heavy lifting

Ripped Rule: Get Off the Ego Crack and Stop Using a Spotter, Damn It.

This morning at the gym a nice guy came over, unsolicited, to spot my back squat today. I like this guy, but he actually grasped my lats and assisted me through the lift. I didn’t ask for it, and I definitely didn’t want it. I kept grunting “NO SPOT” and “NO HELP” because those were the only words I could squeeze out as I was fighting the weight. He kept “helping” even though I was asking him not to. I was so frustrated after the lift. With a spotter, you never know how much you’ve lifted. And when you’re operating on the razor’s edge of your limits, and when you have very specific goals with small tolerances, even an assist that reduces the weight by a mere one percent can nullify the lift from a progress perspective.

There’s a difference between a lifting partner who’s there to help motivate you, and one who’s there to spot you. Motivating relationship? Good. Spotting relationship? Bad. Spotting is the worst thing that’s happened to personal relationships in the gym. Spotting is like crack: once you get a taste, you’re hooked. Maybe it’s more like meth. If you can’t get through the movement on your own, either the weight is too damn heavy or you’ve gone one rep too far. “But my spotter helps me through my sticking point.” Every single lift has a sticking point i.e. where the muscle is at the greatest mechanical disadvantage relative to the weight. If you can’t get through it by yourself, you’ll stay weak there. “But my spotter helps stabilize my arms while I grind through an incline dumbbell press.” Come on. That’s caca. If the lifter can’t stabilize the dumbbells, it’s too much weight. The whole purpose of using dumbbells is to hammer all those stabilizers. “But my spotter is there for safety.” That’s the only potentially logical use of a spotter, but only for certain lifts. You definitely don’t want to get caught under a heavy bench/ incline/ decline barbell press. But even then, your spotter shouldn’t be altering the load whatsoever. The spotter is there to save your rib cage and/ or trachea should you have to bail. Other than that, there are virtually no lifts that a spotter can add safety to.

Moral of the story: do you, (but without a spotter).

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Why Tabata Won’t Make You Strong or Lean (And Why You’re Probably Doing It Wrong Anyway)

In case you’ve never heard of it, Tabata is a form of HIIT that requires 20 seconds of ultra high intensity exercise to be followed by 10 seconds of rest and repeated eight times. Tabata was created to condition the most elite of elite athletes. But in my estimation, the vast majority of non-elite individuals who think they’re following the Tabata protocol are not. In fact, they’re not even close. Why do I think this? Because I can virtually guarantee that nobody, including myself, has ever been able to get anywhere near 170% of their V02 max. That’s what Tabata really is. V02 max is basically a measure of the amount of oxygen your body can use per minute, normalized to body weight. So at 100% of your V02 max, your body is using all the oxygen it can possibly use. 170% of V02 max means that your body’s oxygen processing capacity is being outstripped by 70%. Any idea what that feels like? Searing pain. Absolute agony. Three years ago in my cardiovascular prime (I was in the top 1% of the population for my age), I could complete only two rounds of real Tabata before collapsing. It is extreme, severe, virtually impossible. This is why most recreational fitness enthusiasts partaking in Tabata aren’t really doing it. They might be getting up to 90% or [less likely] 100% of V02 max, but nowhere remotely near 170%, I promise.

All that said, even it its unadulterated form, Tabata is inefficient for fat loss and strength development. It can be more effective than steady state cardio because it does create a modest anabolic stimulus, but it doesn’t hold a candle to heavy lifting. Let’s first look at why Tabata isn’t nearly as efficient for fat loss as heavy lifting.

I’ve mentioned in several other posts that if you want to lose fat, like if you really want to lose fat and stop believing what you see on TV, heavy lifting is the only way to go. Fat loss is almost blindly attributed to burning more calories than you eat. Yeah, you might lose fat if you eat less than you burn, but that’s usually not the case. You will DEFINITELY lose WEIGHT if you eat less than you burn, but generally that weight is comprised of a lot of muscle. Your body is efficient; when it’s in a chronic caloric deficit, it will preferentially use muscle over fat for fuel if there is no reason for it to hold it. Since muscle is metabolically active and requires energy to maintain, your body wants none of it when faced with the choice. This results in skinny-fat syndrome i.e. when someone who does lots of cardio and eats at a deficit is slim, but flabby.

