Understanding Adrenaline

I remember doing about 12 to 15 maximal reps between snatch, clean and jerk, and front squat a few years ago, and I was tired halfway into it. After the initial warm-ups, I would amp myself up for the maximal sets using imagery and cue words; purely psychological. I’ve increased my heart rate 50 beats per minute doing this while sitting in a chair using these methods (the pulse was obtained with a pulse oximeter).

It’s easy to intuitively know that “getting amped” can tire you out, but what is physiologically going on? Why is it tiring to do a lot of high intensity lifting? Or even high intensity conditioning workouts (as in CrossFit)? We can start by understanding epinephrine and norepinephrine (aka adrenaline and noradrenaline).

Chris uses epinephrine

Chris uses epinephrine because it tastes good

Typically epinephrine and norepinephrine are secreted by the adrenal medulla, a part of the adrenal gland that sits on the kidney, but norepinephrine is also a neurotransmitter released by neurons in the sympathetic nervous system. There are lots of smart words here, but the sympathetic nervous system is summed up as the “fight or flight” response while the parasympathetic takes care of “rest and digest”. Both are necessary for sex, or at least good sex, but I digress.

These hormones are amino acid based, which means they are water soluble and therefore not fat soluble. If you can remember back to your basic biology days, cellular walls are made out of a phospholipid bilayer. In other words, cell walls are made out of fats and cholesterol — which is a mega huge raging reason you need to eat quality fats in your diet, but that’s another digression.

Anyway, epinephrine is not fat soluble, so it can’t just pass through cell walls. Instead, it attaches on receptors on the cellular membrane and creates a chain of reactions inside that cell; a process called a cascade. This cascade can change a lot of stuff going on in a given cell from just a little bit of epinephrine, and that’s why it’s effective; lots of change from just a little amount.

The primary effects of dumping epinephrine and norepinephrine into your body are increased heart rate and blood pressure (via vasoconstriction, or narrowing of specific blood vessels), increasing respiratory rate (via bronchodilation, or making lung airways bigger), increasing blood flow to muscles (via vasodilation), increasing blood sugar levels by breaking down stored glycogen in the liver, and lastly, increasing nearly every cell’s metabolism and burning glucose and breaking down proteins and fats.

Well fuck, there’s a lot going on there. Basically it preps the body for some sort of intense event, like uppercutting a predator or running from prison rape (but you can’t escape; it’s prison!). The part we are more concerned with is cellular metabolism. Burning glucose and breaking down proteins and fats means getting substrates ready for lots of action, but it isn’t sustainable. These macronutrients are stored in special ways, but they need to be broken back down to be used, which uses energy. After the event, you have consumed lots of energy and don’t have stores left, so you feel tired.

Imagine doing this every single workout multiple times a week until further notice; it’s metabolic madness. Do you understand now why doing CrossFit six days a week or lifting with a high frequency and intensity isn’t sustainable without performance enhancement drugs?

Furthermore, imagine if this cascade happened routinely from psychological and emotional stress. It’s easy to see why people use the term “adrenal fatigue”. Call it whatever you want, but getting stressed physically or emotionally is the same and it messes with your body. Understanding one little cog called epinephrine in the giant metabolic machine can show us how too much exposure can be debilitating. Or at the very least you know why you’re so damn tired after amping up in training or competition.

Olympic Lifting and Aging

Strength and conditioning is a “now” kind of thing. What goals do you have right now? What do you want to achieve soon? What can you do today to work towards your goals? Sure, we do things with foresight in mind like mobility or sleeping well, but we hardly consider the big picture: life.

And the outlook is dim. Our future, if we are so lucky to get there, will involve slowing down, getting weaker, and pooping our pants. Two of those things are very unpleasant.

Well my friends, training is the way to stave off the inevitable shit show that is aging. Strength training will keep the structures from falling apart, conditioning will help keep the cardiovascular and respiratory functional, and mobility work will keep everything pliable, safe, and prevent injury. This comprehensive training approach will help maintain neuromuscular efficiency, or how well your nervous system innervates muscles. Being efficient would be a symphony of fluid, beautiful movement, and being inefficient would look like a spasmodic Frankenstein ejaculation.

