[This is going to be long-winded, so bear with me while I get through the tedious foundation of this bit before we get into the practical stuff. Also, sorry about all the lists. There’s way too many lists.]
Being strong is very important to me. Getting stronger has been a priority for me for most of my life. I grew up in a home that put a lot of value into physicality. My family was constantly doing manual labor and playing sports and doing all sorts of physical things. Some of my youngest memories are of my parents doing manual labor on the dairy: I remember watching my mom carry massive milk crates when she fed calves; she would carry one on each side – easily. I remember watching my dad buck (hundred pound) hay bales like they were as light as a pillow. My older brother used to carry calves from the back corners of the pastures to the barn on his shoulders, which required a lot of total-body strength and endurance for a twelve-year old. We didn’t really watch TV; we would gather in the living room to have push-up contests for hours. And yes, we were ALWAYS wrestling each other. All these examples of strength are to demonstrate that when was young I didn’t even need to intellectually understand what goes into developing a strong body; it was just something that I naturally understood to be an advantage. It’s kind of like the innate understanding of Mark Rippetoe’s infamous quote: “Strong people are harder to kill; and generally more useful.”
Then, as I grew to adolescence, I got super scrawny. Really, though, I was outrageously skinny. When I was a freshman in high school I weighed just north of a hundred pounds, which some of you might relate to, EXCEPT I WAS 6’2”.
While I had always been able to hold my own in a sibling wrestling match and compete with my peers at sports, I was never strong enough to stand up to my own high standards for strength. Around the age of 14 I made it my charter to do whatever I could to become strong. (yes, I know that’s a subjective and esoteric goal, but I didn’t care. I wanted to be as strong as possible.) My dad was on board, too. My dad hooked me up with more milk and eggs every morning than any normal boy could handle. He had me on the GOMAD plan for about eight years. (for those of you who are unfamiliar with the bulking lexicon of the 90’s/2000’s, GOMAD= Gallon Of Milk A Day) Think about that for a second: A gallon of milk a day for eight years. I dare you to try it for A WEEK. You’re going to be in pain by day 2. I’ll bet you two hundred burpees you can’t do it. I don’t say it that way to brag. Rather, I mention it as evidence that speaks to how focused and dedicated I was to my charter. It meant EVERYTHING to me. I lifted every weight I could find and ate thousands of extra calories EVERY DAY. Then, right about as I was getting close to my goal, high school ended and I found myself on a college football team full of polar bears, mutants, and monsters. Guess what happened next: I needed to get strong(er) again.
In college I stayed on the GOMAD plan and lifted all the weights and ate all the protein and did all the training. Then, just about the time I got big and strong enough (235 lbs) to get onto a college football field and catch a few touchdown passes… college ended. (side note: College is awesome, but I digress).
Now I found myself out of college and without any utility for the inflated body I had so fervently pursued. I had all of the habits and behavioral disciplines that go along with GETTING BIGGER (because to me, bigger meant stronger), but none of the lifestyle that went along with being healthier.
So I stumbled around a little bit trying bodybuilding, endurance training, P90x, and eventually I found RKC (RKC is Russian-style kettlebell strength and conditioning). I fell in love with RKC because I was reminded of what it meant to need to be stronger. (related note: You see, there’s lots of people out there that want to be stronger. “Being stronger” is a novel concept and it seems great – there’s no obvious down side. Naturally, bunches of people want to be stronger. Conversely, though, very few people find themselves in many lasting positions where they need to be stronger. The difference between want to and need to is the difference between short term effort and long term success. When I was doing RKC, and now again when I do CrossFit, I need to be stronger. So, putting myself into the CrossFit lifestyle has created for me the need to that is necessary for long term success.) So there I went doing RKC routines over and over and eventually it led me to the CrossFit website, then to a CrossFit gym in Fresno in 2008 where the first workout I ever did was Fran, and before I did it I told the coach I could do it in four minutes, BUT I was wrong and it took ten, and I realized that I was missing something, because the guys at CrossFit gyms were kicking ass and I was nowhere near their level.
Looking back, I think this is the exact point where I had my “Ah Ha!” moment.
- It started with me wanting to be as strong (or stronger) than the biggest strongest guys.
- I always felt the need to be strong, so I stayed focused.
- Then I spent ten years trying to get there, but (to a certain extent, in my own mind) failed.
- Now I’ve got this thing called CrossFit, and to be good at CrossFit, you need to be strong.
- EXCEPT, and here’s the great part: You don’t need to be AS STRONG AS THE STRONGEST, you only have to be close, because even if you’re not as strong as them, CrossFit rewards you for being stronger for longer.
Example: Really strong guys clean & jerk 400 pounds. I worked my ass off to get strong, but I could only clean & jerk ~300 pounds. Now, though, I’m doing “Grace” (For time: 30 Clean & Jerks at 135 pounds), and I’m better at it than those super strong guys.
This was something that – I’m not kidding you – CHANGED EVERYTHING. I used to be the scrawniest dude around (don’t believe me? my nickname was Twig), but CrossFit was right in my wheelhouse, because to be good, you need to be strong, but you don’t have to be the strongest.
All of this is to lead me into the discussion about the Paleo/Primal Challenge. (related note: I hope you’re still focused on eating clean foods.) I am excited about the CFM Paleo/Primal Challenge for two reasons:
- You’re going to improve your body composition. This is always a good thing. If you’re not underweight, there’s no down side to getting leaner.
- YOU’RE GOING TO LEARN ABOUT YOUR BODY.
Yes, being lean is great. It looks good; it feels good; it works good. But more importantly, we all need to understand what makes your body work better. If you do the CFM Paleo Challenge you’re going to get some feedback about your body that you might not have known. Let me explain what this means by telling you about my own experience with Paleo.
