31.12.10

CrossFit. Functional. Shoes?

Girl in the picture is wearing what is commonly referred to as "weightlifting shoes" - they add about 20-30# to a sort-of trained person's (i.e., my) ability to lift heavy weight in the sport/discipline of Olympic Weightlifting. Oly lifting is an integral part of CrossFit, for many reasons, two of which are:
  1. It develops killer power, strength and speed.
  2. A bunch of lifting people (Rippetoe? Burgener?) had a big impact on Coach Greg Glassman during the developmental phase of CF. Plus he's smart enough to realize (1) above.
My issue is with the shoes. CF doctrine: Highly varied functional movements executed at high intensity, all that. Defined as compound, natural, universal motor recruitment patterns. Natural movements. No bicep curls or tricep push-downs in CF - that's more bodybuilding or power junkies. Large loads moved long distances quickly (...which should be secondary to the "natural" part imho, but not according to many very smart CF people/trainers).

Either case you don't walk around in shoes like that, they're just impractical. You don't fight or run or go to war in them. You don't go into combat with them. You don't swim, bike or walk around your house with them. They're GYM ONLY. It's a very specific piece of equipment with one use and one use only. There's damn near zero reason not to leave them at the gym when you're done, assuming you're coming back.


Just like the barbell it's a very artificial, purpose-made piece of equipment that you introduce into your life for an hour or two every day or every few days in order to accomplish something you want accomplished. Good, they fulfill the function of making you more safely lift heavier weights. They're super stable. They make beginners and seasoned elites able to lift stuff that could be dangerous or unstable otherwise. Awesome.


Personally I'd rather have that little wobble while I'm working out barefoot, or in thin- & even-soled shoes or my work boots. I want to have to pay attention to my stability. I dislike things like powerlifting jerseys (bench shirts) and purpose-made equipment that I'm only able to use in very specific training situations. They don't prepare me for the real world. They artificially make me able to do things in the gym that I can't perform in the field. They don't help me become better at tossing up a sandbag on my shoulder when I'm wearing boots or no shoes. They make me forget that my body is not designed to be super stable under extreme loads, and lull me into a false sense of control when I really won't have it as I hoist a 250# buddy onto my shoulders and try to haul him off to wherever.


Is this about gear and expensive equipment? Is this about lifting as heavy and hard and looking like it - as you possibly can? Is this pride? Is this wanting the top spot on the whiteboard with the most awesomest numbers? Is the whiteboard, your position on it - and the numbers what you value in life?


I'd rather learn how to use my body the way it works naturally, than be able to claim that I have a 600# back squat - but only in the gym, with a barbell, and proper warmup and purpose-made, very specialist shoes. I'd rather be the guy who doesn't expect to be on-balance every time there's a heavy load coming to my shoulders. Who's used to, and expects, non-uniform and unbalanced, off-kilter non-standard-shape loads coming at me at any time, and me having very little time to warm up, get ready, eat a proper breakfast, get some chalk, get some smelling salts for that big 1-rep max, get the right gym clothes, get the right barbell or just plain react properly. Life's a mess. Train for un-balance. Train for life, not the damn gym. Or the CF Games, which makes people try to "game" their approach to fitness. Ok - that last was a cheap shot since I'm medically disqualified for - and the people who run - the Games do a hell of a job with the limitations they face. Plus I hope and think next year will be some water or swimming and more obstacle-course-y stuff. [Late 2011 edit: Hey, what do you know? Now we just need more obstacles, bigger/more reps swim, more atlas stones and a serious 5K+ run and I'll be happy.]


End result, I think all specialized equipment is bullshit if it can't be easily manufactured by someone's who's dirt poor but with access to a scrap yard/garbage heap/jungle/stone quarry can't fashion for not very much cash at all. Part of the reason I got out of serious triathloning - people riding bikes worth $20 000 when someone new to the sport is toking along with a $500 bike is just not fun.


If the above is your wet dream as far as gym equipment goes, you're probably no longer much concerned with just getting ready for the world outside the gym. In long-distance triathlons I could essentially buy myself speed by spending another $5 000 on my bicycle. In lifting you can't really do that, but you can buy plenty of shiny gear, and people do. It's just getting a little silly.


Note that barbells can be easily improvised and work damn well for convenient, incremental lifting and training - so every gym should have them. Even your garage gym with a budget of $100 - get an old metal pipe/axle, two buckets, some cement - there's your weighted barbell.


When I see this:
...I know someone is doing something that works and doesn't cost a damn. Low tech gear, the boots he wears to work every day, and just getting it on with whatever is around. There's gotten way too much money into fitness equipment, really you just need some very basic stuff and off you go. Squat barefoot. Build the little wobble and the little "oh crap I better stay balanced here" into your workouts and get ready for the real world.


The people who live in the gym get infatuated with their equipment. The powerlifters just want to go big and go heavy. They don't care about your real-world performance, they're so stuck inside the box with their routine that they forget the real world of walls and boots and stuff strapped to only one side of your backpack so it's all off-balance. They want perfect form when training, only to make you less able to get over that wall with a gun in one hand.


It's how you spend your time, that one or two hours a day you train. It's how to best get ready - is that with perfect form in an artificially stable environment? Maybe when you're learning, but once you know kinda what you're doing - take off the training wheels and GET REAL.


