BMack vs. Bompa–First Thoughts on Power, Speed, Endurance

I finally got my copy of Power, Speed, Endurance by Brian MacKenzie of CrossFit Endurance.  I have to admit, I didn’t know what to expect – maybe 100 pages filled with controversial ideas.  What I got was:

  • A beautiful, thick, large-format book packed with hundreds of slow-motion stills of every CrossFit exercise as well as running, swimming, and cycling technique.
  • A nuanced view of the pros and cons of traditional endurance training and the CrossFit approach.
  • Finally, a clear explanation of CrossFit Endurance programming that “clicked” with my brain – I never really understood the methodology behind the website programming until I read the book!
  • A comprehensive “manual” of CrossFit, incorporating weightlifting, gymnastics, sport skills, mobility, and nutrition.

In short, it far exceeded my expectations.  It deserves a place next to Tudor Bompa’s classic Periodization for Sport on my bookshelf, representing a radically alternative philosophy.  PSE advocates constant variation with a lot of flexibility in programming, but also admits that in order to compete in endurance events, you have to practice the skill of the sport and do time trials at distance.  Bompa agrees on the skill aspect, but advocates a highly regimented program that is proven but breaks down easily if you don’t have 800-1000 hours per year to devote to training.  It will be interesting to read (or re-read in the case of Bompa) both books and draw out the nuggets from each.

I will tell you the following impacts in the first week:

1.  I found out that what I thought was Pose running was not.  When I tried it after reading the running skill section in the book, I was exhausted and felt like I had just done 1000 deadlifts, meaning that I was using completely different muscles.  Humble pie indeed.  In 25 years I had never thought about midline stabilization when running.  Duh.

2.  I got in the pool and found out I was actually swimming pretty well.  Core engaged – check.  Both push and pull on the kick – check.  Etc. Etc.  Again, never really thought about it before.  Eye-opening.

Congrats to BMack on a great product.  Plus it’s heavy enough to turn my backpack into a weighted vest!

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Core Stability for Indoor and Outdoor Rowing

During the early fall, there is an opportunity to reduce the focus on sport-specific training for rowing and work on cross-training and rebuilding parts of the body that have suffered over the high-intensity summer racing season.

For CrossFitters and rowers alike, there is also an opportunity to do some injury-proofing before changing over to indoor training in the winter months, with its heavier loads and the propensity of indoor rowing to overstress and compress the ribs and spine.

While I have never suffered a serious injury in my rowing career, as I get older the minor aches and pains resurface and remind me that it could happen at any time unless I take precautions.

For scullers, there is the additional challenge of jumping into sweep boats for head races.  While the load and compression is less than that of sculling, the challenge of twisting and off-center forces increases the risk of injury if you’re not used to it.

Here are a few of my favorite exercises to develop core strength and injury-proof my body.

In the gym:

  • Planks – nuff said.  Do standard planks, then side planks.
  • Turkish get-ups.  CrossFitters will be familiar with these.  I like to so them slowly and make sure I am fully stabilized in each position before progressing.  These are especially good for developing stabilization on your weaker side for sweep rowing.
  • Hollow Rocks or raised leg circles – I usually start doing sets of 10, then continue until I can’t even do just one.
  • Back extensions or Supermans – especially important for rowers to flex the spine in the opposite direction we normally do.
  • Chop and Lift or Slash using the cable machine.  As detailed in the Four Hour Body, these are easy to do in almost any gym since most have some form of cable machine.

On the water:

  • Stand-up paddling (SUP).  There is no better full-body integrated core exercise.
  • Stand-up paddling on a stationary dock.  This is incredibly hard.  The resistance is huge and it takes a couple of seconds to complete each pull.  The cross-body forces are large and it’s very exhausting.  I usually do 30 reps each side then rest and switch.  This is awesome for the ribcage.
  • Kayaking.  It’s a different motion and uses the torso in unusual ways.

Off the water:

  • Land paddling on a longboard.  This is insane fun, and involves even more twisting than traditional SUP as you have a sideways stance.  I think this is especially fun for training on your weaker side if you are going to be jumping into a sweep boat for the fall.  It preps your shoulders and ribs, and it gets you paying attention to precision on your “goofy” side, which for me is starboard.

Right now I am trying to get at least 2 sessions in per week that focus on core stability and strength.


Transition Time–General CrossFit to Rowing-Specific Power

Winter is winding down, CRASH-Bs are over, and the docks are going in soon in the East.  While for many this means that the CrossFit Open is starting and they are looking forward to the CrossFit Games, for me it means that it’s time to become a cherry-picker.

