Here’s what happens when a non-crossfitter does Murph

I have a basic approach when it comes to fitness. Do some running. Hike. Get on your bike. Lift heavy things. Lift, run, bike, hike for short.

But I like taking on different challenges, even if they’re out of my wheelhouse.

On Memorial Day, a lot of people like to do a Crossfit workout called “Murph.” I’m not a crossfitter, and I’ve got no plans to be. But they do some things right in the Crossfit world (they’re getting more people into barbell training than anything else right now), and some of these workouts are definitely worth trying.

So on Monday, I decided I join the legions doing Murph. For all you curious non-crossfitters, this one’s for you.

FIRST OF ALL…

Lt. Michael Murphy, aka “Murph.” (U.S. Navy photo)

Let’s get this straight, because it’s important: What is “Murph?”

The more accurate question is not what, but who.

“Murph” is Lt. Michael Murphy, a U.S. Navy SEAL who was killed in action while serving in Afghanistan in 2005. If you’ve read the book “Lone Survivor” or saw the movie of the same title, then you know his story and that of his team. If you don’t know it, look it up. A small group of SEALS fought like hell against huge numerical odds, even while gravely wounded.

Murphy invented this workout, which he called “body armor.” Following his death, the workout was named in his honor.

So what’s the workout? Glad you asked.

THE WORKOUT

It’s simple: Run one mile, do 100 pull-ups, do 200 push-ups, do 300 body-weight squats, then run another mile.

Simple, right?

Well, there’s also this: In its strictest form, you also do this with a weighted 20-pound vest.

The goal is to do it in less than an hour. Really fit people can do it in 45 minutes.

Here’s what I figured: I run plenty. I lift several times a week. And I’m getting decent at pull-ups. Why not give it a shot?

SOME CAVEATS

I’m also a realist. I don’t own a weighted vest and didn’t have access to one. Being the first time I tried this, I decided to skip the weighted part.

Crossfitters will kip their pull-ups. I refuse. I’ll do them as strict as I can as long as I can.

I doubt there are many people who can do 100 pull-ups in a row, even if they’re kipping. Same is probably true of the other exercises. I’d be breaking these up into manageable chunks, hoping to make good time.

WHERE I DID IT

I went to a high school track/football field. The track offered me an easy way to measure out a mile and stay close to some water I brought.

The track was a good idea, but this plan had its problems. For starters, it was 91 degrees and mostly sunny, with a heat index of 95. That sort of heat will elevate your heart rate far above what it would normally be indoors or, say, any other time of year. Since I’d be doing the non-running exercises on the field, it would feel even hotter.

Also, there was a lack of decent places to do pull-ups. I settled for a soccer goal crossbar. The steel tubing didn’t offer much grip; it was fat enough that I was more “palming” the bar than gripping it. So that was working against me.

But hey, who cares? If you’re going to do Murph, don’t bitch about your problems. The workout will be hard enough as it is.

HOW IT WENT

The first mile run was a breeze, mostly because I didn’t push too hard. Maybe a 9:30 pace, trying to conserve energy for the work to come.

Once that was done, it was time for the pull-ups. I started doing sets of 6 to 8 reps, taking short breaks. But soon, the sheer volume was killing me. So I scaled it by switching from overhand grip pull-ups to underhand grip chin-ups. I know, lame. But I needed to get reps to move on.

By the time I got to 52 reps, I realized I’d be out there forever unless I found ways to knock out reps in the other exercises. So at the point, I supersetted chins with pull-ups and squats. That helped.

But dang, if this isn’t a whole other kind of fitness. I do all sorts of conditioning drills when I run, but this is just different. The steady flow of work and the heat radiating off the artificial turf surface I was on spiked my heart rate something good. By the time I was done with all that mess, it was time for that second mile-long run.

A zombie shuffle ensued. Maybe one of the slowest miles I’ve ever “run.”