If you’re really serious about losing fat, your job is to not give your body the choice between using fat or muscle as fuel. Your job is to force it to burn fat to the greatest degree possible. How do you do that? Lift very heavy weights. This simple thing creates a powerful anabolic signal that tells your body that the muscle is critically needed for something, meaning that you must metabolize more fat and less muscle to meet energy demands. There’s far too much fat-loss misinformation that treats fat loss as something acute, i.e. that you must burn lots of energy exercising to lose fat. It’s just flat out wrong and counterproductive. Weight lifting doesn’t acutely burn many calories–maybe like 250 in an hour for the average sized male. What it DOES do is to create the conditions necessary for your body to prioritize fat metabolism when you are in a caloric deficit.

Tabata (the real version of Tabata) is meant to develop superior cardiovascular capacity. That’s it. It’s not a tool for fat loss and it’s not a tool for muscular development (well, maybe smooth cardiac muscle, but that’s not what we’re talking about here). It is one of several exercise modalities that professional athletes use to endure longer in their sports. The cardiovascular fatigue Tabata or even a more moderate HIIT routine creates competes with your ability to create the type of anabolic stimulus necessary to force your body into fat-burning mode.

Take-away: just stay away from HIIT, lift heavy, and reduce your calories if you want to lose fat.

21 Reasons to Avoid CrossFit Like the Plague if You Want to Get Ripped and Strong

Before I begin this semi-tirade, I’d like to first explain that I’m not completely opposed to CrossFit. The program has make physical fitness more appealing to the masses, and that’s great. Moving is better than not moving. But that’s also like saying not doing drugs is better than doing drugs. Not doing drugs means no cocaine or heroin, but you can still smoke a pack of cigarettes a day, drink soda and regularly get three hours of sleep a night. The four people I know who joined CrossFit gyms decided to do it because they wanted to get fit, and that seems to be one of the primary reasons people do it. But what does “fit” mean? I asked a couple of colleagues at work what it means to them; their answers were all pretty much the same. One said, “To lose fat and put on some muscle.” Another said, “To be able to do things without getting tired and to have more energy.” Another said, “To have a chiseled stomach and just get strong.” I agree with all them–that’s my definition of getting fit. But using CrossFit to accomplish these things is like using a Rube Goldberg machine to turn on a light.

This is CrossFit

Using CrossFit to get fit/ ripped/ strong is like using a Rube Goldberg machine to turn on a light.

Using CrossFit to get fit/ ripped/ strong is like using a Rube Goldberg machine to turn on a light.

Just like boxing and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and baseball and American Ninja Warrior are sports, so too is CrossFit. Don’t get it twisted. CrossFit is a sport. It is the sport of exercising excessively and randomly. It is NOT bodybuilding. It is NOT powerlifting. It’s not Olympic lifting. It is NOT sprinting. It is not marathoning. It’s not gymnastics. It’s a twitchy, bizzare Frankensteinian extreme workout hybrid of all of those. Those other sports I named will all get you fit (except maybe baseball), but more importantly, they all have a purpose, a goal. In Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, the goal is to become better at submitting your opponent. In baseball, it’s to become more accurate hitting and catching a ball and running the bases. In American Ninja Warrior, it’s to exercise as much coordination, speed, strength and balance as possible to overcome an obstacle course. In weightlifting, it’s to develop larger, stronger, more explosive muscles. CrossFit’s goal is to endure excessively random, excessively intense exercise. Any highly experienced strength coach will tell you that the systematic, repetitive level of fatigue CrossFit creates limits peak strength development itself, as well as the efficiency with which strength can be developed. CrossFit, quite literally, makes you good at nothing. To many people new to sport/ strength training, CrossFit looks awesome, but it really, truly is not. It is simply obnoxious activity for activity’s sake.

