Archive for July, 2013

After my college career came to a close, I searched for a new athletic endeavor.  I spent a year or two lifting weights for pure aesthetics but I never got as strong as I wanted to be. About that time, I moved up to PA from MD and joined Annex Sports and Fitness in Camp Hill.  It was a no-nonsense type of gym that allowed chalk, had a speed bag and an Olympic platform.  Annex even had a separate room just for powerlifters because many of the region’s top athletes trained here.  I would watch them lift insane amounts of weight and decided that this was going to be my new goal; I wanted to be as strong as possible.

Anyone who has seen a powerlifter knows that they tend to have a little “padding” and aren’t exactly shredded.  There are some exceptions but this look tends to be the norm because they eat so much food.  The larger you are, the more you can lift theoretically.  So I ate.  And ate.  And ate.  As the pounds packed on, so did the strength.  Before I knew it, I was tipping the scales at 227 (for reference I am around 182 today).  Looking in the mirror, I convinced myself I looked good but eventually came to see I was just kind of fat.  Again, a change needed to happen and again I turned to carb cycling.

Incredibly strong, just a little beefy.  Although I would never say that to his face

Incredibly strong, just a little beefy. Although I would never say that to his face

This time, I used a different strategy because I was already strong and didn’t care too much about losing strength.  As long as I was training I figured I would keep the majority of the strength I gained but knew I would lose some just because of pure weight loss.  Here is the protocol I used this time:

Monday – Very Low Carb

Tuesday – Very Low Carb

Wednesday – Very Low Carb

Thursday – Very Low Carb

Friday – Very Low Carb

Saturday – High Carb

Sunday – High Carb

The idea here was to really ramp up the carbs, leptin and metabolism on the weekends and go very low carb during the week to promote fat loss.  For me it was easier to keep my meals consistent during the week while I worked because I was on a schedule.  I prepared my food ahead of time and knew what I was eating each day so this was the easy part. This strategy would also keep me in a caloric deficit for the week which would make fat loss that much faster.

For training I stuck to full body workouts with heavy weights.  Everything I read told me that this was the best program to use in order to spare muscle.  Saturday and Sunday were the most intense training days and Wednesday and Thursday were more of a “speed” day where I would use lighter weights and move them as fast as possible.   On the other days, I did conditioning work which varied between hill sprints, intervals and steady-state walks.

During this time, my weight again decreased and I went from 227 down to 172.  I don’t remember the exact length of time but it was no longer than 4 months.  I could literally see and feel the difference in my body and the way my clothes fit from week to week.  A whole section of my closet eventually had to be replaced because I was swimming in my old clothes.  I would say I kept about 85% of the strength I had at my heaviest which was about what I expected.  My goal was getting back into shape and I definitely achieved that.  Looking back at pictures of that time now, I am shocked at how much heavier I was.

So what types of carbs are good for someone who is carb cycling?  After much trial and error, I stick to these:

  • Steel Cut Oats
  • Sweet Potatoes
  • Quinoa
  • Ezekiel English Muffins
  • Brown Rice (sparingly)

Fruits are fine but don’t go overboard and veggies are essentially “free” meaning they don’t really count to the overall carb intake for the day, especially the green ones.

He eats... OATS?!?!?!?  THE HORROR!!!!

He eats… OATS?!?!?!?  The HORROR!!!!

In my opinion, one of the greatest things about carb cycling (and a good topic for a future nutrition seminar) is that it allows you to take advantage of nutrient timing, especially the insulin response.  There are countless articles about this with more science than I will give you but here is a simple summary:



Since Karen did the last nutrition seminar about carb cycling, I have been getting a lot of questions about the topic and my experience with it.  Karen also asked me if I could write down my part of the presentation so others could reference it so I figured it would be the perfect topic for a blog post.

Disclaimer: My thoughts and opinions in no way represent those of Karen Polensky.  She is the registered dietician.  I am just a washed up athlete who still has a little more in the tank.  Got it? Good.

A little about my background.  I have been an athlete my whole life and have always been competing in one form or another.  Whether as a part of a team or as an individual, I have always been trying to be better that the others I am competing against.  And this is how I approach my diet.  My meals are focused on one thing: performance.  I eat what I feel will give my body the fuel it needs to be the best I can at weightlifting.  I did the same when I was focused on CrossFit and every other fitness goal I had before CrossFit.  So when you read this, understand that being as “healthy” as possible isn’t necessarily what I care about.