Say what?

What I mean is that I have spent the winter doing whatever CrossFit threw at me, because it made me stronger and less prone to injury, and it made winter training interesting and motivating.

Now it’s time to focus on how CrossFit can make me stronger as a rower, specifically.  This means developing power and acceleration in addition to strength in the specific movements that make up the rowing stroke.  There are 3 principles I plan to implement:

1.  Maintain the “constant variation” theme, but try to bound it within a set of WODs and exercises that relate to developing specific rowing power:

  • Russian kettlebell swings – more closely models the speed and cadence of rowing.
  • Jump squats or burpees, with emphasis on jump height vs. max reps.
  • Pistols.
  • Box jumps, broad jumps, and other plyometric jumping variations.
  • Ring rows and pullups.
  • Back/core exercises: single-leg kettlebell deadlifts, hollow rocks, planks, toes-to-bar, L-sits, supermans.
  • Light thrusters or wallball shots, training for maximum acceleration instead of max reps.  I might even take the wallball outside and see how high I can shoot it vs. how many standard-height shots I can do.

2.  Use weekly training volume and periodic testing to add periodization to my plan.  While the CrossFit philosophy blows up traditional highly-planned progressive periodization cycles, the concept of varying volume and tapering can still be applied in terms of the number of workouts and how they are cadenced within a 1-week microcycle.

3.  Make sure that no week passes without doing at least 1 core strength WOD in the following areas:

  • Deadlifts
  • Back Squats
  • Some type of single-side injury prevention work such as single-leg kettlebell deadlifts, kettlebell lunges, kettlebell snatches, or Turkish get-ups.

Not to say I won’t still try to get better at things I can’t do well like double-unders or handstands, but these are not going to be as effective in generating a 3:40 1K time in the single scull, which is what I need to be at by the end of July.

The good news is that the first Open WOD, 7 minutes of burpees, is squarely in line with my transitional focus, so that will be an exciting start to the weekend.

Coach Kaehler on Consistent Intensity

Last week I did an extensive post on the importance of precision in maintaining maximal intensity during short interval workouts on the Concept2.  I was pleased to see that I am not, in fact, a total nutter, because Bob Kaehler posted on a similar topic this week in his Coach Kaehler column on row2k.

Although I am not in the same league as Bob as a rower, I did have the privilege of training with him at Undine Barge Club in the early 90’s.  He was in the “God Quad” while I was still in the development camp boat, before he went on to compete in 3 Olympic Games.

He has a lot of great things to say in his column, and even CrossFitters who are not rowers may find it useful because a lot of his posts have to do with mobility, flexibility, and biomechanics, especially regarding the back and spine.  I have faith in his advice because he helped my wife achieve a successful outcome for a herniated disc without surgery.  As an example, in a recent post he compares the rowing stroke to a power clean, and is one of the few rowing coaches who seems to target the hamstrings vs. the quads as a key development area for rowers for both strength and flexibility.  This obviously makes a lot of sense to anyone who deadlifts.

Thanks Coach for the great advice!

Precision is the key to determining your true max effort on the Concept2

Coming off of Fight Gone Bad and a bunch of snatches and overhead squats, I was feeling pretty cooked today, however I was excited by the CrossFit Endurance short intervals WOD of 10 x 30 seconds at max effort with 2 minutes rest, coming into each piece at full speed.  This translates nicely into 20-stroke pieces at just under 40 strokes per minute, taking stroke #1 with 2-3 seconds left in the rest interval to get the wheel spinning as you start the 30-second work interval.  I also believe that 30-second sprints are the perfect vehicle for determining what your sustainable max effort is on the C2.  They are short enough to be done truly at max, but long enough to penalize you for bad technique.  You can’t just muscle through, because with 10 intervals you will be so fatigued in the second half of the workout that your scores would drop rapidly.

How do I find my “MAX?”

As you know, I believe CrossFit Endurance is an extremely effective training technique for competitive rowing, but only if done at correct intensity.  So how do you accurately find your limit?  Answer:  when you are able to deliver 6 or more intervals with a level of precision within 2-3%, you can confidently say that you have trained at your max for that day.  I say “for that day” because you may be feeling good or lousy on any particular day, but you have to be able to consistently find the max you body is capable of on that day.

Why 6 intervals?

