In Inside the Box, veteran journalist and marathoner T.J. Murphy goes all in to expose the gritty, high-intensity sport of CrossFit®. From staggering newcomer to evangelist, Murphy finds out how it feels, why it’s so popular, and whether CrossFit can fix his broken body.
Please enjoy Chapter 9: My Date with Fran from Inside the Box, in which author T.J. Murphy attempts one of the hardest workouts in the sport of CrossFit, then purchase the book from VeloPress.com.
Eleven a.m. class at CrossFit Elysium. Friday. Coach Paul Estrada in the house. I was there at 10 minutes to the hour. The met-con of the day was “Danny”—a 20-minute AMRAP Hero WOD of 30 box jumps, 20 push presses, and 30 pull-ups. The workout was named after Oakland SWAT Sergeant Daniel Sakai, 35 years old, who had been killed on March 21, 2009, in the line of duty along with fellow officers Sergeant Ervin Romans, Sergeant Mark Dunakin, and Officer John Hege by a convicted felon wanted on a parole violation.
I warmed up on the Concept2 ergometer rowing machine, an easy 500 meters to loosen up the shoulders, the trunk, and the back. It made a pleasant whirring sound. Five minutes ’til, and I was still the only one who had shown up for the class. It reminded me of something Greg Glassman had discovered in the early days of CrossFit when he had shifted his personal training business from one-on-one coaching to a small-group model. He would charge each client less, but he would ultimately make more money in the hour. He also watched with curiosity and amazement as it became clear that his clients preferred the groups to going solo. Why? he wondered. Likely it was because, in a group, the attention is spread out, and with the high-intensity, high-discomfort form of training Glassman used, not having his full attention every minute of the workout seemed, to his clients, like a benefit. It took off some of the pressure.
Estrada, too, is a great coach. He is skilled at saying just enough to keep you giving a total effort. There are hyper-enthusiastic CrossFitters and CrossFit coaches, but Estrada is not one of them. In terms of praise, “Less is more” is his policy. Or maybe “Least is best.” He is ruthless, in a caring way, and has tremendous vision; in classes, he has the uncanny ability to see into and gauge the effort of every athlete.
Estrada, 6-foot-4 and towering from above, generally stood in a corner with his arms crossed, for the greatest field of vision possible. His head did not move, but his eyes scanned the room, back and forth, harvesting details to criticize or positives to reinforce. The larger the group, the more serious his tone. What I would most often hear was, “Get your weight on your heels” ; “Keep the bar close to your body” ; “Knees out” ; “Elbows up” ; or “Keep moving.”
Estrada’s voice was usually firm but calm. If he saw anything hinting at laziness, his voice would rise. Particularly vicious met-cons, which would essentially knock the legs out from the entire class, generated no warm-and-fuzzy reactions from Estrada. Whining about how hard the workout was netted exactly zero reaction. A classic scene at the end of a CrossFit Elysium workout was a room of supine bodies gasping for oxygen, legs and arms askew, Estrada just standing in the corner, arms crossed like a security gate, his brown eyes offering not a wisp of sympathy.
So the point? Having the attention of Paul Estrada spread across a group seemed to strike the right homeostasis. Being the only one in the class could be rough on the ego. I began to brace myself for the experience of having Estrada’s pace of critical observations having nowhere to go except toward me.
As the clock turned from 10:59 to 11:00, Estrada turned to me and then looked at the whiteboard, considering the workout that was scheduled, and considering that it would be no big deal to change it, since I was the only one in the class. I knew what was coming. I could feel cortisol releasing into my bloodstream. Muscles clenched around my stomach. My senses shifted into battle-ready status. I could hear a delivery truck outside whine into second gear. I pulled down on the sides of the knit stocking cap that I had bought at Disneyland, burgundy, with a Mickey Mouse patch stitched to the front. All of the traditional fight-or-flight stress systems had simultaneously leaped into action, increasing my heart rate, blood pressure, and rate of breathing.
“How about Fran? Want to test it today?” Estrada asked.
“Sure, yeah. That’s a great idea.”
