Saturday, February 5, 2011

Sorry Fellas, It's Ladies Only...

CThis week we started a new program at CrossFit Palo Alto.  Tuesday was the first ever Women’s Class at our box.  Two ladies were with us on that first day.  Friday there were five.  Five remarkable women who tackled the unknown and broke away from their comfort zones repeatedly for an hour at 9am on Friday morning.  And we’ll do it again next week.

A few people have asked me why we’re doing this.  “What’s the point of a women’s only class?”  “Is the programming any different?”  “So, it’s the same thing, you’re just excluding the guys?”  “Why?”  “It would be sexist if we offered a Men’s class.  Why is it OK just for the women?”  Puzzlement, intrigue, confusion, jealousy?  I don’t know exactly what’s behind all the questions, but I do know this.

What I have seen this week from the ladies impresses me.  This blog focuses on one example:  The first day of class we saw a woman increase her 3-rep Clean PR (personal record) by a 45%.  That’s right.  The final reps were 145% of her previous PR.  Let’s look at how that is possible and why it might have happened. 

I believe there are two parts to how that happened.  A small part of it is 1) The General Adaptation Syndrome going hand-in-hand with the sort of linear progression we expect to see from a novice lifter.  But a larger part of that gain is found in 2) the environment and the individual’s comfort level with taking risks and trusting herself.  Let’s explore. 

1)  Back in the 30's, Hans Selye proposed the "General Adaptation Syndrome" to explain how the body responds to external stressors.  Basically, the premise is that repeated exposure to a sufficient stressor (barbells, pull-ups, push ups...) sends the body into stages that help it adapt to the stressor. 
Stage 1- Alarm or Shock.  (Seriously, that’s what it’s called.)  This is at a cellular level we might interpret as delayed onset muscle soreness, or DOMS, perhaps a heaviness in the limbs or a mild musculoskeletal discomfort. 
Stage 2 - Adaptation or Resistance.  During this stage, the body’s production and uptake of hormones changes in order to prepare for future or repeated exposure to this stressor.  For the beginner, this phase may be within 72 hours of the initial stressor (see, a twice-weekly workout still does a body good), leading to improvement from one workout to the next.  For the advanced athlete, it may take several months to adapt to a training stress and measure marked improvement (PRs may stick for a long, long time before seeing a change for the advanced athlete). 
Stage 3 - Exhaustion.  Otherwise known as overtraining.  The programming at CrossFit Palo Alto doesn’t go there; but it’s up to you to moderate your off-days and take the rest you need to prevent this.

Huge and almost daily improvements are often seen in the novice athlete as the neuromuscular system is learning movement with neural firing patterns and motor unit recruitment.  In fact, (I ♥) Mark Rippetoe holds that premise as part of the definition of a novice strength athlete. 

A single training stress constitutes an overload event for a novice, and this overload and the recovery between the two workouts should be enough to disrupt homeostasis and induce a gain in strength for the beginner.  Once this is no longer the case, the trainee is no longer a novice.           
Practical Programming for Strength Training, p. 156       

Here’s a graphic representation of that adaptation. 

Figure 6-1 Generalized relationship between performance improvement and training complexity relative to time (from Practical Programming)

The X-axis in the above graph shows us training time in months, the Y-axis for these purposes represents power or general strength from low to high (ascending).  Three curvilinear lines show us rate of adaptation, improvement and the need for training complexity.   You can see that the initial adaptation in the first few months is a nearly linear for both the rate of adaption and improvement curves, whereas the need for training complexity is relatively unvaried and low for the first few years of training.   After the novice phase of strength training (several months of consistent exposure and overload), the athlete will continue to make improvements, though those gains in strength do not come in as big of jumps, nor are they seen as frequently as they were in the novice phase. 

But a New PR that equals Old PR x 1.45?  For Reals???  And that brings us to...

