Guest written by Ryan Heastings
“Push the peanut forward.” It is a favorite life-quote of my stepfather’s, and subsequently, mine. Keep grinding. Plant your rear foot in the sand, and staunchly refuse to take a single step backward. Improve, even if only slightly, each day. It made sense to hear as a 19 year-old, attempting to dig himself out of a challenging moment in life. It made sense in later years, as the occasional unpleasantries that are part and parcel of existing made their presence known. It makes sense now, walking through the doors of the gym, each day.
Everyone has “their days,” with regard to the workouts at Friendship, and likely, within CrossFit, at large. We all have movements or skills that we are more proficient at, relative to others. We all have days when, comparatively, we can smoke the workout. Yet, there is – and perhaps this is one of the greatest elements of the program itself – the unavoidable, “leveling effect.” CrossFit has double-edged swords built in, throughout. If you are a giant, you might be able to move huge weights on a barbell, but die a painful death on the rings or pull-up bar, or run. If you are small, you can hammer the bodyweight stuff, but risk getting buried by heavy barbell movements. The end result is that there is something, somewhere; or, many things in many areas, that can be classified as “weaknesses.” We all have them. From Games athletes to new members on their first day. It’s simply a matter of scale. Seemingly, within minutes of my first on-ramping session with Maria, just a bit more than a year ago; we found a bunch of mine.
I can’t put my outstretched hands behind my head. Literally. The notion of holding something above my head and doing anything meaningful seemed beyond the realm of possibility. Two decades of bench pressing (the vast majority of it, incorrectly) and its various accessory exercises, had left me unable to hold a PVC pipe above my head and squat down. I could press a barbell above my head; so long as it was also an inch or three in front of my face, and my ribs were out as if someone was poking me in the back. I had never “cleaned” a barbell before, and frankly, didn’t know that such a thing existed as a movement unto itself until I started to become familiar with CrossFit. I could do single-unders, but nothing more. The “wallball” seemed like an absurd form of torture, especially for, shall we say, “smaller” gentlemen; akin in my mind to repeatedly trying to throw a boulder up at the Sun. Even with the things I considered myself “good” at, I quickly found that there were many among the fine members of Friendship who were just as good, if not far better. A new peanut had positioned itself squarely in my path. Rather than shy away from my myriad weaknesses, in search of calmer waters, it seemed the only way forward was to drive myself headlong into the peanut, and attempt to begin to nudge it forward.
Fortunately, I was not the first person to roll into Friendship telling a sordid tale of bench pressing, extended periods sitting, and poor mobility. Contrary to my previous experience in various commercial gyms, where one is generally left to figure it all out largely independently; there was an assortment of people at Friendship to not only explain to me what I needed to do to begin to remedy my awful mobility (literally, Andy once told me it was among the worst he’d ever seen), but also to help me with movement corrections, cues, and encouragement. All I needed to do was grind. Mobilize. Everyday (or nearly so). So, that was exactly what I tried to do.
Mobilizing, to use the proper parlance, is, if you are brutally tight, a unique exercise in managing discomfort. Deep breaths, trying not to look at the clock too often, trying not to make unseemly “pain faces,” all for two minutes at a time. Improvement is not immediate. You look funny, off in the corner by yourself, lying on the ground with a PVC pipe; your eyes squeezed shut. Also, when you can’t snatch, you do mobility when everyone else performs the exercise in question. ALL of the ladies (not to mention the gents) brutally smoke you at the Overhead Squat, because you can’t do it. It was all a splendid exercise in humility.
However, over time (and by time, I mean months, not weeks or days), things began to change; ever so slightly. The peanut began to lurch forward. Movements that at best felt unnatural, and at worst, painful, like jerks, at the beginning of my journey, started to feel at least reasonable. My coordination improved, such that I could now begin to consider doing movements with some level of efficiency, instead of grinding through them and hoping to hang on until the appointed time or the requisite number of rounds were completed. I’d since joined Gymnastics Club. Under the watchful and seemingly ever-present eye of Dr. Jennifer Borda, I’d began to gradually (sometimes with a generous helping of “encouragement” on Jenny’s end) learn to do overhead pulling and pressing movements with my ribs not shooting out like a cannon on the side of a pirate ship, or, at least not as much as they had. The slamballs, a PVC pipe, and the clock, became my friends. Before class. After class. At my house, listening to podcasts. Wherever. Two minutes at a time, trying to pry my thoracic open, and improve my overhead positioning. There started to exist, ever so slightly, a light at the end of the tightness and technique tunnel. Sundays started to become my favorite day.
As many, if not most, know, Sundays are Open Gym at Friendship. People roll in and hammer out work. Some people lift weights, complete workouts, or work on technique. Everyone, however, is working on their “list,” in one form or another. In addition to sneaking in a little mobility work before and/or after class, Sundays became my day to hammer either items we hadn’t done in the previous week, or things we had done, but that I was not able to complete in a satisfactory way. Cleans. Overhead squats. Bar muscle-ups. Double-unders. Jerks. Mobility. The list always grows and rarely shortens. However, the relentless pursuit of improvement started to become my favorite part about Sundays in particular, and CrossFit, in general. I loved working on things, surrounded by other people who were doing the same; driving themselves to get better. One element at a time. Pushing the peanut forward.
The truth of the matter is that the items mentioned are a continuing work in progress. There is not yet the happy ending to the story where you will see me snatch 225, or walk on my hands. I still punch below my weight, with regard to the clean and jerk. The Devil’s Unicycle (or Airdyne, if you must) takes my soul, and my bodily energy with it, whenever it so chooses. There remains much more grinding, much more pushing of a particular legume, to be done.
We are all engaged in the pursuit of that which cannot be caught. Yes, with consistent effort, regular class attendance, and attention to stress level, sleep, and diet, we can attain an improving level of health. Yet, none of us, from Frazer and Toomey on down, has mastered the game. We all have a list. However, I’ve come to see the victory and subsequently somewhat addictive nature of CrossFit not as the base mastery of a given set of movements, nor a particular level of nominal strength, but in the struggle. The grind. The relentless pursuit of self-improvement that we all embark on when we change our clothes and put on our shoes to come and chase fitness together. To fail. To show strength in the face of bodily weakness. To drive one’s shoulder into the peanut, and push it down the path. That pursuit is what makes Friendship quite literally one of my favorite places to be. See you on Sunday…
Author Ryan Heastings, CFL1, is a consistent and hard working member of Friendship’s CrossFit classes, Gymnastics Club, Barbell and Running Club. Ryan is also father to Rye in the Teens class.