Monthly Archives : July 2012

Three Principles For Decoding Crossfit, by Nate Helming

And how a lack of motor control or mobility is at the root of athletic inefficiency and injury

As a CrossFit Coach, I spend several hours per week leading athletes of all abilities through our “basics” class, teaching our core curriculum of movements (squat, pushup, deadlift, press, etc., etc., etc.) so they can safely and successfully enter our group classes.

We have a lot of ground to cover and not a lot of time to do it in. To make matters worse, the movements we cover can be quite technical, i.e. gymnastics skills and Olympic lifting. Athletes spend their entire careers specializing in just one of these skill-based sports and yet we ask our athletes to be “fluent” across all of them—in 3 or 6 sessions no less. Thus it’s easy and understandable when athletes get their head stuck in the weeds and overwhelmed trying to learn all that CrossFit requires.

And athletes who start to over think move worse, remember less, and get frustrated. As a coach, it’s easy to get frustrated too with athletes who don’t “get it” especially when we rush them through a program the athlete barely understands.

To battle these potential frustrations, it’s best to first review three simple movements: the body weight squat, the pushup, and the gymnastic hollow rock, and more importantly to introduce the principles of midline stability, load/tension, and torque. By taking more time to introduce these principals upfront, athletes learn the more complex, skill based movements faster later. Athletes also begin to understand that we are interested in making better athletes (not necessarily just CrossFitters), and that these principals apply to their sport as well.

This approach is helpful for these below reasons:

From the get go, we can introduce the three athletic principles that apply to all CrossFit movements: how to create trunk stability, how to load and tension, and how to create torque through external rotation in most cases and internal rotation in others (i.e. shoving the knees out in a squat, or “breaking the bar” in a shoulder press).

We progress from simple to complex movements. Athletes who fail to understand the push press or push jerk, for example, have been progressed too quickly by their coach. Period. Chances are this athlete does not yet know how to keep their trunk stable in a pushup, they don’t know how to initiate the pushup with the shoulder (versus the elbow), and they don’t know how to “screw” the hands into the ground to create additional torque to further stabilize the shoulder. A pushup is a simple enough exercise most people can do. Fortunately, it’s also technical enough that we can apply the principles of midline stability, load/tension, and torque making it a very powerful skill transfer exercise for all other upper body and overhead exercises seen in CrossFit. And ultimately, this skill transfer is the entire point to making us better athletes!

Finally, with these principals in mind, we further help the athlete by breaking down their movement into more digestible chunks: mobility and motor control. Mobility captures range of motion in a joint in addition to the muscular flexibility surrounding that joint. For example, in the shoulder, we want to know that the shoulder can “slide and glide” in the socket, but we also want to look at muscle flexibility in the surrounding musculature that equally affects the range of motion. Motor control involves our ability to coordinate movement and muscular engagement in the right sequence consistently and repetitively. It does not require massive amount of strength. For example, how strong do you have to be stand tall and squeeze your butt?

By looking at these two components, we provide more specific feedback to help the athlete understand their limiters and how to overcome those limiters. Let us look at the shoulder in general and the pushup to demonstrate how we can decode pain, inefficient movement, and create a template for better shoulder positioning and strength.

Trunk stability: in a pushup position, the athlete’s legs have to be squeezed together with belly and butt squeezed tight. This trunk stability is a prerequisite to a stable pushup because it provides a firm foundation for the shoulder to stabilize. An unstable trunk equals an unstable shoulder that tends to pop out into an internally rotated position. Clearly, trunk stability falls on the motor control side of the athletic equation, and without it shoulder stability will not happen.

Load/tension: we teach athletes to initiate a squat from the hips (not the knees). This keeps their weight on the heels and effectively loads the posterior chain for a deeper, more powerful squat that also removes pressure off the knees, a good thing all around. In a similar vein, we teach athletes to initiate the pushup from the shoulder (not the elbows). Here athletes often struggle. In order to load the shoulder effectively, athletes require sufficient internal range of motion in the shoulder joint. (See Kelly Starrett’s MobilityWod post for more information:

Without this range of motion, the elbows tend to creep outwards and strain tends to increase in the front of the shoulder as well as in the neck. Attempting to perform a proper shoulder-loaded pushup makes this mobility problem plain to see and quite simple to solve with a lacrosse ball and some bands (again see MobilityWod here for videos). While it requires some motor control to initiate from the shoulder, proper load/tension equally falls on the mobility side of the equation.

Creating torque: in flexion (think deep in a squat), we teach athletes to generate torque (for greater trunk, knee, and ankle stability) by shoving the knees aggressively outwards and by pushing the floor “apart” on the way back up. Applied to the pushup, we queue athletes to screw their hands into the ground and flick their elbow pits forward on the way back up. Done effectively, this keeps the shoulders stabilized together by adding external rotation torque. Creating torque falls equally on the mobility and motor control sides of the equation. As a new concept, athletes require time to practice this queue and develop this skill. Furthermore, athletes who lack internal rotation at the shoulder will equally struggle to generate torque because they cannot find a strong position to push from.

