“There are lots of things a Warrior can do at a certain time which he couldn’t do years before. Those things themselves did not change; what changed was his idea of himself.” – Carlos Castaneda
When I was in the Marines, before I left the wire and went on patrols… I would run through a few thoughts in my head. I would remind myself that today is probably my last day. That I am already dead. I just hoped that I could meet that death honorably, and fight to the end. That in my darkest hour I screamed into the void and did not leave quietly. I hoped that the one that took me was a great fighter, a warrior that deserved my death… that when the light and soul left my eyes, in those final moments, he would know the gift that he earned. Scenarios would run through my head. I would think about what could happen, how an ambush may unfold…what if it was near a house? Or an open field? What if we were in the palm groves by the Euphrates… a terrible place where you couldn’t see 10 feet in front of you, and the enemy easily could send some hot shit your way from just across the river. How would I direct my guys? Or, earlier in the war, when I was young… how would I react in the scenario?
I have, at least for the moment, left the CrossFit arena and pursued my passion of the barbell in the world of Weightlifting. Initially, I knew that I just loved the barbell, and wanted to use it as a tool to become a better athlete. Since then, it is ascending into something so much more for me. I recently attended a USAW Coaching Course in Boone, NC. I had the absolute privilege of being coached by Harvey Newton… who is essentially one of the Grand Old Men of Weightlifting. This guy has been around, and seen it all. You love Pendlay and Burgerner? He coached them. This is before our idols.
While the course continued and we ran through our lecture and then lifting phases… I was having these intense thoughts about the comparison of the CrossFit world and the Weightlifting world. Everything from: “Do they have to be so apart?” to “Where can the synergy be found?” and “This is all starting to make sense now.” When I first started pursuing Weightlifting as my sport of choice there was this idea that Weightlifters were being arrogant about the impact that CrossFit is having on the sport of Weightlifting… which is undeniable. In the last 3 years USAW enrollment went from 4,000 members to 17,000.
But, as I have let myself adventure further into this rabbit hole, I see a shift in Paradigm for myself. Let me start by saying this is not a rant against CrossFit, please keep reading. Weightlifters take their sport fucking seriously, and they should. When you listen to someone like Harvey Newton speak, it tends to put some things into perspective. Weightlifting earned its title Olympic Lifting for a reason. It is incredibly difficult to become good at (so is CrossFit, so calm down). The pursuit of technical mastery that has to be achieved is mind boggling, and one reason there is so much respect for the sport by both lifter and spectator. In this sport, you have to respect it, or it will put you down in a bad way. The barbell does not lie. However, it seemed in CrossFit… you could actually get pretty far, and become very good at it and still have fairly mediocre technique across the board… so long as you have some decent strength and a great motor your shot at Regionals is within reach.
You see it all of the time, guys who can Power Clean more than they can Clean… and they may be Regional level athletes. Workouts get tiring, backs go into flexion, feet are flaring extremely wide and they’re landing on their toes… and the crowd cheers: “Ah man did you see that Clean?”
Weightlifting isn’t just about strength… it demands so much more.
Donny Shankle wrote about strength once in his blog: “What I have learned is a strong body is not the same thing as a practiced body. If strength was the only attribute you needed to be a great weightlifter, then does this mean any very physically strong person could be an Olympic gold medalist within the sport? Absolutely not. You have to practice…. Weightlifting is a patient sport making the weightlifter a patient (or stubborn) person. This sort of patience also makes the weightlifter strong up-stairs too. I have flipped tires, loaded stones, pulled sleds, bench pressed, arm wrestled, tackled bull charging fullbacks, and boxed with golden gloves champions. None of these tests in strength and manliness compares even the slightest bit to the time I have put into attempting to master the sport of weightlifting. This is the only test in strength I have found which requires clearing your mind of any extraneous thought and using this lucidity to channel not only physical strength but steady confidence.”