The Olympic lifts can augment training programs for older gents.

The Olympic lifts can augment training programs for older gents.

Have you seen an old person lately? I’m talking about a person that makes you think, “That guy is old as fuck.” How does that guy move? He’s probably hunched over, using a cane, and shuffling along slower than Mike Tyson’s intellect. He’s not efficient. He doesn’t have kinesthetic sense (the ability to control one’s body through space). That’s what happens, and it’ll happen to all of us, so we need to hang onto what physical ability we do have for as long as we can.

Losing neuromuscular efficiency and kinesthetic sense is a big deal to the elderly. It’s the difference between falling down a flight of stairs or visiting family. We know that intelligent training will keep us spry, but I also think regularly performing the Olympic lifts in a comprehensive training program will help maintain kinesthetic sense more so than not doing them. Here’s why.

1. Olympic lifting provides a different structural stress than the regular strength lifts. 

How often do you guys do anything other than stand on your two feet and squat, press, or pull a weight? Some of you do a bit of conditioning, fewer of you compete in a non-lifting sport, and I’d bet that hardly any of you do any agility work. Olympic lifting is essentially jumping around with a barbell (ignoring discrepancies in coaching styles). The ankles, knees, hips, torso, shoulders, elbows, and wrists will experience and transmit force in a different way than slower strength lifts. This will keep you prepared for non-lifting activity (like going up for a rebound), but it will keep your joints adapted to explosive forces as you age.

2. Olympic lifting places greater mobility demands than regular strength lifts. 

I know some guys that can barely get into a squat position in their house, much less with a barbell on their back. Having a shitty end range of motion in your 20s and 30s means that you’ll at least have that deficiency going into old age. By working on the Olympic lifts regularly now, it’ll encourage or force non-mobile people to fix their shit so they can hit a decent front squat rack or overhead squat. Well executed weightlifting will help maintain joint and muscle ROM.

3. The explosive nature of Olympic lifting maintains or improves neuromuscular efficiency and coordination.

Lifting weights fast recruits more motor units compared to lifting slow. More motor unit recruitment practice increases the neuromuscular efficiency overall, which essentially helps you stay “coordinated” as you get older. This is the most important reason that the Olympic lifts should used with aging trainees. Combine the “lifting fast” with the complicated movement patterns inherent in Olympic lifting, and it definitely helps total body coordination. For example, when starting a clean, the hips are flexed or closed. As the trainee jumps, their hips extend or open. Lastly, the hips flex or close again as the trainee receives the weight in the squat position. It’s a complicated movement that requires coordination.

Some coaches would argue that the “pounding” nature of the snatch or clean would be injurious to an older trainee, I would argue that even doing the lifts with light weight, and therefore avoiding the pounding, would be enough to result in maintaining coordination and efficiency. Note the two keys here: 1) large amounts of weight aren’t necessary in geriatric populations and 2) including the Olympic lifts, even with light weight, will help maintain coordination with each passing decade.

Considerations

Keeping or adding the Olympic lifts in a program of someone approaching their 50s or 60s does have a few considerations. First, if the lifts hurt them, then they obviously shouldn’t do them. Second, they shouldn’t belligerently perform the lifts if their mobility or technique are very poor. And lastly, variations can be used. Would it be nice if a 60 year old guy could stroke a light snatch with perfect positioning? Yeah, but instead, you might need to emulate the close-open-close hip movement with another implement or exercise if he can’t use a barbell or has crappy mobility. Power variations can be used if deep squat positions are unrealistic.

