Looking down, I can see the path of my drops of sweat. They fall from my chin and nose all the way to the floor. They fall to the dark rubber mats in wet splashes as tiny chalk plumes spread out in rolling white dust storms. The grooved edges of slightly rusted barbell metal cuts into my hands as I tighten my grip. I see chalky sweat, I see shining silver knurling, and I can hear my heart beating in my ears now. That is all I can hear, raspy breath and heartbeat, and a somewhat vocal part of me begging to slow down, begging for a few deep breaths, begging for lighter weights.
My mind begs in vain.
My grip tightens and the muscles in my back ripple into rigid formation. The erector spinae are reinforcing the vertebrae protecting my spinal cord, and are allowing me to brace the support muscles of the ribs, the rectus abdominus, psoas, the latisimus dorsae, my diaphragm, all keeping things stable down into my pelvis. It creates a solidly anchored foundation for my glutes and hamstrings. 135 pounds, power cleaned at this speed and intensity, is no joke. My hammies need all the support they can get to provide me with violent hip extension.
The barbell leaves the floor.
As the extension continues, slow smooth strength makes way for speed strength as the bar travels above my knees and toward my hips. My shoulders fight to stay back and down. They fight to stay stable, to support the weight while the bigger muscles do the lifting.
Once the bar gets to my hips, the violent extension really kicks in and I jump through my legs as hard as I can. I don't think it, but enough training has taught me to keep my arms straight during this process, even when they really want to help lift the bar by curling upwards. Despite the desire to help, they comply, and remain straight. They are unbreakable, sinewy straps.
I shrug and pull with the bigger muscles of my upper back. The transition sends pulling power from my feet into my hammies and glutes, into my lower, mid, and now upper back. Once my hip extension is maxed out and I can shrug no more, I re-bend my knees so I can drop slightly and get my chest under the now fast-rising bar. It will not be fast-rising for long.
Get under the bar, Jason!
I do, and the bar lands high, near my collar bones, cradled by my shoulders, chest, and finger tips. This is the rack position, my second favorite position in all of weightlifting. To power clean heavy weights and hit the timing so precisely that the bar floats in its weightless transition between rising and falling and settles, almost gently, into the rack position feels like Jedi force magic. It's the feeling of perfect contact on a fastball at the plate that sends the ball over the left field fence. It feels, not effortless, but graceful, like we were designed to do it that way. It feels right.
But it's one repetition out of the seventy or eighty I will complete in this workout, so I keep my admiration to a minimum.
“Let's go, buttercups!”
My voice, but not me. It's not Jason's voice, it's Gray's. Gray is my other name. It's what is yelled at practice. It's what coaches have yelled at me since I was a child. Gray is what the Freshman call me unless they like running what we call greyhounds. But nobody likes those. Greyhounds are a delightful conditioning drill that requires running on all fours around the bases, usually in groups of four or five guys, where winning means you get to stop, and losing means you get to go another lap, and another if you lose again, and so on until everyone is out. It's not a lot of fun to be that last guy huffing and puffing all alone through the last lap of dirt, wheezing harshly as teammates gleefully hop in front of you like Bugs Bunny.
Gray, team leader, catcher, and captain of the baseball team.
Pick up the bar, Gray! Pick it up, now!
“Get back on the bar, guys! Three second rests and go again... GO!!”
As team captain I also program and coordinate many of the workouts for the team in the off season. Two years ago I stumbled upon a new training methodology called Crossfit. I tried it myself for a few weeks and got hooked, as thousands of people did before me, but I was the first to bring it to my school and to the team. The coaches were thrilled within a couple weeks, our team's progress left no room for discussion about the program's efficacy. We immediately started implementing the training to compliment our baseball-specific work.