I told you, these guys (and me, now) take this shit seriously. I was having a discussion with my, uh… friend, about when an athlete should truly be introduced to a lift, and the challenges that it poses on a business like CrossFit, and I believe uniquely so. It is a very difficult situation for both coach, sport, and athlete. I agree that, and I think any coach worth their salt would agree, that lifts are brought in entirely too early to CrossFit newcomers. First, CrossFitters pay the money. So there’s that. They pay the money and are introduced to a close knit environment that can be very competitive. The coach has to initially asses the strengths and weaknesses of the new athlete and make decisions based on that assessment. If you are a USAW coach, you are taught to asses on four types of lifts: Front Squat, Over Head Squat, Press, and Snatch Grip Deadlift. If those four lifts are not met with adequate mobility and strength, then the athlete DOES NOT move into training the lifting progressions. Once that is established, lifting progressions then happen… and these will take place over weeks. For the Snatch, the athlete must move through: Power Snatch from Blocks > Power Snatch from Blocks at the knee > Power Snatch from floor > Power Snatch from floor + Over Head Squat > Transition to Snatch. If blocks are not available (which is common since CrossFit on-ramp can incorporate many people) then use the positions without blocks. This takes place for weeks and months. In Flight (Barbell Shrugged) we drilled position work with technique plates for 4-weeks before even moving over head and we had all been lifting for various amounts of time. That is the advantage Weightlifting Coaches have though… is time. When an athlete approaches a Weightlifting coach, there is an understanding that it is a patient and technical sport where the coach is the absolute authoritarian. It is a different environment. In CrossFit, the coach has to play a careful balance of keeping the client entertained in order to keep their membership, and letting them progress into what is at least safe-ish. What is safe in the CrossFit world has a blurry line… the athletes usually have 1 hour of time devoted to the gym. Many won’t use anything extra. This is where it get’s a bit sketchy. Weightlifters can specialize that time. There are training sessions, and even weeks, where I am devoted to one single pull. CrossFit is non-specialization, with tons of movements over an extremely broad range.
Which brings me to my next point. Personally, I believe CrossFit has fallen from its roots for most people, including a lot of coaches in how they choose to coach. Originally, CrossFit was developed for those demanding jobs of service and military, and also as a general fitness program for people to simply become more capable in their day-to-day demands. When the introduction of creating fitness measurable, IE: time, reps, rounds, etc – was developed, it naturally becomes more competitive. Then it started to gain some more momentum, and evolved into a sport of sorts with levels of competition to support elite athletes, and local competitions to support your general athletes. This is where it gets crazy. Now people want to pull RX weight, or go heavy in extreme workouts that are grueling, and everything goes to shit. If your argument is simply fuck it – it’s all about giving 100% every day no matter what… you’re an idiot, and time will prove you wrong, as well as your clients. This is where coaches need to become more assertive and learn to properly scale people. But the client paid? Yes, they did… they paid for your attention as a coach. If they didn’t want a coach then there is always the option of another gym. The average CrossFitter should not be coming in, 6-7 days a week, grabbing RX weight, going 100%, losing form in lifts, and gasping for breadth on the ground afterwards. The only time pushing that envelope should be promoted is in a competition… that’s when you aim to break 100% effort. Workouts like Grace: 30 Clean & Jerks for time. Do you know why that was developed? It wasn’t for speed development, it wasn’t for strength… hell, it wasn’t even for conditioning. I’ll tell you a story Harvey Newton told me personally about that workout… because he was there when it was invented.
Coach Burgerner: “Harvey, I invented a new workout.”
Harvey Newton: “What is it?”
Burgerner: “30 Clean and Jerk for time.”
Harvey: “Why would you do that? Form breaks down after 5 reps.”
Burgerner: “It’s character building.”
Character building. How about that shit? Think about that response from Burgerner himself. Now, I do not think that the responsibility lands entirely on the coach, in fact, not even half of it does. The coach can only do so much. It falls on you, the athlete. Yeah. Take responsibility for yourself, be accountable, and listen to your coach (hopefully they are worth a shit).
What I’d like to see is everyone take a step back, break away from the craziness (which is in full till right now because it is Open season), and ask yourself if you are doing this the best way you can. Take the time to seek knowledge. Ask your coaches their honest opinions on what you need to work on. Pester the shit out of them, it is their job and what you pay for. Find knowledge in and outside of the gym. Watch videos online. Take the time to understand why technique is important and why it is important to be safe. Take some chances and pick up some specialized programming (Weightlifting, Gymnastics) in order to hone your abilities. Your body, mind, and spirit will thank you later. Remember why you joined CrossFit in the first place: To become more fit and capable. It wasn’t to become an allstar and compete with every member in your gym. Quit worrying about fucking muscle ups and gain some virtuosity with your feet on the ground first. I can guarantee you any gymnast today learned how to air squat with a vertical back before they jumped on the rings.