Parting Words

At the end of the day, if an aging trainee is exercising, they will have better longevity and quality of life over non-exercising populations. If the aging trainee actually performs a comprehensive training program that includes strength training, conditioning, and mobility work, then they’ll be way ahead of the curve. I’m just suggesting that the inclusion of the Olympic lifts will augment their efforts in having a happy, healthy life into old age. But I’m also suggesting that if some of you youngsters currently can’t do the Olympic lifts, then start working on ways to include them. If your mobility sucks, then fix it! If you snatch like a dope, stop smoking it and work on your technique. Or you can just wait until we are all 50 years old and hormone therapy is regularly used; we’ll probably live to be 150 years old regardless if you start snatching now.

High Rep Olympic Weightlifting

This topic has been festering on the internet for a few days because Mark Rippetoe wrote an article titled “The Fallacy of High-Rep Olympic Lifting” for T-Nation. By the way, I see a comparison between Rip and Stone Cold Steve Austin in his heel (bad guy) days in WWF — he’d come out and buck the system and some people hated him, some loved him for it, yet both fan groups paid attention while another group just said, “Get this guy outta here, I wanna watch Shawn Michaels hit a side-lunge-front-double-bi.”

Rip’s article basically says that using the Olympic lifts is misguided because they are injurious, reinforce poor mechanics, and aren’t optimal for conditioning anyway. You also get the gist of an anti-CrossFit sentiment. Various CrossFit-oriented responses will point out that the end will justify the means in the pursuit of well rounded conditioning (or maybe just CrossFit capability).

Well, I’m a fence rider. I always tell people that there are things I like and dislike in CrossFit, but overall I have a favorable opinion (more on this from a couple years ago. Edit: From 2012). Anyway, let’s ignore the idea of CrossFit and focus on the primary topic: the deabte of high rep Olympic weightlifting movements in conditioning.

Proper mechanics with the lifts is necessary before using them in conditioning

Proper mechanics with the lifts is necessary before using them in conditioning

Do they have a place in a training program? Like all programs, it depends. If someone is doing high-rep, light-weight snatches or clean and jerks, can their form fall apart? Of course. Can someone do a conditioning workout and maintain technique? Certainly, but they’d probably have to slow the overall workout down a little. I agree with Kelly Starrett in that performing snatches or clean and jerks in a conditioning session is not only acceptable, but that they can provide meaningful training adaptations. The trainee in question would need to have the appropriate strength, mobility, and technique to even be considered for such a workout. 

Snatches and cleans are beautiful movements where a lifter creates tension in their system, explodes to release the tension, and then creates tension in a completely new position. They are the epitome of full body, technically demanding lifts. Not only do they have their gross motor pathway demands (e.g. proper pulling position, proper mechanics through all phases of the pull, proper receiving position, and proper recovery), but they have acute motor pathway demands (e.g. keeping the torso solid and not extending or flexing the spine, maintaining external rotation in the hips and shoulders when applicable, etc.).

A 5 year old picture of cleans in a conditioning workout. It's possible to maintain technique while fatigued.

A 5 year old picture of cleans in a conditioning workout. It’s possible to maintain technique while fatigued.

A trainee who plays a sport or has a physically demanding job can use snatches and cleans to test whether they can maintain gross and acute motor pathways when their muscles are tired and they are breathing hard — the latter of which is extremely important for anyone who has to run around with heavy gear on. If a soldier can’t maneuver his battle space with proper mechanics, it can lead to acute injury or chronic irritation that will deem him nonoperational.

The point is that movements like snatches and cleans can help teach a trainee to maintain positioning in extreme fatigue so he can learn what is right and what is wrong. I’ve worked with a lot of athletes and military personnel, and both parties are guilty of reverting to bad positioning in the heat of the moment.

Should these populations bother with the weightlifting movements if they perform them poorly? Of course not; training would only serve as a source of injury. But it’s up to the coaches to develop their trainees to the point that they can do lots of technically sound cleans in a row. That’s one thing CrossFit has taught us: doing the high reps matters not for the sake of increasing the work output, but having proper mechanics to reduce the wear and tear on the body. I’m not so sure CrossFit would emphasize the latter, but it’s up to us as coaches and programmers to learn and acknowledge that.