“Test-Retest” is a big phrase in the CrossFit world. Have doubts that a diet works, or the overall training philosophy or programming? Want to see double-blind, peer-reviewed research to support the ideas, but it just doesn’t exist? The CrossFit answer is to try it yourself and see if it works for you or not. Test, retest.
- Test: Get a reading on your current fitness level.
- Try the program for a given number of weeks.
That November, I wanted to test the antispecific training doctrine of synthesis, the idea that the best way to train for a specific CrossFit goal is with general CrossFit training. Just wake up every morning, go to the gym, do the WOD that’s on the board, eat good food, get lots of sleep, drink enough water, then retest to see how far you’ve come.
Four months into my life as a CrossFitter, I’d heard several tales of success using this process—how someone had a deadlift PR, and even though he rarely did a deadlift in the course of two or so months, he retested a one-rep maximum deadlift and posted a serious gain.
This flies in the face of the conventional training rules I’d grown up with, in particular the principle of specificity. That principle states that the way to move toward your athletic goals is to do your thing. If your goal is to run faster, then run a lot. If it’s to bench-press more weight, do a lot of bench presses. If it’s to jump high in the air, jump a lot. What CrossFit tries to teach you is that the best way to attack a CrossFit goal is to just do the general training.
If there was one aspect about CrossFit that I believed was bullshit, this was it.
To be fair, this principle is intertwined with the notion that the ultimate goal of CrossFit is a broad state of general fitness and health. Coaches I spoke with on this subject acknowledged that, yes, if you just want to improve your Fran time, then just doing thrusters and pull-ups in every workout is going to be a fast way to do it. But you’ll become a sort of “fringe” athlete in the process, someone who is especially good at Fran, but ultimately regressing in everything else. The extreme example in another sport is the high-mileage marathon runner who trains solely for marathons, essentially leaving certain other types of athleticism (agility, for example) to the margins. Everything is sacrificed in the quest to run a long way at a swift pace.
The CrossFit model encourages the athlete to set goals and then pursue those goals with an intensified focus on doing all the basics. For example, say you’ve been going to CrossFit three times a week, but you’ve paid little attention to the things you consider “extras,” like nutrition, mobility, and sleep. You work with a coach to set a goal, or a set of goals, and look to reach them by being a better CrossFitter. A beginner might set goals like these:
- Lose 5 pounds of fat.
- Master an unassisted pull-up.
- Lower 500-meter rowing time by 10 seconds.
Maybe you’re expecting a nutrition plan, to go with goal #1. And various exercises that would target #2, along with a lot of rowing. But that is almost assuredly not what you would get. Instead, the coach might set up a plan for you that would across the board require a higher level of commitment. It might be an eight-week plan that requires you to make it to CrossFit four times per week. The coach might also set various benchmarks for improving nutrition (as you expected) and getting more sleep (something you may not have expected). You might have to do some extras in your warm-ups that touch upon specific goals (such as practicing your pull-up), but you would not be given specific workouts. There are no specific workouts. There’s just the daily drumbeat of the ever-varying WOD.
A side note on sleep: I asked Coach Chang, who is an MD, to explain to me why sleep is so important to CrossFit training. “Most of us are sleep deprived,” he said. “This translates into an inability to recover fully from both life’s routine stressors and physical training. With lack of sleep, the gains one would otherwise make from working out are blunted, and progress is slowed.” Chang also said that lack of sleep increases cortisol levels, a stress hormone that decreases immune function. It also, he said, “inhibits thyroid function, which slows metabolism and decreases caloric burning, causes fat deposition in the back and abdomen, and also . . . breaks down muscle and connective tissue.”
Okay, he convinced me about the sleep issue. But I still had my doubts about the efficacy of nonspecific training. So I decided to do a test-retest. I wanted to see for myself whether this theory worked.
SETTING THE GOALS
Coaches Estrada and Chang came up with two key goals for me, chosen from among the classics in the CrossFit world: improving my Fran time and upping my max deadlift. The goals were spread across broad time and modal domains; in other words, I was going to focus on two different types of exercise that ranged from taking very little time (upping my max deadlift) to taking relatively more time (bettering my Fran).
