Powerlifter, Olympic lifter, and bodybuilder Christian Thibaudeau became a CrossFit athlete for three months. Here are the lessons he learned.
Here's what you need to know...
- While the thinking used to be that CrossFit made guys weak, the average competitor in the CrossFit Games is very impressive.
- Quite a few CrossFit girls have better physiques than some figure competitors, even without dieting.
- There's something magical about being able to perform an explosive lift when you're metabolically fatigued and your heart rate is skyrocketing.
- Doing submaximal lifting that focuses more on speed and density of work, like you do in CrossFit, is a great way to build muscle.
- CrossFit can also get you lean fast, even with zero emphasis on nutrition.
I have a secret. I did CrossFit almost exclusively last summer. I've competed in Olympic lifting, powerlifting, and I've been a competitive bodybuilder... and now I can say I've been a CrossFitter too. I went to CrossFit Levis three times a week and then trained on my own to work on strength and my Olympic lifts. I actually kept a kind of CrossFit journal back then. So, one year later, here it is: my CrossFit diary, along with some current-day observations.
Why I Decided to Try CrossFit
- I've worked with a lot of CrossFit athletes this year, helping several prepare for the Canada East regionals. I helped some with their Olympic lifting and others with their entire training. I'll tell you this: I've trained figure competitors who go to extreme lengths in their dieting, cardio, and training, and quite a few of the CrossFit girls I'm working with have better physiques than the figure girls... and that's without dieting. Similarly, a former Canadian national bodybuilding champion I know started training for CrossFit and she looks better – not just better, but also more muscular and stronger – than when she was bodybuilding!
- I always believed that CrossFit made girls look great and guys look small, in addition to making them lose strength. I don't believe the latter anymore because some of the competitive CrossFit athletes are quite strong. The average competitor in the CrossFit games can do a 245-pound snatch, 335-pound clean & jerk, 550-pound deadlift, and a 450-pound back squat. And several overhead squat in the 300s and front squat in the 400s. Four of the guys I'm coaching can snatch over 225 pounds, which is pretty darn strong!
- And just take a look at the top CrossFit competitors: Dan Bailey, Neil Maddox, Rich Froning, Jason Khalipa. These guys look badass – big muscles, athletic look, and lean. The average height/weight ratio of the top guys is 5'10", 195 pounds at 8% body fat or under. I know that on the internet if you're under 200 pounds you're considered a weakling, but in reality a very lean 200 on an average-height body is very muscular. Heck, when I last competed in bodybuilding I weighed 188 pounds!
- CrossFit has done more for Olympic lifting than Olympic lifting itself has ever done. Any sport/training model that's based heavily on the snatch, clean, jerk, and push press can't be all that bad.
- I'm doing some workouts with my wife and there's something very sexy about a girl doing deadlifts, clean & jerks, and snatches that really help re-ignite the passion in a marriage!
- I hate not being good at something, especially when it's training-related!
- I always believed in the maxim, "Leaders lead from the front, not from the back. And I always lived by the credo of never asking a client to do something that I can't do myself. You might not be at the same level, but you should be physically capable of doing what you ask of them. Since I'm working with a lot of CrossFit athletes, I felt bad not being able to "lead from the front."
- Five years ago, I suffered from a viral myocardiopathy that led to heart failure. For two years my heart was functioning at 20-30% efficacy. This was hard to accept for someone who used to be athletic. It really affected my training and quality of life. Because of that I realized the importance of a strong cardiovascular system. I also believe that my CV health (or lack thereof) greatly diminished my capacity to gain muscle. Every time I went above 220 pounds I felt really bad and had to come down in weight.
- I always believed that training density is one of the most important factors to stimulate a maximal response from your sessions. In CrossFit, density is the most important element. Every workout is either based on doing a certain amount of work as fast as possible or doing as much work as possible in a certain time frame. The sense of urgency this gives you can be as powerful as a shot of adrenalin.
That's why I decided to give it a try.