Let’s go back to what it looked like when I was in my first year of CrossFit. I was having a great time and training my butt off and I was (again, just like when I was 14) doing everything I could to get better. I started to focus on nutrition, so I read everything written by
and lots more.
After reading everything I could consume about performance nutrition, I tried Paleo. I stuck to it – for a long enough time to get some good results – and I paid attention to what happened to my body. I was doing it so I could become a better CrossFitter, because that was my new charter. As a result, a lot of positive things happened:
- I got leaner.
- I ate as much as I wanted, and I LOVE to feel satiated.
- I could eat all of the things I really love to eat, without sacrificing very many things that I like.
- I stayed strong – for the most part.
For the most part, choosing a strict paleo plan worked well for me. Eating Paleo was a way for me to continue to accomplish my goal of having a strong and useful body. I learned a few things about myself and my own body:
- Eating zero gluten and zero processed sugar makes my body look the way I want it to. I get lean to the point where I can see the cuts in my arms and body that I like.
- Preparing paleo foods isn’t all that difficult when you get used to it.
- Eating lots of fats made me feel good; and made me sleep great.
- The leaner I get, the better I perform at most CrossFit workouts, especially those that are biased toward body weight movements.
- I missed beer and fried foods.
- For me, Low carb diets create a deficit of glycogen in my muscles when I am training hard, which is a negative. The result is that I am not able to perform well during heavy lifting.
After I spent enough time on a strict Paleo diet, I started to make tweaks based on what I learned. So I played with substituting some non-paleo foods. After some experimenting I learned:
- I have a moderate tolerance to gluten. This means I can eat a little bit without negative consequences.
- My body responded well when I eat peanut butter at night. Natural peanut butter (only ingredient: peanuts) was good, but the processed junk (skippy/Jif) was better. This was because the combination of sugar/fat/protein provided glycogen for the next day’s workout. (note: I make a point of this because one of my best friends gets exactly the opposite results from peanut butter. Fortunately, he know this about himself and avoids the stuff.)
- Potatoes make me stronger.
- When I eat more fiber my digestive system tends to work better. (also, yogurt, see below)
- Lean meats and fatty meats provide the same results in terms of recovery, strength, body composition, etc. but fatty meats taste way better.
- Fish oil supplements make me recover more quickly.
- Coffee is the best paleo beverage.
- Dairy products, from whey protein to cream to cheese, are a nutrient rich way to eat delicious foods with lots of positives, but that have minimal, if any, harmful effects on my body.
- The only dairy product I avoid is milk – it makes my stomach upset. Cream is fine.
- When I train hard, yogurt is the best thing for me.
- I can drink beer one night a week without many negative effects, if any – if I train hard.
- I can drink beer two nights a week with some, but minimal, negative effects – if I train hard.
- If I drink beer more than two nights a week I struggle with dehydration, digestion, body composition, sleep patterns, mental focus, and anxiety – no matter how hard I train.
- Hard cider is fine, but I like beer way better.
- Frying foods in paleo-friendly fats is still delicious.
The point here with all these lists is simple: I know what works for me. I know what I have to do to be as strong and as fast and as fit as possible. I also know what kind of foods I can eat and still stay lean. I know what kind of foods (and how much of them) change the hormones in my body. I know what things my body responds poorly to. I know how to align my fitness goals with my lifestyle goals and how to find an equilibrium.
Let’s go back to my CrossFit journey. Five years later (being now), I don’t care as much about my Fran time (which, by the way, ended up peaking at 2:30, which accomplished my goal of beating that faceless guy in my nightmares) or my max clean & jerk. I still do care about being able to perform well in my workouts because it makes me feel good. I no longer feel like I need to be the strongest guy around, but I like to be able to show my kids what it looks like to be strong and healthy, the same way my parents showed me. I know I’ll never squat five hundred pounds, but I think it sure would be cool to squat four hundred – and run a six minute mile. Accordingly, I eat using Paleo principles. I don’t eat sugary snacks or drinks. I avoid processed foods. I limit grains. I eat LOTS of meat and vegetables, and outrageous amounts of fat. I use all of the things I’ve learned to create the best system that aligns with my goals, my lifestyle, my family life, and the culture i’m a part of.
So now let’s talk about you…
Do it. Eat Primal. Or Paleo. Be strict. Figure out what works for you. Figure out what makes you feel/work/look great. If you’ve never done it before, you’ve got some work to do, but you can do it. After you go strict, you can experiment with what foods, if any, you can add or subtract to your diet.
Want some real talk? If you’re overweight you have absolutely no business drinking soda, Starbucks drinks, or juice. When I see overweight people casually drinking Starbucks drinks it reminds me of a person with emphysema smoking a cigarette. Generally speaking, if you’re overweight you should avoid every carbohydrate until you reach your body composition goals. Generally speaking, whether you’re overweight or not, you shouldn’t casually eat anything out of a cellophane wrapper. Generally speaking, the food you eat should rot if you leave it on the shelf.
When I say “generally speaking,” I’m talking about the people who have not gone on strict paleo diets and taken notes about the feedback their body is giving them. Let this be encouragement to you to get it done. We love Paleo/Primal because we love the simplicity and the sustainability of the lifestyle. My family and I have had success with Primal because IT’S A SYSTEM THAT IS SUSTAINABLE. I don’t wish I was out there eating something else – I’m satisfied. I don’t wonder how I’m going to get through the day getting enough food – I’m used to it. I don’t crave candy or chocolate or sweets – I’m not addicted to sugar (any more). I don’t have to spend lots of time counting or measuring or weighing food – I’m too darn busy for that. If you’re on a plan that is not sustainable, you’re much less likely to succeed. I, along with the rest of the CFM team, want you to succeed. We want you to be well. If you haven’t done so yet, figure it out.