CrossFit Open 2016 adaptive: of failure and continuance

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Riding high on the momentum from my (slightly) more successful workout 16.3, I was excited to attack 16.4. I was still excited, even after I saw it announced, as it turned out to be a grueling 13 minute chipper that would put athletes’ arms and legs through the, well, the chipper. The Rx workout for 16.4 is:

13 minute time cap for:

  • 55 deadlifts
  • 55 wall-ball shots
  • 55-calorie row
  • 55 handstand push-ups

I looked at this workout and had two thoughts: 1) I can do all of those movements! and 2) No, wait. I can’t even do the first movement.

The reason why I thought this way is because, as a T5-T6 injury paraplegic, I have no muscle control below my pectoral region. How in the world can you do a deadlift if you don’t have either lower back or abdominal muscles? HOW?

I waited with trepidation until 6AM the next day when the wheelchair adaptive site WheelWOD would release their Rx standards, and here they are:

  • 55 deadlifts with 70lb kettlebells
  • 55 wall ball shots with 14lb ball and 9 foot target
  • 35 calorie row
  • 55 dumbbell shoulder presses with 35lb dumbbells

Well crap.

Not only have I never attempted a deadlift using kettlebells (I usually do rows while lying face down on a bench), but the standard required a collective weight of 140lbs. I could already envision it. I’d bend forward, grab these very heavy weights, and then not go anywhere with them. How was I supposed to sit upright? With no active muscles to do the work?

But…you gotta try. So I tried. I bent over, grabbed those two 70lb weights and I…sat up. It wasn’t easy, it strained every point in what could only be called my bifurcated posterior chain, and I wanted to drop them almost immediately, but I sat up. And then I did it again. And again. Even now, at this very moment, I cannot tell you how I did it or what muscle groups I was activating that would enable me to do something that I did not think I had the muscle control to do. But I did it.


(Yes, I nearly head-butted my beloved wife who was trying to keep me from toppling over)

So there it was. Wheelchair paraplegic guy, doing deadlifts. Nothing can stop me now!

That is, until I got to the very next movement and began to practice the 14lb wall balls at a 9 foot target.












See that white line over the whiteboard? That’s my target. That’s my target that I never came close to surpassing. And that was it. That was my workout. 16.4 was officially done, as the WheelWOD rules stipulate that once you fail at a movement 10 times, your workout ends.

I knew that I wouldn’t be able to hit that target with that 14 lb weighted medicine ball. In fact, I could barely reach 9 ft with a 10lb ball. Even now, as I look at the leaderboard, I have no idea how dozens of wheelchair-bound people can generate enough thrust without the use of their legs and hips to toss a 14lb ball that high.

10 attempts, 10 failures. And so my workout was over.

What did I do then? I kept going.


35 calorie row. Have you ever sat down at a rowing machine and said to yourself, “I’m basically stuck here for the next 4 and a half minutes?” That’s what I was in for, that’s what I knew I was in for, and that’s what I did. The question is, why?

To be sure, I can always quip, “Well, I didn’t want to get dressed up for nothing.” But the truth is, going into this workout, I knew my score would be capped at 55. I knew I wouldn’t get a single wall ball shot. I knew that, from a competitive standpoint, there was no point in continuing.

Why keep going? One reason is that my coach, the genteel Brad Bunde (of whom it is rumored, if not yet confirmed, that he taught Fred Astaire how to dance, Bing Crosby how to sing, and Frank Sinatra how to snorkel), has repeatedly said that the Open is a snapshot of your physical fitness at that specific moment of your life. It might be the absolute best you have to offer, but more than likely it is going to capture your limits in strength, limits in movement, your lack of sleep, the 200 things that are troubling your mind 18 hours a day, and that slice of spam you ate right before you got to the gym. So treat it as such, and don’t be embarrassed by it.

The second reason is my recollection of some savory bits of war history.

“War is the father of us all, King of all. Some it makes gods, some it makes men, some it makes slaves, some free.” – Heraclitus of Ephesus

The idea is that war and conflict are the ultimate purifiers of human character. Conflict is the unapologetic assayer of the truth of humanity. It reveals all things – anger, love, frustration, patience, discord, peace, despair, hope. The inches that separate the weight on the ground and the weight in your hands will tell you quite a bit, not about your musculature, but of your understanding of your own personal nature. The fact of the matter is, you either pick it up, or you don’t. But the truth of the matter is, you see the heavy object insuperable forever, or you see it as a challenge to which you have not yet found the best solution.

Aut inveniam viam aut faciam

This Latin phrase, which is attributed to the Carthagian military commander Hannibal (even though he didn’t speak Latin, but the Punic language of North Africa), translates to:

I shall either find a way or make one

This phrase was Hannibal’s historic response to his generals who told him that it was impossible to take elephants across the Swiss Alps.

Wait, what???

