In our rush to get PRs and big gains we sometimes overlook the smallest of things that are truly holding us back in CrossFit.
For CrossFit novices and intermediate level athletes, we spend our first year or two just trying to hang on from WOD to WOD. We overhear advanced and elite athletes talking about feeling this particular muscle or position while they are squatting, snatching, kipping or jumping but it is ancient Greek for most of us. How on earth can we even be thinking about the efficient activation of the illiopsoas when we are simply trying to keep from catching the edge when doing box jumps during a WOD?
As we progress in our CrossFit journey though, things begin to change. After many months of working out we actually begin to feel the positive impact of minor changes. The direction to activate our glutes during a squat or deadlift suddenly clicks and makes sense. Hand placement during a basic push up becomes a determining factor for whether we can use our arms the following day to eat breakfast. From day one of starting CrossFit to event 7 of the CrossFit Games, paying attention to these minor tweaks can deliver major gains and here are 3 exercises you should be doing every time you work out.
So simple. So boring. So silly looking. So important.
Something as simple as how your foot lands on the ground can mean linking 3 more double-unders.
Right now, CrossFit athletes all over the planet are struggling with the simple mechanics of the foot. When you break one of them, you actually begin to understand how badly you’ve treated them throughout your life. I know. I have the benefit of having Richard Ulm (DC, MS, CSCS) as a friend, doc, coach, fellow CrossFit athlete and partner in strength-and-fitness-nerdiness. During my rehabilitation of a shattered 5th metatarsal and shredded ankle, Dr. Ulm pinpointed my lower extremity weakness and mobility issues to the fact that my motion based activities (running) were too far forward on my feet; always on my toes. And my heavy lifting was too far back. All heels and no mid-foot; in every single lift. These mechanical issues with my feet hadn’t prevented me from building a 385lb back squat and a 455lb dead lift over the years; until that day I broke my foot and ankle. Only then did bio-mechanical issues overwhelm any amount of sheer strength I could apply in a given exercise.
But why bar taps? After a lot of work with Dr. Ulm I started thinking about my jumping mechanics and watching others. It became quickly evident that I and many other people have learned and been conditioned to jump from the balls of our feet – not the forefoot area. We’re using one of the three points of the tripod when we need to be using two. So I started doing bar taps – standing flat footed and jumping to a 9 foot pull up bar and simply tapping it with both hands. But, I have concentrated on making full, forefront foot contact on landing and leaping. This conscious effort to broaden the points of contact on the bottom of my foot has resulted in amazing dividends.
First, body/physiological awareness of my foot position is generating more power in my full range of lower extremities, activating and improving muscle fiber recruitment in my calves. Which had become grossly over dominated by my quads and hamstrings. Bar taps have provided me the type of stability needed to feel grounded on take off and landing.
Sure – sounds all peachy keen right? But what you really want to know is what does it do for you in the gym? After 3 focused weeks of doing 3 sets of 10 bar taps before and after every single stop at the gym I have moved from linking 3 double-unders to 10 double-unders. Just in the course of writing this post over a few days, I linked my first set of 20 double-unders ever. Think about this for a moment – with this minor tweak I have increased my linked double-under output by 300% in 3 weeks. It has taken me 2 years to get to 3 consistently linked double-unders but 3 weeks to get to 10.
In truth, every aspect of my lifting and conditioning workouts is improving with this simple bar tap exercise. Mid-foot stability is teaching me that the heel and the forefoot are for motion and leverage – but neither are the appropriate landing pad for any exercise. Only the mid-foot provides the stability we all need in snatches, dead lifts, cleans and jerks.
A few weeks ago I relieved myself of a major brain fart. For two straight years I had been working on muscle-ups and bar muscle-ups and didn’t even stop to think; “hey, are there gymnasts in town that can teach me this”? Sure enough, right across town is a massive gymnastics center where kids from 6 different universities in our area workout. 20 bucks a session and I’m on the training rings with a young man giving me pointers – and he’s been on the rings and high bars since he was in kindergarten.
Time and again during my swings and kips I’d hear him say, “you’re breaking at the knees – don’t swing your knees up, keep a hollow rock position and stay tight.” Once again – so basic. But so very frequently overlooked.
My ability to sustain a tight body position in a hollow rock was almost non-existent. I have always tended to treat hollow rocks like a jumping jack – do the move and get it done. Hollow rocks are pretty much relegated to warm-ups; but should be in your daily routine. In fact, the entire anterior chain (remarkable that we only ever hear about the posterior chain) is engaged in a hollow rock, or should be. Doing hollow rocks during every warmup or post-workout is delivering huge benefits in the form of physiological awareness of form and posture, while generating substantially more power in kips and swings from the bar.
Plate Holds & Carries
Grip. Grip Grip. Grip grip grip. There isn’t a CrossFit gym on the planet where grip strength receives enough training, coaching or programming. And the remedy is beyond simple. Stop carrying weights with both hands or by the hubs. Pinch grip every single plate, regardless of the weight and farmer carry them to your barbell. Every day, every plate and no exception.
I had an advantage coming to CrossFit after I had spent a number of years powerlifting as training for the Scottish Highland Athletics. You know, throwing trees and heavy weights over things and for distance. There are a lot of true strongman and grip strength competitors in the games and I learned a lot about grip training. Watching guys deadlift 400 plus pounds on a 2 inch axle or press a Thomas Inch dumbbell is enough to make any person realize that strength is truly relative. Relative to what you can actually hold on to.
If continuous improvement is our primary goal in CrossFit and we are only as strong as our weakest link, improving your grip strength is an absolute must. Pinch plate farmer carries are a sugar-simple exercise available to you every single day in the gym. If you’re confident that you don’t need them, pull a pair of 45lb pound plates and stroll off a 100 foot walk. Grab those plates and start working those little muscles and tendons for a big, big return.
So there you go. Don’t fall in love with all the big lifts and power moves to the detriment of forgetting the small things. This minor things aren’t as minor as they look.