Are there are a lot of CrossFit coaches who have no business putting someone in a workout with high rep snatches? Fuck yes. Is that a CrossFit problem? I don’t care, because at the end of the day it’s the responsibility of individual coaches to properly prepare their trainees for whatever workout they create for them. Instead of lambasting the use of high rep Olympic lifts and CrossFit, let’s use this as an opportunity to learn and get better as coaches. And that means developing a trainee’s mobility, getting them strong, and teaching them how to lift technically sound before challenging them with fatigue and high ventilation rates.

Some Truths About CrossFit and Weightlifting

Did you see the CF Open 13.1 WOD? There were a lot of snatches, to say the least. Jacob Tsypkin wrote this article not to piss you off (though it might), but to start a discussion about how CrossFit is enabling American Weightlifting to experience a rejuvenation that might just help make us relevant on the international stage again. 

 

There has always been some tension between strength sport communities and CrossFit.  Though in recent years, many great strength athletes and coaches have affiliated themselves with CrossFit, it seems that there is also a large contingent of strength athletes who are at best lukewarm towards it, if not outright vitriolic. Much of the dislike seems to come with regard to the Olympic lifts, perhaps due to their technical nature, and their so called “misuse” by CrossFitters.

I am very fortunate. I have been lucky enough to train with some of the best coaches and athletes in both CrossFit and weightlifting. I’ve seen the good, the bad, and the ugly of both of these sports. The elitists, the douchebags, and the great people who love their sport and want to make it better. I have competed and coached competitors in both endeavors. As such, I feel I have a unique perspective on the matter.

Of course, I have my own opinions on the arguments presented by weightlifters against CrossFit. However, I do not want to discuss opinions here. I want to present some facts. Some absolute truths, which I ask you to keep in mind when analyzing what CrossFit has done, is doing, or can do for the sport of weightlifting.

Fact 1: CrossFit is creating more interest in weightlifting than there has ever been in the U.S.

5000+ CrossFit gyms worldwide (I don’t know how many exactly are in the U.S., but it is the VAST majority) educating people about the lifts. Some of them may not do a great job of teaching the lifts themselves, but consider this: the odds of an average individual knowing that the snatch and clean & jerk exist, that they are a sport, and understanding how challenging that sport is, are MUCH higher now than they have ever been before.

Fact 2: CrossFit is bringing the idea of effective GPP programming to a larger audience than ever in the U.S.

Nations which are highly successful in weightlifting almost universally have effective GPP programs in place which start at a very young age. Most of us can probably agree that physical education in the U.S. is subpar. Kids’ programs in CrossFit gyms across the country are getting young Americans excited about exercise – this alone is a huge step.  Couple that with creating interest in the olympic lifts, and a GPP program which is much more similar to what you would see in countries that win medals in weightlifting – that is to say, they are biased towards teaching movement rather than particular sports. This has the potential to lead to a massive improvement in the general athleticism of the average American, which in turn carries over to more potential in young weightlifters.

Fact 3: CrossFit is gradually generating a nationwide talent identification program.

Something else which weightlifting medal winning nations often hold in common with each other, is a method by which they identify young athletes with potential for particular sports. In the U.S. no such program exists, in large part because we tend to specify athletes at a very young age, rather than presenting them with a broad array of athletic endeavors to learn, enjoy, and potentially excel in. Here’s where CrossFit comes in. Along with “traditional” sports they participate in, kids in these programs are learning the basics of weightlifting, gymnastics, sprinting, jumping, and the like. Merely by virtue of spending time engaging in this wide variety of movements, coaches will be granted the opportunity to identify kids who have potential as weightlifters early in their athletic careers, something which very rarely occurs now.

Whether you are a CrossFitter or a weightlifter, whether you love or hate CrossFit, it’s hard to debate the truth of the above claims. Their value may be questioned, but I, personally, am willing to bet that CrossFit will end up doing far more good for the sport of weightlifting than it does bad.

Besides, CrossFit is leading to this:

Sarabeth Phillips is a CrossFit Competitor. CrossFit was her introduction to weightlifting. She now snatches 80 and clean & jerks 95 at a bodyweight of 58.