I came across carb cycling in 2003, my senior year of college.  I spent the summer between my junior and senior years in Ocean City, MD.  As you can imagine, being a 21 year old living at the beach included many nights of copious alcohol consumption along with a terrible diet.  Not very good for building a better athlete.

By the end of the summer I had gained a stout 30 lbs. and went from 175 to 205.  When I returned to Ohio State in the fall and started practicing again with the team, I quickly realized how terribly out of shape I really was.  I struggled through the fall season and decided I needed to do something to get back into playing shape.  Just working out alone wouldn’t cut it and I needed a program that would allow me to keep my strength and lose the extra fat.

I searched the internet, seemingly for hours, and finally stumbled across a website called T-Nation.  There was an article about carb cycling which was a new diet I had never heard of before.  The article explained how by using this type of dietary strategy, someone could lose fat and gain muscle at the same time.  “Wow”, I thought. “This sounds too good to be true”.  But at this point I needed a miracle because I only had about a month and a half to whip my butt into shape.  I read the whole article and started the next day.

The concept behind carb cycling is pretty simple.  Eat more carbs on intense training days and less or no carbs on days you primarily do cardio or rest.  The process gives your body the calories and nutrients it needs to recover from a hard training session while “tricking” your body to burn fat on the low/no carb days.  How? Glad you asked.

Carb cycling takes advantage of a recently discovered (1994) hormone called leptin.  Leptin is responsible for regulating appetite and the hunger response in the brain.  The more body fat you have, the more leptin is released into your system which should reduce appetite.  If you have lower body fat, your system will release less leptin which should increase your appetite and signal you to eat more.  It all goes back to a survival instinct we all have inside of us that makes us hungrier so we search that much harder for food.  Back then, humans needed as much body fat as possible because food was not guaranteed.  There were no supermarkets.

Another cool thing about leptin is that it responds to short-term energy balances.  If there is a caloric deficit, your body releases less leptin, making you hungrier.  In a caloric surplus, the opposite happens.  This, my friends, is how we can use leptin to our advantage with carb cycling.  On days where you eat a high amount of carbohydrates, your body reacts by releasing leptin in your system.  Following these high days with a low/no carb day “tricks” your body into burning fat.  It does this because with leptin levels high, your body is not in starvation mode and it is not trying to hold onto every last bit of fat.  Combine this with an environment where your body has limited glucose to burn for energy and you have a perfect fat burning opportunity.  Karen has much more science and academia in her write-up you can find on the Facebook nutrition group.


So how did my experience work out? In that 1.5 months I lost 18 pounds and went from 205 down to 187.  The best part?  I actually got stronger.  I knew right them that there was some real merit to this strategy.

For this time period I followed a pretty standard carb cycling protocol.  Here is how my weeks went:

Monday – No Carb

Tuesday – Medium Carb

Wednesday – High Carb

Thursday – No Carb

Friday – Medium Carb

Saturday – High Carb

Sunday – No Carb

I did my most intense workouts on the high carb days because I wanted my body to have the carbs and the calories to recover.  On the no carb days, I tried to do light workouts like running or speed work.  This allowed my body to take advantage of the carb-depleted state.  I made sure that on the two consecutive no carb days (Sunday and Monday) I did some sort or workout, even if it was just a steady walk around the neighborhood.

These results speak for themselves.  For me, this solidified the power of carb cycling.  In Part 2, I will cover:

  • Carbohydrate timing and how to put them to the best use in your system
  • The best type of carbs to eat
  • Different type of carb cycling variations and protocols
  • How I use carb cycling now to maintain my body weight while continuing to set PRs in the gym.



6:00 AM the alarm sounds but I have been up since 5, tossing and turning under the covers.  Today is competition day and I often have a hard time sleeping soundly the night before I compete.  Anxiety mixed with a little adrenaline surge doesn’t make for a very good sleep aid.  Doesn’t matter though, I won’t be tired.  Hell, I can’t be tired given the circumstances.

After brushing my teeth I head straight for the scale.  You see, there are weight classes for weightlifting meets and I had planned my meals all week to make sure I had some room to spare.  I always like to have some food before I lift so this is a pretty important weigh in for me.  I step on the scale and the numbers start to shuffle.  And……. 181, 6 pounds below my weight limit.  Perfect. Time to eat and chug some coffee.