When I was finished, I missed that 60-minute goal. By a lot. I definitely was not physically up to the task of making that goal. I shuffled off the field and into my car a sweaty, beat-down mess. Lesson learned. Murph is legit.

AFTERMATH

The next day, I was sore in some expected places, mostly in my shoulders and upper back. But not in my legs (you’d think 300 squats would have done something, but nope). But I was surprisingly sore in my abs. I wasn’t expecting that. Perhaps I should do more core, eh? Anyway, it was a built-in excuse to not lift the following day. I ran three miles and called it good.

THE TAKEAWAY

What I’ve learned about fitness is that when you do something different, expect to suck at it. I’ve learned this many times over.

I used to play a lot of basketball, maybe three or four times a week. And not that half-court BS, either. We ran the court, fast breaks and all. I got to where I could handle that. But run more than a couple of miles? I might as well have been trying to climb Mount Everest. Two different types of fitness.

Another example: Back when I was doing jujitsu, we had a new guy come in. He told us he’d be fine in terms of conditioning: The dude ran six miles a day. When the workout was over, he was outside puking in the parking lot. Once again, a different kind of fitness.

The same is true here. I know Murph is not indicative of everything Crossfit, but it is a good example of the type of training crossfitters do. Murph is not a strength test; It’s a conditioning test with some elements of strength involved. So while I lift frequently and hard and do my fair share of conditioning drills (400-meter intervals and negative split workouts come to mind), what I do is not going to go that far with something like Murph.

Crossfit bills itself as preparing its trainees to be fit enough to do anything at any time – they pride themselves as fitness “generalists” and through their Crossfit Games, aim to crown the winners as “the fittest people on earth.” There’s some truth to that, although Crossfit programming seems to create a lot of people who need shoulder surgeries.

But there is value in trying new things, and finding your weaknesses. On Monday, on that steaming hot high school track, Murph helped me find a few of mine. I might have to try it again.

Bob Doucette

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A Crossfit skeptic finds three silver linings to the movement

Not the best looking form, but I admire their enthusiasm.

Not the best looking form, but I admire their enthusiasm.

This is one of those posts that’s not going to make anyone very happy. But here it is: Despite everything I don’t like about Crossfit, I have to admit some small level of grudging appreciation for a fitness movement that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere anytime soon.

I say this just a few days removed from doing a trail run with some friends, then getting to the trailhead and seeing about 60 people around a park pavilion, wrapping up a Thanksgiving family-oriented get-together with some exercise, and then food and drink afterward. I’ll get more in that subject later in this post. But first, a few qualifiers.

As I said, I’m not a Crossfit fan. I don’t like the fact that it takes basically three days and $1,000 to become certified to the point where you can open your own gym. I don’t like workout plans that have you perform very technical, difficult lifts as many times as you can within a specific time range. Constant variation/muscle confusion is overrated. And don’t get me started on kipping pull-ups. Just no. At its best, I can see where some people could physically benefit from Crossfit, but only to a point. At worst, I foresee injuries. Lots of injuries. They happen to the best Olympic lifters who are coached correctly; how much worse is it going to be for a novice lifter jacking up 20 straight clean-and-presses in 90 seconds? Lots.

But there are some things that I have to reluctantly acknowledge as positives. Seeing I’ve put Crossfit on blast a few times, it’s time for this skeptic to give it its due.

Crossfit has introduced lots of people to weightlifting. And by weightlifting, I mean using barbells, dumbbells and kettlebells, not those pin-and-plate machines too many people are fruitlessly playing around on in their local fitness centers. People are deadlifting, squatting, and cleaning barbells in Crossfit gyms (I refuse to call them “boxes”) across the country. The quality of coaching may be all over the place, and the method in which they’re used can be suspect. But you have to think some crossfitters will take the time to learn how to do Olympic and power lifts right, or even better, that their coaches will teach them right. And if not, the exposure to good lifts will eventually lead them to correct form, usage and eventually, real gains. No matter who you are, you can benefit from lifting heavy things. Book it.