2)  The bigger picture.  Like it or not, we are influenced by what is around us.  I’m talking about taking risks.  I’m talking about venturing past the known and affecting new results by challenging ourselves in areas that we’re uncomfortable.  Was there ever a time where the people around you influenced your actions?  Of course there was!  We tailor our actions to those around us.  I know I do for sure.  I practice things I suck at the most when I’m in a safe place where no one (or someone I trust completely) is there to see me in case I fail.  Sure, it may be stupid, but it’s human nature and it’s true.  Here’s an example.  One of my longest and closest friends visited a few weeks ago for the weekend.  We’ve been friends since the first day of field hockey season at the tender age of 14.  She was our fast-and-mean Center Mid and I was Left Wing with a big-ass voice and an inconsistent flick.  We only played dirty if we were provoked, but we’ve always been willing to take risks for and around each other, and for that reason, 1? years later, we continue to grow as friends.

So, how did these two mature women spend their evening together?  We did headstands, handstands, and wrestled for the phone that she stole from me to send text messages to a boy that I was too chicken to call.   We laughed so hard we cried.  (Sore abs from laughing are WAY better than anything Abmat sit-ups can give us, by the way.)  Yep.  14-years-old all over again.  But we’re comfortable around each other, so we take risks.  I suck at handstands.  Suck, I tell you.  In fact, I would refuse to do them or any other risky thing around said boy.  Because I don’t want to look silly.  But it’s not just about crushes or boys.  It’s about being comfortable with your surroundings. 

A women only class is just that environment for a lot of people and it creates the sort of team you see in that photo above.  I was talking with another one of the ladies after class yesterday.  She was telling me how grateful she is that we offer it.  She’s been a gym rat in the past and easily falls prey to the image-consciousness of these environments.  Mirrors everywhere (who needs that?).  Lycra for the sake of showing off your curves (we like spandex around here for the simple fact that it’s like a sports bra for your butt).  She is tired of women being forced into Pilates bodies and counting calories.  She wants to be strong and be around strong women.  In a place where women can be women and still grunt a little under a barbell during a WOD.  It’s the sort of environment where women can share their learnings with the group without blushing.  (For example:  NEVER wear a thong when you’ve got to do abmat sit-ups!)  A place where muscles are celebrated and Meat-Eating-Fat-And-Veggie-Loving-Eat-Until-You’re-Done-Eating(-Don’t-You-Dare-Count-Calories)-Pick-Up-Heavy-Things-And-Sleep-Well-LIFE is encouraged!  And if the place that helps her facilitate this is in a Women’s Class at 9:00am on Tuesdays and Fridays, I’m stoked that we can offer it.  And even prouder to be a part of it. 

So back to the PR question.  I don’t necessarily believe that it was a jump in this person’s ability to lift this weight, just in her own confidence that she could.  She’s had it in her for a while.  It’s just that NOW she is finally ready to release the lion.  I don’t think we all need a gender-specific environment for training.  But I do believe that there are some people who really benefit from it, and it helps them let down some of the last barriers to their own fitness.

The educator in me says, “Let’s come back to the questions we started with and make sure we met our objectives.” 

“What’s the point of a women only class?”   See above.  
“Is the programming any different?”  No.
“So, it’s the same thing, you’re just excluding the guys?”  Correct.
“Why?” See above.
“It would be sexist if we offered a Men’s class.”  Not a question, but you're probably right.
“Why is it OK just for the women?” Because I said.

Thus ends Week 1 of CrossFit Palo Alto’s Women’s CrossFit Class.  A place where we can celebrate Strength, fitness, and maybe have a little girl time mixed into the process too.  Here’s to many, many more PRs and the journey ahead of us.  

Thank you ladies for being part of it from the beginning!  In STRENF!


  1. Awesome post! I'm so glad that you're offering the class as a comfortable place for ladies to increase their STRENF and get specialized attention. They'll come out stronger and represent the gym even better!

    And thanks for the <3!

  2. I think sometimes, it can be intimidating to see the huge numbers that some men put up, and women may not feel like their numbers can be impressive too. That going from DL of 100 to 120 is awesome, even if the dude next to you has every weight in the gym on his bar. I think sisterhood is different than what men can offer, and both are good. I'll be interested to see what feels different between the mixed class and the women's class, but I'd guess I'll get something different (and good) from both.

  3. You've got a good point there Hildy. It's easy to get caught up in the numbers with comparisons of "absolute" strength when the focus really should be on our own gains and efforts. I'm looking forward to you joining us soon!

    Thanks Badier!

    Love the comments, y'all-keep 'em coming!