Weigh-ins for my session start at 9 so after eating and packing, I jump in the car and head down to York around 8:40.  Checking in at the head table is easy but giving them my openers is another thing.  I wasn’t expecting this and even though I was “sure” which weights I was going to open with, I begin to second guess my decisions.  Am I going too light?  Maybe too heavy?  In the end, I just give the meet director the weights I had settled on weeks before and figure I will let the cards fall as they may.  80kg (176) snatch, 100kg (220) in the clean and jerk.  Safe weights for me on any ordinary training day but this is no ordinary day as I will soon find out.

Next I go weigh in and oddly I weigh less on this scale than I did at home.  Whatever.  As I walk back out to the seating area, I take a look at the stage where the young kids are competing.  I see a platform raised about 3 feet off the ground with a loaded barbell and a small theater filled with spectators.  “Holy shit”, I think. “This is not what I expected”.  In fact, the scene is quite nerve-racking.  I expected to be lifting on a platform but not a stage and not in a room this large.  Oh well, nothing I can do about it.  I just have to go and lift like it is any other day.

I take a seat in the common area and no sooner than my butt hit the seat do Dan and Jamie come walking in.  Dan asks me how I feel and I assure him that I am ready.  I have some nerves but nothing too crazy.  Just picturing this as another training day with a lot less wiggle room.  He smiles and then goes to check on times and openers for the other lifters.

After some more small talk, I go start my warm up around 10:00 AM.  I go through my normal routine: leg/hip stretches, arm/chest/shoulder stretches, pass-throughs with PVC, foam rolling, and some voodoo band work for my joints with tendonitis.  Then I move on to some empty bar work and movement drills.  Snatches from Pendlay position 1, tracing the bar into my hips, explosion drill on my heels, and jerks with a focus on pushing from my heels and driving the bar behind by ears.  “Heels and ears” I hear in my head, replaying all the Muscle Driver videos I watch over and over again.

I soon realize that the warm-up area leaves a lot to be desired.  The are about 5 platform to use but only two of them actually have kilo plates.  Most of you have never trained with kilo plates but to me, they feel heavier than pound plates.  The only thing I can come up with is that the same weight is compressed into a thinner plate making it less spread across the bar, causing a more concentrated point of resistance.  Plus, I want to warm up with the kilos so it can be a direct correlation to my competition attempts so I begin waiting my turn on one of the two platforms.

I do my normal progressions: 40 (88), 50 (110), 60 (132), 70 (154) and 75 (165) about 5 minutes before my first attempt.  Dan walks back and tells me to relax a bit, I look too tense.  He is right.  My heart is beating faster now and I can feel the tingle you get right before competing.  I take a deep breath and begin to visualize my lift and tell myself positive cues.  “It is 80 kg. I have done this hundreds of times in practice.  It is an easy weight for me.  Stay on my heels and explode through the hips, drop under the bar and punch the sky.  Easy money.” Then I hear my name called.

Heart racing, I step on to the stage to chalk my hands.  I look out to the audience and see Stacy sitting dead center.  Perfect, something to focus on that wont distract me.  As I approach the bar, my heart kicks into third gear.  I bend down to get my set up and just keep telling myself a list of things that help me focus: “No one works harder than you”, “You deserve this” and “the only person that can beat you is yourself”.  People may notice I am talking to myself but I don’t care.  I literally sing at the box while lifting so this is mild compared to that.  I grip the bar, set my hips low and draw the bar into my shins.  It is now or never.  I push hard through my glutes and the bar rises off the floor.

The silence, as they say, is deafening.  Before I can even process it the bar is smashing off my hips and I am dropping under it.  I catch it in a strong position but I pulled so hard I am a little back on my heels so I have to quickly adjust and stumble back a few steps to make sure I steady the lift.  Close call but the lift is good.  Relief.  I have officially made my first lift in a USAW sanctioned meet.

Dan meets me at the bottom of the stage and we discuss my next attempt.  We decide to go with 87 (191) which is what I had planned to do at the start of the day.  “Lets see how this one feels”, he says, “and then we can go from there”.  87 is a weight that I make pretty consistently in practice but 15 pounds is a good jump, especially in a competition where you only get three total chances.