Just like those other sports, CrossFit can certainly get a person fit, but if being healthy and creating a hard, powerful, explosive, ripped body are the goals, CrossFit is completely pointless and a massive waste of energy. I wince at the thought of needlessly ripping through all those calories. There are WAAAAAY better ways to get fit/ strong/ jacked/ ripped/ powerful/ fast. CrossFit analogy: you have to go grocery shopping for the week and you’ve got one hour to do it. The store is five miles from your house. You walk into your garage, get into your car and drive to the store, buy six bags of food, and drive them home. But why did you use the car when you could have used your skateboard? It’s the same reason why you don’t use CrossFit to get strong and a ripped/ jacked/ excellent physique. Getting strong and ripped is much easier than blowing your body out with CrossFit, the frantic, yapping, directionless Jack Russel Terrier of exercise routines.

You can develop a fantastic body and get really, really effing fit by slowly lifting heavy weights (moving slowly at the gym, in general), resting a lot, walking, stretching, and eating foods that go bad if left unrefrigerated or if you don’t eat them within a few days of purchase.

21 reasons why CrossFit is not the way to fitness

1. Hard on the joints and connective tissue
CrossFit employs exercises that put enormous strain on joints. There’s lots of jerking of heavy weights, putting the shoulders in compromised positions, yanking, jumping, swinging, flailing and other stuff.

2. Too many reps of complicated, unnecessary motions
CrossFit uses lots of Olympic lifts regularly performed in sets of 20 or more reps or for time intervals. I feel really strongly about this: I think it’s absolutely stupid. One of the dumbest things I’ve ever seen, actually. I usually don’t write using such a scathing tone, but CrossFit really brings it out of me. Olympic lifts like the clean and jerk, the snatch and the power clean are very technical and require immense full body coordination. Olympic lifters practice these for years using low reps over many sets with plenty of rest in between. Maxing out until cardiovascular or muscular failure on these types of lifts is the pinnacle of dumbness. That’s what a lot of CrossFit gyms promote.

3. Practitioner of everything, master of nothing
Practice CrossFit, become a master of, well, nothing. Crossfit actually unabashedly prides itself on this concept–that it’s broad and general. It doesn’t develop peak strength because the cardio stress competes with the muscular stress, so you get ok at both but great at neither. That’s cool if that’s your goal, but I want full, hard muscles and low body fat, and I want it the easy way. There’s a sport for that. It’s called old- school, heavy-ass weightlifting with lots of rest between sets. Additionally, lifting heavy weights improves the force and speed with which a muscle can contract force a.k.a. explosivity.

4. Immune fatigue
This is a big, big negative. CrossFit workouts are known for their preternatural ability to create total body fatigue. A once a week, excessively-intense CrossFit style workout might be a useful part of a well-balanced training program for, say, an elite MMA fighter who requires endurance under physically stressful conditions, but this is not how CrossFit boxes look at their workouts. It’s all-out, all the time. Most people train like this several days per week. The immune system functions optimally when balanced training program with plenty of rest is employed. I used to get colds 4-5 times per year when I exercised like this. I haven’t had a single cold since I stopped exercising like this. True, my system might respond differently than others’, but people aren’t really all that unique when it comes to stuff like this.

5. More potential for injury
Dozens of reps of compound barbell exercises until you can’t do any more? This is so wrong I’m crying thinking of all the poor people who involve themselves in this stuff. Weights + high-level fatigue = stupidity beyond description. Here’s one of many great examples of the horribly misguided movements CrossFit not only endorses, but pushes like crack on people who love… crack. Take the upright barbell rows a bodybuilding exercise typically used to build the deltoids. It puts the shoulders in a compromised position because they’re internally rotated while under a significant load. This impinges upon relatively weak tendons that are part of the shoulder girdle. Over time, this creates undue wear on the tendons. Kinesthetically, it’s just plain bad. Know what? Any barbell compound lift that requires a clean (to move the bar from the floor or from hanging above your knees in one swift motion up to your collarbone) is requiring you to do exactly just a fast upright row. That’s what a clean is. And CrossFit has you performing that motion over and over and over and over and over until your heart and or muscles say uncle.

6. More potential for barfing
It’s almost encouraged by CrossFit, and certainly not frowned upon. I’ve never vomited from exercise in my life and have never seen any individual who knows what they’re doing in the gym vomit either. If vomiting = making progress and getting strong, then I’m the only exception to the rule. And I know I’m not.

