Today’s WOD (Workout of the Day) for Crossfit is my new favorite thing to do — essentially picking up heavy stuff. Crossfit, for the unitiated, is a fitness program developed by a guy named Greg Glassman which combined elements of gymnastics, Olympic weight lifting, and “functional movements” to build a definition of fitness which is pretty primal and controversial. CrossFit is used by the military, police departments, fire fighters, to build “elite” fitness (whatever that means). Me, I am trying to prep myself for old age and retain what dwindling muscle I have left before I enter that danger zone of elderly falls, broken hips, and nursing homes.
I started doing it in April at the suggestion of my rowing coach, Tom Bohrer, who occasionally contributes to the CrossFit Journal on rowing (CrossFit favors the Concept2 ergometer for building anaerobic fitness). Since then I’ve lost twenty pounds and developed some some serious upper body strength thanks to the first big weight workouts since I was on the heavyweight crew in college. It has taken a lot of time and ugly effort, but in a weird way it appeals to the sense of rower’s masochism which generally has propelled me.
My favorite exercise is the ominous sounding “deadlift.” As Coach Glassman says in his inimitable way: “this movement is baked into our DNA.” I guess cavemen practiced it by picking up big rocks.
You bend over a bar, you grab it, one hand gripping in, one gripping out, you curve your lower lumbar, and then you stand up. That’s it. Grab weight. Stand up. Put it down.
Having had my share of back problems in the past, I approach the lifting of anything with great care and trepidation. I was once bedridden for two weeks after lifting a television set. One bad move and twang, I’m down for the count. Years of rowing — a decidely back unfriendly sport — have set me up for issues, so when CrossFit put me back behind a weight lifting bar, I was terrified of the consequences.
Fortunately CrossFit’s site is loaded with good demonstration videos and coaching advice. The inhouse lifting coach — Mark Rippetoe — has a great book called Starting Strength which focuses on the technique used in Olympic lifting. I bought a copy, watched the videos, and set myself up in the garage gym.
The result? Well, let’s say I am not going to lift 1,000 pounds ever in my lifetime, but I am happy to say I can now pick up, and set back down, without injuring myself, over 300 pounds (I think I can do more, but I ran out of weight and need to buy more) And I don’t feel like one of those body builder meatheads with a big leather belt around my waist when I do it.
As my old cycling buddy Marta puts it — “Strength is about three things. Pick heavy stuff up. Pick heavy stuff up and push it over your head. Pick heavy stuff up and carry it around.”
The net result of three months of hard work with the CrossFit program is a total vanishing of my lower back pain. The return to very elemental movements — true situps, pushups, pullups — and the emphasis on back-to-basics exercise based on lifting one’s own body weight has been a revelation. There’s no membership, no gym, no machine. No fad. Just stuff our grandparents did like the Walter Camp Daily Dozen — only more evil because a lot of CrossFit is done against the clock to make it interesting.
This is all inspired by today’s NYT article on the great benchmark of fitness — the simple pushup. I’d include in the mix the humiliating pull-up, and now my new fave, the dead lift.