May, 2013 – Stuff I Learned From My First Month of CrossFit
- I'd become lazy with my own training. I'd stayed in my comfort zone way too much, turning up the heat only when I really had to improve fast (e.g., before a T Nation video session).
- My cardiovascular system is both better and worse than I thought it was. Better because I found I was able to keep going way past the point where I thought that I'd actually die, and worse because I think that dying would have felt better!
- Some of the workouts used are very conducive to my own physique goals (my ideal physique is Georges St. Pierre with 10-15 pounds of added muscle mass). However, some are also very counterproductive and will make reaching my goals harder.
- Training to be good at CrossFit will do more to build the body I want than just doing CrossFit. I think that's one of the reasons why the top-level guys and girls have such great bodies – they do CrossFit sessions but they also do plenty of strength work.
- I know that my strength-building methods are more effective than those used by even the top CrossFit athletes. I also know that the type of work done in the productive (for my goals) CrossFit workouts will do a lot to help me build quality muscle and get me leaner. A combination will give me everything I want from my training.
- It's fun to finally learn hard skills like handstand push-ups, muscle-ups, and the like, but you don't need them to build the ultimate physique. If there's one thing I don't really like about CrossFit is the complexity of some of the skills. I understand that "being prepared for everything" is their driving concept, but if your goal is just to be more muscular, leaner, and stronger, the advanced skills aren't necessary.
- There's something magical about being able to perform an explosive lift when you're metabolically fatigued and your heart rate is running at 200 bpm. Being in that kind of distressed physical state activates a powerful survival mechanism. When you do strength and power work in that state you create a very powerful growth stimulus that cannot be achieved any other way.
- My lats got sore for the first time ever and grew significantly. I always hated pull-ups and because of that I avoided them. I found that practicing them every day by doing strict pull-ups, kipping, butterfly, and rings at a non-maximal level worked like nothing else to build my lats. The weird thing is that I didn't feel my lats that much while doing them, but I sure felt them the next day! This made me reconsider several things that I believed were immutable truths.
- CrossFit indeed has a fairly high injury risk potential. Even as somebody who's a student of lifting technique, I tended to cut the corners during a WOD. As such, it's important to train the big basic lifts used in CrossFit during regular strength sessions to make proper technique as automatic as possible.
- During a CrossFit workout, you get in a state of deep focus that allows you to do things you wouldn't expect. For example, at one point I was having a hard time breathing and was very close to passing out, but I ended up doing one of my most technically solid snatches ever, with about 10 pounds less than my current max at the time. Experiencing that type of tunnel vision-like focus is something that you can learn to transfer to strength workouts and make them a lot more productive. I can also use my wife as an example. During regular strength workouts you couldn't force her to deadlift 135 (because of the "big plate" on each side), yet during a WOD she went up to 225 pounds.
- My capacity to do a high workload even in a state of metabolic distress has improved dramatically and much faster than expected. Along with my own training, I'm doing two workouts at the Levis CrossFit box/gym along with my wife. I'll be honest, the first week I really thought that there was no way I'd be able to finish, or even survive. I felt a deep sense of panic about two-thirds of the way into each workout. By the second week I was actually able to finish strong instead of just surviving, and by the third week I felt so much better that after one workout I questioned whether I did the workout right because I actually felt good at the end!
- I got lean fast! I'm the leanest I've been in the past five years and that's with zero emphasis on nutrition. In fact I'm eating a lot more carbs now. After the first week I even jacked up my carb intake a lot to make sure I was recovering. Here's what my daily food intake looks like. Keep in mind that this is not a dietary recommendation. I really didn't plan anything and I'm certainly not among the gluten haters!
- 6 sirloin hamburgers (150g of carbs)
- 3-4 scoops of Plazma™ (roughly 114-152g of carbs)
- 6 scoops of Mag-10® (30g of carbs)
- 14 rice cakes (112g of carbs)
- 2 Finibars (80g of carbs)
- Some berries (roughly 20-30g of carbs)
- That's between 520 and 540g of carbs per day, and sometimes I even get to 600. Not bad for someone who used to fear ever going above 50 grams per day.
