holds

Muscle-ups

Muscle-ups

Another milestone worth highlighting, the muscle-up is a particularly challenging movement for those in the CrossFit world who lack any previous gymnastics background.

It's easy to explain why people like them, though; once witnessed, why athletes who first step into a CrossFit gym set their sights on accomplishing a muscle-up.

Plain and simple, the muscle-up looks cool.

Muscle-ups are like that middle school crush-- attractive and popular and seemingly unattainable. And a lot like that fleeting feeling of teenage turbulence, if ever attained, muscle-ups can confusingly become more work than ever believed. It's because we're always wanting more, always striving to be better. One muscle-up is never enough, we want to string multiples together... and efficiently.

Keep these off the hot girl/hot guy pedestal, however, because a muscle-up is just like any other difficult movement in the gym. And there are plenty of those in the fitness sea.

So let's jump in head first to battle this beast from the depths of gymnastics lore and bring the muscle-up progression to light.

Image courtesy of CrossFit Ignite Sydney
Image courtesy of CrossFit Ignite Sydney

What prerequisite strength exists for a muscle-up?
Similar to our previous focus on pull-ups, let's clear up some prerequisites for strength and skill before looking at specific drills in the developmental progression of a muscle-up.

Naturally, we've come to realize the online hate of the gymnastics kip often utilized in CrossFit. "Cheating," it gets called. What's interesting is that we rarely see the sport of gymnastics get bashed for using momentum in competitive programs or in the Olympics every four years.

There's a reason for this: gymnasts, both men and women, have a baseline of muscle strength that allows them to safely use body momentum in their movements and routines.

Pull-up Muscle Groups
Pull-up Muscle Groups

Pull-ups Compared to a kip, strict pull-ups are a safer movement for a beginner. A strict pull-up helps develop muscle strength in the latissimus dorsi, the biceps, and to some extent the rhomboids and trees major in the back. These are similar pulling muscles involved in both the bar and ring muscle-up, so therefore it makes sense that a prerequisite for any muscle-up training is exactly that: a pull-up, both strict and kipping.

The movement of the gymnastic kip can be taught on the pull-up bar simultaneously as the strict movement to help embed the concept through routine, yet this involves some quality coaching. While upper body strength is acquired, so is the idea of generating momentum. Proponents of kipping cite the athleticism it requires and develops; coordination is necessary for hip recruitment in order to use swinging momentum correctly. The kip fosters a body awareness akin to other muti-joint movements we see in Olympic weightlifting or sport-specific actions like throwing or jumping.

Kipping practice can be done before or after a workout, although afterwards would generally mean a person works while fatigued. This is not immediately unsafe, but overtrain while already muscle fatigued and that's a recipe for potential disaster.

Just remember that kipping without at least some basis of strength is not productive.

Ring Dips If a CrossFit athlete has a kipping pull-up, the next requirement for the muscle-up is a ring dip. While box dips and stationary bar dips are all well and good, the rings obviously throw a snag into things because of the multiple planes of movement that the gymnastics rings allow. This stabilization is what we are seeking; that shaky movement will eventually tighten up.

Strength development tends to take time for the dips, plus, these are stereotypically quite difficult for women because of the necessary upper body control.

Shoulder Mobility The transition from the pull-up to the dip portion of a muscle-up requires stable but mobile shoulder sockets. Because the ring dip out of the muscle-up is initiated in a deeper starting position than usual, new athletes whose pull is not as experienced and therefore not as high up on the rings tend to struggle to turn their pull over for the transition.

Check mobility videos to maintain a healthy and prepared shoulder. It is an absolute necessity in the grind of a muscle-up; a stable shoulder is needed to turn through the very strength-intensive transition.

Image courtesy of Hammerhead Fitness
Image courtesy of Hammerhead Fitness

What progressions will help acquire a full muscle-up?
Getting the most from your work in the gym means being smart about what scaling options you have and how to correctly move up a progression to the real thing. This holds true with the muscle-up, both of the ring and bar variety.

Below are some options for strength and skill development:

Ring Rows: A great start for the absolute newbie.  The more horizontal the body, the harder the ring row, but also be careful to try and emulate a more upright pull-up motion to work the lat muscles correctly.

