I began my journey with CrossFit at The LAB on February 28th, 2011. Although it’s now been just six or so months, it seems forever ago that while on a run one afternoon, I decided on a whim to just walk in and see what the place was all about. I happened to catch the owner Lindsey while she was leading a class, but she was nice enough to chat with me for a few minutes. Behind her a class of LAB athletes grunted as they lifted insane weight, and jumped about and sweated profusely. I’d not heard much about CrossFit (and from the looks of it, it looked hard), but her explanation of how it worked and the philosophy behind it definitely resonated with me. Improve my strength, stamina, power, speed, agility and coordination? Go at my own pace within my own skill set, and with the benefit of encouragement from coaches and fellow members alike? Where do I sign up?
At the time, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I had no inkling of how difficult and challenging it would be. And little did I know back then how rewarding an experience CrossFit training ultimately would prove to be for me.
Yes, back in March, way before I’d even heard about power cleans and snatches and split jerks, jumping rope singles for 30 seconds without stopping was a personal feat. Ten unbroken push ups was, at the time, all I could muster. And, I’m embarrassed to admit, I couldn’t even do one unassisted pull up. Not one.
But I’m stubborn. And when I decide to do something, I go at it 100%. I don’t know any other way to do it. It’s not in my DNA to do something half-assed. So when I signed on to start CrossFit, I was on board all the way.
That said, it had been many years since I’d seen the inside of a gym of any kind. I’d starting running for the first time in my life the previous spring, and in fact had trained all summer for my first marathon attempt, The Portland Marathon last October. (Unfortunately the knees didn’t want to go much farther than the 20-mile mark, but that’s a story for another post).
So when I started CrossFit last February 28th, at the time I thought I was in decent shape from running. In hindsight, my stamina, endurance, and agility were actually pretty sub par, but I just didn’t know any better then. Ignorance is bliss, right?
And strength? Simply put, I had none. I mean come on, I couldn’t even do a pull up. I had zero upper body strength. But that’s why we go to CrossFit, right? To get stronger, faster, better. If nothing else, I understood that concept, even back then. It became apparent early on that if I just kept showing up, that would happen, that I’d see incremental change, no matter how small. And that did indeed begin to happen. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Pitfalls and Stumbling Blocks
CrossFit is not easy. In fact, it hurts. Often. But in addition to the normal, usual aches and pains that come along with any new workout regimen, I hit a few larger, well, obstacles during my own journey. My first little stumbling block came on day two of on-ramp.
Yes, day two.
With my lower back pretty sore from the first two classes with on-ramp trainers extraordinaire, Paul and Emma, I was hopping out of my truck late that evening when I suddenly felt a familiar stabbing pain in my lower back as it quickly went into spasm, pulling my spine out of alignment and causing me much discomfort. (Yes, I have a history of this happening, starting about ten or so years ago. I’ve learned to deal with it, and I’ve learned how to keep it from happening–Hint: Get strong! Stay limber!–but again, that’s a topic for another post).
I remember being really bummed out, mostly because it looked like I was going to miss the rest of my on-ramp sessions. We hadn’t even gotten to kettle bells yet! The next morning I woke up, and sure enough my back was in even worse shape. I couldn’t even stand up straight–my spine was being yanked off to one side by all those angry little stability muscles. Damn.
Feeling super lame, I emailed Lindsey to let her know that I wouldn’t be in for class, and that I might have to restart the on-ramp process at a later time. She responded, wishing me well and to heal quickly, and she let me know that I could rejoin on-ramp whenever I was better. Cool, right?
But then later that day, I received this note from Paul:
Just wanted to touch base with you and let you know that if you wanted to come in tonight, I would love to show you some stretches and recovery techniques for your back.
Not sure how chronic your injury is, but I love trying to help out with these things. No pressure, just offering.
Hope all is well and that we can get you back into The LAB as swiftly and safely as possible!
Are you kidding me? How cool is that? After reading Paul’s note, I remember thinking, I’ve been going to The LAB for all of two days, and this is how they treat their members, even a newbie like me? Amazing! Right then I began to suspect that I’d stumbled onto a pretty amazing facility run by some pretty amazing folks, folks who really seemed to care.
I took Paul up on his offer, and that evening spent the majority of what should have been my third on-ramp session, focusing on kettle bells, instead laying on my back on top of two tennis balls stuck together with athletic tape. (More on these tennis balls in another post!). He also checked out the stuck muscles in my back and did a little light manipulation/massage on the stubborn little buggers. He also showed me some good stretches to do at home throughout the day to help get it to come out of spasm.
The next day I was at least 50% improved, and by Friday nearly back to my old self. I started on-ramp again the following Monday, and although the back was cranky here and there (hello, kettle bells?), I made it through the process. Armed with my new skills of proper stretching and self-massage (with tennis balls!), I was able to keep the muscles from getting too tight and causing me any big problems.
Knowledge Is Power
That stuff Paul taught me (which is also taught and embraced by the rest of The LAB staff) still helps me today, six months later. I continue to have days where my back gets grumpy, and I probably always will. But now I have an even wider array of tools to fight back. Tons of stretches learned at the gym, plus a single tennis ball, a double tennis ball, a lacrosse ball, a foam roller, ‘The Stick’… I have ‘em all. And I use them in one combination or another almost every day.
Trying to master the art of the pull up while on vacation.
