Authors love to wax poetic about the crack of the bat on a well-struck pitch, the artistry of a long putt at Augusta or the power and speed of modern-day elite sprinters. But as of yet, no sports writer has written an ode to the sweat, shredded hands and puke buckets that are the hallmarks of CrossFit.
Perhaps it’s because there is too little elegance among the savagery of CrossFit that it has thus far been omitted from sports literature. But ironically, there may be no more laudable feat in the realm of athletic achievement than surviving one of the “Girls” workouts. These routines, which many CrossFitters will tell you seem concocted by some unseen sinister dark overlord of exercise, are as tough to execute as any other SportsCenter moment, and those who can perform them well are as worthy of praise as they are of prose.
“Years ago, I remember Greg Glassman explaining the Girls at one of the earliest seminars I attended in Santa Cruz, [Calif.],” says Becca Borawski, editor of Breaking Muscle (breakingmuscle.com) and the former program director at CrossFit Los Angeles. “He said they were named, like hurricanes, because they wrecked you.”
In fact, these workouts, which intentionally combine many of the most difficult elements of CrossFit, have attained mythical status and serve as the benchmark by which athletes are measured. Someone asking you your “Jackie” time at a party is on par with someone asking a gym rat what he benches.
But the Girls aren’t just elective torture for devout athletes. They also have some practical value for everyday CrossFitters, says Jeff Duncan, the owner of CrossFit Pearl District (crossfitpd.com) in Portland, Ore. “At our gym, the Girls serve as benchmark workouts that help athletes to track progress and better gauge their work capacity relative to the others around them.”
There are 21 Girls listed on the CrossFit website, all of them with innocuous enough names — Linda, Mary, Elizabeth — but each delivers a distinct form of fitness maelstrom. In the case of these ladies, the forecast is always a Category 5. But with the right blend of technique and tenacity, you can turn yourself into a lady tamer and start posting times and scores that you can be proud of. Our panel of coaches shows you how.
3 Rounds for Time: (9, 7 and 5 reps):
• 135-Pound Squat Snatch
“Amanda.” This gal speaks to the inherent ridiculousness found in this category of workouts. She not only calls for you to perform two of the most technically difficult movements in all of CrossFit, but she also asks you to do them for multiple reps and rounds. The combination of muscle-ups and squat snatches may not look all that daunting on paper, but Daniel Tyminski, the owner of and coach at CrossFit Lindy in Copiague, N.Y. (crossfitlindy.com), who finished 25th at the 2011 CrossFit Games, knows different.
“This is one of the most intense workouts I’ve ever done,” he says. “It can be fast and requires you to move a lot of weight, including your bodyweight, through a large range of motion. I’ve only done this twice because I am kind of intimidated by it.”
Tyminski recorded a PR of 3:47 in this workout more than a year ago and is aiming for a sub-3:30 time in 2013. He offers these tips on surviving Amanda.
1. Pace Yourself: Restraint may seem counterintuitive to most CrossFitters, but this is one workout in which it’s mandatory. “It’s common for people to come out of the gate way too fast,” Tyminski says. “Better to slow down. Trying to do too much too fast can be devastating to your time, to the tune of minutes.”
2. Know Your Opponent: Anyone can do ball squats and box jumps. A much smaller percentage of the CrossFit population is well-versed in the muscle-up or the squat snatch. Tyminski says that it’s imperative to respect the intricacy of the two exercises. “You’ve really got to focus on the movements, which require a great deal of strength, coordination and skill,” he says.
3. Keep It Simple: Above all, Tyminski offers this advice: “Be efficient!” In other words, if you can blow through the workout quickly, you’re likely shorting yourself on technique. Not only is this disingenuous, but it also can easily lead to injury.
Scale It: On the squat snatches, less-experienced athletes should start at 95 pounds and scale up or down from there. If it’s your first date with Amanda, consider reducing the rep scheme to 7-5-3.
• Clean and Jerk (135 pounds for 30 reps)
Olympic lifts — the snatch and clean and jerk — are part of the CrossFit core curriculum. Coaches are bullish on instruction in these two lifts because they have so much carry-over into other movements. “Grace” is an all-out test of your clean-and-jerk prowess. Thirty reps, as fast as you can safely perform them. And even though it’s just a single exercise, even CrossFit veteran Duncan balks at this WOD.