  • Do keep the core tight and complete the full range of motion for best results.
  • Don't think these are for wussies. Ring rows can be brutal, even for the experienced.

Hollow Body Position: Underrated, at least on the pull-up bar, and usable not just as an exercise in itself. As a good counter balance, the hollow position builds core stability while keeping posture, on the bar in particular. This transfers to many other aspects in gymnastics and CrossFit.

  • Do practice hollow rocks on flat ground and apply it to your starting position at the bottom of the muscle-up. A tight midline aids the stretch reflex during the loading phase of a kip as well.
  • Don't get frustrated. Hollow positioning is not easy. (Unless you grew up a gymnast... lucky.)
pull-up positioning

Gymnastics Kip: A kip can be small or big in terms of the swing, and therefore can be used to eke out just one additional rep on a set of muscle-ups until failure or during a first muscle-up attempt with a humongous "load-up." Hips are essential, whether on rings or on the bar.

Working on stringing more consecutive bar muscle-ups?  Remember to push away at the top to use a bigger "chest through" load-up swing in the later rep numbers as you near your max. On the rings, work neutral grip and allow the body to swing with hands pushed forward/out slightly to help a full kipping motion for success.

  • Do generate power from the hips to get them up and turned over.
  • Don't worry if you get a muscle-up, or multiples, and then "lose" them for a day or more.  They come and go quite often. Stay at it.

Transition Work: A few options exist in working the transition of the muscle-up. A common one involves dropping the rings down to ring dip level or below, and allowing the feet to assist in getting from a ring row position to the bottom of the ring dip. See a video here for quick tips.

  • Do work over time on using less legs will develop strength in the turnover. This is definitely different than a free-swinging kip to transition, however, so use this in conjunction with the next drill.
  • Don't stay put in this drill from the ground. Full hollow body extension on the rings or the bar is quite a bit different and where you want to go with your progression.
Muscle-up Transitions
Muscle-up Transitions

Assisted Muscle-ups: A coach or partner can be a huge help in assisting that last portion of the pull to get on top of the rings/bar in the transition. This is great when the kip looks good and the ring dip out of the muscle-up can be obtained but it's that pesky transition that is holding everything back.

  • Do keep the rings in tight to pull them along the chest to directly under the armpits. Shoot the chest through and look at the toes, if that helps.
  • Don't pull to the bar or the rings, pull up and over.
Image courtesy of the Rx Review
Image courtesy of the Rx Review

Multiple Reps: Once one muscle-up has been achieved, obviously efficiency with multiple reps is the next goal. Kipping out of the bottom of the dip can happen with the legs behind a bit to continue to use momentum. A typical knees to chest kip for the dip can be utilized for those a bit slower and at the starting level of linking muscle-ups together.

  • Do work on maintaining a tight midline and great hollow position to maximize hip drive for consecutive reps. At the very top, lean back and fall into the next forward swing.
  • Don't get anxious. Be patient for the right time to pull on consecutive reps.

Strict Muscle-ups: In need of a whole other challenge? Dead hang muscle-ups are strictly for those ready. Pun intended. Use a false grip to help the wrist on top of the rings and get a big pull before working to crank the elbows back and chest on top of the hands.

See videos here and here for great visuals on the body positions needed to complete this huge piece of muscle-up extra credit.

Image courtesy of Box Life Magazine
Image courtesy of Box Life Magazine

Now you'll really impress the popular kids.

Get a video so you can see yourself move, ask for coaching cues, and then celebrate your success with the public. This is one feat that deserves bragging about. No fish tales, however-- be honest, be persistent, and good luck!

- Scott, 8.11.2015

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Injuries

Injuries

You could get injured doing CrossFit.

You could get injured doing Olympic weightlifting, kipping pull-ups, or handstand push-ups. You could get injured while running, biking, swimming, or rowing. You could get injured doing bench press or bicep curls. You could even get injured during a yoga session on your living room floor.

You will NOT get injured if you are sedentary.

Without physical movement, you will be safe from any trauma of muscular exertion and metabolic work. Your body won’t ever experience workout fatigue, oxygen debt, or delayed onset of muscle soreness.

No activity, no injuries, no worries.