7. Not sustainable into older age
These workouts are too physically intense and riddled with so many complex, jerky movements it’s just not possible to carry on with into old age. I see many strong, fit old timers lifting the right (old school) way at my gym, and I just want to hug them because they make me confident that I will be able to continue doing what I’m doing for the next 40 years.

8. Stupidly expensive
Where I live in NYC, you can easily pay in the upper $200 range per month to work out with basic equipment in a box. Know what? I can do the exact same thing for $35 per month at my cheap gym full of barbells and power racks. That’s about 90% less than a full CrossFit membership costs. And if I wanted to join a cult, I could do it for free.

9. Better ways to develop full body strength
Like the classic compound lifts executed with control and precision. Back squat. Front squat. Deadlift. Bench variations. Overhead press (and why the heck would anyone ever do handstand pushups a la CrossFit when an overhead press is far superior and overloadable?). Good mornings. Barbell row variations. Struggling at 5-8 reps. 3-5 sets. Sufficient rest between sets. Walking throughout the day. This develops ridiculous strength, stability, and, providing your diet is right, a ripped as hell body.

10. Unnecessarily grueling workouts
There’s just no reason why you should ever leave the gym feeling blown out. In my opinion, it means you’re doing something wrong. Almost every day I leave the gym feeling more energized that when I arrive there. CrossFit aims to kill you, to fatigue you, to make you want to rest for the rest of the day.

11. Momentum is used like it’s a good thing
Tell me something: why am I personally able to do 25 kipping pullups with perfect CrossFit form (picture a monkey having series of full-body spasms), but only 12 “normal” pullups under strict control, with one second up, a second static contraction, and two second concentric lowering phase? Why when I’m done with a set of kipping pullups do I have no idea which muscles I’ve worked? Why when I do strict, momentumless weighted pullups do I feel like my lats, rhomboids and deltoids are going to burst? Because kipping pullups are done for the sake of doing kipping pullups, while classic, strict pullups are done with the specific goal of developing muscle and progressively building strength. Momentum factors into virtually every single exercise CrossFit peddles. When did classic lifting stop being the most effective tool for developing an amazing physique and healthy body?

12. CrossFit trainer certifications are more about money than knowledge
It takes a couple of days to get a basic CrossFit coach certification, which means you can run your own gym. No previous experience required. That scares the crap out of me. A novice coach teaching incredibly complex, unnecessarily frantic movements to other novices. If you’re gonna do CrossFit, make sure your coach has years of CrossFit coaching under his or her belt. But then again, maybe you should just avoid the problem and not do CrossFit.

13. Performing advanced compound lifts in a fatigued state
Notice a theme here? I would never, ever, ever suggest to anyone that they should perform heavy squats after just having done 30 kipping pullups, or, even worse, sets of 20 deadlifts. There are some seriously wrong things happening in CrossFit gyms.

14. Really, really bad idea for novices
Hell, I’m a fairly advanced lifter myself, have been training for over 20 years, have participated in/ tried virtually every exercise fad out there, have participated in CrossFit workouts, and would never suggest a CrossFit workout to even my fittest friends. There’s just too much potential to lose focus, lose control, break form doing herky-jerky reps of whatever very technical is being pushed and damage a rotator cuff, compress a disc, sprain an elbow, etc.

15. Everything is max effort performed to near exhaustion
There is no virtue in blowing yourself out during any workout. The only exception might be for the mental challenge every once in a while–like running a marathon. Otherwise, what the heck is the point? Any regular fitness program that stresses AMRAP i.e. “As Many Reps As Possible” as a core lifting modality is absolutely, positively asinine in my opinion. I exercised this way for years. CrossFit is an overtrainer’s paradise.