Fran, probably the best-known CrossFit workout, and famed for the puke-seducing amount of internal discomfort it delivers, tests not only strength and power but also stamina, coordination, mobility, and mental strength. The deadlift, on the other hand, is more of a brute strength sort of thing. Say a tree trunk falls and traps your friend, and you have to use all your strength to get it off him. The deadlift is the most effective way, using just the human body, to save your friend. A max one-rep deadlift attempt has never made me want to puke, but it does involve a huge amount of blood being plunged by the working muscles; and the slish-slosh of systolic and diastolic blood pressure that occurs when I try to stand up after that always tags me with a galactic head rush. I wobble around the gym for about 20 seconds, dazed by vertigo.
Performing a deadlift takes at most a couple of seconds, but in those few seconds, it makes a huge demand on overall physical power. Fran, in contrast, is done by the best CrossFitters in three minutes, possibly faster, but might take a beginner half an hour. Beginners usually don’t have the strength or the skill to do the kipping pull-ups and thrusters that Fran comprises. These components require strength, power, and exceptional mobility in the hips and shoulders. Both kipping pull-ups and thrusters make excessive demands on large muscle groups, such as those surrounding the hips and shoulders, generating a tremendous amount of power. The power usage comes at a cost, however, as after you’ve ripped through a high number of kipping pull-ups or thrusters, your respiratory system feels like it’s veered to the edge of implosion.
I was once talking to a track coach who was also an exercise physiologist, and he relayed to me a story about a legendary exercise physiologist and track coach that relates to the intensity involved in workouts like Fran. The story may have been apocryphal, but it is worth telling. Apparently the legendary coach was in the lab with a coaching intern and called him over to a large bucket of water. He wanted to show the young coach how much effort and training effect he could demand out of his runners in a track workout. The old scientist-coach then dropped a rat into the water, and the rat had no way out of the bucket. It just had to swim or try to swim to stay alive. The two watched the rat struggle for a while, and then, as it began to tire, it began to drown. When the rat was giving into the exhaustion, the coach grabbed it by the tail and saved it, holding the thoroughly drained rat up for display purposes and saying, “That’s exhaustion.” One of the things that happens in the first weeks and months and maybe years of doing CrossFit is that a CrossFitter who continues to push goes beyond what he or she thought was possible in terms of exhaustion and discomfort. If you don’t continue to push forward, then progress will inevitably come to a stale halt.
Fran’s notoriety lies in the sharp blow of metabolic discomfort that it delivers to the athlete. That’s why the phrase “For a good time, call Fran: 21-15-9” is the quintessential CrossFit T-shirt, the secret handshake, and the official rite of passage.
“So why don’t you get your bar set up,” said Coach Estrada. “And get a medicine ball, too.” The medicine ball was to be set so that each thruster I performed went to the proper depth; in order for a rep to count, every time I got to the bottom of the movement my butt was required to make contact with the ball. The other point of performance was that the bar would have to be fully extended and my elbows locked out at the top. The pull-ups required that the chin get over the bar on each rep and that the arms lock out at the bottom of the pull-up.
The plan was to do Fran as a pretest; after 10 more weeks of CrossFit, I would retest. The same would go for a maximum deadlift. I had already tested my deadlift earlier that week, and my one-rep max was 295 pounds.
Estrada pulled up a chair and set the digital clock at the rear of the gym to stopwatch mode. It would be 21 thrusters, 21 pull-ups, 15 thrusters, 15 pull-ups, 9 thrusters, 9 pull-ups.
By the time of the pretest, I could do kipping pull-ups, so I would be doing that part of the workout as prescribed. The fastest CrossFitters prefer the butterfly pull-up, where the body pattern is reminiscent of how a swimmer does the butterfly. My choice would be the more common kipping-style pull-up, where the body uses core muscles in a horizontal push-pull motion to create energy to go upward. Once you get the pattern going, there’s a powerful momentum to be gained and used toward higher numbers of pull-ups.
