Unbullyable™ – Long Walk, Short Pier: Why the Knees Matter – The Brand X Method

Unbullyable™ – Long Walk, Short Pier: Why the Knees Matter


Unbullyable™ – Long Walk, Short Pier: Why the Knees Matter

In 2008, I participated in the second CrossFit Games. For all the noobs out there that was the last year any asshole could sign up. For the record, I sucked. That should come as no surprise to those who know me; I was never any good at the “Sport of Fitness.” In addition to remembering how mostly unfun that weekend was, I recall being impressed with the effort being put forth by so many people. I’m a big fan of grit. Jeff Martin’s take was a little different. Despite the tenacity on display, he was often appalled by the atrocious movement also on display. I didn’t quite get his perturbation back then, a noob myself, high on high intensity and caught up in the profane-peace-and-love-pick-up-the-bar-countercultural hoopla. I get it now. Wouldn’t be here if I didn’t.

Muddy Waters
Like an algae bloom, these reminisces billowed forth from memory’s pelagic zone after reading Patrick McCarty’s recent Breaking Muscle article. He took issue with how CrossFit Inc.’s social media department shared a video of CrossFit athlete Brooke Wells squatting some heavy-ass weight in a feat of strength made all the more remarkable given just how fugly the squats were. McCarty accused the CrossFit Inc. social media department for reposting the video for no other reason than to rile up the digital masses. I don’t know if that’s true or not. For all I know the social media department exists solely to celebrate the efforts of the community members paying its salary and to spread good will. Or the department could be a pit of mean-spirited shit-stirring little bitch-ass trolls implementing some bizarre policy. Again, I don’t know—I didn’t see the original (re)post any of the comments. I don’t especially care. Digital media has allowed even the most milquetoastiest of mundane motherfuckers to believe they got mad keyboard sniper skills, but, frankly, they’re still mundane, milquetoasty, and motherfucked.

McCarty has made his name in the CrossFit community partly for his willingness to publicly take issue with various things that he says CrossFit Inc. has done or supports. I respect that a lot—he gets right up in Inc.’s grill and speaks his mind. In this case, he seems to be calling out the corporation for what appears to be unkind and petty social media shenanigans at the expense of high-profile athletes who, officially or not, represent the brand.  If true, it would seem a bit a hypocritical when the Inc. spends a good deal of energy (and, I imagine, money) presenting itself as a morally upstanding do-gooder confronting other supposedly sinister organizations (eg, Coca-Cola). But this time I’ve no interest in McCarty’s more-than-likely-spot-on remarks about CrossFit Inc.’s agenda. His secondary and tertiary points, however, caught my attention, and to paraphrase Mr. McCarty, all of it has to do with her knees:

Point 2 – Unsolicited coaching advice sucks.
Point 3 – “[T]here is conflicting evidence as to the harm done in a knee valgus response.”

– Point 2 –
I’m assuming that, because McCarty referred to the video in question as a repost, Brooke (or her coach) was the original poster. Presumably, CrossFit Inc. had permission, implicitly or otherwise, to repost (cuz no corporation would ever misappropriate somebody else’s stuff, right?), so it’s likely Brooke proudly posted her squats for all to see. It’s 2016. Am I to believe that 20-year-old Brooke is unaware of what happens when you post these kinds of videos? Her generation’s entire worldview is digitally mediated. You put yourself out there for public consumption and you risk getting eaten alive. Whatever your motive might be for this kind of public exposure, if you don’t want unsolicited advice, don’t seek it.

– Point 3 –
McCarty goes on to give a brief nod to the knees in-knees out debate with links to three resources*. On the surface it would seem to have a place in his discussion. I mean maybe much of the commentary devolved into an insufferable exchange about the knees in-knees out controversy, I don’t know. That’s a potentially interesting debate in the context of the sport of Olympic weightlifting where the goal is to lift the most weight possible one rep at a time, but it has nothing to do with the video’s content. Further, in trying to seal the deal on his main point about social media assclownery, McCarty inadvertently obscures what I consider a far more important point.