And athletes who struggle with this mobility in the pushup will struggle even more when performing a parallel bar or ring dip, handstand pushup, or an overhead press. Furthermore, swimmers who lack internal range of motion fail to develop a strong connected catch and pull. And runners cannot drive their elbows straight back for an effective arm swing.

By breaking dysfunctional movement down into mobility and motor control, we can better see the root of an athlete’s injuries and inefficiencies. We can better explain this to the athlete so they understand, and we can better empower the athlete to make the corrections themselves. Additionally, by introducing and applying the concepts of midline stability, load/tension, and torque we make the more complicated Olympic lifts and gymnastics skills easier to comprehend. And we make the movements seen in CrossFit more relevant to athletes’ specific sports.

Train Well




Join Us For A Paleo Cooking Class and Feast on August 25

Come out for a Mediterranean themed Paleo cooking class led by the holistic nutritionist Grass Fed Girl and her chef husband on Saturday, August 25th at 5:30 p.m.  Learn how to incorporate North African flavors to spice up your paleo routine.  They will have some cooking demo’s, Q and A, and edutainment followed by a meat feast.  Come out for some culinary fun and ancestral bonding.  Space is limited – $40/person.   Please RSVP to


Congrats To Our Spring Leaning Winners









Congratulations to our 2012 Spring Leaning winners Reza Tavana and Margaret Polyak!    Over 30 of our athletes participated in this 30-day Paleo challenge and it was a great way to get everyone’s diet back on track before summer.  Over 125 votes were cast by the SFCF community for our six finalists Reza, Kyle, Tim, Margaret, Susan, and Lara.   Not only did the finalists do a great job cleaning up their diets but they subjected themselves to having their “before” and “after” pictures on display for a week by the SFCF community.

Reza and Margaret will be sharing the almost $500 “kitty” and also won a 1-month membership to SFCF.    It was also the first time folks used Beyond the Whiteboard to log their meals and it worked well.

In other news, we are planning a Paleo Cooking Class in August so check out our next newsletter for details.   Also, our Fall Leaning challenge will begin in late September and it will be a longer challenge this time – 8 weeks.

Kirk to Engine Room. Send More Power Up HERE, By Nate Helming

Muscle failure versus Perceived Exertion. What really slows us down when it counts?

Here we are in the heart of the endurance-sport racing season and the Crossfit Games have begun.  Most athletes have just finished major races or are about to hit the next ones. After months of hard work, athletes finally get to hit their big summer races fully trained, tapered, prepared, and (gulp) with no more excuses. “It’s just a training race” no longer works. It’s where rubber meets the road. But despite excellent physical preparation, some athletes finish these races feeling unsatisfied.

Now there are a lot of factors that contribute to a strong performance, including the athlete’s training plan, the execution of that plan, and maintaining the crucial balance of working hard and recovering well afterwards.

And there are completely legit reasons races do not go as planned. As most of us are amateur athletes with professional careers and family obligations, things come up that affect our training. We change jobs, we move, we get married, have kids, etc. Other times, we get a flat, we drop a precious water bottle or some other bit of bad luck that affects the race itself. If one of these situations happens, we must make peace and move on.

But more often than not, it’s an athlete’s ability to consistently push themselves in training and in racing that separates the great racers from those who do not perform as well. Simply put, racing hurts. And it’s the athletes who can push further into the pain cave who walk away feeling more satisfied with their race day performance.

So how hard can we push ourselves exactly?

Traditionally, exercise physiologists believed that when their research subjects “went to failure” during a time trial test, they literally physically spent themselves to exhaustion. Meaning, they maxed out their oxygen carrying ability to working muscles and the body shut down.

However, Tim Noakes, a well-known and respected exercise physiologist and researcher from South Africa, believes otherwise. According to his “central governor theory,” our brains constantly monitor our bodies to limit any damage we could do from any extended physical exertion. The brain wants the body constantly in homeostasis for its long-term wellbeing. When we start pushing ourselves into higher levels of exertion (and out of homeostasis), our brains limit our ability to push further by “reducing the neural recruitment of muscle fibers.” We experience this as fatigue, and the brain thereby protects the body by limiting the exertion long before any real damage to the heart, joints, or muscles ever occurs. Hence, the brain “governs” the body and our exertion.

While certainly controversial, it suggests that athletes (consciously or sub-consciously) limit their own abilities long before they have reached their physical limits. And interestingly, these findings have been substantiated. In another article, a group of elite rugby players were asked to perform a planned 10-minute time trial to exhaustion on a bike. One second immediately after they stopped (and thought they were done), they were then asked to sprint all out for five seconds. These athletes cumulatively averaged a 240 watts for 10 minutes, then 700+ watts on the sprint only one second afterwards. As traditional exercise physiology states, if these athletes went to physical exhaustion, they would not be able to push more power into the pedals for the sprint so soon. However, that they had more power to push for the sprint suggests they were not at their physical limits at all, supporting Noakes’s central governor theory.

