Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Training, form follows function.

My own training is in a state of flux; I haven't set new concrete new physical goals for the rest of the year, but I need to maintain some sort of solid base (and I just like being active, it's not a burden at all). I know I'll be kayaking a fair amount this spring, then flying my glider, then rock climbing more and more (I've got an idea for a big rock traverse in early fall...). I think Crossfit does a fine job of physical prep for kayaking, and actually kayaking will take care of any issues. Being a lot stronger won't help for most actual kayaking, but it's important to be strong enough (threshold strength) and also strong enough to comfortably wrestle boats on portages (it happens), move around on junk terrain, etc. etc. CF takes care of all that, combined with the general mountain beating I do with my kid on my back or whatever.

For rock climbing I need some more specific finger strength, as well as skill reinforcement and development. For bigger days I need to also develop a deeper base; big days get easier with big-day training for sure.

With all of the above in mind my base plan is to follow the CF WOD, but add in a few sessions a week of either cragging or bouldering in the gym (dropping the CF intensity on those days or skipping it or rolling a couple of workouts together at a reduced level). I don't need to make this too specific yet; just moving and loading my forearms will be enough. Going climbing also involves walking to the crag here, so that will help with the long-day prep.

I also need to work my range of motion regularly; I have a yoga routine I often do before the CF WOD or climbing that really, really helps me move better. I've been doing that twice a week, it should be more like four times a week. I can tell when I'm not stretching and working my ROM enough, I get all creaky...

So that's what I'm doing for the next month or so... I'll start dropping CF workouts as the flying/paddling/climbing takes over the time slot.

Nutrition Thoughts: Form does follow function...

One "odd" thing about Crossfit is that, although the workouts burn a lot of energy per minute, they don't burn all that much energy in total. Even including an extensive warmup the total calories used during the exercise are relatively low, especially if you are used to the calories burned in aerobic sports (mountain biking, ski touring, etc). Many Crossfitters are relatively sedentary outside of the WOD. If you look at the physique of most Crossfitters it's more classically mesomorphic; some are very lean, but seldom in the same way that top aerobic athletes are lean. I don't think being super-lean is much if any of an advantage for Crossfit; being leaner will help with pull-ups and other gymnastic stuff to a certain extent, but the return on effort expended to get leaner below, say, 10 or maybe 15 percent BF for guys, is likely pretty darn minimal. Yet I hear a lot of, "I want to be ripped!" in the CF world. Getting really ripped without burning a ton of calories with exercise is pretty hard to do; hence all the nutrition freak-outs in the CF forums, the "I ate a piece of pizza, I'm doomed!" comments. No, you're not doomed, it likely doesn't make any difference at all. But if you're neurotic then you're by definition not thinking straight, and you'll think it is a problem... So CF athletes want to be super lean like high-aerobic burn athletes, but don't do the exercise loads that tend to naturally result in a very lean physique, and as a result are often in a mental conflict. I'd say let form follow function, spend less energy worrying about body fat levels and more on good form and intensity (which is really hard to get if you're not eating enough carbs...).

Something to think about anyhow. I always find it amazing how my body changes to fit the function I expect of it. If I just do CF I noticeably gain muscle (not saying much, ha ha!) and a little fat if I'm coming off a climbing season where I'm really lean, or lose a little fat if I'm coming out of kayaking where I tend to get a bit fatter. But form does follow function despite the massive efforts of people to fight this basic natural concept. Cheetahs aren't fat, antelope aren't fat, healthy seals are... People who sit on their asses and eat continually get fat. Go run 20K a day and you will get skinny... We are all animals.


Scott said...

Hi Will,
I agree with not being able to lean out using CF . I have been doing CF for a month but noticed I have lost some "leanness" already. I used to 3 days / week but dropped those runs because I am so burnt/sore from the CF workouts.

I am pretty sure the lean CF monsters in the competitions and HQ videos are doing a lot more than the WOD. I also wonder how many of them are "supplemented" with more than paleo and fish oils.

Still sold though just have to work more on proper recovery/ nutrition to get some more aerobic training in.