But my capacity with front squats and push presses—the two elements of a thruster—was still lacking, so Estrada suggested I do the workout with 75 pounds— still 20 shy of the prescribed weight.
“Three, two, one, go,” Estrada said. To get an elite time, an athlete needs to do the thrusters and pull-ups as close to “unbroken” as possible, meaning that you don’t break up the sets. For example, you don’t break up the first 21 reps into one set of 10 and one set of 11 with a short rest where you quickly catch your breath. I, however, would break the sets up a lot, especially as the workout wore on. Although I was able to break the first set of pull-ups into only two batches, by the third set I was doing them one by one.
Estrada encouraged me to try and get two at a time, but when I couldn’t get them, he just tried to keep me moving by limiting the breaks to durations as short as possible. “Get back on the bar,” he said over and over. When you’re standing there late in the workout, on the verge of ventilatory overload, your chest feeling like a gas can into which someone has dropped a lighted match, getting your hands back on the bar becomes a harder and harder thing to do. But at the same time, you realize that it’s going to hurt no matter what, so you might as well get it over with as fast as possible.
I finished the Fran pretest in 8:20 and experienced for the first time the great Fran backlash–that when it’s over, it’s not really over. The point at which you feel your absolute worst after Fran occurs maybe a minute or two after it’s done. I had my hands on my knees and was staring at the ground, and then I had to sit down on the floor, it got so bad. “Jesus,” I said.
“No,” Estrada replied. “Fran.”
10 WEEKS OF TRAINING
The 10 weeks of training for the retest commenced the next day. It was a simple plan: Go to CrossFit classes four or five times per week for 10 weeks, with stretching/mobility exercises before and after classes. Drink a lot of water, eat good food, and get eight hours of sleep per night.
Attending class four to five times a week fell in line with the CrossFit philosophy on attendance. The ideal pattern, it holds, is either three days on, one day off, or five days on, two days off. Dave Castro, codirector of training, says this is the basic line of thought, but that an athlete should always remember that “routine is the enemy,” and so, whatever you do, mix it up. Constantly vary the pattern. So in addition to the 3:1 or 5:2 schedule, throw in a three-day recovery once in a while, or four consecutive days of training. Keep your body guessing.
At the top of the CrossFit world, you’ll find athletes keeping schedules that reflect a high level of dedication—and pain tolerance. Lindsey Smith, for example, of Columbus, Ohio, one of the top women CrossFitters in the world, often does two workouts a day. What is especially impressive about this is that she’s not napping between workouts, to say the least. Smith is a wife, a mother, and a schoolteacher, and she travels most weekends to teach at CrossFit certifications. I asked her about that second workout of the day. She admitted that sometimes she didn’t get a chance to do it until late at night after her daughter was put to bed.
“Well,” she said, somewhat matter-of-factly, and with a light shrug, “You just do it.”
In my case, getting to CrossFit four times a week was all I could handle. Sometimes I went five times a week during that 10-week training period; however, I noticed that I was a physical wreck at the end of those weeks. I was also not much fun to train with. Once, on the fifth consecutive workout in a week, I showed up and the met-con included power cleans with heavy weight, one of my weaknesses. We were teamed up in groups of three, and while one person did the set of power cleans, the other two rested. My teammates saw that I was struggling and tried to cheer me on. I responded to their kindness by swearing and slamming the weights to the ground. Not great for team morale.
I decided that, in general, after four consecutive days, I was so spent that it was counterproductive to go in on the fifth day.
It’s 10 weeks later and nearing the day of my Fran retest.
As the day crept closer, I grew more nervous about it. For one thing, I was afraid I was going to prove myself right about CrossFit and do worse than I had the first time. It just didn’t feel like I was training for what I was going to be tested on. Only once during that period had I encountered a workout with thrusters in it. So how was I going to get better at thrusters, the key component of Fran? I didn’t feel like I was making any radical gains in my ability to do pull-ups, either. It seemed like the 10 weeks would go by and I’d retest Fran and be lucky to be able to complete it. The same went for the deadlift: I spent very little time doing the exercise. The fear that I would fail at both goals became vivid.