- Despite my biggest fear, not only did I not lose any strength, I actually got stronger on many movements including pull-ups, dips, overhead presses, and deadlifts. My power snatch also improved. My power clean stayed the same, though, mostly because I couldn't train it hard due to an elbow injury dating back two years ago when I went overboard on ring work.
- I'm almost unbreakable with weights in the 60-75% range. Before that I could do tons of sets of 1-2 reps with 90% and not break. But I couldn't handle higher reps or workloads. To give you an idea, after three weeks I tested myself on the deadlift and was able to perform 60 deadlift reps in less than 8 minutes with loads ranging from 70 to 75%. That might not seem humongous, but that's one rep every 8 seconds. And honestly, I could have kept on going. I also did 60 behind-the-neck push presses, all over 225 pounds, in a tad under 9 minutes.
- My lats and shoulders have improved the most. I used to have very good rounded delts, but for some reason I lost some size, roundness, and strength in those muscles over the past two years or so. My guess is that it was caused by a significant decrease in overhead pressing work (in favor of the bench press) and some chronic shoulder inflammation. To be good at CrossFit, you need to be super efficient and strong overhead, so I really had to shift my focus more on overhead pressing strength than the bench press. It paid off. I also did a lot of high-rep overhead work, which seems to be more effective than maximal loads to build the delts. Growing the lats was a given since I had to become good at pull-ups since they were basically present in all the workouts I did at the CrossFit box.
- I lost fat in the upper and lower back, areas normally super stubborn for me.
- I feel much better. I used to have energy crashes and even "borderline depressive" episodes. I attributed that to a messed up brain chemistry. Turns out that I was just out of shape! I find myself more energetic, happy to do chores. I'm not yet at the point of enjoying visiting my in-laws, but it will come I'm sure.
- I feel athletic. I walk differently. I look more fluid and am more confident. I look like a different person when you see me approaching and it's not even from the physical changes!
- My bodyweight hasn't changed much despite being a lot leaner. I started out at 215 pounds, which is pretty much my normal weight, and after four weeks I'm 213 pounds, but I've lost a lot more fat than just two pounds. So much for the fear of whittling away to 180 pounds in weeks!
- The sport that will benefit the most from Plazma™ is training for CrossFit, no contest. Not only was I able to easily recover from some brutal metcon sessions and still lift big during my strength sessions, but I never felt physically out of it. I actually only got really sore once and that was after a workout where I did 64 power cleans with 185 pounds at the CrossFit gym and then push-pressed 295 pounds an hour later during a regular strength workout. My traps got sore, but that's about it.
June, 2013 – Second Month Observations
- A hard month of training is now behind me. I can say that this form of training is addictive and I certainly see why CrossFit is popular. I mean, it really sucks when you're doing it, but the amount of pride you feel and the sense of accomplishment is hard to beat. As for my own training and results, I love what I'm seeing and how I'm feeling.
- During my second month of training I observed and learned a few more things that I want to share with you. I always felt that I am the average T Nation reader. I want what they want and like what they like. I like to be strong and muscular, but I love to be lean and feel athletic. I said that my ideal physique is that of Georges St. Pierre with 10-15 pounds more of muscle, but considering what's happening to my body I might as well change that to 20 pounds more muscle!
- While I expected to get leaner with this type of training, I was afraid of losing some muscle mass. After all, my lowered volume of overall strength work and increase in metabolic conditioning work would surely lead to some loss in size. I was actually willing to live with this, but so far I'm shocked by the results. I certainly haven't lost any size, and quite possibly gained some size, as evidenced by the fact that I'm a lot leaner while my bodyweight remains fairly stable. This tells me two things: 1) the amount of strength/heavy lifting necessary to build strength and size is much lower than I thought and 2) lighter resistance work can actually become a muscle growth stimulus if you push it hard enough.
