Barbell Medicine - From Bench to Bedside
By Jordan Feigenbaum

About two weeks ago I had the pleasure of attending my first CrossFit Games, held every summer since 2007 in sunny southern California. Let me just get this out of the way- I had a GREAT time. Truly. If you’re a fan of strength sports like Olympic lifting, strong man, or powerlifting then you’d absolutely love attending the Games. Imagine an exciting version of any of the above sports and you get a taste of the Games experience. It’s that good, both the crowd and vendor area are spectacular, and if you don’t read the rest of this article you can at least take away that a dyed-in-the-wool strength guy had a blast at the CrossFit games. There, I said it. Phew. Skip past the Games discussion if you want to read my thoughts on CrossFit in general 🙂

What follows is a summary of this year’s games from the truly impressive to the profoundly silly and we’ll finish up with things I think could be improved upon for next year.

Impressive Things

1) Athletic Skill

All of the athletes are absolutely amazing. Simply put, if you made it to the games in any division- you’re a stud. No Virginia, the athletes in the games are not the same folks you see on YouTube or in your local CrossFit gym. Every one of the athletes are very strong, very conditioned, and just plain ol’ athletic. Consider this, the top clean and jerk for the Men and Women’s individual events were 350 (Aaron Hanna) and 242 (Brooke Ence), respectively. Oh yea, this was done as the after two other events (2 sets of sprints through an obstacle course and a strongman-esque event dubbed the Soccer Chipper) on the third day of competition. Did I mention that the other day’s events included two 500m swims, 2 miles of paddle boarding, moving a bunch of sandbags, and 2 miles of running separated by 100 pullups, 200 pushups, and 300 squats whilst wearing a weighted vest? Yea…..the talent pool at the games is extremely high.

2) Mental Toughness and Resolve From the Athletes

In addition to the aforementioned skills- these athletes are tough as nails. On Friday during a workout called Murph, a few competitors appeared to be suffering from heat exhaustion or, at the very least- had some sort of decreased performance from the heat and workout. Kara Webb, in fact, collapsed upon finishing the event and received medical attention as did Annie Thorisdottir. Both athletes went on to complete the next event (the speed snatch ladder) and Heavy DT with Webb getting 10th and Annie getting 4th.

(Murph is a 1 mile run, followed by 100 pull ups, followed by 200 pushups, followed by 300 squats, followed by another 1 mile run all while wearing a weighted vest. Check out some coverage of Annie below.)

Mat Fraser, the pre-games favorite for winning the men’s individual competition and the 2014 runner up, was WAY behind eventual winner Ben Smith in the final event to determine the victor.* Fraser got onto the assault bike and hauled major ass to basically catch back up to Smith before the deadlift/farmer’s carry. To watch this display was incredible, especially since he had problems with the HSPU and most people would likely be deflated. To me, it epitomizes the level of talent that makes it to the games- these guys (and gals) are tough as nails.

3) The Crowd

Here is a random shot I took from the final day. When's the last time you saw a crowd this size at an Olympic or Powerlifting meet?
Here is a random shot I took from the final day. When’s the last time you saw a crowd this size at an Olympic or Powerlifting meet? The answer is never. Period. CrossFit has the numbers, folks.

4) Coverage and media

This was probably some of the coolest stuff I saw all weekend. While it’s true that The World’s Strongest Man competitions always have color commentating, the broadcast booth and the viral presence was ridiculous at the games. From the touch screen being used during broadcasts and replay cameras to the dynamic shots done during the events (see below), the coverage was absolutely spectacular at the 2015 CrossFit Games.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5mAaqsf-YdI

I would consider myself a strength-sports aficionado, as I’ve watched or attended all the major meets in recent years including the Arnold Sports Festival, USAPL Raw Nationals, The American Open (USAW and USAPL), IPF Worlds, etc. Heck, I even have copies of all the Iron Mind “Training Hall” videos with Randall Strossen. The video below is of Dimas, arguably one of the greatest weightlifters of all time training in the training hall.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_ojp1Q1qZHY