During the Second Punic War in 218BC, the brilliant Carthaginian general Hannibal led his army, and more importantly, his war elephants, across the Pyrenees and Swiss Alps and into Northern Italy to attack the Roman Republic. In what is now held as one of the great accomplishments of military force in the ancient world of warfare, Hannibal resolved to utilize his elephants and take the fight directly to the Romans by maneuvering his infantry across the mountain range.

While Hannibal’s ultimate efforts were mixed, his resolve and war cry will remain forever in antiquity (as well as at the University of Pennsylvania, Breaking Bad, and in tattoos across the world). And so it is with workouts such as this – you either find a way, or you make one. My personal resolve is this – sometimes, the way that you make will take a long time, maybe even a year until the 2017 WheelWOD CrossFit Open. But there is the door, so figure out a way to go through it.

Addendum: the man who defeated Hannibal, the great Roman General Scipio Africanus, had a pretty good line of his own:

I am aware of the frailty of man, I think about the power of fortune, and I know that all our actions are at the mercy of a thousand vicissitudes. Now I admit that it would have been arrogant and headstrong reaction on my part if you had come to sue for peace before I crossed to Africa, and I had rejected your petition when you were yourself voluntarily quitting Italy, and had your troops embarked on your ships. But, as it is, I have forced you back to Africa, and you are reluctant and resisting almost to the point of fighting, so that I feel no need to show you any consideration. Accordingly, if something is actually added to the terms on which it seems probable that a peace could be concluded — some sort of indemnity for the forceful appropriation of our ships, along with their cargoes, during truce and for the violation of our envoys — then I have something to take to my council. But if you consider even that to be excessive, prepare for war, for you have found peace intolerable.”

Post script:

My video cut out before I began my attempt at the 35lb dumbbell presses. I can attest that I started them at approximately the 12 minute mark. I can also claim that I did all 55 of them in the 60 second window. As far as you know.

ParaWOD Benchmark #3: Jeremy spoke

For today’s benchmark at Crossfit Impavidus, we move to a WOD that I’ve never attempted before, but presents similar challenge as FRAN.


Three rounds, 21-15-9 reps, for time of:
Overhead squats

For this workout, the modification is similar to FRAN in that we switched the squat to a shoulder press. As I noted for my Fran post, it was time to go up in weight.

Also, for burpees, my coaches at Crossfit Nassau came up with an approximation that they call “Chair get-ups,” or more cleverly, “Chirpees.” This movement requires another support mechanism like a box, parallette, or something stationary. The goal is to get out of the chair and then back up in it again using the stationary object. One down-and-up movement equates to one burpee.

Three rounds, 21-15-9 reps, for time of:
Overhead squats = shoulder press (75lbs)
Burpees = chirpees/chair get-ups

My final time of 5:55 was a solid first benchmark for this workout. I am glad I went up in weight, because this one felt more like a shoulder workout. While I did the 21 reps unbroken, I had to break down the middle set.

For the chirpees, I alternated hands, changing which arm was pushing off the stationary object vs which hand was holding the chair.

Thanks to Crossfit Nassau and Crossfit Impavidus for making this happen!

ParaWOD: Fran for everyone


In the basking glow of the 2015 Crossfit Games, my gym Crossfit Impavidus is using this subsequent week as the Week of Benchmarks.

First up, everybody’s favorite speed workout, FRAN.


  1. Thrusters (95lbs)
  2. Pull-ups (chest to bar)

What is great about this workout is that within my own family, now my wife, my 10 year old daughter, and I can all do it at various levels of scaling. My wife completed the workout as prescribed (RX), my daughter did jumping pull-ups and light weight for thrusters, and my modification is this:

  1. Thrusters = shoulder press (65lbs)
  2. Pull-ups = Pull-ups, and yes, we do it strict

Here is a short video of me doing the middle round of my pull-ups:

As you can see, I had my coach hold my feet straight in front of me in order to keep them from swinging and landing awkwardly, which is a concern when I am trying to do so many, so quickly.

My final time of 4:46 was approximately 2 minutes faster than the last time I attempted this workout, which tells me that the next time I attempt it I need to make it a bit harder. I will accomplish this by going up in the weight for the press. While I still don’t think I can do the 45 presses at the RX weight of 95lbs, I should be able to go up to at least 75lbs on my next attempt.

Thanks to Crossfit Impavidus and Coach Traci for helping me set my new PR on Fran!

5/27/15 WOD: Skinning Cats

Today’s ParaWOD was a 100% departure from the Crossfit class, with the exception of getting heavy for one particular movement. In the class, it was back squat. For me, it was strict shoulder press.

Phase 1

Strict shoulder press

  • 6 rep max
  • 5 rep max
  • 4 rep max
  • 3 rep max
  • 2 rep max

I started my progression at 85lbs strict press and worked my way up (er, down) until I hit my 2 rep max at 125lbs, which is a present day personal record. (When in college, I used to warm up my shoulder press at 135lbs, so…almost back to where I was many years ago!)