At least temporarily.

Instead of injury, of course, you may lose longevity and livelihood. Illness or disease could set in. These aren’t immediate injuries, per se, but are instead quite a bit more devastating.

No activity, no injuries… no benefits.

What issues currently plague human health?
For starters, heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women. About 600,000 people die of heart disease in the United States every year— that’s 1 in every 4 deaths. (1)

Each year about 715,000 Americans have a heart attack. Of these, 515,000 are a first heart attack and 200,000 in people who have already had cardiac infarction. Coronary heart disease alone costs the United States $108.9 billion each year. This total includes the cost of health care services, medications, and lost productivity. (2; 3)

Secondly, diabetes is so prevalent now that 1 in 3 Americans born after 2000 will develop Type 2 diabetes. This is directly related to poor diet and lack of exercise. 29.1 million people in the U.S. currently have diabetes; this equates to 9.3% of the population. 21 million people are diagnosed; 8.1 million people are undiagnosed. This results in 27.8% of people with diabetes being undiagnosed. (8)

Finally, obesity rates are alarmingly high in America. No state in the U.S. has a prevalence of obesity less than 20%. This means that more than one-third of U.S. adults are obese— 78.6 million Americans, or 34.9% of our population. Childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents in the past 30 years. (9)

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Are there concerns over the safety of physical activity?
Healthy lifestyle habits, including nutritious eating and physical activity, can lower the risk of becoming obese and developing lifestyle related diseases. We’ve known this for decades.

Obviously the goal is to be as safe as possible while being active. And further, if you believe CrossFit, or any method of fitness, increases the likelihood of being unsafe, then you should find something active that lowers your perceived risk. But if perfect safety is really a concern, then running, weightlifting, and quite a few other modes of exercise should be checked off your list. While we’re at it, be wary of playing pick-up basketball with friends or running around with your kids in the backyard. While these injury rates are often unreported, it’s definitely viable that weekend warriors and Turkey Bowl heroes have an increased risk of injury equivalent or greater than weekly fitness grinders.

The safety first philosophy is always a good one, but major concerns over physical activity, namely CrossFit, are seemingly cloaked in something else entirely. Ego? Ignorance? Misunderstanding?

Fitness professionals and physical therapists ultimately want what’s best for the health and well-being of the general public. This is great and never an issue. The pursuit of safe movement is valid and necessary in any athletic endeavor. Bad form, incompetent trainers, ego over safety? By all means, critique and strive for change. Still, ever see the CrossFit "fail" videos? Much of what gets shown and laughed at isn’t even from a CrossFit gym.

So what are accurate injury rates as we compare methods of training? Let’s check the stats below.

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What is the statistical risk of physical training?
If we look at the statistics of workout injuries across any fitness regimen, we see a large discrepancy in what gets reported. We have an issue with what is argued as truth versus hearsay.

Yet while some items remain debatable, all legitimate data gets compiled in reference to number of injuries per 1,000 training hours.

Let’s look at some common exercise and movement trends and their injury rates. References are noted.

  • Running & Triathlons: There is a prevalence of somewhere between 5.5 to 12.1 injuries per 1,000 hours of training in running and triathlons. (Korkia, 1993; Zwingenberger, 2014)
  • Gymnastics: Injury rates range from 3.5 to 22.7 injuries per 1,000 hours of training at the club level to college gymnastics. (Mahler, 2008)
  • Bodybuilding: 45.1% of the test subjects reported some symptoms of physical injury while training, but the overall injury rate reported was 1.0 injuries per 1,000 hours of training. (Siewe, 2014)
  • Power Lifting: 43.3% of tested Powerlifters complained of injury-related problems during workouts, however the injury rate reported was 1.0 injuries per 1,000 hours of training. (Siewe, 2011)
  • Olympic Lifting:In an incorporated investigation of the incidence and prevalence of injuries among both elite Olympic weightlifters and Powerlifters in both 1995 and in 2000, in both sports and across both time periods, the tested subjects incurred 2.6 injuries per 1,000 hours of training. (Raske and Norlin, 2002)
  • Strongman: There is a rate of 5.5 injuries per 1,000 hours in Strongman strength training. In terms of region of injury, the most common locations were lower back (24%), shoulder (21%), biceps (11%), and knee (11%). Researchers observed that strongman athletes were almost two times more likely to sustain an injury when using strongman implements than when using traditional resistance-training methods. (Winwood, 2014)
  • CrossFit: CrossFit has an injury rate of 3.1 injuries per 1,000 hours of training. (Hak, 2013) CrossFit has an injury rate of 2.4 injuries per 1,000 hours of training in regards to true incidence versus prevalence. (Giordano, 2015) In both reports, zero cases of rhabdomyolysis were reported.
Riskin' it...
Riskin' it...