I was also nervous because I knew how much Fran was going to hurt. I knew my desire to improve my time would be great, and thus I knew Fran was going to get real ugly, real quick.
I asked original Firebreather Greg Amundson, who has more than 10 years of CrossFit workouts under his belt, how many times he’d done Fran. “More than 100,” he replied. He told me that in the early years of CrossFit, when he traveled with Glassman to teach groups what CrossFit was all about and do certifications, he was often so nervous the night before an event that he couldn’t sleep. He knew he would be called upon to blow himself to pieces by doing Fran.
The early certifications had loose schedules, so he wasn’t even sure when the Fran demonstration would take place. “I would never know when it was going to be,” he said. “It could be in the morning, it could be after lunch. It could be during lunch. I had no idea.” In one CrossFit.com video, Glassman talks about how knowing you’re going to do Fran is almost as bad as doing it. He says he has seen elite CrossFitters so anxious about Fran that they threw up before the workout.
The stress that Amundson felt before such workouts ultimately pushed him to adopt a sort of in-the-moment philosophy, where he would divide the world into the things he could control and the things he couldn’t control. Amundson realized that he could only truly have an impact on the present moment, and that worrying about what may or may not happen in the future—when he would be told to do Fran—was beyond his control. Letting anxiety sap his energy was a waste. He has since become the official “goals” coach for CrossFit, teaching specialty seminars at CrossFit affiliates around the country with this philosophy as one of his main topics.
I tried to apply Amundson’s technique as the end of January approached. The Fran retest was only a week away. Estrada broke a bit of protocol by telling me that he’d help me a little bit by programming Fran into the schedule. “Don’t miss the Monday workout,” he said.
On the whiteboard that day:
Thruster 3 x 3
“Fran” for time
While a sub-4-minute Fran is highly respectable, a sub-3-minute Fran puts you in rare company. As of this writing, the men’s 2011 Reebok CrossFit Games champion, Rich Froning Jr., has a personal record of 2:17 for Fran. Kristan Clever, the women’s 2011 champion, has recorded a 2:49 Fran. Chris Spealler, from Park City, Utah, who has an otherworldly personal record for max pull-ups (106), has a 2:07 Fran PR.
And then there’s Jason “Rhabdo” Kaplan’s 1:53 Fran, recorded at CrossFit Montclair in Montclair, New Jersey, and posted on YouTube in May 2009—perhaps the most watched Fran in the history of CrossFit. From the corner of a cinderblock gym, Kaplan walks into the picture wearing a long-sleeved black shirt, long gray shorts, and wire-rimmed glasses. Within the frame of the video is the digital clock that is timing him. From the beginning, Kaplan’s efficiency is thorough. Not only is he breathtakingly quick with the 95 pounds of weights—it pops so lightly into the air you’d think the bar was unloaded—it’s obvious that he’s refined the entire workout to trim any waste. On the completion of a set of thrusters, after the bar literally pops into the air before dropping, a testament to the speed and power being employed by Kaplan, he doesn’t even turn around but instead takes two steps backward to get to the pull-up bar. The bar looks like it’s set perfectly for his height. As his legs swing through the butterfly pull-ups, they look like they’re an inch off the ground. It takes Kaplan just 48 seconds to get through the 21 thrusters and 21 pull-ups. By 1:28 he’s completed the 15-rep round. At the finish of the 1:53 Fran, CrossFitters from the gym spill into the image and congratulate the freshly flattened Kaplan, who cries out, “No more Fran! Never again! No more!”
STICKING TO THE PLAN
I called up Amundson to ask for his advice on my Fran retest. He offered me two ideas to improve my performance. Amundson told me to be sure to organize myself at the outset with the equipment; time is precious, so don’t waste it shuttling back and forth between the pull-up bar and the barbell. He said to look for every possible way you can tweak the situation to save time. He also advised planning breaks in advance. For example, I could plan to break the 21 thrusters up into 11 reps and then 10 reps, putting the weights down, and taking a specific number of breaths while transitioning to the pull-ups. “Even if you feel especially good, don’t throw away the plan and try and get the set all in one,” he said. “Stick to your plan.”