Crossfit had drawn a lot of people into fitness who otherwise are not responsive to other popular forms of exercise. Not everyone is a runner, an MMA fighter, a cyclist or whatever. Many exercisers just aren’t interested in aerobics classes, spin sessions or other forms of group exercise formats that are common in most gyms. But Crossfit bills itself as a system that prepared people with functional fitness, one that gives you strength to prepare you for whatever physical needs the world might throw your way. Whether or not that’s actually true, that selling point appeals to a lot of people in a way that’s different than a step aerobics class. The result: More people trying to get fit. I may not like the method, but it’s still a gateway that just could take otherwise out-of-shape people and set them on a path that could get them healthier. Eventually. Maybe.

Crossfit does a remarkable — one might say outstanding — job at giving fitness-minded people a sense of community. Last Thursday, me and two other fellas went on a 5-mile trail run. I saw another small group of trail runners and a couple of hikers, too. But at the trailhead, 60 or more crossfitters and their kids were getting in a group workout and some fellowship time afterward. Did I mention this was on Thanksgiving Day? That gym must have one heck of a bond with its members to drag them out to a park on a holiday morning (and it was 30 degrees!) where most people are focused on their home life. Crossfit gyms do a pretty decent job at building camaraderie among exercisers. They encourage each other during workouts, and use their common bond to create friendships and accountability that’s almost impossible to find at other gyms. Now it can get a little weird — the goofy insider terminology, the incessant talking about Crossfit, and even the semi-cultish defensiveness about the whole thing — but you can’t deny the fact that there is power within a group, and exercisers are more likely to achieve their fitness goals or even surpass them when they have positive voices in their ear.

So there it is. I try to be fair-minded when evaluating things like this and not just endlessly bag on something I don’t like without taking a harder look. I still won’t do Crossfit, nor would I ever recommend someone get into it. Or at least not until the movement reforms itself to something safer and more sustainable. I just see too many problems in the things crossfitters commonly do, and far too much butt-hurt in the Crossfit community when its weaknesses are called out. But as I’ve often seen throughout my life, silver linings abound. Even for Crossfit.

Bob Doucette

The Weekly Stoke: No rucks at Boston Marathon, a life-saving dog, Maria Kang, an ice climbing close call and why Wyoming is awesome

Grand Teton, Wyoming. (Wikipedia Commons photo)

Grand Teton, Wyoming. (Wikipedia Commons photo)

I’ve been seriously feeling the need to get on the road. Probably has something to do with winter-induced cabin fever. In any case, that’s given me time to find some really good links for you to check out. Let’s get to it with the Weekly Stoke!

Security concerns have ruled out military groups from doing “ruck marches” during the Boston Marathon this year.

A man out on a snowmobiling trip has his dog to thank for saving his life.

Maria Kang and familiy.

Maria Kang and familiy.

Maria Kang, the controversial  “no excuses” fit mom of three kids who made a major Internet splash recently, is doubling down on that theme in this latest effort.

Here’s a good read about this runner’s latest 100-mile ultramarathon, and all the mental games that go into conquering such a race.

If that inspires you, then check out this: A young cross-country runner diagnosed with MS is not wasting time. She’s going all-out in her sport.

This link tells the amazing story of an ice climber who had the ice he was scaling fall right out from under him.

A female CrossFit competitor has a beef with the organization — she’s transgendered, and the CrossFit games is telling her she has to compete with the guys. So she is suing.

Here’s a list of 13 tips for doing your first mud run/obstacle course race.

And finally, one more list: 20 great things about Wyoming.

The Weekly Stoke: Alex Honnold’s latest feat, stuff runners know, a homicidal climber and extreme drought in the Sierras

Alex Honnold in the Sierras. (Alex Honnold Facebook page photo)

Alex Honnold in the Sierras. (Alex Honnold Facebook page photo)

How is everyone’s week going? Hopefully it’s been filled with adventure or just plain getting after it. Without further delay, here’s the latest Weekly Stoke!