This is not scientific, but based on experience.  The first interval on the C2 is usually significantly slower when doing a short interval workout because you are starting from a slow or stopped flywheel, which makes a huge difference on short pieces.  Personally I find that it takes until interval #3 to really get my body to perform at max.  I’m not sure why, but it may have to do with the aerobic nature of short intervals, which is a subject of debate.  If that’s true then it would take several minutes for the aerobic “engine” to kick in.  I also find that after 6 solid intervals I usually start to see my scores fade, and I have to work extra hard to maintain precision due to muscle fatigue.  So that leads me to believe that my capacity for delivering consistent, quality intervals at truly max intensity is about 6.

Why is precision important?

If you have large variations between intervals, then it’s likely that none of your intervals was truly a maximal piece, and your body is still experimenting with technical, neurological, and psychological factors in an attempt to squeeze the most meters out of every stroke.  Muscling out a single great interval but then not being able to replicate it will not allow you to gain the desired training effect.  You need to practice enough to figure out where the redline is, and then consistently hit within 2-3% of that over and over again.  I have found that the usual CFE prescribed precision is too loose for short intervals on the C2, and the 2-3% range is a better target to ensure a challenging target for consistent max performance.

What about a sprint?

You may find that in the later pieces you have to increase your stroke rate to maintain your results within the 2-3% range, but that just means you are keeping yourself at max output by any means necessary as your muscles fatigue.  You will not be able to deliver significantly more meters per intervals even with what you perceive as an “all out sprint,” because your body is already at max output.  If you are able to sprint for significantly more meters on the last piece, then you may not have been truly at max in the earlier intervals.  I tried this approach in my last interval today, figuring I’d really “empty the tank.”  It felt like I was going faster, but in the end I only delivered 2 more meters – hence the tank was already empty!

Here’s the results from today’s WOD, with a 2% over/under range on the chart.  These were done at drag factor 110:



The effects of a cold-turkey week off

After a great power clean and jerk workout last Monday, I had the terrible experience of having a family member unexpectedly have to go into the hospital for the rest of the week.  Now that the situation is resolved, I can reflect on the net effect of a week completely off from training of any kind in a high stress situation with very little solid sleep and bad food.  I am amazed at how quickly things went down the tube. 

I gained 6 pounds of body weight (194 last weekend, 200 today, same scale).  Old injuries that I haven’t felt in a while started to ache again (foot, hand, back, ribs).  My lungs felt “shrunken” and I started to cough.  My eyes and skin started to itch.  Today I went for a short run and threw in some ring pull-ups and 30-inch jumps onto some bleachers.  My heart rate went through the roof and my mobility stank.  When I first grabbed the rings, I had to go on tiptoes to reach them.  After “hanging” a few times, my body stretched out several inches and I could reach the ground with my heels.

Even after this short workout, I feel much better, but have the sense that I am going to be incredibly sore tomorrow.

Although I was not as highly trained up as I was at this time last year, it’s amazing how quickly my body reacted to even a short interval of sedentary, sleepless, stressful lifestyle.  Scary.


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Competitive people often forget how to recover….

I recently saw a great article in Competitor Running about flipping your mental switch from planning your training cycle to planning your recovery cycle. 

I confess – guilty as charged, as are, I suspect, many people in competitive sports.  When you see the total training hours per year for world-class rowers starting to exceed 1000, and the Concept2 challenges rewarding total volume of meters rowed, you often focus on how to fit more training volume in, at the expense of recovery.  The upward pressure is there even if if you have never been, or are no longer, a world-class rower.

When you start getting into the masters age categories, at some point you notice that your body needs 3 days to recover from what used to take 1 day, and the mindset has to change.  You can only oversome physiology up to a point.

I have to remind myself of the following, even to moderate my Crossfit training, which can become a goal in and of itself.

Tim Ferriss speaks about the “minimum effective dose” of training to generate the desired result.

The desired result for me is rowing faster for 1000m in the summer and 5000m in the fall.  Period.  Don’t forget it.

I can do that in one of four ways:

1.  Become stronger to increase power output per stroke, meaning that given the same number of strokes, I go farther.

2.  Become fitter, allowing me to take the number of strokes required to cover the distance in less time.

3.  Refine my technique, allowing me to cover more meters per stroke.

4.  Tinker with my body weight, oars, and rigging, changing the gearing of the physical system to optimize my biomechanics.

I need to structure my training to find the “minimum effective dose” in each of those four categories.  What I’ve found in the past year is that that dose, if I “train to recover”, is probably in the single digits per week, which goes against everything I’ve learned over the past 25 years.

But if doing that still makes me faster, then so be it.