Anonymous said...

you can lean out doing anything. the only real equation is calories in vs. calories out. doesn't matter whether you are doing cf or running or just sport climbing. cutting calories isn't fun though: it's usually tough work. and, depending on your climbing goals, there's a heck of a difference between 15% body fat and 5% bodyfat. well, if you consider 30 pounds off of a 200 pounder "significant".

Will Gadd said...

Scott--I think you can "lean out" with CF or by sitting on the couch, it's just not worth getting very lean for either activity. ..

Personally, and maybe I'm naive, I don't think the CF "monsters" are doing the juice. The sport is so young that it's likely not required to win at this point. The physiques to me don't look like the physiques I associate with anabolic aids either, and I'm not sure what one would even take? Times are still dropping pretty fast on the WOD message boards for more and more people. I could be wrong, but I'd be surprised if the top men/women were doping in CF. Bike racing, yeah... Put a million dollar prize up in CF and you'll get doping. But right now the rewards are too small and the sport too young, a bit like rock climbing. I hope... Give 'er!

Anon--Yes in general, although the type of calories and what they are ingested with definitely complicates that equation more than was once thought in terms of getting leaner or fatter. The body is bot a bomb calorimiter...

I wrote that getting a lot lower than 10 or 15 percent wasn't a very useful goal for CF, nor is the protocol likely to result in super-lean people in general (compared to long-duration aerobic sports). Hard rock climbing is a little different for sure, but many of us who competed and climbed at about 5 percent or less body fat were not doing ourselves any favors. Today's best rock climbers are definitely lean (likely meaningfully leaner than the top CF competitors by a fair margin on average), but not like we were back in the day. And I'd argue that, over time, someone climbing at 10 percent BF will beat someone climbing at 3 percent BF... The 3 percenter is going to be a mental and physical mess shortly, guaranteed.

And it's not a 30-pound difference between 5 and 15 percent body fat on a 200 pounder. Five percent on 200 pounder is 10 pounds of "fat." 10 percent is 20 pounds fat. 15 percent is 30 pounds of fat. So there's ten pounds of difference between five and ten percent BF, and 20 between the normal lower limit and 15 percent...

The biggest reward with the least pain in the ass is likely to come from dropping to ten percent from 15 percent (for technical rock climbing). And even there, if it is to be sustainable, that loss has to come through improving the quality of the athlete's diet and workouts than through some strange food restriction plan....

all interesting to think about though.

Anonymous said...

And it's not a 30-pound difference between 5 and 15 percent body fat on a 200 pounder. Five percent on 200 pounder is 10 pounds of "fat." 10 percent is 20 pounds fat. 15 percent is 30 pounds of fat. So there's ten pounds of difference between five and ten percent BF, and 20 between the normal lower limit and 15 percent...

from the sports physiologists I've spoken to, 1 pound of fat loss equals 1.5 pounds of weight loss, due to the accompanying interstitial water loss. I haven't personally verified this, but, if true, lowering body fat% has a compounding weight loss effect.

and yeah, i'd agree that trying to sustain a 5 6 or even maybe 7% BF level is gonna be pretty tough. but dropping down for a meaningful red-point let's say is certainly doable, and not necessarily contra-indicated. i'd even argue that periodic fasting is good for humans! but that's another discussion altogether....

Will Gadd said...

Anon, the water "loss" as a component of fat loss doesn't make any sense to me after a few days. That doesn't mean it's wrong, but if 50 percent of the "realized" weight loss is water as you suggest ("1 pound of fat loss equals 1.5 pounds of weight loss, due to the accompanying interstitial water loss.") then that's going to change your body fat percentage. That just doesn't make sense, or it makes sense as much sense as saying you increase your body fat percentage by getting dehydrated. Maybe you lose some water with the fat, but your body is going to be hydrated at about the same percentage of your total weight (with some scaling I imagine, like most most things). Most people probably lose water when losing fat initially (the "miracle!" loss), but that's temporary. You could be right, show me a link and I'll be a believer.