Uber climber Alex Honnold is at it again, this time pulling off a multi-pitch, 1,500-foot free solo climb in Mexico. Mixed in this achievement were several 5.12 pitches. Did I mention he did this free solo?

Here’s a list of things only runners understand. Some are gender specific.

This post details some of the health issues that affect ultra marathoners.

This story is a weird one in which one climber allegedly killed another (who had been described as the suspect’s mentor) with a hammer.

A Crossfit coach and competitor suffered a devastating injury during a recent competition while attempting an Olympic lift.

And finally, while there are some parts of the country that are experiencing a cooler and wetter winter, that is definitely not the case n California, which is in the midst of a devastating drought.

That’s a whole lot of news. Now go make a story of your own. Have an excellent weekend!

Preaching the pull-up: Dead-hang vs. kipping

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I’ve been in a bit of a mood lately, kind of ranting about things that drive me a little crazy. I’ll spare you that misery in this space and keep my inner Louis Black in a cage. But there is a subject I want to examine, and I want to speak plainly.

I’m talking about pull-ups.

Awhile back, I crowned the pull-up as one of the four kings of strength training. Any bodybuilder worth his/her salt does them. Pull-ups are a staple in military training. And not surprisingly, many popular exercise programs incorporate them. Needless to say, they are heavily represented in my workouts.

The reasons are pretty clear: Pulling your bodyweight to where your chin gets over a bar is hard work. Do it right and it works your back, shoulders and biceps. Good, efficient hard work.

But there are two very different ways the pull-up is executed.

The first is the dead-hang, or tactical, pull-up. Here’s a video demonstrating what that looks like:

Then you have the kipping pull-up, which is pretty popular in Crossfit circles. Here’s video showing that:

These are very different techniques. A dead-hang pull-up is hard to execute. Many people cannot do it without assistance from bands or a spotter. It takes time to build up the strength to perform enough reps where you can do sets of dead-hang pull-ups.

The kipping pull-up is also very technique-oriented, often used by gymnasts to help them perform certain exercise routines on the bars and the rings. If you can’t do dead-hang pull-ups but learn kipping technique, you can perform kipping pull-ups in multiple sets with lots of reps.

I’ve never been shy about espousing the superiority of dead-hang pull-ups over kipping for training purposes. But it deserves some explanation. So what I’m going to do is break down why you should move away from the kip and go old-school on the pull-up.

For building strength, the dead-hang pull-up is superior. Dead-hang pull-ups isolate multiple muscle groups and in so doing, force them to do the work. A kipping pull-up will do some muscle isolation, but the momentum of the body swing actually does a huge part of the work. You can do a ton of kipping reps and not do the work of far fewer dead-hang pull-ups.

The “functional strength” aspect of the kip is highly overrated. A lot of trainers who incorporate the kip say they’re teaching a more useful physical “skill” than a dead-hang. I’ll concede that there aren’t many real-world moves that look like a dead-hang pull-up (unless you’re a climber/boulderer), and compound movements (where lots of muscle groups are working together to execute an athletic move) are meritorious. But outside of gymnastics and Crossfit competitions, where in the real world do you see a kipping movement used? Getting over an 8-foot wall? Nope. Rock climbing? Not really. Anything? Well, there is one thing…

The kip is used to get lots of reps, usually for the sake of getting lots of reps. Train enough, and you can do a boatload of kipping pull-ups. There are videos of people doing scores of reps in a single set. And that’s fine, except I don’t think it serves much purpose unless you’re measuring progress solely on numbers. For powerlifters, race athletes (run, swim, bike, etc.) and other similar sports, numbers matter. But in training? If being able to kip 100 times really signified progress, then why don’t we all do 1,000 crunches, 400 bodyweight squats and 500 jumping jacks every day? Because while all those feats are impressive, they don’t amount to much in terms of really improving your fitness. If you want to do an exercise that builds strength, you’re better off using progressive loads of weight rather than doing reps of an exercise that start piling up into multiple dozens per set.