16. No long-term plan for progress
Take two untrained individuals. One begins a classic, heavy compound lifting program, while the other starts CrossFit. They both experience rapid muscle gains in the beginning. They both lose body fat (because they’re also eating properly). As time passes, the lifter steadily continues to make strength, power and size gains, while the CrossFitter’s progress slows considerably. Eventually, the CrossFitter is making no progress and is essentially just doing exercises for the sake of it. One of the many problems with using CrossFit to get ripped and steadily build power and strength over the long term is that its workouts are completely random without a central focus on the concept of progressive overload. The workout of the day can be anything. Randomness = confusion = no gains. I’ve never heard of a CrossFitter saying, “In two years time I want to be able to do 75 hang cleans without stopping.” There are no real, solid, long-term goals that can exist in CrossFit because progressive overload is a foreign concept. The workouts are all about going balls-to-the-wall all the time, which is the exact technique to use if you don’t want to make progress. This is not training. This is just hard exercise. Classic, proven, unglamarous, “boring”, slow, heavy lifting enables the practitioner to set goals with a clear plan for getting there, like, “Within two years, I want to increase my five-rep back squat by 70 pounds. I will get there by adding weight to the bar according to [whatever the progression method is]. I will record every rep I perform, every set I complete, and take notes on how I feel doing it.”

17. Counterproductive for muscle development
Sure, you might see some jacked CrossFit practitioners on TV if you watch the CrossFit games. But that development is in spite of CrossFit. You’d better believe they’re doing lots of stuff (like classic heavy lifting) that’s not part of any CrossFit WOD to be able to compete in the games.

18. Herd-think, herd-exercise, little individualization
You either do the workout of the day, or you don’t do CrossFit. Maybe today my shoulders and traps are really fatigued and I want to focus on the prime movers in my lower body. Nope. Sorry, you’re doing those snatches and handstand pushups and ring dips and kettle bell swings. And you’re gonna kip. Oh yeah, you’re gonna kip. That’s what’s on the menu today. I’d rather take a Krav Maga class–at least I can learn some truly useful self-defense techniques with the herd.

19. No time for centering and focusing
One of the most important aspects of a solid strength program is the time between sets and even the seconds between reps used to recenter the mind and focus on the coming task. That time engenders self-correction and a mental environment more conducive to autoregulation. That’s where you’re constantly monitoring how you feel and the quality of your form and adjusting accordingly. Because CrossFit promotes so much non-stop, frenetic movement performed under significantly sub-maximal loads, there’s a lot less time to autoregulate and take stock of the feedback your body is providing.

20. Kneeling at the muscle confusion alter
Muscle confusion is the theory that strength gains will slow and/ or stop if you keep doing the same stuff because your body adapts to everything. You have to “keep your muscles guessing” if you want to get strong. The idea is complete bullsh*t, at least in the way it’s typically applied by fad workouts like P90X and Insanity… and CrossFit. And I’ve done them all, people (throughout my less “thinkingful” early and mid 20s). The fact that the body adapts to everything cannot be disputed. But these obnoxious workout routines have taken that truth and bastardized it for their own marketing and ca$h benefit. They’re like, “Do these three exercises really fast and light, then do this one slow and heavy, then don’t repeat them again for like 15 days, but make sure you sprint in between and throw medicine balls at the wall a lot and then do 10 sets of five pushups in between the in-betweens and climb a rope really fast and do as many hang cleans as you can in two minutes then do one really heavy rep of a deadlift. Don’t let your muscles catch on because your muscles have brains, see, and they need to be confused to do their best.” This isn’t even a hyperbolized version of CrossFit. It’s what goes on in those gyms. The best, most unfailingly simple, time-tested approach to building a massive-strength-to-bodyweight-ratio is to do the same major big compound lifts over and over and over, adding a little more weight each time. Ever hear the saying “practice makes perfect”? 10,000 back squats performed over the course of years with the goal of adding a little weight or adding one more rep to just one set during each session will make you a fit beast, man or woman. There’s always some flexibility around set, repetition and loading schemes, exercise order and perhaps modest alterations around exercise selection (like maybe heavy good mornings this week instead of heavy Romanian deadlifts to shift a little emphasis off my lower back), but this in no way, shape or form resembles the insanity of Insanity, and CrossFit WODs.

21. Marketing itself as the end, rather than the means to it
After everything I’ve just ranted, I think the real shame of CrossFit is that it can actually fit into a well-rounded strength and conditioning program for enhancing athletic performance when applied judiciously. Sure it’s very general, but it can build mental stamina and overall endurance. But these things shouldn’t be viewed as ends in themselves. They are lower-level components–building blocks–that can help bolster general performance in sports and pursuits with specific, well-defined goals and reasons for existence. It doesn’t make any sense to treat an activity that can be a tool to help bolster general sports performance into a sport itself.