Although thrusters and pull-ups had received no special attention in the 10-week period of training, I had made two important discoveries along the way. One was a breakthrough with the kipping pull-up. One day during a met-con, all the mechanics of it snapped into place, and the idea that momentum would propel me over the bar, like a swing, finally took hold. Whereas before I had struggled to use the kip to get over the bar, now it felt closer to the way it looked when I watched the others do kipping pull-ups.
In addition, the one time we did thrusters in those 10 weeks, Estrada had given me some sage advice. He had taught me how to do them faster, again by capitalizing on momentum. Once you lock out at the end of a thruster with the bar overhead, he said, you quickly squat down so the weight can just sink with gravity, rather than trying to control it and burning energy. I also had a better feel for using the power generated by snapping the hips to propel the bar upward. The most common bad habit for beginners is to try and muscle the bar up with each thruster using the arm muscles. Using these smaller muscles, which aren’t nearly as powerful as the muscles of the hips and core, and will flame out much faster, is a sure way to perish before the workout is over.
Fran. It was 11:44 a.m. We’d spent the class so far working up to a maximum amount of weight for three thrusters, and now we’d set up our stations for Fran. Coach Estrada was joining in on the workout. Usually Estrada is stoic, whether coaching or training, but this time he was pressing his forehead into one of the building’s support beams with a sort of delirious smile on his face. “This is going to hurt,” he said softly, and tried to laugh.
The clock started and we were off. I was again using 75 pounds, as in my first test, which meant I was still doing a scaled workout. However, Chang had told me that the lighter weight didn’t mean that I would be getting away with anything. “You’ll be able to go faster, so it may even hurt more than if you were using 95 pounds.”
I used my new technique of letting the weight come down fast and folding down underneath it. The first 21 thrusters flew by. I broke the pull-ups up into two sets: 11 reps, down for three breaths, then 10 reps. I returned to the thrusters for the 15 reps. Breathing and heart rate were high. The discomfort is a weird sensation. It’s centered in the chest and abdomen, as if the internal organs are getting the worst of it. It’s kind of a searing feeling of sickness.
Finishing the 15 pull-ups gives you that “light at the end of the tunnel” feeling. Now you just go as fast as you can without the muscles failing you. The great ones—Amundson, Smith, Kaplan, Spealler, Sakamoto, and others who can go under 3 minutes—don’t break anything up. I, however, had to do the last six pull-ups one at a time. I’d leap onto the bar, kip a pull-up, let go, come back down to the ground, and immediately jump back up.
I’d also broken up the last two sets of thrusters. But with Amundson’s and Estrada’s advice in mind, I kept my breaks as tight and controlled as possible. Estrada finished well before me—his Fran PR is 3:01—and was now coaching me and the others on, mostly keeping us focused on containing breaks to a bare minimum. I finished and slumped to the floor. A wave of metabolic fatigue washed through me and I felt sick. But the discomfort was eased by the time I’d clocked.
In November, in the pretest, my time had been 8:20. My goal had been cautious: I wanted to break 8 minutes. My retest time was 5:27. I’d cut nearly 3 minutes off my Fran time. I was astounded. It had been 10 weeks. A year before this, I had been a limping mess of damaged gristle. There was no denying that, for me, CrossFit’s antispecificity training worked.
I also retested my max deadlift that week. Two and a half months before, I had PR’d with 295 pounds. In the last week of January, we did the one-max-deadlift test. Wearing weight lifting shoes and gripping the cool steel of the 45-pound bar loaded with a total of 315 pounds, I had a new PR.
This is how they get you, I realized. It is this march toward personal records, goals, and programs, checking new skills off the list, making new records, seeing gains in strength and endurance, losing pounds of weight or fat. Being able to do a pull-up or being able to “RX” a workout. This is the drug that gets you—and keeps you.
In Inside the Box, veteran journalist and marathoner T.J. Murphy goes all in to expose the gritty, high-intensity sport of CrossFit®. From staggering newcomer to evangelist, Murphy finds out how it feels, why it’s so popular, and whether CrossFit can fix his broken body.