And that, I think we can all agree, is something we need more of.

 

 

Jacob Tsypkin is a CrossFit and weightlifting coach, the co-owner of CrossFit Monterey and the Monterey Bay Barbell Club in Monterey, CA. He is available for weightlifting seminars and once got busy in a Burger King bathroom. 

Tsypkin Thursdays #1

Jacob Tsypkin has been fielding questions on our facebook page about weightlifting/crossfit/training/coffee/beardliness, and will compile 3-4 of them weekly for your reading pleasure. You’re welcome. 

Gregor S asks, “Squatting every day: a good idea?”

Yes.  No.  Maybe.  Sometimes.

View the option of daily squatting as a tool.  I have used it to great effect in certain situations.  It can work to break plateaus, it can work for lifters who are significantly better at volume than they are at intensity, and it can work, surprisingly, for lifters who have knee pain when squatting.

The key is doing it intelligently.  You’re working up to a heavyish single each day (occasionally I’ll work in a double or triple instead.)  If you feel great, go for a PR.  If you don’t feel great, just hit what you can hit without getting ugly and call it a day.  If you want daily squatting to be effective, you absolutely MUST check your ego at the door.

Andrew K asks, “What cues do you like to use for the jerk? How about supplemental exercises?”

Predictably, the answer is, “it depends.”  It depends on what the lifter is doing right or wrong, what they’re good or bad at, and of course, what they respond to.  With that said, some of the most common cues I use are:

Drive it high and back” to get the lifter to be aggressive in driving the bar off the shoulders
Move straight” to cue the lifter to keep the hips and torso moving straight down/up/down
Step in front of the bar” to get the lifter to reach their front foot out to an adequate degree
Keep driving, keep reaching” to cue the lifter to stay with the bar, driving it as high as possible and to be active, rather than passive, about receiving and holding it.

For supplemental exercises, again it depends on what the athlete needs. Obviously the jerk from blocks is fantastic, and I prefer it from behind the neck for most people, as it teaches the lifter where the bar needs to be and, for most people, allows them to handle more weight. Of course, the jerk from the front rack is also very useful, so we employ both.

A fantastic exercise for improving footwork is Glenn Pendlay’s jerk ladder. This drill will help the lifter get used to the back foot landing first and “catching” himself with the front foot, as well as learning to remain rigid when going under the weight.

Lastly, the press from split is something all of my lifters do both when learning the jerk and in their warm-ups. It’s exactly what it sounds like: with the bar in the front rack, walk the feet out into your split position, and press. The most crucial part is that the press is EXTREMELY strict. There must be no movement of the legs, hips, or torso whatsoever. By doing this, the lifter learns where his body needs to be when receiving the jerk.

Stroup asks, “What is the minimal amount of weightlifting training a CrossFitter needs?”

In a word, plenty.  Assuming we are talking about competitive CrossFitters here, my athletes do the snatch and clean & jerk heavy three times a week each, on average.  That’s not including what they do in conditioning circuits. I think this would roughly hold true with most competitive CrossFitters.

Rudy Nielsen of The Outlaw Way wrote the following in an article about the importance of weightlifting for CrossFitters:

Larson also has added up the total point values for every movement tested during both the 2011 and 2012 Games seasons. The snatch and clean & jerk are worth 20 percent of the total point value. If you add accessories, you have 36 percent of the total point value—read that again, except in all caps: THIRTY-SIX PERCENT. I can and will talk about exactly how the lifts develop the athlete from an overall perspective, but strictly from a sporting perspective, that’s a lot of points.”

Between that, and the ability of the lifts to improve an athlete in so many ways, I think it’s undeniable that if you want to be a good CrossFitter, you’ve got to spend some serious time developing the snatch and clean & jerk.

‘Merica

Jacob Tsypkin is a CrossFit and weightlifting coach, the co-owner of CrossFit Monterey and the Monterey Bay Barbell Club in Monterey, CA. He is available for weightlifting seminars and gives excellent hugs imo.