Wednesday, February 13, 2008

We'll See

Craig and I discussed the workout I was about to do as if we were deciphering a home-brew recipe for explosives we found in a last-page hit of a Google search. Details may have been lost in translation and there were skipped steps that only those who didn’t need a recipe would recognize. If you were eavesdropping, you’d peer over to count fingers and check for burn scars before you’d decide if we knew what we were doing. Pointless speculation on your part but then most speculation is pointless.

Our afternoons are all about ‘Exercise Lab’ and not ‘Exercise Theory’ and there’s a whole lot to be learned by just tossing ourselves into a workout to see what will happen. This isn’t navigating a summit bid for Everest where a corpsicle becomes a frozen monument to a miscalculation. In this case, my remains will not be a human speed bump in the path of smarter, fitter or luckier climbers on their way to the top. At worst there will be war stories that conclude with grimaces and haunting memories. “Yeah, that? Don’t do that,” I’d say emphatically, flagging folks away from the scrawled formula on the white board.

Experience is handy here, especially since Craig and I actually have some, but there’s a whole lot of unexplored territory between my quest for world domination and this nagging shoulder injury. Even at this level of training, it’s tempting to do more of the same with comfortable adjustments that accommodate my limitations, but that ends up feeling a lot like I retired from competition to skate in the Icecapades. Nothing wrong with that but I’m a little too competitive for a comfy schedule filled with the kind of barbell jazzercise that makes me feel like I’ve been fed-exed to hell only to find it’s one big circuit of ‘Fight Gone Bad’.

It’s funny how an injury was the best thing to shake me loose from a routine I didn’t know that I had established. Now that I’ve gotten passed the ‘wishing on a star’ phase of ignoring things and waiting for fairy godmothers with magic elixirs, I’ve gotten down to the business of ‘screw this.’ There’s a lot that I can do other than more of the same. After all, didn’t ‘more of the same’ sort of get me into this mess? While I continue to heal, I’m off to explore all the areas marked ‘there be dragons’ on the fringes of my limited map of movement.

It’s no big surprise that injuries that worsen over time and repetition fall into the category of ‘overuse’ which, under different circumstances with better execution, would simply be called ‘practice.’ By the time I realized I was injured, it was my areas of ‘expertise’ that were my biggest joy and yet the source of searing, startle-me-awake pain. That presented me with an overwhelming opportunity to focus on all the stuff I never do and therefore have no real clue about in regards to my proficiency. Focused, that is, after a few sessions of hearty, dug-in ‘why-me’ style belly-aching.

As a trainer, this presents some interesting challenges in terms of writing workouts and sometimes I have to mix cocky self-assuredness with random guesswork like some day trader dealing in speculation. My new mantra has become “we’ll see” followed by a shrug. Weight either leaves the floor or it doesn’t, missed lifts either crash around me or they don’t and I either tear through something or get mired in the muck of a skill that needs work. Tasting every flavor of failure has become hugely amusing and so what? When did we become so significant about the success of every exercise and every movement that each workout gets graded by a complex point system like we’re competing for some figure skating title?

And here’s where the speculation comes in. I’ve been around CrossFit long enough now that folks who reveled in cavalier chaos are now trying to sneak in formulas and failsafes. We were once a bunch of try-anything mavericks and now, in a quest to one-up one another with results, we’re building in a lot of idle speculation. Don’t get me wrong, speculation is a natural part of the process. But just ask the stock broker how much it matters when he competes against a chimp every year to choose a portfolio and with the help of his vast expertise comes in second to the random pointing and squealing of his simian counterpart. Sometimes the most reasoned speculation offers nothing more than idle wheel-spinning.

You’d think we’d learn a lesson. When it comes to nutrition, we counted speculation as actual data and stuffed it down everybody’s throat until we all got fat. Looking back - if anybody ever bothers anymore - we speculated and discounted every bit of contrary data as an anomaly. One cart lap around the extra-wide isles of Costco on a Sunday afternoon should provide pounds of data that we’ve been doing things horribly wrong and yet greater than 60% of our population gets lumped together as some kind of statistical anomaly that can’t be counted because they supposedly don’t care enough about their health to eat less. Idle speculation on my part, but something doesn’t sound right with that theory.

Some of you missed the revolution in fitness when we unplugged ourselves from all the machines designed around our speculation. The nautilus equipment, the heart rate monitors, the VO2 max machines and everything Joe Weider tried to sell us between the pages of Muscle and Fitness had us so focused on the micromanagement of minutiae that we failed to notice that folks weren’t getting any fitter. It’s understandable. We were all wearing thongs at the time and I think we can all agree that they were distracting.

Before Weider, you seemed savvy if you knew the chest pad on the seated row wasn’t a back rest. After awhile, you couldn’t survive a conversation at the smoothie bar unless you could differentiate branched chain amino acids and said ‘Pecs and Tris’-day like it was another word for Tuesday. I remember being frequently tanned while not a muscle on me flexed unless I could name it. My body looked just like my big 80s hair – all puffy and shaped up front with obvious flat spots in places I couldn’t see in the mirror. I also remember that things ached and if you saw me when I wasn’t moving, I only sort of looked like I could play a sport.

CrossFit plucked us out of the monotony of periodization and the boring death march up the dumbbell rack in 2.5 pound increments. Now that CrossFit has been around for awhile though, I get the feeling sometimes that some folks are trying to Weider the hell out of it. Didn’t we already micromanage human health thanks to Weider’s empire of flexing goons and supplement swallowing lab rats? Now I’m beginning to hear a lot of ‘always/never’ arguments in my community about what works and it just makes me suspicious of still more speculation. Luckily I got hurt and it made me question where I was going with my training.

Glassman liberated us when he chalked up crude geometry and explained the black box – chaos goes in one end, sciency stuff happens and exceptional athletes spit out the other side. He made fun of the scientists in white lab coats waxing theoretical about exercise while sucking up resources trying to explain things. In the meantime, his monsters of metal manufactured sweat and proved ideas with outcomes. But instead of being content with their new found freedom, it seems that some coaches just had to tinker. They took apart their black boxes, they tried to understand the mechanisms, they pimped the gears, and they bragged about how much better there box was than anybody else’s. I was afraid I’d have to supplement mine with branched chain amino acids just to keep up. But isn’t this a new round of micromanagement where exercises get marked with a definitive ‘good’ or ‘bad’ stamp or placed in an arbitrary hierarchy? Isn’t that how we got swept away and strapped into apparatus in the first place?

If Grapefruit diets and Pec Decks could teach us anything other than how to weather heartburn and deal with shoulder instability, they would teach us that limiting our options often limits our results. Sometimes we’re so sure we have everything figured out that we fail to consider any conflicting data or look at our results objectively. In the end, getting injured was an opportunity to look at where I was lacking and what my weaknesses were. Now, I’m living, breathing and training in that space.