There are injury concerns that tend to accompany lots of kipping. Kipping pull-ups, done right, are safe. But poor form causes shoulder problems, and doing lots of reps creates lots of fatigue, which of course leads to a breakdown in form, which gets particularly hairy on the downward part of the move. See where this is going? And one of the most important aspects of form on any pull-up is good “shoulder pack,” or keeping enough shoulder tension to safely guard the joints. Once fatigue sets in, shoulder pack tends to degrade. You can mask that with exercises that use momentum, or at least hide it from yourself. However, you cannot protect yourself from injury. Hello shoulder problems. That’s not to say you can’t lose shoulder pack on dead-hang pull-ups or face injury, but muscle fatigue will stop you from “over-repping” before you get too far.

As an aside, what does shoulder pack look like? To illustrate that, here are a couple of photos. This first shows a dead-hang position without proper shoulder pack.

No shoulder pack from the dead-hang position. Bad!

No shoulder pack from the dead-hang position. Bad!

Here is what a dead-hang looks like with proper shoulder pack.

Proper shoulder pack from the dead-hang position. Yay!

Proper shoulder pack from the dead-hang position. Yay!

Moving right along…

Lots of reps might mean lots of work, but lots of work isn’t always effective. See the prior comments on tons of reps on bodyweight exercises. At some point, you don’t need more reps. You need harder reps, whether that is a modified version of the exercise or just a different exercise that works the same body parts. I’d say 25 reps of 135 pounds on the squat rack is not harder than 4 reps at twice the weight. And that 4-rep set will also be more effective. The same is true with pull-ups.

I know some people will say that the higher-rep nature of a kipping circuit also has an endurance component, but there are better ways to encourage cardio performance growth than throwing down on a bunch of kips.

By contrast, the dead-hang pull-up builds strength, and fast. And the strength that is built is real and functional. For those who cannot do these, there are good “entry level” back exercises (like the inverted row) to help build up to doing the real deal. A video of the inverted row:

I hope I don’t bum anyone out. But exercise programs that use kipping pull-ups need to rethink this strategy for the sake of their clients’ fitness and health. One prominent Crossfit advocate agrees with me, writing a detailed piece on this very subject.

It may be awesome to say “I can do 30 pull-ups!” But if those are kipping pull-ups, you really haven’t accomplished much. Show me a guy who can do 12 dead-hang pull-ups, and that is way more impressive to me.

Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088

Five reasons why you should take your rest day

I take my rest days seriously.

I take my rest days seriously.

Last week, a person I follow on Twitter shared a link and posed a question: Are rest days necessary?

This is an ages-old issue, and I do mean “ages old” in the truest form. Page through the Bible’s Book of Exodus, and check out the Ten Commandments — God tells people to take a day off from work on the Sabbath. Go back into Genesis, and it says that on the seventh day of creation, God rested.

OK, OK. I’m not trying to turn this into a Sunday School lesson, but you get the gist: For thousands of years, there has been the idea that you should reserve a day per week to chill.

But does that necessarily include training for the sports we love? Should that include exercise? Is it OK to take that rest day and stretch the legs out anyway, even if for pure recreation? You know, the whole “active rest” thing?

There are a lot of arguments for and against it.

This guy writes that the idea of active rest is flawed.

And yet there is this article, in which the athlete being interviewed recommends an active rest day vs. not doing anything.

My opinion? I like the idea of actually resting on your rest day, and for a number of reasons.

First, let’s just be honest: everyone gets fatigued, even the most well-conditioned athletes. In fact, those people, by the nature of their training intensity, probably need that rest day more than the rest of us. It’s also a fact that you are more likely to become injured when in a fatigued state.

You might be tempted to think that this is giving in to sloth. Or that you’re missing an opportunity to take your game to the next level. If so, you’re thinking about rest the wrong way. Giving your body that day to just eat, hydrate and not do anything gives it an entire 24 hours to do nothing but repair and reload for the six days of work coming up. When you think of it that way, “rest” had a whole new meaning, doesn’t it?