Admittedly, weightlifting competitions can be somewhat exciting to watch for enthusiasts. See Ilya crush a WR and the crowd (an actual crowd!) respond enthusiastically:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7yYqIAr_pW4

Powerlifting, on the other hand, is about the most boring sport in the world for spectators. I routinely beg my friends or significant other to not come to the meet. Even an efficiently run meet with a good announcer (Geno!) is akin to watching paint dry. See Ray Williams break the all time IPF raw squat record at IPF Worlds- the largest powerlifting meet of the year:

Now I agree that powerlifting and Olympic lifting enthusiasts will enjoy watching their respective sports. To them, it’s entertaining to watch the greats do battle on the platform. To the masses however, CrossFit is much more viewer friendly and additionally, there’s just MORE media on the event itself period. A simple Google search of “2015 CrossFit Games” returns 7.3 million results. Searching “2015 IPF Raw Worlds” and “2012 London Olympic Weightlifting” returns 37 thousand and 184 thousand results, respectively. I rest my case. One more gratuitous media package from last year’s CrossFit Games should drive this point home :

Silly Things

I would be remiss if I didn’t point out some silly things I witnessed at the Games. I should clarify, however, that these criticisms do not come out of spite- just as interesting observations from a coach, lifter, and fan that made me scratch my head. Here are some of the “flubs” I witnessed during my time at the StubHub center:

Coaching. There were a LOT of coaches for the individual athletes and teams who were competing this year. While it’s great to see that that the top tier within competitive CrossFit are utilizing coaches to perform optimally, I can’t help but see that some of the coaches might not be ready for an event of this magnitude when it comes to actually handling an athlete or group of athletes. Lindsey Valenzuela and her coach (whom I don’t know) happen to be the example that I’ll use.

The subject of this “flub” was event number 9 on Saturday, the women’s clean and jerk event. The women would go 1 by 1 attempting to complete a single clean and jerk within 20 seconds, with the heaviest successful lift being awarded the win and a cool 100 points. The competitors received two total attempts and strategy would have to be involved (as it is in real weightlifting meets) in order to win. During the initial heats, 232 pounds was the heaviest Clean and Jerk completed by Brooke Wells so going into the final heats, 233 was the number needed in order to win the event. On her second attempt, California’s Brooke Ence put up a staggering 242 lbs (after borrowing her judge’s sunglasses) in order to catapult herself into the lead. This now meant that 243lbs would be needed for first place or 233 lbs would be needed for second place. Enter Valenzuela, who opened with an easy 225lbs (as I recall) on her 1st attempt. From here, the logical call would have been to put 233lbs on the bar and get an easy second place or go for the win with 243lbs. What happened next blew my mind, mainly because it’s unlikely that she made it to the games without the help of a coach who would be telling her what weights to load on the bar. On her second and final attempt, Valenzuela put up 240lbs- which she made quite handily. But…and here’s the BIG but…she still got second with an attempt that was 7lbs in excess of what she needed to get 2nd. She also did not give herself the chance to win the event and gain positions on her opponents. In reality, the call of 240lbs was the 3rd worst possible call- eclipsed only by the possibility of calling for 241 or 242lbs- both of which would have garnered her second place points with a more difficult and demanding lift. So the questions I have is who told her to load the bar? Was the coach paying attention? Were they not communicating effectively and why was this the case? I was very vocal in the stands as this was a pretty cut and dry case of coaching error. I mean, when there are hundreds of thousands of dollars in both prize and endorsement money on the line…wouldn’t you think that figuring out the correct attempts on an event as straightforward as this would be a given?

ence242
Brooke Ence celebrating after smashing a 242lb clean and jerk.

The “flubs” don’t end there, unfortunately. There were plenty of athletes power cleaning and snatching (or attempting to) and missing weights they would have likely otherwise made. Knowing that Olympic lifting is emphasized heavily at the Games and, additionally, that the carry over to other athletic endeavors is high, I cannot understand why a coach would not stress to his or her athlete during preparation that they need to learn to become proficient at the full versions of the lifts. I don’t purport to know the ins and outs of every coach-lifter relationship or plan, but the observation was that there were a handful of athletes who couldn’t or wouldn’t catch the snatch or clean in the full position when it is obviously more efficient and it yields a potentially higher weight lifted.