What does often happen is that people often lose muscle mass when dieting "rapidly" to lose fat. For a sport based on finger strength primarily (climbing) that might be acceptable to some extent, but long-term it's counter-productive for many reasons. A "crash' diet for a hard redpoint might be slightly helpful, but over time I'd figure that the person who runs 8 percent BF consistently and climbs 20 5.13 routes a session will CRUSH the person who is crash-dieting to redpoint one 5.13... The big goal is always to be better consistently, not once, and "dieting" never works long term. Eating well does.

furry said...

I don't think you necessarily believe this, but your post makes it sound like leaning out etc. is as simple as calories in/calories out, particularly with regards to exercise.

While I take issue with the calories in/calories out simplicity (quality matters!) I also want to point out the metabolic differences between aerobic and anaerobic exercise. If we look at the two just from a calorie burning/weight loss perspective (all other benefits of strength building or loss aside) then anaerobic still can be just as effective, if not more so. This is because while you may not burn as many calories DURING a 10 minute metcon as during an hour on the elliptical, the effects of the metcon last throughout the day and then some. Your metabolism has been stimulated, and you're burning more calories to rebuild muscle, replace glycogen, etc. The same is not true of aerobics - once you get off the treadmill its over.

I'm no crossfit-koolaid drinker, but there was an interesting article in the CFJournal about this some time ago where they looked at total calorie expenditures for both types of activities.

Bottom line: I feel sorry for the poor fat bastards I see on the elliptical for an hour who are doing nothing but spike their appetite and then either intaking every calorie they just burned or starving themselves.

Will Gadd said...

Furry, are you responding to Anon's comment or mine? I wrote, "The human body is not a bomb calorimeter." But it is a physical system with inputs and stored energy, so ultimately it does come down to what goes in and what gets burned.

I read the CF journal regularly, it's a fantastic resource, and I buy into some of it some of the time. But I look at results and performance a lot more than words: who is kicking ass, why? Marathon runners are damn skinny but only good at running. Crossfitters are fatter, do a lot of stuff reasonably well, and dominate at Crossfit. Cool.

Anyhow, the whole after-effects of exercise concept is not unique to Crossfit. As I understand it, it even happens with good old LSD exercise, maybe you can point me to something that says it doesn't? A CFer doing a five-minute Fran isn't burning a tenth of the energy, even with the "after-burn" of a mountain runner going out for two hours, or a cyclist doing a 5,000-foot climbing day. Mountain runners and cyclists tend to be quite lean. Swimmers less so...

But this whole discussion is exactly the sort of stupid distraction that people get into; I just got sucked into it. The reason the discussion is missing the point is that form follows function. Being incredibly lean is not helpful for CF, why care about it? For climbing being lean is more helpful, but CF is not about climbing, again, why care?

If you're knocking on the door of being in the top half percent of performance in your sport then worry about 10 percent vs. 5 percent bodyfat. If you're not then eat good quality food and train hard, you'll be lean enough in short order unless you get too twisted up mentally about food.

e said...

i suppose this is a spaniard in the works, but - have a good look at the latest generation of marathon and ultra runners.
they are getting more and more crossfit-like every year.

the days of super lean runners, like climbers, has slowly passed.

yep, they are still 'lean' by most standards, but the attitude now that a bit more body fat and specific muscle helps endurance.

now that marathoners are hitting sub-2hr times they are running it like 10k runners of the old days. the marathon barely classifies as an endureance event these days.

and ultrarunners/skyrunners etc are training in more muscle strength as they find the whole body tiring affects performance, especially off roads.

also, i think it has a lot to do with how you store fat.
i carry a normal amount of body fat but look very lean and a bit ripped, and people with much less BF than me can look more filled out.
as with endurance athletes, they can train to store more fat in muscle and less in sub-cutenous - which looks a lot more lean.
have a looksee at the badwater runners and about half are this type.

aerobic/anaerobic has a lot to do with it - the rate at which you shift between metabolizing glycogen and stored fat.
compare a compatitive sprinter to a marathoner and theres the diff before you. they may actually run the same 3 or 4 hrs a day, but at different intensity.
contemporay sprinters are monsters compared to long distance - they switched on to the specific muscle mass as a power generator thing quite early.

as for the suckers at the gym on the treadmills - anyone at a gym for weightloss has been sold a scam. weight loss has more to do with sleeping patterns, breathing rythymns, hydration and oxygen efficiency than haulin on a rowing machine.
getting up at 5.30am to run will help you drop weight - tho the early hour will have as much to do with it as the run itself.