“I think much of this fear is derived from the knowable aspect of the workouts,” he says. “I know how much it hurt last time, and now I’m supposed to go faster? At the same time, workouts like this can often become a rewarding opportunity that allows you to see how your performance has increased. Who doesn’t like performance? I like Grace because the task is straightforward.”
But because the clean and jerk works every major muscle group in your body, it’s an energy suck. To reduce the drain, you have to overcome initial unfamiliarity with the exercise, as Duncan did. “When I first started CrossFit, learning the Olympic lifts was what challenged me the most,” says Duncan, who sports a personal best time of 2:06 on Grace. “That made it all the more rewarding when I finally developed the strength and technique that helped me to complete the prescribed workout for the first time.”
So how do you go about developing a Duncan-like Zen about Grace?
1. Break It Apart: The clean and the jerk are two separate moves, so it makes sense to train for maximum efficiency in both before putting them together. “In my first couple of go-rounds with Grace, my shoulders would always be the first to give out,” Duncan says. “At the time, my push-jerk technique wasn’t very efficient, and I would usually end up pressing out a number of the reps rather than using my legs to drive the bar up and focusing on speed to get under the bar.”
2. Get Set Up: One suggestion often found in the gospel of CrossFit is getting right back into the next thing — hesitation is a killer. “Unless you’re already putting up sub-2:00 times, you are inevitably going to be putting the bar down at some point in the workout,” Duncan says. “As soon as the barbell settles to the ground, you want to get set up to pull again. It may take you a few seconds to regain your breath after that, but once it’s back, you don’t want to have to wait another three to four seconds to get back on the barbell. Set your feet, grip the bar, position your body, get tight and go!”
3. Be Form-Focused: As you pass the halfway point — or sooner — form degradation is likely to occur. Take steps to ensure that it doesn’t, lest you add seconds to your time — or dislodge a vertebra. “Keep the bar close to your body, and don’t allow the bar to pull your body forward as you bring it back to the floor,” he says. “By maintaining better positioning on the way down, you’ll be better prepared to have a smooth and efficient transition back into your next repetition.”
Scale It: Less-experienced athletes should start with 95 pounds and scale up or down from there. To get to know Grace a bit better, try it with a scaled-down weight and do 20 reps.
• 1,000-Meter Row
• 45-Pound Thruster (50 reps)
• 30 Pull-Ups
“It can’t be bargained with. It can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity or remorse or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead.” This quote from 1984’s The Terminator seems to sum up the hell on earth wrought by “Jackie.” You begin the workout with 1,000 meters of hard rowing, pushing with your legs and pulling with your back. Then comes a brutal transition into thrusters, which combine the agony of squats with overhead pressing. Finally, she puts you out of your misery with 30 pull-ups. Seek. Destroy. Repeat. These are a few of Jackie’s favorite things. And Borawski knows her ways well.
“Jackie was the first CrossFit workout I ever did, so she holds a special place in my heart,” she says. “I hated rowing for many years but later came to love it, and it became a coaching specialty for me. I always loved pull-ups and, annoyingly, found myself naturally good at thrusters. So it was a good combination of exercises for me and a good time domain.”
Despite this sick respect for Jackie, Borawski knows how she can coerce any athlete into rethinking his or her commitment to the workout. “Because it is one time through and it can take a bit to work through each of the three sections, you are left to really contemplate what’s at hand,” Borawski says. “I think it leaves you feeling less physically crushed than some of the other WODs, but I think that’s also what’s a little sneaky about it.”
Don’t let Jackie sneak up on you. Take her head-on, with zeal, by employing these tactics.
1. Row Right:Any CrossFitter who considers the ergo rower a “break” during a WOD is just not doing it right. “People are horrible rowers, and they ruin themselves first thing, going too fast, moving too inefficiently and not planning for the entire workout,” Borawski says. “Don’t get greedy on the rowing. And before that, even, improve your rowing technique. So many CrossFitters spend so much time on other exercises and waste ridiculous amounts of energy on any workout containing rowing.”