Second, think about your heart. It’s got to be the toughest muscle in your body because it’s always at work. But it is a muscle, and it gets fatigued, too. A study published about a year ago noted that for a couple of weeks after a marathon, runners will face decreased performance in their heart. The damage is temporary, but it’s there nonetheless. The work of such an activity takes its toll that only time can heal.

Do a test. For a couple of weeks, test your resting heart rate first thing in the morning. What you need to do is at the moment you wake up, even before you roll out of bed to do anything, test your heart rate, then log the result. You will likely notice that as your previous day’s workouts amp up in intensity, your resting heart rate will be higher the next morning. If it’s 10 beats per minute higher or more than your average, take the day off. Your heart will thank you, and chances are your next workout will be better.

Third, think about your other organs. Namely your kidneys. While running has become increasingly popular, so have high-intensity programs that cram a lot of activity in a short amount of time, such as P90-X, Insanity, boot camp classes, and, most notably, Crossfit. These types of workouts need days in between of lower intensity, but some people get it in their head that they need the extra work. So they string difficult, highly taxing workouts together for days at a time. Muscle breaks down and has little time to rebuild and flush out dead tissue that results from vigorous workouts. Enter “Uncle Rhabdo,” or rhabdomyolysis, a condition in which the body floods the bloodstream with broken down muscle tissue and overwhelms the kidneys.

Don't let your body break down to the point where you're urine looks like this. Rhabdomyolysis can cause kidney failure and even death. Take a rest day!

Don’t let your body break down to the point where you’re urine looks like this. Rhabdomyolysis can cause kidney failure and even death. Take a rest day!

Symptoms include brownish urine, swelling, pain, tenderness, nausea, vomiting and abnormal heart rate and rhythm. And in the worst-case scenario, kidney damage, kidney failure and even death. Is that extra session at your Crossfit “box” worth your kidneys? Or your life? How does that rest day sound now?

Fourth, consider what you can accomplish for your body during those rest times. I like the idea of redefining the “active rest” day. Instead of hitting the weights, jumping on your bike or getting a quick run, try doing some extra time with the foam roller or some corrective exercises. Heck, go get a massage. You spend 4-6 days a week straining, stressing and breaking your body down. On your rest day, think about things you can do with your body that helps it heal.

Fifth, take a look at what you can do with your day when you don’t have to worry about squeezing in an hour or two for a workout and workout prep. Take your kids to a movie. Or your significant other on a leisurely day at the park. Watch a ballgame. Go to a worship service. Or fishing. Or just veg in front of the tube. You can’t live your entire life in a training/exercise bubble. Step outside that world once in a while and balance yourself out.

You don't have to be a lump on your rest day. Do cool, relaxing stuff. Anything but training. Balance your life out a bit in your downtime.

You don’t have to be a lump on your rest day. Do cool, relaxing stuff. Anything but training. Balance your life out a bit in your downtime.

Rest days are hard for a lot of us who are active. Many of us are driven by weight loss or performance goals, or are busy training for a race or some other competition. And many of us find enjoyment and peace when we’re out there doing what we love: pounding out fast miles, ripping up some gnarly singletrack, or climbing a challenging multi-pitch route.

I’m a mix: I find peace of mind when I’m active, and I enjoy the endorphin rush when I’m done. So I get it.

But you have to think “big picture” here. I want to do all of these thing not just for the next year or so, but for the next several decades, right up to the point when old age gives way to death. Yeah, I want to be the guy who is out running, hiking, climbing and adventuring well into his 80s and beyond.

However, if I live in a state of constant physical fatigue and stress — if I don’t give my body a chance to rest, heal and regroup — the chances of injury and illness only go up. And that will, in the long-term, lessen the number of years I get to do all those active things that I love.

So take that rest day. It’s just as important as the other six days when you’re going all-out.

What are your thoughts on rest days? Let me know in the comments.

Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088