I want to point out that stretching and rolling out have been absolutely key in my being able to do CrossFit as often as I do. I go to class five days a week, and haven’t missed a day since March. Some weeks this summer I upped it to six or seven classes a week (I even did the “Cindy” workout while on vacation in eastern Washington for the weekend), and one crazy week I even did ten workouts. Needless to say, that was a brutal week, but I wanted to challenge myself to see if I could do it. And I did it. But I think 5 days a week is plenty.
Some of those weeks were really rough, especially on certain body parts like my quads or my shoulders. I remember having sore or painful shoulders for stretches of time that would last weeks or even over a month non-stop. I just didn’t have the strength and flexibility to do what I was asking my body to do every day in class, at least not without it resulting in angry, sore, overused muscles and joints. I cannot stress this enough (see what I did there? I even bolded it): Stretching and rolling out and continuing to go to class were the keys to me being able to continue with CrossFit. I firmly believe had I instead stopped and took a break to rest, rather than pushing forward, that I would have been worse off for it in the long run.
But that’s just one man’s opinion. Most of my friends think I’m crazy. I’m okay with that.
For the first several weeks of my post on-ramp CrossFit adventure, it was all about getting my legs under me, learning the movements, learning proper form, learning technique and how to breathe, and starting to condition my body to the torture that was being thrown at me in the Elements room daily by Dean.
Yeah, I said it. Torture.
Many days that’s exactly what it felt like. Some things seemed more difficult than others for me, like jumping rope and burpees (I don’t think I’d done either since junior high) and the previously mentioned pull ups and pull ups. Others came a bit more naturally, like squats and power cleans. Of course we were mostly just using blank bars back then, but hey–learning technique and getting a little experience under your belt was the important thing, especially if the goal was to improve so I could eventually move up to the Advanced room.
The LAB is broken up into two class levels, Elements classes for people new to CrossFit, and Advanced classes for seasoned veterans. Now, back in March and April, I distinctly remember Dean’s Elements classes kicking my ass. At that time I had zero aspirations of moving into the Advanced classes. I was just fine where I was, thank you very much. And in fact I was, admittedly, quite apprehensive about the possibility of joining those dudes and dudettes. They were all huge and ripped and strong and fast. And I… I wasn’t.
Well it turns out that the decision wasn’t mine to make. About six weeks in I showed up for Elements class one afternoon and Dean walked over and said something along the lines of “Hey man, get outta here, it’s time for you to start going to Advanced. I was gonna tell you next week, but screw it, get your ass over there.”
Jumping In With Both Feet
So that’s how my sudden abrupt departure from the comfort of the Elements room went down. Remember your first day of high school? The nerves? The anxiety? The excitement? I don’t want to exaggerate, but my first day of Advanced class felt a little bit like that. I remember looking around the bigger room at all the bigger “upperclassmen” and wondering if I could even hope to measure up.
My nervousness and self-doubt about the Advanced class were short lived that first day, however, as there was something else that demanded my immediate focus: the WOD.
I don’t recall exactly what that first Workout of the Day in the Advanced room entailed, but I remember it was hard. I know I didn’t do the prescribed weight (and it would in fact be quite some time before I would eventually work my way up to hitting a few “Rx’s” in a week here and there). But I did it, and I finished it.
However, I finished the WOD dead last that day. In fact, for months going forward I would pretty much always end up last in timed workouts, behind everyone else in class. Or I would end up with the lowest amount of reps, if that’s how the WOD was being scored. But I kept telling myself, that stuff doesn’t matter. All that mattered was that I showed up every day, and tried my best to do what the coaches put up on the big whiteboard in the front of the gym, and to just put my head down and stubbornly refuse to quit.
Most days coming in last didn’t really bother me. I was just happy to be exercising regularly again, to be using muscles I’d forgotten I even had (A lat? What’s that, a coffee drink?). I’d found a routine that suited me, and a gym that was full of great, supportive coaches and members. Who cared if I was always last?
Then, it started to happen, but slowly, oh ever so slowly. I didn’t take notice really, at least probably not the first handful of times, but eventually it just sort of dawned on me that I wasn’t coming in last every single time. I never tracked where exactly I placed (again, it wasn’t important to me), but I began to see my times get better and my reps get higher, and over the course of months I’d climbed to the middle of the pack. It was a great feeling. I felt like I was actually competing with my peers. A big reward was the occasional little “Rx” next to my name on the whiteboard. Finishing a workout with the prescribed weight always feels like a huge accomplishment to me.
Progress happens slowly. I struggled for so long on some things, and at times it was hugely frustrating. It took me forever to get the hang of the kipping in a kipping pull up. I remember the day it finally all came together and I busted out 15 or 16 in a row. I couldn’t believe it. I was very excited. I think Rory, leading class that day, was just as excited for me, if not more so. Her big grin and congratulatory high-fives were the icing on the cake. The support and encouragement of each and every coach at The LAB has been paramount to my success, and I cannot thank them all enough.
Yes, I’ve gotten stronger, and more proficient at a lot of the movements. Six months ago I couldn’t do a single unassisted pull up. Now? I can bust out ten strict or twenty kipping pull ups unbroken, no problem. I know that’s not elite status ability right there, but for me, it’s a huge accomplishment.
I’m also getting faster. I can’t say why or how or where it’s coming from, but I’m able to do more for longer before I tire out and have to catch my breath. I’m sure it’s just been a matter of coming every day and pushing myself as hard as I can, but somehow it seems a bit more magical or mystical than that. I feel like all of a sudden I’ve broken through some sort of invisible threshold, as though now, after six months, I’ve gotten to a point where I’m just now ready to begin to truly do CrossFit.
And I couldn’t be more excited.