One of the best things about the Crossfit model was its competition applications. The workouts were done either for time, or for maximum reps, or maximum weight. The ability to compete with each other in different aspects of fitness, and compete in a new aspect every day, was perfect. We needed to all be challenged in different areas of fitness, and we all needed to be immunized to the stresses of competition. Crossfit was perfect for all of that, and more. The reason it took me awhile to bring the training to the attention of the coaches was I wanted to be sure it was effective, that is would be right for the team.
And I wanted a head start.
Back then I wasn't team captain yet, and if I was going to cement that position, bringing a new highly effective training method into the Juniper High School baseball program would be the best way to establish myself as a good leader. If I could bring it in after having trained with it, honed it, and becoming relatively good at it, that would be a bonus.
Getting a couple month head start made it all very easy. After only a few weeks of watching videos on technique, practicing those techniques, and hitting a few dozen workouts, I was leaps and bounds ahead of where I'd started. I made a few strength gains in the big lifts by focusing on certain breathing and positional cues. I felt quicker, lighter, and stronger. It was magical. I knew I'd found something new, something important that would raise the level of the entire team and place me at the head of the pack, and in the coaches' good graces.
Once I felt decently established in the movements and methods, I brought it in. The coaches heard my pitch and let me try some things. In the beginning it was no contest. I, a lowly freshman, was teaching strength and conditioning techniques to seniors and then dominating them in the workouts. Some of the bigger guys had me in the raw strength events, but I dominated in speed, endurance, agility, and all of the high skill moves. But no matter who you were athletically, you got smashed. The weaknesses came out in a big way.
It kicked everyone's ass.
Nine months later, Sophomore year, I was team captain, the first Sophomore ever to hold the position. It was beautiful.
“Come on ladies, four minutes left, seventh inning stretch! This is the time to push!”
I say it as my own heart feels like it wants to explode. The workout this morning is a 12 minute AMRAP using pull ups, power cleans, and burpees. It's easy, seven pull ups, seven power cleans with 135 pounds, and seven burpees, and don't stop for 12 minutes.
Most rounds wins.
What is a burpee? A burpee is a delightful creature comprised of a jump to the ground, a push up, a jump back to the feet, and a jump and clap in the air. They sound easy, and doing one is easy. Five are easy. Ten in a row are pretty easy. But the way they can make everything else in a workout suck is not easy. Burpees jack up your heart rate, make your arms heavy, and make your legs feel like you are borrowing them from Danny Devito. They make everything worse. Much much worse.
“Let's go, Josh!”
Joshua Crowley. Josh. He's a guy who should have been named Brock. He is a monster, he just doesn't know it yet. He runs the 40 in something like 4.3 or 4.4, squats around 400, dead lifts over 400, and can still run a sub six minute mile. This strength and athleticism, coupled with his throwing arm and his presence at the plate make him a baseball superstar. He could be leading the team, even leading the league, in home runs and RBIs, not to mention leading our team as its captain. He is stronger than I am, faster than I am, and a better baseball player than I am. He could be running things and on his way to whatever college team he chose if he wasn't being torn down psychologically on a regular basis by his team captain.
A few months ago, he sprained his right knee sliding into second. It wasn't a bad sprain, but it was definitely a setback. I advised him to play it safe with his knee. I told him he shouldn't come back too soon or too strong, that to play it safe now would help ensure a better future after high school. In some ways, that is true. In many ways, I told him the same things the trainers and his doctor told him. I just kept telling him these types of things long after they would have given him the green light to return to his normal full throttle.
He is the best athlete on the team, probably in the state, and he could crush me in most workouts if he didn't allow me to constantly undermine his confidence and destroy him psychologically.
I blame him for allowing someone like me to get in his head and continue to make him think his sprained knee would still be unstable six months later. The coaches are trying to get him to let the monster out and get back to full tilt training. They are probably confused as to why he isn't, why he is still being tentative. It's almost like someone close to him, like his teammates, or his team captain, are telling him things that would lead him to believe he should be constantly wary and never commit fully to a workout. It's almost like someone is keeping his injury on his mind so much that Josh is actually starting to limp on that knee after tough training sessions.