I Know What I Know, If You Know What I Mean
For me, this video’s public existence highlights a philosophical dichotomy at work in sports: outcome vs process. The video’s content applauds the weight on the bar and the athlete’s effort. Yep, Brooke lifted a helluvalotta weight, twice, and that’s more weight than a goodly proportion of us can squat even once. Remember, deep down, I’m a sucker for displays of heroic determination. But…

Let me make sure that my unsolicited opinion is clear: The video shows two unsafe and desperate-looking squats under significantly heavy load, and any conversation about the efficacy of knee valgus twitch or purposeful training of some kind of controlled valgus response is too far beside the point to ever be salient. The technique on display is unsustainable and courts injury. The video should never have been viewed by anyone but Brooke and her coach(es).

I suppose it’s possible that the video shows the first and only instance of any kind of knee and head (ie, spine) movement during Brooke’s squat session. In most ways I agree with McCarty that it’s not the audience’s problem because Brooke “has a coach to address any form critiques.” Maybe the coach immediately called a halt to the session following that set. Presumably Brooke and her coach reviewed the video, discussed the flaws and how to address them. What then the reason behind posting the video? Because a 345-pound double, after all, is a 345-pound double? A noteworthy outcome regardless of all else?

Outcome is a way of saying the end justifies the means. It means you like your gains quantified—heavier barbells, faster times, more volume. Easy to identify and measure and display on social media. It means you like your gains immediately—you prefer them in bulk and you don’t care how they’re delivered; you want `em now, not later. But later has this pesky way of persistently becoming now, and if you’re outcome-oriented the PR-demanding nows keep rolling at you, incessantly, like heavy storm surf pounding a dilapidated pier, until the pilings begin to give. If you’re outcome-oriented you can watch that video and think, “Wow, Brooke just squatted a lot of weight right there. Awesome job.” No concern for the next now pitching its way toward her.

Here’s the other side of the coin: process. Process is qualitative.  Maybe not as easy to measure as a loaded barbell and reps, but, I tell you what, if you’re process-oriented, you know it when you see it, and it shows beautifully on social media. Process means getting on the gains train, but I’m not talking the kind of (magic) bullet train that everyone is waiting for. I’m talking a long freighter that grinds its way across the shifting landscapes of a lifetime, passing now after now, slow and steady, delivering the gains you need without ever stopping. Process is code for long-term athletic development.

A process orientation yields outcomes worth celebrating; the same cannot be said about the obverse.

Again, maybe the video showed the very first instance of knee collapse during that session, but I’m willing to bet that those knees started caving several sets prior, and any opportunity to explain away the noise as a possibly beneficial valgus twitch was lost in the magnifying degradation. I’m also willing to bet that of the thousands of reps that Brooke has performed, a significant number of them evidenced varying degrees of problematic knee valgus. At some point that rickety structure won’t support the increasing loads that an outcome orientation craves, and at some point that rickety structure could break.

“Hey, nitwit, we should expect some form degradation at the margin of our capacity.”

I’ve heard this a lot, and generally accept the idea, but before we can have a discussion, you need to define “some.” Brooke’s knees almost touch on the second rep, and, with what looks like complete abandon, she chucks her head back to climb out of the hole on both reps, meaning her spine is moving under significant load. That’s not what I consider “some” degradation.

“The body has a way of defaulting to its strongest positions when necessary.”

I’ve also heard versions of this oddity on different occasions. The body just knows. Even if we don’t. Stop for a moment and think about that: there’s your body and then there’s—what? You? What the fuck does that even mean? I suppose it’s an appealing thought, with some vague religious connotation… don’t worry, your body has a plan for you. Your body is a sort of autonomous agent with “your” best interests at heart. But something tells me that your body doesn’t really know how to squat correctly without “you.”

One of the things I like about physical literacy is that it rejects the concept of mind-body duality; the latter makes it possible for someone to accept the idea that your body could possibly understand the safest and strongest way to move independent of “your” input. I once met an athlete, younger than Brooke. This lady is a hard-charging, fire-breathing CrossFitter. Brand X Method™ trainers had an all-too-brief opportunity to watch her train for an upcoming competition. In that single session we saw that this young athlete habitually overextend her spine. Because we never once thought her body knew better than she did about spine safety, we cued her on bracing and maintaining a safe neutral spine, but that’s a stubborn motor pattern to correct. You can’t fix it in one session. At Brand X, we spend months correcting anterior hip tilts with our clients, and we’re only successful when the client is consistent and does the hard work.