About 5 minutes later, I step on the stage for my second attempt.  Routine is a good thing and I go through the same process I did in my first lift.  I drive the bar off the ground, stay on my heels and fire my hips through the bar.  This time, I catch the bar much better and my feet barely move from where they started.  I stand it up and get 3 white lights.  Good lift.

Dan again meets me at the bottom of the stage.  The original plan was to go for 90 (198) for my third attempt but he tells me I power snatched that last attempt (a PR power snatch) and that I look strong.  “What do you think? You want to go for 92?” At this point, I am confident and on an adrenaline high.  “Fuck it”, I say. “I am here to lift so let’s do it.”  That classic Dan smile creeps across his face; the smile that simultaneously confirms his approval with your choice while motivating you even more because you know in that moment he believes you will make the lift.

About 10 minutes go by and it was time for my third lift.  By now, I am more comfortable on the stage because I have made my first two attempts but 92 (203) is a weight that worries me.  I make 90 in practice about 50-60% of the time and have only made 92 once without straps.  My max ever with kilo plates is 93 with straps so this lift will tie my all-time PR if I make it.  I quickly push that out of my head as I approach the bar.  Setting my hands, I start talking again. My mind goes from a place of uncertainty to a place of absolute confidence. When my attitude is right, I begin the first pull.

Doing this for so many months, I can tell when the bar gets above my knees if I am going to make a lift or not.  As the bar passes my knees I know this is a good one.  92 feels like 80.  I fly under the bar so the only thing left to do is catch it.  My arms lock into place and I stand it up.  I have officially gone 3 for 3 in the snatch in my first weightlifting meet and tied a PR.  For me, it doesn’t get much better than this.

92 kg Video

Next up is the clean and jerk portion of the meet.  For me this is much less stress as it is more of a pure strength movement than a technical one.  Once you hit the clean, you just have to dig deep enough to fire that weight overhead and lock it out.

I open at 100 (220) and make it with little drama.  Dan and I decide that we will go with 105 (231) for my second lift which is another weight I make pretty consistently in training but can give me trouble from time to time if I am not committed 100% in my head.

I step on the stage and zero in on the weight, telling myself to make sure I don’t short the second pull and leave the bar out in front of me.  The bar comes off the ground smoothly and I feel tight through my core.  I explode through my hips and drop to catch the bar which lands in exactly the right place, allowing me to bounce smoothly out of the bottom.  At the top I reset my stance, dip and drive myself under the bar.  I look to the judges and I see three white lights.  Awesome.


Rippetoe Goes Off

Posted: July 11, 2013 in Uncategorized

I read this and found it very interesting, especially with regards to his feelings on Physical Therapists and their “practice”.  I would love to hear your thoughts about what he has to say.  Keep in mind that Mark Rippetoe was on of the orignal experts in barbell training and authored many articles on the CrossFit Journal before parting ways with CrossFit in 2009 I believe.

Fran time? Who cares? I mean, um, 2:24.

Fran time? Who cares? I mean, um, 2:24.

When I first started at CrossFit 717, I sucked at a lot of things.  I was just coming off of shoulder surgery so my normally strong upper body had deteriorated.  Combine this to the fact that my legs were weak to begin with and you get one weak SOB looking to build himself back up.

As my shoulder healed and my strength returned, my WOD times got better and better.  Kipping pull-ups no longer caused me pain and it seemed like every week I learned a new skill or movement I wanted to master.  All in all, consistent progress was being made.

But one thing that lagged behind were the squatting movements.  In fact, this is something I have always struggled with.  When I was still at a commercial gym and my bench press was at 315, my squat was at 300.  In college, my bench press was 255 and my squat max was 225×3.  These are absolutely pitiful numbers.  Not because of the actual amount of weight for my squats but because of how severely disproportionate those numbers are.  You should never be able to bench more than you squat.

In the lead up to the 2011 Mid Atlantic Hopper Challenge, I wanted to do every thing I could to be in the best shape possible.  This meant getting stronger at all the core lifts because I was decently strong but not strong enough to be competitive.  While reading one of my favorite sites, I came across a program called “5-3-1” written by Jim Wendler who trained at Westside Barbell and has won many elite powerlifting competitions.  It’s a simple program which allowed me to incorporate max strength training along with the CrossFit training I did 5 days per week.