Will Gadd said...

Boston Marathon 2008: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/a6/Robert-Cheruiyot-Boston-Marathon-2008.jpg

Boston 2010:

The world record for the marathon hasn't been broken since 2008. A quick perusal of pictures from recent marathons, half marathons and indeed 10K races all show a bunch of Greyhounds, not pitbulls. The "Clydsedale" division of most running races is somewhere between 165 and 195; that alone should tell us that form follows function (and that running will attract lighter people).

I wouldn't totally buy into the idea that relatively short bursts of high-intensity, high-power output are better than LSD for getting leaner. If that were true then Crossfitters would be the leanest athletes on the planet, and we're not (despite so me of the more whacky eating programs).

But what really matters, and I do not understand why people, myself included for many years, don't get this very simple f@cking point: Form follows function. Sport climb your brains out, get leaner. Run 20K a day, get injured and leaner. Do a stack of Crossfit, get stronger, likely get a leaner if you were fat to start with, look and feel great. Go ski touring eight hours a day for a month, get strong legs and likely lean. Sprinters do not run 4 hours a day for a reason, that's just wrong. Train maybe, but not run.

The above all assumes you eat something that approximates a reasonable diet; lots of foods in their original state, not too much highly processed junk, enough liquids.

Performance counts. Winning counts. Everything else is important only to the degree that it effects performance...

furry said...

Yes Will, I totally agree that I'm more concerned with what's actually working for people rather than what's being produced in a lab. Of course, that line of thinking has to be constantly checked to make sure we aren't just buying into specific anecdotal references.

And yes: form follows function. That's a given. If all you do is train heavy then you'll get bigger than if you just did calisthenics. But I think there's nothing in that guideline inherently dispositive in the LSD versus metcon debate. A Cindy will lean you out while building/maintaining a fair amount of strength; whereas a Linda will spur your body to gain mass. This reality is exactly what sport specific athletes who use a Crossfit type program to train need to bear in mind. If you want to climb hard and maintain a leaner physique following the daily WOD probably isn't going to serve you best, for example.

Bruno said...

Hi folks,

Thanks to WG for continually challenging ideas and stimulating interesting discussion. I have learned a great deal from reading and reflecting on your words.

I find that there are two very intriguing questions buried in these posts.

I will post in two parts to make the word limit.

Post One
First, does form actually follow function? And if so, how? To put these questions another way, does practicing a particular sport gradually craft an athlete’s body to be well-suited to that sport? It seems that in an obvious way the answer is yes. By practicing a sport an athlete will develop some muscles, neglect others, redistribute mass and so on. This is also supported by simply looking at athletes from different sports: endurance athletes are lean, weightlifters are muscular, and so on. However, several things might make this conclusion a bit more complicated. It is possible that athletes gravitate towards sports in which they are successful, or believe they could be successful. So lean athletes take up marathon running, muscular athletes take up power lifting, and so on. There is a formal name for this choice effect but I can’t remember it right now. In any case, this choice, based on an athletes’ body types, must at least in part explain the differences in body types between athletes in different fields. This is not to say that form does not follow function, just that there might be other factors at work. Also, the mechanisms by which a particular sport may craft athletes’ bodies are complex. For example, consider the stereotypical lean body of the marathon runner. It is possible that this body type is simply the result of many miles of running and a corresponding amount of energy consumed. However, it is also possible that running for long periods of time, with a great demand placed on the body to cool itself, may stimulate the body to become lean in an attempt to make cooling more efficient. Or consider the counter example of a swimmer. Swimmers spend many hours in the water and sustain enormous workloads. They have very muscular bodies but they are not necessarily the most lean athletes. Perhaps this is because there is something about swimming for long periods of time in cool water which stimulates the body to retain a thin layer of insulation. And, as an added benefit, this insulation adds buoyancy and increases hydrodynamic efficiency, making swimmers fasters. The possibility that runners may be lean and swimmers smooth (for lack of a better descriptor) because of complex physiological adaptations, and not simply because of the metabolic demands of their respective sports is fascinating. The appropriate question might be, what is the natural body shape for climbing. Or how does climbing shape a body?

