The first step is admitting you have a problem. This article is about how I kicked my habit; my metcon habit. When transitioning to the sport of weightlifting, particularly when coming from a GPP addiction, it can be tough to let go. First, let me tell you how it all began.
HOW I GOT HOOKED
“You should be a weightlifter. You would be so good!”
These were the words spoken to me by my then CrossFit coach Aimee Anaya Everett. It was 2010 and I was on a CrossFit high. As most stories go, I had found CrossFit one year earlier (before meeting Aimee and Greg at Catalyst Athletics). After just one workout I fell head over heels in love with it- after all, I was good at it, and it left me on the floor in a pile of my own sweat (must be a great way to get into shape right?) Not to mention in those first 6 months I became stronger, leaner, more confident, and found out that I could use it as a competitive outlet since there was something called the CrossFit Games.
As a previously competitive athlete (College and Professional Softball) with experience in Strength & Conditioning I had a knack for the movements and enjoyed the general competitiveness of it all. Although I entered this new world somewhat out of shape (I mean I had only been doing heavy squats followed by sprint interval workouts on the treadmill- you can’t get fit on a treadmill right?), I vowed to make it to the CrossFit Games that year.
And I did just that. After just 6 months of doing CrossFit, leaving behind my heavy lifting and cardio interval workouts, I won the 2009 Nor Cal Regional with flying colors. I was off to the 2009 CrossFit Games.
In preparation for the Games I continued to educate myself on the CrossFit way. I realized I needed to be better if I were to do well. I attended every CrossFit Cert I could. I watched videos of Greg Glassman giving lectures on nutrition and Dave Castro talking about how important it was to work in the longer, 25+ minute time domains more often if you wanted to be competitive; and I complied. I began a Zone Diet, just 12 blocks per day, weighing and measuring my food obsessively. I made sure to take long runs every week and practice longer, high rep workouts with wall balls and burpees and air squats. I took my fish oil and sported my flair: tall socks, bandana, and tattoo art T-shirts (skins and kinesio-tape weren’t yet in style) like every good CrossFitter should.
But then I started having some issues. I was working harder than ever, yet my gains began to dwindle. I started to get pudgy around my midsection so I thought maybe I should drop my blocks down from 12 to 10 while adding even more running to my workout regimen, yet I was tired and hungry all the time. I began having trouble falling asleep and staying asleep and soon I found it difficult to lift my feet to walk upstairs or simply stay standing during the day. The answer in my mind was to work through it and simply do more: more running, more volume, more long metcons.
In retrospect, I can’t be certain if I was overtrained or simply overreaching. Overtraining syndrome is clinically recognized by reduced performance despite the same or an increased level of training. It is the result of an accumulation of stressors that exceed an athlete’s finite resistance (1). However all of the classic symptoms were there: Sudden drop in performance, decrease in training capacity/intensity irritability, insomnia, lack of energy and enthusiasm for the sport, a compulsive need to exercise, just to name a few.
Even though I was doing everything I thought I should be, I was feeling and performing worse than ever. I began to get nervous as the Games approached but I figured that once I got there my competitive nature would take over and things would be fine.
I was wrong. That was the last year the CrossFit Games were held at “The Ranch” and it began with a 7.2k trail run. I barely made it through the run and although I made it through all five workouts on Saturday (athletes were eliminated throughout the day) including a Deadlift PR of 325lbs, I did not make it on to Sundays final 16 which was far worse than I and many others expected. I was utterly disappointed to say the least.
A STEP IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION
After spending some time practicing my Olifting with Greg and Aimee at Catalyst Athletics, and being inspired by what previous Games winner Jolie Gentry had accomplished, I asked Aimee to put together my new CrossFit program. I was upset about my 2009 Games defeat, was not currently getting better, but desperately wanted to be. Luckily for me Aimee obliged.