Gains gains came pretty quickly and in 4 weeks I was deadlifting 415 (up from 385) and squatting 225×10.  Not setting any records but were some of my personal bests ever so I was very pleased.  Overhead squats and front squats though were still lagging way behind.  My max overhead squat was around 175 and my max front squat was right at 225.  Any workout that included OHS at 135 pretty much had to be scaled and even 95 was challenging for more than 10 reps.  I can still remember the awful feeling of having to drop my OHS weight from 95 down to 75 in the middle of Nancy as Kelly painfully cheered me on with a glimmer of pity in his eye.  How could I back squat so much but absolutely bomb out on the OHS?

Before I could get my answer, my intense training schedule got the best of me.  I developed tendonitis in my right knee that eventually became chronic because I am stupid and didn’t let it rest.  This injury kept me from seriously squatting for well over a year and all the gains I had made with 5-3-1 essentially disappeared.  It was back to the drawing board but this time I would do it the right way.  I would work on the mobility issues that caused my injury and slowly work my way back to my old strength levels with the goal to eventually surpass them.

In the fall of 2012, my salvation came in the form of Daniel Dutcavich and his Weightlifting classes.  The oly lifts had been a weak point of mine and pretty much everyone else at 717 and this was a perfect opportunity to raise my game.  Plus slowly working back into squatting was boring.  Practicing the snatch and clean would certainly force me to train all three squat variations (back, front and OHS) while stabilizing heavy weights overhead.  It was the perfect way to get back on track.  I had no idea how beneficial weightlifting would be.


Rudy Neilsen, owner of Outlaw CrossFit and, coaches many of the top CrossFit athletes across the world.  Some of the athletes that follow his programming are Elizabeth Akinwale (the top qualifying woman in the world after Regionals) and Brandon Swan (#2 overall in Australia).  Rudy preaches that the Olympic lifts are the fundamental base that is needed to excel at all other facets of CrossFit.  He travels around the world doing “Outlaw Way” seminars that focus solely on weightlifting movements.

One member of his staff, Spencer Arnold, is an American Open champion and one of the top ranked lifters in the US for his weight class.  He is 5’10” and weighs around 155 lbs.  His best lifts are 275 in the snatch, 341 in the C&J and 418 for the back squat.  What this means is that he is stronger than all of us.  Way stronger.  Here is a video of him doing a 345 lb. OHS:

He is also one of the head coaches at CrossFit Deep and helps prepare all of the Outlaw athletes for the Games. Spencer writes a daily blog and really delves into the science and application of the Olympic lifts to CrossFit. In one post he says:

“I have long been a proponent that the Olympic lifts are one the best developers of athleticism available to us.  Explosive power.  Agility.  Balance.  Coordination. Speed.  Strength.  All of these things are developed through the lifts…. This is why we focus so much on the Olympic lifts at Deep and have since the beginning.  You want to be in better shape?  Do the lifts.  You want to be a better athlete?  Do the lifts.  You want to be the best Crossfitter you can be?  Do the Lifts.  And do them often.”

One of the many things that Spencer focuses on with his athletes is proper glute activation.  You can read his thoughts here and here.  Many people have very weak glutes and cannot activate them during a lift.  This causes all sorts of mechanical issues that hinder our true potential in many of the movements we often do in a workout.

Your glutes play a vital role in keeping your body upright and in the proper position to apply maximal power to movements like cleans, wall balls and all squatting variations.  Often times, we can power our way through lighter weights because our quads can shoulder most of the load but a lack of true glute activation becomes evident when we reach around 85% of 1RM or higher.  The signs of weak glutes/poor glute activation include:

  • Rounding your back at the bottom of a back squat or leaning way forward at depth
  • Coming up on your toes or rounding your back at the bottom of a front squat or thruster
  • Missing a clean because you catch the bar with a rounded back
  • Leaning forward on the decent in an overhead squat
  • Knees collapsing powering out of the bottom position
  • Catching and getting out of the hole on a wall ball with a rounded back
Look like you at The Battle of the Pike?

Look like you at The Battle of the Pike?

Notice a trend? If any of these sound like something you have a problem with then you most likely have this issue.   So how do you fix it?  Like Spencer says: Do the lifts.