Is CrossFit dangerous?
There are quite a few online articles criticizing CrossFit for being dangerous; criticism exists in everything from small blogs to the Washington Post, CNN, Men's Health, Huffington Post, Breaking Muscle, and ESPN.

The most recent ado in the CrossFit injury debate is the information released from an Ohio State University study performed in 2013. The study, entitled CrossFit-Based High-Intensity Power Training Improves Maximal Aerobic Fitness and Body Composition, included 54 original participants, of which 43 completed the 10-week CrossFit exercise program challenge. The results were subsequently published in the National Strength and Conditioning Association’s Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research.

The conclusion? Participants burned fat and expanded their VO2 max (volume of oxygen uptake).

The kinesiology doctors of the research study inferred from their data, "a CrossFit-based high intensity power training program can yield meaningful improvements of maximal aerobic capacity and body composition in men and women of all levels of fitness." (11)

However, the study also reported that 16% of the 11 participants who didn’t finish the 10 weeks cited “overuse or injury” as their reason for failing to complete the study. The authors also called into question “the risk-benefit ratio for such extreme training programs,” even cautioning that the measured improvements from CrossFit training “may not be worth the risk of injury and lost training time.” (11)

At which point, CrossFit Inc. fired back at what they called “junk science” with a full lawsuit, and in turn incited much of the internet public to label this move as bravado... as well as some other choice words. The issue that CrossFit Inc. stated through Russell Berger, a head trainer and legal advisor, was that "overuse injury" wasn't a defined term by the Ohio State associates, but more so, when questioned, the nine subjects that the NSCA/Ohio State Devor study claimed were injured have all sworn to the court that they were actually not injured throughout the course of the program. (12)

Confusing? Definitely. Yet rightfully questionable on a few angles. Is CrossFit Inc. in fact a bully, or alternatively, did CrossFit simply stand up to the fitness scene with confidence?

The decision lies within.

So as we conclude, indeed, there is an inherent danger in physical activity, and yes, you could get injured doing CrossFit.

Of course, there’s always the contrary to consider.

- Scott, 8.4.2015

References

  1. Murphy SL, Xu JQ, Kochanek KD. Deaths: Final data for 2010. National vital statistics reports. 2013; 61(4).
  2. Go AS, Mozaffarian D, Roger VL, Benjamin EJ, Berry JD, Blaha MJ, et al. Heart disease and stroke statistics — 2014 update: a report from the American Heart Association. Circulation. 2014;128.
  3. Heidenreich PA, Trogdon JG, Khavjou OA, et al. Forecasting the future of cardiovascular disease in the United States: a policy statement from the American Heart Association. Circulation. 2011;123: 933–44. Epub 2011 Jan 24.
  4. Heron M. Deaths: Leading causes for 2008. National vital statistics reports. 2012; 60(6).
  5. CDC. Disparities in Adult Awareness of Heart Attack Warning Signs and Symptoms — 14 States, 2005. MMWR. 2008;57(7):175–179.
  6. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. State Specific Mortality from Sudden Cardiac Death: United States, 1999. MMWR. 2002;51(6):123–126.
  7. CDC. Million Hearts: strategies to reduce the prevalence of leading cardiovascular disease risk factors. United States, 2011. MMWR2011;60(36):1248–51.
  8. CDC. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. National Diabetes Statistics Report: Estimates of Diabetes and Its Burden in the United States, 2014. Atlanta, GA: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; 2014.
  9. CDC. Obesity prevalence across states and territories. Prevalence of Self –Reported Obesity Among U.S. Adults by Race/Ethnicity and State, BRFSS 2011-2013.
  10. Beardsly C. Which strength sport is most likely to cause an injury in training? Strength and Conditioning Research. 2014.
  11. Smith MM, Sommer AJ, Starkoff BE, Devor ST, et al. Crossfit-based high intensity power training improves maximal aerobic fitness and body composition. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research: 2013:27(11):3159-72.
  12. Berger R. NSCA “CrossFit Study” Fraud? The CrossFit Journal: 2013.

