are sliding off the pull up bar, or the barbell is slipping out of your fingers, chalk might help.

There is such a thing as too much chalk, and it can be bad.  A light coating is all you need.  Chalk up too much, and you go from drying your grip to leaving skin on the pull up bar due to creating too much friction.  If you walk away from the chalk bucket looking like one of the War Boys from Mad Max, you over did it.

The chalk buckets at CrossFit Frederick have shirts stretched over them for a reason.  They act to confine the chalk dust as much as possible to the chalk bucket while you apply it and limit the amount that the coaches have to clean up all over the Box.  My technique for applying chalk from the bucket is to first wipe my hands off on my shorts to remove excess sweat.  I then place one hand in the chalk bucket and press it into the chalk.  I then bring my other non-chalked hand to the chalked hand (still inside the bucket) and rub them together.  I then take both hands out and go do my lift or pull.  If I later feel the need to re-apply chalk, I first glance at my hands to make sure I haven’t torn them and to see how much, if any, chalk is remaining on them.

You don’t need to re-chalk after every rep.  That will only lead to chalk build up and ripping.  Depending on the particular WOD you are doing, once a round should be sufficient.

Wipe down your pull up bar or use a brush on your barbell after the WOD.  Chalk left on metal traps in moisture and can lead to rust forming.

You can also buy chalk in bricks or balls.  I personally prefer chalk balls as they really let you get the chalk right where you want it.  You’ll need to keep your personal chalk in a Tupperware container or Ziploc bag to keep it from getting all over, and definitely keep it away from where a weight might get dropped on it.  You can also use products like Liquid Grip, however I find this a bit too tacky and have ripped my hands using it.

I’ve definitely noticed a difference when using chalk versus not using it when doing heavy lifts or high rep pull-ups.  Having a strong grip on the bar allows me to do more work without dropping or slipping off the bar.  You should not become overly dependent on chalk, however.  It is not a substitute for strengthening your grip.  I would suggest only using it when attempting lifts at 50% or more of your 1 rep max, or when you’re sweating so bad you can’t maintain a safe grip on the pull-up bar.  To put this another way, if your grip is compromised to the point you can’t safely or properly do the movement, it might be time to try chalk.

Here are a couple of Don’ts when it comes to using chalk.

If you tore your hands and are bleeding, do not put your hands in the chalk bucket.  Totally gross.  Stop and go fix yourself before continuing anything.

Don’t use chalk when doing rope climbs.  Chalk can actually damage our ropes.  I find a little perspiration on my hands helps me keep a better grip on the rope anyway.

Don’t turn the chalk bucket into a rest station!  We know what you’re doing when you are bending over the bucket after every couple of reps.

Don’t clap or rub your hands together above or outside the bucket.  Don’t leave a chalk trail from the bucket to your bar.

Just like everything else in CrossFit, chalk is a tool, and it has its time and place to use it.  Just keep it confined to your hands and the chalk bucket and don’t become a chalk monster.   And, whatever you do, try to hold off on picking that wedgie until after you've cleaned up your hands.

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