Coaches: wake the fuck up. I know classes are short and you are overwhelmingly outnumbered. But, do not accept mediocrity in your athletes. I understand where it is with newcomers… that is a daunting hill to teach, especially if there is no athletic background. But, when I see athletes that are 6 months in and they’re throwing 300 lbs on a bar and don’t break parallel… that is unacceptable, and should be for you too. Take a book from USAW and make them do the flexibility drills, take that weight off, and make them earn parallel. Don’t just make them do it, explain to them why they need to do it. But what about their patience? Be the coach: tell them if they don’t listen then they can’t play. Ballsy? Yes. Should it be an essential attitude? Yes. It may be a bitch at first, but they will thank you later, months later, when they see the differences compared to other athletes in other places, and learn the importance of discipline. Coaches, I cannot stress this enough, teach more in a group setting. Sit your athletes down, explain to them all why they need to scale, what it should look like in a workout, and how to be safe. Don’t just warm-up and throw them to the wolves… teach. At the end of your workouts, bring them back in, explain to them what they could do better, explain to them what they did well. Let them know what they can do outside of the gym to improve. Quit filming fucking muscle ups every day and promote more of the basics: xnamex hit their first body weight squat below parallel. So and so did 20 wall-balls and broke parallel every time, watch this. Look at how this person locks-out on the hand-stand hold or a Push-Jerk. What you promote is what your athletes will strive for. You are the leaders. “There are 3 types of weaknesses: Technical, Physical, and Mental. Technical will be 80%.” – Dave Tate.
I am by no means the man, and you may view this article and tell me to shove it up my ass… but I know I’m right on this one, and I know it’s because I have the best interest of the general athlete in mind as a whole, and for their well being way down the line.
I’ll tell you where Weightlifters tend to segregate themselves from CrossFit… it’s watching what I just explained. Weightlifting takes a tremendous amount of discipline and attention. You very rarely see them do anything Touch-N-Go. Watch how they move, every movement is paid attention to in detail, every movement is a chance to improve technique. They take the time in between reps to insure virtuosity and consistency. They treat their sport with respect, patience, and discipline. So much time goes into a single second of a movement, it can be upsetting to watch when someone treats it with such disrespect. That is how it is seen. What I’m saying is that if you treat your movements with respect, then you will gain respect. Take the time to look at your starting position… every time. Rest so you don’t go into Flexion. Lock out overhead, think about your turn over. I know it’s just ground to overhead for CrossFitters… do it anyway, strive for that technique, treat it with respect. Trust me when I say there is more found in the patience and discipline of performing these movements correctly… than if you’re just looking to jack your heart rate up.
Before I’d leave “the wire” I’d always take a moment and go through a small ritual. I’d look over my rifle, which was my lifeline, and thank it for what it does for me. Respect it for what it is… not only a weapon capable of absolute violence, but as an extension of myself. I’d run my hands over it slowly, and think about the mission in front of me, and the life behind me. I’d remind myself what I am fighting for… my right to come home, to see my family, my friends… to smell the North Carolina grass and Carolina Blue skies… but most importantly, I was fighting for myself. I was a warrior, and this is what we do. We fight. For me it didn’t matter against who, or where. Conflict was the trade, and I treated it with the utmost respect. It seemed my time never came, and every time I stripped my armor off and laid my rifle down… I took a moment to respect it… to thank it.
When I approach the barbell, the same motions go through my mind. As I clasp it in my hands and move to the Power Position to warm-up, I move through a motion in my mind. I envision the mission in front of me as I run my hands over the steel. I give thanks that it is there, and for what it provides. I try my hardest to interpret what might happen in the session and work as best as I can with it. Then, I perform. Each movement is treated with respect. When I am finished, I always take a moment to pause, look at the bar in the rack, think about what had transpired… and thank it for what it brought me that day as I walk back into the wire.
All that I ask is that you give respect to your day, to your trade, no matter what it is. Take that moment in your life and respect it for what it should be. Fight as hard as you can when you leave the wire… and when you come home, bruised and battered but still alive… give thanks for what you have been given that day. It will be a beautiful fight.