- After some deep introspection I realized that I value being super lean more than being super big. Don't get me wrong, I want big muscles and you really can't get the look I want without a good amount of muscle tissue, but being a walking anatomy chart has always been my main goal. The problem is that every time I tried to get that lean in the past, I felt like crap throughout the process. I had no energy and lost a lot of strength. Why? Because with the type of training I was doing, I achieved fat loss by food/carbs reduction (sometimes quite drastic) and I'm now doing it while eating just as much food, if not more, than during a muscle gain phase.
- My back, shoulders, and legs are definitely improving the most. What freaks me out (in a good way) is seeing my back get lean! As I mentioned, it would normally take extreme dieting to get back definition, but I'm now seeing tons of separation. The shoulders are much rounder, which is cool because in the past when I was "dieting down," shoulder roundness was the first thing I'd lose. My legs are bigger, but of course that's not surprising since I'm doing four squatting workouts per week, plus the Olympic lifts and complexes.
- I decided to add daily ring dips and chins to improve my relative strength. I find that with the daily ring dips I'm able to maintain chest mass despite dropping bench pressing almost completely. This led me to the conclusion that dips can be a superior chest builder to the bench press.
- This is the first time in my life that I really like the way I look. I think that most of us who get serious about training do so because we're not satisfied with the way we look. I'm no different. Even when I did bodybuilding I never liked the way I looked. This could've been because when I finally reached the degree of leanness and muscularity I felt so bad that I had a negative outlook on everything. I can safely say that this is the first time I ever looked and felt great at the same time.
- The more I experience it, the more I believe that submaximal lifting that focuses more on speed and density of work is a great way to build muscle. This is especially true of the Olympic lifts, so I decided to go a bit lighter on my Olympic lift days (I'm building overall strength with the strength days anyway) and focus more on complexes and EMOM loading (every minute on the minute). I feel that this will give me more overall muscle gains while also solidifying my technique while preserving the nervous system.
- You really need to up the carbs! Not only will you not get fat on this program, the carbs (the right ones) will actually help you get leaner because you'll be able to train harder. I ran out of Finibars at one point and it hit me really hard. I didn't realize how much they helped me recover from these workouts.
July, 2013 – CrossFit Marathon
You want to hear something crazier than Christian Thibaudeau doing CrossFit? How about Christian Thibaudeau doing a 24-hour CrossFit marathon?
By now you might realize that I have an "all-out" attitude. Moderation isn't in my nature. So after less than two months of this type of training my wife and I decided to sign up for a 24-hour CrossFit marathon organized to raise funds for a city that got hit by a huge train explosion that devastated half the downtown area. The event lasted 24 straight hours, one workout being performed every hour. We were divided into teams of four, so we all had to do six workouts, one every four hours or so. My wife and I stayed at the gym the whole time, except for two brief periods when we went back home to feed the dogs. It would be a lie to tell you that we slept, as sleeping was a physical impossibility.
When I got to the gym, I quickly noticed that a ton of people knew me; some knew me because I had coached them in Olympic lifting and many others knew me by reputation. All were surprised to see me there as they didn't know anything about my "shift in training."
So when the first workout came up I felt an amazing amount of pressure. In fact, my heart rate was close to a fatal level before the workout even started. Plus, the workouts were picked at random so we couldn't really assign specific workouts to the team members because we didn't know the order of the workouts in advance. That made things even worse.
It turns out that I had to do the workout named "Fran," which is 21 thrusters (95 pounds), 21 pull-ups, 15 thrusters, 15 pull-ups, 9 thrusters, 9 pull-ups for time. It looks quite innocent, but the thing is that you basically can't breathe during that workout. The thrusters are the absolute worst exercise when it comes to breathing, and then you have to do pull-ups where deep breathing is almost impossible because you can't elevate your chest.