The program was quite different than what I was accustomed to. It consisted of a strength training and Olympic weightlifting progression followed by short, intense metabolic conditioning consisting of mostly non-technical movements (ie: sandbag shouldering, box jumps, pull ups, short sprints, etc.). Strength and technical work like the Olympic lifts, hand stand pushups, and muscle ups, were for the most part performed and developed separately from metabolic conditioning. However, they would be put in to the conditioning workouts periodically for testing under metabolic stress. Besides the strength training progression, rather than randomized training
, one of the biggest differences in my program was the lack of endurance type conditioning. Most of the time my workouts were very short (3-12 min) and often consisted of unusual movements (think barbell carries or sand bag half-moons) and 400m, 200m repeats or 100m row sprints. Though every once and a while we would test my 5k run.
Another major change was my diet. Long gone were the days of starving my body of nutrients with low quality food while following The Zone. Instead I cut out all sugar (even in the form of fruit), anything processed or that contained gluten, and most dairy. Instead, I fueled with meats, veggies, and fat… period; and man did I eat. I wouldn’t be surprised if I ate 120+ grams of protein per day, 70+ grams of fat, and exceeded 3000 calories fairly regularly. But I don’t really know because I didn’t count. I simply ate all of the quality food I could get my hands on.
I have to admit all of this eating combined with tons of heavy lifting and such short metcons all the time worried me. I was somewhat leery and wasn’t totally sure how this was going to prepare me to compete in CrossFit. I certainly didn’t want to get any pudgier (which is just my nice way of saying fat). But just as Aimee had urged me to do, I put my faith into the program and did the best I could in whatever I was asked to do.
Then there was change. I started to get stronger than ever. Within a couple of months my Snatch went from 123lb to 153lb, C&J from 165lbs to 195lbs, and Back squat from 245lbs to 275lbs just to name a few. Yet I became leaner than ever. Because I was lean, comparatively light, and had extensively practiced my skills separately from metabolic conditioning, I could string together multiple muscle ups for the first time and complete 20 hand stand pushups without batting an eye. And though I was rarely doing long metcons when I tested my 5k it went from 30 minutes, to 25, to 21. I looked better, I felt better, and I my performance was top notch. I was becoming the fittest I had ever been.
At open gym one day, as I PR’d on my Snatch Aimee turned to me and said, “You should be a weightlifter. You would be so good!”
Greg enthusiastically agreed.
“Can’t I do both?” I asked hopefully? I was sure I could.
“No you can’t.”
Aimee was blunt. She went on to explain what most of us already know but somehow don’t let penetrate our skulls and secretly hope to defy. Strength and cardio endurance are at opposite ends of the fitness spectrum. Though you can be relatively good at both, if you train for GPP you will always have to compromise the extreme ends. In other words, although you can become pretty strong while also spending time getting metabolically conditioned you will never reach your maximum strength potential.
See, high intensity (heavy) strength training results in an increase of protein synthesis and accretion of contractile proteins, both of which are potent stimuli for muscle cell hypertrophy (2). Conversely, an oxidative endurance training stress (ie: distance running) causes the opposite response, breaking down and sloughing myofibrillar protein in order to maximize oxygen uptake kinetics (3). Yet even knowing this I was still somewhat skeptical that quitting GPP training all together to focus solely on Olifting could possibly vault me to the next level as a weightlifter as quickly as Greg and Aimee seemed to think. They made a good pitch however, because the conversation ended with my agreeing happily that I would give weightlifting a real shot as soon as my current CrossFit season came to an end.
The 2010 CrossFit Southwest Regionals came and went. I competed in the best shape of my life having balanced my abilities across a broad fitness spectrum: I could lift heavy, run, execute gymnastics and feared nothing. I truly felt that I was physically prepared more than I ever had been in my life for anything that could come my way let alone at a GPP competition. Yet with the heartache of my coach(s) recent and infamous fallout with CrossFit HQ and thus their forbiddance to be present at my meet, combined with my new excitement for a different future, my heart was already in a different place. The talent and competition was incredible and I simply missed the mark that weekend.
And so, it was time.
THE ROAD TO RECOVERY
As I started my new Olympic Weightlifting venture Greg took over my programming and kicked things off with a pretty intense strength cycle. I was excited to be involved in a new sport, one that both he and Aimee believed I had a future in. I decided that if I was going to do this right I would have to put all of my faith and trust into the program and simply do whatever was called for as best I could. But that didn’t mean I didn’t have fears. In fact I had lots of them.