Handstands

Handstands

For many, being upside down is scary. It's the opposite of feeling safe and comfortable. The antithesis of how we want to end up in any given hour of the day. It can be an awkward feeling and, because the sensation is so foreign, one we only momentarily like to experience.

It's a roller coaster ride, not just in the physical sense but in emotional terms as well.

Unless you're a toddler in the hands of a playful parent, being upside down generally means something went wrong. In many cases being upended in an athletic event resulted from a trip and a fall or a flat out dangerous mistake.

Gymnasts use handstands regularly, but our general public obviously does not. There are a few other sports where being upside down is part of training or competition, but those are rare compared to most of the movement we see in sports worldwide, so therefore most people don't lock handstands into their exercise routines.

In the fitness pursuit, however, much can be gained from turning our rooted and natural bipedal movement on its head.

So keep your hands up and your eyes open because we're about to conquer this movement like the big drop of an old wooden roller coaster.

Why put your body in a handstand?
If we're looking to develop overall strength in a fitness program, then being in a handstand is a powerful position. If a full handstand is not possible, even with support of a coach or a wall, a scaled version will still provide payoffs. General shoulder health is a necessary prerequisite, but there are a series of muscles that benefit greatly and actually develop from being upside down while pressing and/or stabilizing against gravity.

Besides the deltoids of the shoulder socket, handstand work also provides stimuli to the triceps in the arms, the trapezius of the back and neck, and the midline stabilizing muscles we generally refer to as the core: rectus abdominis, back extensors, and the obliques, to name a few.

Another benefit is proprioception in the brain. This refers to the ability to sense body position, motion, and equilibrium. Handstands also develop the central nervous system (CNS) as it responds to being upside down. It's a kinesthetic awareness we can more simply call athleticism.

Handstand Muscle Groups
Handstand Muscle Groups

Why are handstands so hard?
Hand balancing presents one of the biggest challenges for me personally. Without a gymnastic background, and with height and long limbs, handstands are a self-proclaimed goat; my weakness. Many people are like myself: if something is difficult we tend to shy away from that movement.

In the front row of handstand culture is the sport of gymnastics, leading the ride now for centuries of human performance. Lifelong gymnasts literally have a leg up on any new competitors or adults learning the gymnast ropes as best as they can for a generalized physical preparedness program such as CrossFit. This isn't to say that any person off the street should give up or never pursue a handstand. Instead, it's a reminder that formative years matter for more than just music and language development-- we know that physical skills and related endeavors also harness themselves in the developing brain much easier than that of an adult.

Yoga enthusiasts know the pose as a downwards facing tree, which is essentially the same thing as a handstand. For the public and those just starting in yoga, this pose will require years of development just like a gymnast.

Whatever the case, a quality handstand is a feat lost on so many... myself included. The combination of strength and skill and mobility is a tummy turning corkscrew of a requirement. But this difficulty is part of the challenge; it's part of the fun.

Keep in mind that the human body has developed homeostasis on years of inner ear balance while walking upright. So if you struggle with handstands, don't beat yourself up; buckle up, seek knowledge, and find practice time to build from the ground up.

What are some tips for handstand success?
CrossFit.com added hand balancing to its regimen immediately upon onset with Coach Greg Glassman's background as a gymnast spearheading the inclusion. Read his full article here.

Other tips for success depend on one's handstand experience. Are you a complete newbie, or have you accomplished some skill development but are in need of additional resources?

Whether you’re looking to develop your skill and strength for handstand push-ups, free standing handstands, or simply unassisted wall climbs, let’s check out some movement ideas and quick guidelines on the fast track upside down.

Movements For Handstand Development
Hollow Rock Holds:
A great start for the absolute beginner, and also a staple for other gymnasty moves like pull-ups and toes to bar. This is a static global flexion that tightens from the legs through to the shoulders.