When, less than a year later, we learned that she’s down with a bilateral pars fracture of the L5, which is typically considered an overuse injury, I immediately recalled her tendency and speculated that, given her commitment to competitive CrossFit, that she had overtrained with questionable mechanics.

The substance of the now she chased back then was the competition, the battle for every rep and every second, the thrill of trying to win. I suspect that many nows between then and this point were fogged with increasing back pain, decreasing training effect, and anxiety. From this point on, as she works on rehab and regain, she could face a slew of nows marked possibly by, among other things, uncertainty and regret. The elevation of outcome over process is particularly troubling to think about when you consider the origins of “competitive fitness.”

You Are What You Tweet
McCarty is a positive voice for the CrossFit community. It’s commendable and I hope he continues doing this even though I think that he, for all of his incisive observations and good intentions, wastes a lot of valuable energy trying to reason with remote keyboard drones. All ya gotta do is look at “reality” television, your Facebook feed, and the 2016 presidential campaign to see that a lot of people aren’t all that committed to rationality and kindness and are easily enchanted by the kind of pied piping McCarty sees the Inc. getting up to. (I’m sometimes struck by a creepy feeling that we’re stumbling about in a new festering dark age, one that is paradoxically kept septic by the very tools that are supposed to encourage enlightenment.) Voices like McCarty and others can be like beacons in the midst of that fearful, ignorant murk, but I think the positivity has to run deeper than putting oneself in the unenviable position as an arbiter of digital culture. If you’re looking to protect an athlete like Brooke from the slings and arrows of outrageous Internet dickheadedness, you have to halt the professionalization we’re seeing as a result of the increasingly widespread perception that CrossFit = the Sport of Fitness.

Getting a young, capable athlete such as Brooke Wells to the next Games should be only part of a coach’s goal. Another part should be getting that same competitor to the Games as a masters athlete. But maybe most important is getting that athlete to the end of her life still able to squat, maybe not under 345 pounds of real-deal-kicking iron but at least on and off a toilet. If that ain’t the goal, then whaddya actually mean by “fitness”?

Long Walk Short Pier_Lee Burton quoteCourtesy of Functional Movement (https://www.facebook.com/functionalmovement/?fref=photo)
* McCarty leads in with the statement about conflicting evidence regarding the hazard of knee valgus response. I’m not sure but I think his observation is limited to the appropriateness of knee valgus “twitch” or moment for Olympic weightlifting. I think this can be a bit misleading. As I’ve stated elsewhere that there are many published papers associating knee valgus to knee injury (I’m too lazy to put together a bibliography here—but I will if you message me and request it). If anybody knows of a research paper expressly dismissing knee valgus as a risk factor for ACL and similar knee injuries, I’m genuinely interested in seeing that.

5 Responses

  1. Mike

    As I walk down,and quite often stumble, the path of life, I sometimes have a difficult time trying to figure out if I’m being punished, or privileged. Whether I’m working out, riding my bike,or reading a blog, the thoughts are there. When one of my 3 brothers and I would scrape a knee, or get bruised in horseplay or having fun, our dad would say”no sense being tough if you can’t show it. Fatherly wisdom. i once said “dad there’s a fine line between being tough and being stupid”, and he replied”don’t cross the line”. I am quite fortunate to train at Brand X, we have standards, and make no mistake, I am privileged.

  2. Sharon

    Love this article. It hits home so much. As a coach I try to keep my athletes safe above all else. As an athlete I try to find my weaknesses and work on them. I know that brute strength can never overcome poor mechanics. Poor mechanics is sometimes my weakness 🙂

    1. Dan Edelman

      Thanks so much for reading the post, Sharon. I figure at some point everyone’s weakness is mechanics. The question is whether we ignore them or address them.

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