Why would a fellow teammate do such a thing?
I actually feel like I'm helping him, like this experience will make him stronger in the long run. When he realizes the pain and the doubt and the distrust of his knee were all in his head, he will realize the importance of staying mentally tough and being positive.
But for now, there will be one star on the team.
One star is plenty.
I positioned myself near Josh today so I could watch his progress and stay close to him throughout the workout. I don't want him to get ahead of me, but I want to stay close enough that he feels like he is hanging tough and has a chance to beat me. He doesn't. I created this workout and anything that has pull ups in it is going to favor me. Throw burpees and relatively light weight power cleans into the mix and I'm unstoppable. With this time domain and movement scheme, I am in control.
My barbell is behind Josh. He can hear me picking up the weight and dropping it. He can hear me doing burpees. He can see me peripherally when I transition to the pull ups. Being behind him allows me to watch him working and get a feel for his speed, count his reps if I need to, and be ready when he turns to get a look at me and my progress. Every time he glances back, I make sure to look fresh and strong, to smile at him, and to use the opportunity to call out to the rest of the team.
“Three minutes, pick it up!”
Some people have a hard time hiding the fact that they are out of breath. I never had that problem. My heart rate could be jacked up near two-hundred beats per minute and my lungs could be on fire, and I could still yell a command without sounding out of breath. When I do this over ten minutes into a nasty workout, and Josh sees and hears me do this, it crushes him. It is beyond demoralizing. I'm sure that he is hurting in ways that most people will never understand, both physically and mentally, because the last thing you want to feel when you are exhausted and fighting for breath is hopeless. When he sees me, still seemingly strong, still able to bark commands to the group and still ahead of him in the workout, he breaks. It happens at least once a week. I'd like it to happen at least once a week. If he gets broken every couple of workouts, he stays hungry and that fire to push forward and improve and beat me burns hotter. That is where I need him, burning to improve. I need that fire to drive him into peak condition for the start of the season. At that point, he can take out all of his pent up frustration towards me out on the rest of our league.
God help those poor bastards.
Josh is our starting pitcher. He doesn't have the classical long, lean body of a pitcher, but he manages to overcome his relative stumpiness with ferocious power. He pitches the way I imagine Mike Tyson would pitch. Top form Mike Tyson, late 80's Mike Tyson. He pitches to kill you, to blow a baseball-sized hole through your bat if you dare to swing at his pitches. When he is really fired up, he grunts as the ball leaves his hand. Well, something between a grunt, growl, and a death snarl. It's almost religious, like he is speaking a lost, forbidden god language. It is truly unsettling, for those people who don't know him, and maybe more so for the people who do know him. It is the same sound he would make if he were digging a battle ax into your skull on some ancient blood-soaked battlefield.
He is a valuable weapon.
Especially when he is fired up.
Doing this many power cleans and pull ups together is destroying my hands. The central section of a barbell is crosshatched knurled metal, made rough to help you maintain your grip. Grooved metal is great for gripping as its tiny, hard edges tear into your flesh. In round eight I started to feel the dull, pulling pain of a blister on my right palm. Once the skin starts to pull free from the flesh below, there is no stopping it. No amount of chalk can paste the layers back together. You just have to grit your teeth and pray for the end to arrive before you leave too much of your palm on the bars.
My prayers held up for three more rounds. Once back on the pull up bar in round eleven I knew. Each pull up tore a new couple of millimeters of skin free from the flesh below.
One... two... three...
“Last minute, guys, everything you got!”
“Don't hold back, don't hold back!”
I know that if I can finish this last rep, the clock will run out before I get back to the pull up bar. Hold on hand skin, just hold on a little longer...
As I pull for number seven I feel the rip. It's a pretty bad one. Sometimes when you tear your hands, you know it isn't too bad. This pain is different. I think when a certain amount of skin is ripped your brain suddenly alerts you, very urgently, to a serious problem on your palms. Your brain wants you to know you messed up, you messed up in a big way. Sometimes the tear is small, not too deep, no big deal. Those rips are a nuisance.