I made the mistake of really blasting through the first 21 thrusters. While I was the first one done, I gassed out bad when I walked toward the pull-up rack. This was due to lack of breathing plus the elevated heart rate at the start. I was able to pull through but I promised never to do that workout again.
My second workout was even worse:
- 18 toes-to-bar
- 16 hand release push-ups (a push-up where, after your chest touches the floor, you momentarily pull your hands off the floor)
- 14 pull-ups, chest to bar
- 12 ring dips
- 10 chin-ups
- 8 handstand push-ups
- 6 pull-ups, chest to bar
- 4 clean & jerk with 155 pounds
- 60m walking lunges while carrying 45 pounds overhead
It actually went fairly well, except for falling down three times while doing the handstand push-ups (it's not something I'd practiced), but I was really disappointed when I saw that the next workout (the one a teammate got to do instead of me) was testing your deadlift 1RM. I would have cleaned up on that one!
I did fairly well in my third workout, which consisted of five rounds of the following:
- 200m farmer's walk while holding one 45-pound bumper plate in each hand (held by the hole)
- 20m bear crawl (running on all fours)
- 10 high box jumps (36")
Again, the next workout consisted of 5-4-3-2-1 in the power clean and kettlebell snatch. I would've done very well at that one, too, but my wife got to do it and I'm proud to say that her cleans looked very solid. Finally, in the next round, I drew one that was designed for me: "Isabelle," which is 30 snatches with 135 pounds. All eyes were on me and I was expecting a very solid performance.
Sadly, when luck is not on your side, it's really not on your side. After the first 10 reps, where it felt like I was snatching an empty bar, my left quad started to cramp bad. In fact I was unable to put any weight on my leg at all without experiencing severe cramps. So I stopped, took two servings of Plazma and 3000ml of water, waited 10 minutes and did it again. Sadly, most people were finished and getting some rest by then.
The rest of the experience is a haze. I'm someone who normally wakes up at 4:30 AM and goes to sleep at 8 PM. That day I still woke up at 4:30 AM but I finished my fourth workout at roughly 3 AM. I do not respond well to sleep deprivation. I finished with a workout that was tailored to me, but at that point I was fighting to stay alive and awake so I can't say that I killed it.
The main thing I learned during these four weeks was the value of loaded carries. I was reminded about them when I had to do a workout at CrossFit Levis that included 5 rounds of a 400m farmer's walk while carrying 24kg kettlebells. Then, two days later, I did the farmer's walk at the CrossFit marathon. My forearms and traps might have doubled in size. Okay, I'm exaggerating, but the farmer's walk did have a profound impact. And I also found that they can teach you to breathe properly during intense effort. When doing conditioning/strength-capacity type work, breathing is something that's highly underrated, yet is of supreme importance for optimal performance. I'll make sure to include more farmer's walks in my training for their effects on body composition, muscle mass, and breathing skills.
It Was Going So Well..
Back to the present... My CrossFit experience ended soon after my third month passed. That's when my health issues started. I don't want to cover them all over again since they were detailed in the Micro-PA forum, but suffice it to say they stopped my momentum.
I spent some time rebuilding some of the muscle mass I lost when I was hospitalized. To do that, I went back to regular heavy lifting. Now that my base is coming back, I'm focusing on the Olympic lifts again. I'm doing plenty of strength work, too. I have the two Olympic lifts every day and I do pulling strength-movements on day 1, pushing on day 2, and legs (squats) on day 3. I then take a day off and repeat.
I'm using the tried and true 5 x 5 for my strength lifts. My goal is to get 5 sets of 5 reps with the same weight, and when I can do that I increase the load. I never decrease the weight. On some sets I might only make it to 3 or 4 reps, but that's fine and it means I won't increase the weight for the next workout.
Will I do CrossFit again? Probably. Not to the same extent as I did last summer but when my strength levels are back up where I want them to be, I'll start hitting CrossFit Levis with my wife once or twice a week. I'll have to be ready to have my ass kicked, though, since, unlike me, she didn't stop!