So what does this mean to us?

That no matter how hard we’re going, it’s our rating of perceived effort that will limit us long before our physiology does. The longer athletes race and train, the more adept they are at pushing these limits further. For example, the goal of any new athlete is to hit the finish line. And often, those athletes finish happily with a big smile on their face (as they raced conservatively).

But as athletes gain experience, and are motivated more by performance (either for a PR, or the podium), they suffer more and for longer periods of time. The finish line smile is replaced with a grimace. Instead of the high five and big hug, we see shaky knees and the need for a chair.

Results aside, racing and training involves pushing our own limits past where we think they exist. Sometimes we risk too much and fail way ahead of the finish line. That’s ok because at least we tried. But all too often we do not risk at all, and then walk away unhappy and unsatisfied with our performance.

So the next time you’re out racing, and your body says, “slow down,” late into the race, it just might be your head wanting to go at a more comfortable pace. Knowing this you may be able to push further and without fear. While pushing this far into the “pain cave” is scary at first, athletes get better with practice. While not every workout should be this mentally and physically taxing, it is appropriate to go there occasionally to gain some familiarity and—ironically—comfort. That’s why racing frequently at shorter distances can sharpen an athlete’s ability to push their limits when it counts.

While you can’t control who else helps shows up in a race, you can control your own efforts. So as an athlete chances are you will walk away more satisfied that the effort you put down was as close to an all-out effort as you could do. After all, that’s all we can ask of anyone.

But especially for those athletes on the edge of racing at that next level, practicing this ability to really push just may do the trick. After all, there’s nothing more satisfying than blowing your own expectations out of the water and breaking through at your next A race. So to those athletes, I say go for it! Isn’t that worth a little more pain?

Train Well



Games Week at SFCF & Schedule Updates

In honor of the 2012 Crossfit Games this week and, because Crossfit HQ has already announced most of the individual and team WODs, SFCF athletes will spend the week walking in the shoes of the worlds fittest athletes.   Every day this week, the SFCF WODs will be either one of the individual or team WODs posted on the Crossfit Games website (or as close to it as we can get in a group).   Get yourself prepared for sprinting, lifting, climbing rope, doing some of the “girls,” and more…

As always, WODs will be posted on our Beyond The Whiteboard (BTWB) site at midnight the night before a workout is scheduled.   If you are new to SFCF and don’t yet have a BTWB log-in, please email to get set up.

Although most of the SFCF staff will be headed to the Games, some of our coaches will be here to hold down the fort and so our regular group class schedule will stay largely the same as usual with the exception of the Movement & Mobility Class on Thursday at 7 p.m., which is cancelled.   Check our Group Class Schedule for updates.

Reminder: 4th of July Schedule

4th Of July Schedule

Group Class – All Levels Welcome – 9:00 a.m.

 In honor of our independence from the kingdom of Great Britain, we will be hosting a celebratory group WOD on at 9:00 a.m. on July 4th lead by Coach Diane.   At SFCF, we will be celebrating one of the legendary Crossfit WODs, Murph, which is:

1 mile Run
100 Pull-ups
200 Push-ups
300 Squats
1 mile Run

In memory of Navy Lieutenant Michael Murphy, 29, of Patchogue, N.Y., who was killed in Afghanistan June 28th, 2005.  This workout was one of Mike’s favorites and he’d named it “Body Armor”.  It was changed to “Murph” in honor of the focused warrior and great American who wanted nothing more in life than to serve this great country and the beautiful people who make it what it is.  Partition the pull-ups, push-ups, and squats as needed. Start and finish with a mile run. If you’ve got a twenty pound weight vest, this is a good time to bring it down.

Olympic Lifting Club

11 a.m. – 1:00 p.m. – Coach Diane

* Regular Schedule will resume on Thursday, July 5th





Pon™ Slays The Marin Ultra Challenge 50-Miler!

It was another weekend of competition for SFCFer Pon™, who finished the Marin Ultra Challenge 50 miler on Saturday, smashing his prior 50-mile PR by almost an hour.   Woot!!!  The race involved almost 14,000 feet of elevation gain and was a super difficult course.   This race was just a week after the Double Dipsea, where Pon™ also got a huge PR.

According to Pon™ himself, after eating ethnic food that caused him some digestive issues in the morning, he seriously considered DNFing at mile 24 but slogged on to mile 27 – the Stinson Beach aid station.  There, he met up with Lisa Masai and Chris Knievel who provided him with much needed fuel, hydration, and support.   Chris then paced Pon all the way to the finish (a full 28 miles – go Chris!).

As soon as the duo passed the Tennessee Valley Aid Station at Mile 47, Pon™ knew he could finish well under 13 hours.  He did just that, finishing the race in 12:51, almost an hour faster than his time last year on the Marin Headlands 50 Miler of 13:45, which was a much easier course.   Way to go Pon™ and Chris!