2. Train to Sustain: Of course you want bragging rights on the whiteboard today, but you’ll be doing yourself a disservice if you try to sprint through this lady. “Pick a good but not crushing pace,” Borawski suggests. “Pick something sustainable on the row and the thrusters. It helps to think of it as a tiny endurance workout when it comes to your pacing.”
3. Shift Gears: Midway through the workout, when most people — including yourself — are hitting a wall, pick up the pace a bit. “Pick up speed over the course of the thrusters. Try to get faster when others are getting slower. Don’t let your brain stop your thruster sets short. This is even truer on the pull-ups. Just get them done. Don’t think, don’t breathe, keep moving. This is where you make up your time,” Borawski says.
Scale It: Lower the resistance on the rowing machine or use a resistance band on pull-ups. New to Jackie? Start with half the number of thrusters and pull-ups.
• 800-Meter Run
• 30 Pull-Ups
• 30 Kettlebell Swings (2 pood)
With “Eva,” we see a workout that seems written as something of a hazing — like an initiation designed to weed out the weak. Eva’s not just going to make you run. She’s going to make you run far. She’s not just going to make you do pull-ups each round. She’s going to make you do 30 of ’em. She’s not just going to make you do kettlebell swings. She’s going to make you do 30 heavy swings each round. “Easy” doesn’t seem to be in Eva’s vernacular.
“I have always had a 3-2-1-uh-oh relationship with Eva,” admits Doug Katona, managing partner and head coach of CrossFit Endurance (crossfitendurance.com), owner of a personal best of 41:49 in this workout. “This is an absolute suffer-fest.”
One way that Katona propels himself through the grind of Eva is pure, masochistic enthusiasm. “A lot of people go into it with fear. You have to go after it and celebrate it. You know it’s going to be a slugfest, so just get it on!” he says. “During the workout, you will feel like you are turning yourself inside out. There isn’t one particular part of the body that gets nailed — it’s just an assault that you have to learn to appreciate in a twisted way. At about round three or four, the more sensible part of your being may encourage you to look for a park bench or a tent. Don’t do it! Eva may leave you twitching for a bit after, but to me that is the reward!”
Even if you can’t put yourself into Katona’s maniacal headspace for this beatdown, there are a few more tangible ways that you can use to better your time.
1. Be Determined: An 800-meter run, by itself, can kick you in the tenders. After just one of these midlength jaunts, you could be left wondering how you’re supposed to get through the rest of the round, much less the rest of the workout. “Just respect this WOD,” Katona says. “Eva is a grinder, and a good time requires resolve. It’s not going to be pretty, but you have to take a few hits and keep charging.”
2. Micromanage: With a workout of this length, it’s important not to get too ambitious at the start. Careful attention to your pace in each round can go a long way. “You have to know your limits and not detonate yourself in the first one to two rounds,” Katona says. “Eva is a study in understanding how to dose your power output in relationship to where your fitness level is. Take note of not just your overall time but also what your splits are in each round.”
3. Don’t Marginalize: the Run After 30 72-pound kettlebell swings, getting out for a run may seem like a tasty vacation. If you want to measure your time in minutes and not months, go at your runs differently. “The skill piece is huge because if your midline integrity is suspect, you can lose huge chunks of time,” he says. “If you have a problem running properly, you could lose 30 to 45 seconds on an 800-meter run.” Katona emphasizes a good stride with a midfoot strike to minimize impact to preserve your body and brain for the duration.
Scale It: Reduce the rounds or use a 1.5 pood (54-pound) kettlebell and adjust from there. If this is your first time, shorten the runs to 400 or 600 meters.
Ladies Worth Loving
No CrossFit workout is without its challenges. But some are just more taxing than others. The “Girls,” however sweetly named, pay homage to the women who helped build CrossFit while also pointing to the stormlike, destructive force they hold.
“The Girls are part of the true DNA of CrossFit,” says Doug Katona, managing partner and head coach of CrossFit Endurance. “When you think of signature CrossFit WODs, you have to think of the Girls — they were all part of the original movement of CrossFit and demand respect. They should be a part of all CrossFit athletes’ repertoire and in everyone’s training logs. Doing them is a rite of passage for all CrossFitters because they let you know how fit you really are. They are genuine hurricane workouts because they can blow you away if you are not prepared physically and mentally.”