My brain raced with worry and if you could have been inside it you’d have heard: “I know I’m going to get strong but what if I get fat? I really don’t want to get fat again, I finally just leaned out. How can I possibly stay lean without doing metcons? I swear, if I start to feel out of shape and I can’t do stuff anymore, or like I’m getting huge I’m going to sneak in some running. If I hate my body, I’m going to quit.” Even as I recount these initial thoughts it’s funny to see how aesthetically driven I was by my need for metcon even though both scientific and anecdotal evidence demonstrated that strength training and mastering quality movement provided better results in every way: performance, well-being, sleep, recovery- even aesthetics.
I was, however, excited about getting stronger and becoming competitive in the sport so I dove in to the training with a vengeance. The workouts proved to be very intense. I was regularly lifting heavier weight than ever before, and executing a substantial amount of repetitions in the technical lifts compared to anything I was used to. Metcon was not allowed. Greg also made me work to be strong in specific postural positions at different points in the lifts that at first seemed foreign to me and were extremely taxing. Rarely did I complete a workout in less than two hours and I often had to train in a gym (on non-Catalyst days) where no one understood what I was doing or why I was doing it. I was often told by other trainers “you’re just strong, but you’re not fit.” It was both physically and mentally demanding.
But then came even more change. My numbers skyrocketed. My snatch went from 153 to 182lbs, C&J from 195 to 227lbs, and Back Squat from 275 to 308lbs. In my first USAW sanctioned meet I qualified for both Americans and Nationals placing 7th at Americans (Nationals is coming up in July). Furthermore, while performing all of the heaviest lifting I had ever done, no metcon programed (or allowed) into my training schedule, and my continued unrestricted diet of un-weighed/unmeasured meat, veggies, and quality fat I became the leanest I had ever been while participating in exercise or sports competitions. My legs became thick solid muscle. I could actually see my abs.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to convince everyone that they should be a weightlifter (although you should, it’s awesome) or stop exercising altogether particularly if being a generally fit person is what you’re passionate about. Being able to do a lot of different physical things is just plain fun and I’ve had a few relapses of my own-mostly because I just wanted to see if I still could and also to silence the naysayers. Interestingly, during my relapses I found out that after 8 months of exclusive weightlifting I could string together 4 muscle ups with ease, perform 27 hand stand pushups unbroken, and turn in a 9:30 “Helen” with an extended 450m run (oh man, that last one might get me fired by my coach). I was elated that by getting strong and proficient in movement I could jump in without skipping a beat and in fact felt even stronger than before. I could easily envision being competitive in the CrossFit world again if I so desired.
The point is that doing more isn’t always better, if ever. Whether you are training for GPP and/or the CrossFit Games by running yourself into the ground day in and day out, sometimes multiple times per day, by randomly and regularly programming aggressive conditioning, distance running, heavy technical metcons, etc., chances are it’s going to eventually cause problems with recovery and worse, it won’t prove sustainable for your competitive career. It’s likely in your best interest to seek out a smart coach who can properly periodize your training and tailor it to your specific needs.
Weightlifters, masters of the Snatch and the C&J who aim to be as strong as possible, and often also as big as possible, arguably need to kick the habit all together. At Catalyst, us weightlifters joke about Greg threatening to fire us if word gets back that we’ve been doing “stupid shit” because he knows how much it will hold us back from making the strength gains he’s helped us work toward by creating specific programs with our ultimate strength potential and competitive interest in mind. It all comes back to the scientific fact that if you want to be your absolute strongest, you will be sabotaging your gains if you insist on also doing aggressive metabolic conditioning or cardiovascular endurance training.
1) Halson SL, Jeukendrup AE, Does overtraining exist? An analysis of overreaching and overtraining research. Sports med 34: 967-981 2004
2) Dudley, G.A., P. A Tesch, B.J. Miller and P. Buchanan. Importance of eccentric actions in performance adaptations to resistance training. Aviat. Space Environ. Med. 62: 543-550
3) Klausen, K., L. b. Anderson, and I. Pelle. Adaptive changes in work capacity, skeletal muscle capillarization and enzyme levels during training and detraining. Acta Physiol. Scand. 113: 9-16, 1981.