  • Do keep the core tight, the lower back flat on the ground, the shoulders active by the ears, and the quads and glutes on and activated.
  • Don’t think these are for wussies. Hollow Rock Holds can be brutal, even for the experienced.
Hollow Rocks
Hollow Rocks

V-ups:
Used correctly, this can foster some of the greatest strength development for those without much core strength, but it does include movement in the midline while a handstand requires tight muscle control.

  • Do know when to scale. Knees can bend until a straight leg movement develops.
  • Don’t forget your hollow position. This is meant to be a skill transfer; don’t lose sight of the correct positioning needed.

Piked Push-ups: Although these can be awkward and do require strength, balance, and bravery, some prefer this scaled version for the full Handstand Push-up against a wall.

  • Don’t leave behind Hollow Rocks. Continue to fight for a straightened midline that will lead to a strong handstand.
V-ups
V-ups

Wall Climbs:
These are rough. While utilized as another scaled option to the Handstand Push-up, this is also a great alternative to handstand walking in workouts. The hand over hand push into the wall recruits lots of CNS energy as well as shoulder socket muscles to make this move nearly as tough as a HSPU.

  • Do be careful of foot height. If you're wary of being face first in the wall, stop the hands early and remember to always tuck your chin for a somersault if you start to tumble.
  • Don’t lose body position. Wall Climbs can be frustrating in a workout and often people push their hips and chest at the wall, forcing an unnatural extension in both the shoulders and the lower back.
Wall Climbs
Wall Climbs

Static Handstand Holds:
In many ways, if you can kick up into a handstand against the wall, these are easier than a Wall Climb. Facing away from the wall requires strength and solid hollow positioning, but can also put a person into too much lower back extension. Keep the heels on the wall, not your butt.

  • Do use a trustworthy coach to help you with your kick up. Use a static hold as a confidence booster.
  • Don't use these to absolute failure since crumbling with bent elbows spells disaster.
Handstand Holds
Handstand Holds

Handstand Push-ups:
In CrossFit, this becomes the Rx go-to for both workouts and local competitions. Strict HSPU demand strength, kipping HSPU require skill, both tend to fatigue fairly quickly as the rep count goes up. Either way, keep hand position similar to that in a Push Press or Push Jerk in the sense that we want a "V" shape with our head coming in front of the hand line. For safe and efficient movement in the HSPU, push the head through the imaginary window like finishing a barbell move.

  • Do check resources and videos like the one below to see progressions for kipping. Notice the hand position as the head touches in a headstand. Kipping can occur facing the wall to develop confidence and posture.
  • Don't neglect strict Handstand Push-ups. Also be careful of letting your entire bodyweight rest on the head while upside down, compromising neck/spinal safety.

Freestanding Handstands & Handstand Walks:
For the elite in the handstand spectrum, walks and freestanding handstands (as well as freestanding HPSU) are a great new standard to aim for.

Drills include, but are not limited to: shoulder taps, headstands to handstands, "holds & splits" from the wall, and "holds & splits" with a coach/partner.

  • Do find time to practice so that quality hand, head, and shoulder position can allow balance to be achieved. Grip with the fingers. Stay hollow. Squeeze lower body tight as well. Work every day, if possible!
  • Don't lose position. Work on global extension versus local extension. This means controlled arching is only necessary to move in the Handstand Walk. Otherwise, fight for a perfect handstand position during stationary work, as seen below.
Image courtesy of Ring Fraternity.
Image courtesy of Ring Fraternity.
Straight vs. Arched Handstand. Image courtesy of Yuval Ayalon.
Straight vs. Arched Handstand. Image courtesy of Yuval Ayalon.
Handstand finger grip. Image courtesy of Rough Strength.
Handstand finger grip. Image courtesy of Rough Strength.

So, as the ups and downs of examining handstands come to an end, I wish you luck and remind you to be resourceful-- find the pieces that cause you the most frustration and tunnel through them, full speed ahead. Scream-laugh your way through trips and turns and hopefully you'll find success at the end of the track.

Keep at it and enjoy the ride.

- Scott, 7.28.2015

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