I immediately knew this rip was a bit more than a nuisance.
Even as I'm calling out the forty-five second warning, what I'm yelling in my head is shit. Shit, I have to get on the bar now and pull 135 pounds seven more times with a ripped palm. Shit, then I have to do more burpees. Shit, then I'll have get back on the bar and sprint like hell to cushion my lead over Josh. Shit, then I'll have to patch up my hand and try to heal it quickly for the workouts over the rest of the week. Shit.
Shit, shit, shit.
I wanted to do some batting practice this week, I guess I could tape my hands up. As long as I don't go too hard or for too long, that would work. Shit.
Most people don't realize how much a palm rip can affect your daily life because most people never tear the skin off of their palms. If they did, they would realize it makes showering, washing your hands, writing, typing, opening things, and picking things up, a lot harder. Everything is a little more painful. You remember it when you grip a steering wheel, and when you hoist your twenty-five-pound school backpack. You remember when you shake someone's hand. Everything you do reminds you of the tear and restarts the quiet throbbing of your body trying to patch it up.
For athletes, ripping hands is infuriating. For me, it is harder to catch and throw a ball, harder to swing a bat, harder to slide into base, harder to do everything required for playing baseball.
I should have taped my hands better before the workout started.
“3... 2... 1... Time! Time's up, guys, good job!”
Along with my grip, my shoulders are toast and my legs are a bit wobbly. I stumble to the white board on the wall and grab one of the blue dry erase pens. We use blue for all of the times but the three fastest. The three fastest times or best scores get written on the board in red.
“Alright guys, whatcha got?”
One at a time they begin shouting out last names and scores; Porter, 9 rounds plus 12 reps; Jackson, 10 rounds even; Harrison, 9 rounds plus 19 reps.
I try to hide my shaking hand. The tear is throbbing now, red hot pulsing nastiness, and it is making it hard to control the marker.
Booker, 10 rounds plus 14 reps.
“Nice work, Booker!”
Chris Booker is a quiet killer, one of the hard-working silent badasses that every guy wants on his team. He lets a tiny smile flash across his face at my adoration, and just as quickly extinguishes it.
Felton, 8 rounds plus 18 reps; Barlow, 11 rounds plus 5 reps.
“Yeah Barlow, think that's going to be top three. Getting in the red today, rock on!”
The last few scores come in. They are good scores, solid 9 and 10 rounders. Then I get to Josh. He hit the second best score, and improved from a month ago by more than a full round. He should be stoked.
He is not stoked.
Crowley, 12 rounds plus 3 reps.
Gray, 12 rounds plus 14 reps.
Josh gets a few high fives, consoling high fives. The team is full of respect for the guy, he is a monster, but they feel sorry for him being so good and having to chase me. They congratulate him on his performance and praise his effort, but their words are tinted with pity. Their “good job, man,” sounds to me more like “it's okay, man, you'll never beat him no matter how hard you work.”
Time to rally support.
“Bring it in guys. Really quick, batting practice on Friday, if your hands are up to it after today. And by the way, put those raggedy hands up if you beat your score from last month.”
Hands go up. All of them.
“That's what I thought. Now, put your hands up if you didn't. Any pansy ass slackers in here?”
No hands go up. The guys look around and see that they have, all of them, improved over the month. They are all stronger, faster, tougher. In Crossfit terms, they are fitter. They are more ready to deal with whatever their sport, or life, throws at them.
Realizing this for themselves gives them a sense of accomplishment and pride.
Seeing that every single guy improved shows them something I need them to see.
“You see that, guys? Any doubt that what we're doing is working?”
No doubt, they shake their heads and smile as they realize their leader knows what he is doing and will lead them on to victory and glory if they listen to him and do what he says. They have experienced improvement under my training. They have been reminded that they can, and should, trust me.
“See you monsters on Friday.”