To sum up:
Weightlifting shoes - great. Awesome. Use them. Until you're very experienced and really know what you're doing.
THEN and only then, start thinking about what exactly you want your time in the gym to prepare you for. And how to best spend that time. And whether your time is better spent doing X instead of Y. Question everything at that point, including me. Errr... I meant to say including weightlifting shoes. You know what I mean.
Just like you shouldn't always just stick to barbell lifts - try heavy sandbags. Atlas stones. Logs. Uneven rocks. People (every CF gym should have #100, 150# and a 200# dummies imho, but they don't - FAIL on CFHQ). Keep doing the same stuff over and over in the gym with the same equipment and you'll be strong as all hell (assuming a few things) - but you'll be a bit out of it when something else comes along. Strongest people in my gym throw around 135# barbells like it's nothing, but fall apart when I give them an 80# sandbag. Not good.


Exceptions:
Strength is your over-riding goal - by all means, use as specialized equipment as you can find to make it easier for you to get there. Strength is just part of my goals, at some point my time is better spent working on my non-Strength weaknesses to make me better at my job and other stuff I do (climbing, canyoneering now that I'm too messed up for rugby & MMA).


Big numbers, big weights is what you care about - well, now you're pretty much a powerlifter. Nothing wrong with that. Grab your shoes, belt, bench shirt (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bench_shirt) and go to town. My first ever fitness seminar was with Rippetoe. He said he got out of powerlifting when he went to a meet and the guy doing Bench Press with a bench shirt literally could not get the bar to touch his chest - the shirt was pulling his arms and shoulders forward with such force that even with OMG weight on the bar, he couldn't pull it down to his chest. "[F]or example, Scot Mendelson, whose shirted bench press record is 1030 lbs, ...his unshirted best is 715 lbs..." No argument with belts, btw, I'm with Rippetoe on that - it just gives your abdomen something to push against, putting another body part more into play, which is rarely a bad thing, unless you're one of those "isolate the muscle" kind of people.


You like routine and don't care much about anything outside the gym, your regular job and comfortable life - then there's not all that much need to unbalanced stuff like "Uneven Grace" or not to stay complacent with all the specialist equipment.


How you look is what's important - I have very little experience bodybuilding and don't pretend to know much about sculpting your body to fit whatever your "ideal" is. I got into IRONMAN triathlons, rugby, MMA, aussie rules football, climbing, canyoneering, rough water stuff and CF more or less by accident - I just like doing cool stuff. So I have no idea if the shoes and all that would help you there. My guess is it'd help you push more weight, which would presumably help with the hypertrophy thing.


I couldn't find the picture of some Eastern European dirt-cheap backyard gym setup, with weights made of old pipes and concrete in metal cans, some bars and a pommel setup, but this is all you need to stay killer fit for the rest of your life:


Last edit - here's what Rippetoe has to say about them. He's a smart man and I personally think he's freaking awesome ("PUSH YER TITS OUT!"), but he's mostly into strength for strength's sake ...and not much else. Good guy, though - you could do a lot worse with your money than spend it listening to him for a weekend.


http://startingstrength.wikia.com/wiki/Equipment#Why_should_weightlifting_shoes_top_your_equipment_list.3F

Mark Rippetoe:
Shoes are the only piece of personal equipment that you really need to own. It only takes one set of five in a pair of squat shoes to demonstrate convincingly to anybody who has done more than one squat workout. A good pair of squat shoes adds enough to the efficiency of the movement that the cost is easily justified. For anywhere from $50 to $200 for the newest Adidas weightlifting shoes, a pair of proper shoes makes a big difference in the way a squat feels. 
More from his buddy Lon Kilgore, Ph.D. (smart guy, but also told me stretching was wrong, reduced performance and I shouldn't do it - which might be correct for many specialist athletes, but certainly not someone as ROM-restricted as I):
http://www.exrx.net/WeightTraining/Weightlifting/WeightliftingShoes.html
Proper footwear in the gym is important, especially if you are lifting free weights. When we lift weights we want two things to happen: (1) all the force our body produces under the bar should contribute to moving the weight and (2) the weight needs to be controlled in a safe manner. If we lift in a running shoe, it's akin to trying to lift while standing on a giant marshmallow. The soles of the running shoes, the marshmallow, will absorb and dissipate a large amount of the force generated against the floor that should be directed towards moving the weight. A gel or air cell shoe is a great thing for reducing the impact shock that causes the repetitive use injuries associated with running. But in the weight room, shoes should provide for the efficient transmission of power between the bar and the ground. You can't lift as much weight in the wrong shoes.
 The second issue is control of the weight - and your body - while standing on an unstable surface. A compressible medium placed between the feet and the ground will behave inconsistently enough during each rep to alter the pattern of force transmission every time. This means that the subtle points of consistent good technique on any standing exercise are impossible to control. And there is an increased chance for a balance or stability loss-induced injury while lifting heavy weights, since perfect balance cannot be assured on an imperfect surface.
To put it simply, I think they're a great investment. But to wear them exclusively and always when you're lifting once you've established safety and decent-to-good form, loses you more than you gain. Kilgore and Rippetoe are specialists, in their way. I'm not. They want perfect, absolute and total control in order to maximize strength gain. Strength is important to me, but only really one of the ten or so things that go into making me good at my job. That said, I've used specialist shoes plenty, and still continue to use them sometime. Update 2012: I'm beat up, messed up and rehabbing. Elbow tendonitis, back injury, patellar tendonitis, achilles tendon and sciatica. I use these shoes constantly when lifting while rehabbing my injuries. It takes away variables that I don't really need to vary while I'm vacillating about what to do with wegards to my injuries. Make up your own mind. Experiment. Try different things. Just don't get stuck in a rut and always use the shoes and the barbells and the specialized equipment. Try "Sandbag Fran" at anywhere close to Rx weight and see how different it is. That's an eye-opener and a half.

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