Finally, I witnessed very few (read: none- but I’m open to the idea I just “missed” them) coaches calling “splits” to their athletes, i.e. how was their pace on some of the longer events as compared to their known ability. Given the extreme conditions, e.g. heat, fatigue, and number of events coming up, pacing and strategy can be a huge part of an athlete’s success. We know from sports science modeling of athletic fatigue that an athlete’s pace will be slower in the heat to prevent failure, extreme slowing, injury, and to preserve the “finishing kick” at the end- so how come I didn’t see any of the coaches with a “pit board” communicating with their athlete as to what they needed to do with their pace in order to place themselves in the most advantageous position? Similarly, communicating with the athlete to tell them positioning and what they needed to do to catch the person in front of them or finish in a position compatible with a podium spot or whatever would be very helpful, as the existing literature on competitive athletics tells us simply telling an athlete these things can motivate them to increase their pace if possible. Perhaps this was not allowed per the CrossFit Games rules, judges, or venues, but since the coaches could be very close to the action to yell at their athletes- again- I kind of doubt this was the case. Maybe next year we’ll see a “coach’s row” that looks like the below image out of Moto GP:

77020_Tixier_MXGP_2013_R09_RX_6259_1024

Recovery “Tools”. One of the most interesting things I noticed was the full-fledged embrace the CrossFit community gave supplement and recovery companies, despite a lack of evidence to support their efficacy. Juxtaposed against the large tents and impressive displays by the companies in question (who shall remain anonymous) was Vitargo, a small Swedish company who makes the best carbohydrate supplement in the world. Virago showed up in a single E-Z up and table with a couple hundred samples to dole out to fans, athletes, and whoever else meandered on by their tent in the doldrums of the vendor area. Interestingly, Vitargo actually has a bunch of well-designed studies showing it’s efficacy in athletic applications, especially those that have multiple events throughout the day. As an aside, I wrote and submitted a nutritional article to the CrossFit Journal on Games day nutrition, i.e. how a Games athlete might structure their nutrition during the week of competition in order to maximize recovery and fueling for the events. The article was handily rejected as at that time, they only were allowing nutrition articles from the “inside”. No matter,Barbell Medicine athlete Brooke Ence took full advantage of what we’ve learned from both science and real-world experience. Still, the plethora of supplements with either NO efficacious ingredients or the incorrect amounts of potentially efficacious ingredients in the vendor area of the CrossFit games was astonishing. Point blank, if it wasn’t whey, a protein bar, or Vitargo and you bought it at the Games, you got duped.

Lumped into this category of “tomfoolery” would next be the electronic muscle stimulators being pushed onto athletes who would benefit from improved recovery, if it were possible through this method. Problem is, the data at present time does not support objective improvement in athletic performance with electronic muscle stimulation and, in fact, there are trials showing decreased performance from the incorrect frequencies being used on these machines. To be fair, the data is almost universally bad for most recovery modalities including cryotherapy, stretching, foam rolling, compression tights and devices, etc. Most of this stuff yields a subjective benefit to the athlete, i.e. the feel “less sore”, but objective markers of performance are still the same. So is it all bad or all good? Meh, I don’t really have a sense of if it’s bad or good in the context of an athlete’s psychological state- but physiologically it seems a bit like expensive snake oil to me.

Standards. I thought it was interesting that during the snatch and clean and jerk events that both press outs and power variations were considered “legal”, whereas in the 1-arm DB snatch component of the final workout a full squat was required for each rep to be good. I suppose it’s not an Olympic weightlifting meet and the standards are what they are, but I was just a bit confused as to why.

Profanity. This was perhaps my only real knock against the coverage, media, and color commentating of the event. The music being played wasn’t edited for profanity and, in addition, during some of the announcing of events there was profanity being used. I know that CrossFit isn’t billed as a “kids” or “family” event, but the use of profane music and language at such a large event seems a bit out of place, especially since it served no purpose, i.e. it wasn’t a concert or similar. CrossFit even has a deal with Apple Music now, so I’m sure the edited version of songs can be had rather easily.