Bruno said...


Here is the second post. See above for Post One.

Post Two
Second, is maintaining energy during sports, or loosing weight, simply a question of “calories in/calories out” or is the situation more complex? On the surface it seems straightforward that the body has basic energy requirements which must be met, and that during sports these requirements increase. Energy must be supplied in whatever form to satisfy these needs. If too little energy is supplied over time an athlete will loose weight; if too much energy is supplied over time an athletes will gain weight. However, as WG observes, “The body is not a bomb calorimeter.” While I do not argue with basic mathematical truth of the equation described above, it is possible that different combinations of food (sugars, lipids, proteins) effect the body in different ways, for example, mood, appetite, behavior and so on, and that these factors, in turn, may effect energy levels, sports performance or weight loss. To cite a very straightforward example, most people are familiar with the rapid rise and fall of blood sugar, and the corresponding rise and fall of energy, associated with eating large amounts of simple sugars. This shows that certain foods can generate specific physiologic responses. To cite a more interesting example, I recently read an article about a study in which people who were fed food that was culturally familiar and food that was culturally foreign. I do not remember the details, but I believe the study compared typically Western and Eastern diets. The meals were controlled to have similar caloric and nutritional content, however, the subjects absorbed significantly more calories and nutrients from familiar food. This shows that food can effect the body in subtle ways. Taken together, these examples demonstrate that the kinds of food, and not simply the amount of calories an athlete consumes, can have definite effects. The mechanisms for these effects are probably complicated chemical and hormonal responses. To return to exercise and sport, I do not know how manipulating different proportions of sugars, fats and proteins may effect sports performance or weight loss. I suspect that there are probably general principles which can be applied to most people, in addition to great deal of individual variety. This supports WG’s advice to “listen to your body” and figure out how you perform based on what you eat. In any case, all of this is certainly food for thought….

carolyn said...

will, one question I keep coming back to is the base building general fitness of a program like xfit and more sport specific training. On gymjones Mark Twight seems to suggest base building can be a 2 year process for athletes. Some of my climbing friends have cycled through a few months of xfit and have now moved into sport specific. Some folks especially women noticed a gain of muscle (and weight) and some "bulking up" that they didn't want to continue doing. While I can appreciate this, such a short base building effort seems too too short. any thoughts?

Will Gadd said...


#1: Yes. Different ports do select for basic "threshold" bodytypes. I got into this a little bit with the triathletes/runners ("clydesdales"), but within those thresholds I think the sport likely shapes the person as well. Nature vs. nurture and all of that, interesting.

#2: Yes. Makes sense, good question, I don't have the answer beyond eat enough good simple food and go hard, you'll do OK with the nutrition in general.


-Twight is likely right on the "base" being a multi-year process, it's one of the ideas I know he's working with. Athletes get better and better over a period of years; so the "base" must be getting better too... I don't know enough about his theory to comment beyond that.

-I believe most recreational single-sport athletes will see the best improvement building a "base" using their sports. For example, the "base" cycle for a rock climber who wants to climb 5.11 that year and is currently climbing 5.10 might be 15 laps of 5.8-5.9 or two 30-minute traversing sessions per training effort, done three or four days a week for a month or more (adding volume and/or intensity as results are gained). Then turning that into ever-more focused training to address physical or technical weaknesses and improve skills. If an athlete has serious functional flaws (quads don't work for example) then that should be addressed with something like CF.

Crossfit and other GPP programs that I'm familiar with are for general fitness, not sport-specific results. I don't expect to climb better after doing nothing but CF for a couple of months; just the opposite. But I do think the CF will, in the long run, keep me climbing, paddling, etc. etc. longer and at a higher level...