Originally I had a big piece in this article addressing the safety of the events from a logistical standpoint, as outlined by Dr. Schulte here and to be quite honest, I think some of the points he raises are valid, in general. There does need to be oversight for potential health dangers such as the rigs getting too warm or certain field conditions dictating modification(s) of the workout, based on existing guidelines. On the other hand, I’m not so sure there needs to be a physician involved in the programming of the events, especially if the professional is not an experienced coach, lifter, athlete, etc. While sports medicine programs definitely train their fellows to be great at evaluating athletes and providing the subsequent management, the amount of training in athletic event logistics and programming is limited, at best. I’m not saying that the athlete’s health and well being shouldn’t be prioritized or that a health care professional shouldn’t be involved in bringing potential issues to the attention of the Event Coordinator on the day of the event, but I am saying that there probably doesn’t need to be a doctor on hand when programming the workouts. That is, of course, unless CrossFit wants a physician who is also a coach, an athlete, and well versed in programming and competition. In which case I’m probably available next summer 🙂

If you’ve read this far then you (hopefully) have gotten the feeling that I had a great time at the 2015 CrossFit Games and you’d be right! It was a blast and I cannot wait to go back next year. I would also like to take this opportunity to share some of my thoughts on CrossFit in general, as I feel like some may think I don’t “like” CrossFit or are under the impression that CrossFit is “bad”. Both things couldn’t be further from the truth. To be clear, CrossFit is not the enemy for strength and conditioning enthusiasts. Sure, we might have different methodologies for getting athletes strong, conditioned, or prepared for their sport- but that occurs even within certain strength and conditioning niches anyway (see Westside Barbell vs. Starting Strength, for instance). In reality, big organizations like NASM and the groups trying to put physical therapists in control of dictating the “standards of practice” for coaches (happening in Washington D.C right now- see here) are the real enemies. Heck, the fact that the NSCA and ACSM allow their monthly journals to be filled with peer reviewed fecal matter every issue should piss you off- not that there’s an organization who wants people to squat, clean, snatch, and condition hard. Need I mention the sweet byproducts of CrossFit’s popularity such as:

a) USAW’s membership exploding;

b) Rogue and the equipment industry in general not being a vacant wasteland of poor customer service and overpriced junk (Yea I’m looking at you Perform Better and Gopher);

c) and having places to train when you go on vacation instead of having to deal with Vinny and his “bro’s” at Gold’s when you’re in Encinitas.

So if you’re still hating on CrossFit let this be your “out”. You might never want to do a “WOD”- that’s fine, it’s not really my thing either. You might also correctly point out that the mainsite workouts on Crossfit.com do not produce optimal levels of strength for athletic performance- that’s true too (for another article, however), but at the end of the day should we really be hating on people who want to lift barbells and work their asses off? I don’t think so. Some may still argue that the histrionics and “elite” attitudes are concentrated in the CrossFit scene and to that I disagree. Having been in hundreds of “boxes” (there’s a joke in there somewhere) over the past few years training, doing seminars, and now going to the games I just don’t see it. What I do see are small pockets of a$$holes that exist everywhere- in powerlifting, Olympic lifting, bodybuilding, and in strongman too. To be blunt, there are jerks in strength sports everywhere- don’t be one of them.

-Jordan

 

About Jordan Feigenbaum

Jordan Feigenbaum, owner of Barbell Medicine, has an academic background including a Bachelor of Science in Biology, Master of Science in Anatomy and Physiology, and Doctor of Medicine. Jordan also holds accreditations from many professional training organizations including the American College of Sports Medicine, National Strength and Conditioning Association, USA Weightlifting, CrossFit, and is a former Starting Strength coach and staff member. He’s been coaching folks from all over the world  for over a decade through Barbell Medicine. As a competitive powerlifter, Jordan has competition best lifts of a 640lb squat, 430lb bench press, 275lb overhead press, and 725lb deadlift as a 198lb raw lifter.

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