Phase 2

2 sets of 2 movements, super-set together, for 3 rounds:

A. Wall balls + skin the cats

What is a skin the cat? This is another great ring workout movement that offers a number of benefits for the para-athlete, including increased range of motion, grip strength, shoulder mobility, and body control. This is what it looks like:

If you think this movement would be difficult for a para-athlete that has sustained injury to the thoracic vertebrae, you would be correct! It is not easy, not at all, because we cannot simply contract our lower abdomens or tuck in our knees to get into an inverted hang position. How in the world can we generate enough torque with the muscles we CAN control in order to make the muscles we CAN’T control do what we want?

This challenge is not without difficulty, but it is possible and well worth it. You will likely need to move through a progression of the movements, taking it piece by piece. First, you will want to have a coach who understands your physical capabilities, because he/she will guide you through the movements. Next, it might be worth while to band your legs together with a strap of some sort in order to keep them in alignment. Lastly, make sure you have a soft cushion or crash mat underneath to land on in case you have to bail on the movement.

skin the cat position 1
Get a good grip. You’re going for a ride.

Starting from a seated position on the mat, the torque is going to come primarily from your shoulders pushing in a downward motion. If you place your arms on a table and then push down with them at the same time, this force is what is going to instead pivot your hips and legs toward the ceiling. If you have trouble getting your knees up in the air, you can use a strap or band and, in a sitting position, band your knees to your shoulders so that everything moves at the same time.

Skin the cat position 2
Drive your shoulders down, closing them, which torques your lower body upward.

Once you and your coach have brought you into an inverted position called an inverted hang, you may need to spend some time in this position to re-acclimate your brain to the sensation of being upside down. As children, rolling around and being upside down is a normal sensation. However, the older we get and the farther away we move from that period of our lives, the stranger it may seem, and so it is important to get used to this position before you begin to exert yourself.

skin the cat position 3
Stay in this inverted hang position for a few seconds. Re-orient your brain, make sure your grip is good.

When you’re finally comfortable in the inverted hang position, start lowering yourself further and further as your feet get closer to your original position. Use short, controlled movements so that you don’t strain anything, and feel the sensation of making your lower extremities move in the way you want them to as they are in suspension.

skin the cat position 4
Start to lower your feet past your hips, down toward the floor. Squeeze the shoulder blades together.

Congratulations, you are now at the point of no return. If you let go, you’re doing  a face-plant.

Touchdown! Try to look forward again at the wall in front of you.
Touchdown! Try to look forward again at the wall in front of you.

Getting back to the seated position will be much easier, so make sure to use a controlled motion so that you don’t whip your legs and feet forward and have them crash on the floor.

Here is a short clip of the movement you want to do once you are in the inverted position, dropping your toes down to the floor, and then back to the hang.

B. Medicine ball crunch + chair get-ups

Do you practice getting in and out of your chair from the floor? Not only is this a good strength drill, but a functional one as well, both in real life as well as in doing WOD’s where you have to change stations quickly and you don’t want to lose a lot of time in transition.

Find a good stationary object like a chair or a box, and practice getting in and out of the chair. Focus on keeping your shoulders and elbows tight into your body so you don’t strain your shoulders. The movement should be as close to a dip motion as possible where you can use your strength in your triceps and lats to press down, getting yourself into the chair.

Many thanks to Joe Villegas for his coaching and photography.

April 20, 2015 WOD: Press/pull superset, rowing, push-ups, crawling

Today’s WOD was the following:

Strength: superset the following…
A1. Shoulder Press – Men 4-5 reps, Women 6-8 reps
A2. Pull Ups- 5 sets@2012; 2-3 (weighted if you can)

Conditioning: one round for time…
-50 cal row
-40 HR Pushups
-30m farmer’s walk – 2pd/h
-20 Deadlift – Heavy (70-80% 1RM based on experience)
-10 burpee + big barrier jump

Phase 1

Shoulder press requires no modification. You can do this either with a barbell or with dumbbells/kettlebell.  The goal in this today’s workout was lighter weight, fast explosiveness on the way up, and 2 second decline during the negative portion on the way down. I worked to a weight of 95 lbs for these sets.

Pull-ups do not require modification as long as you have access to a reachable bar or rings. The goal in today’s was to make it difficult by using slow, deliberate motions, and adding weight if possible. I personally opted to use rings with a strict false grip (which you can see in the logo) because I am always trying to strengthen my false grip and explosive power in order to contribute to muscle-ups.

Phase 2

Instead of making this a one round for time, we adjusted it so that it was an AMRAP (as many rounds as possible) within 12 minutes.


  1. 50 cal row to 20 cal row
  2. 40 hand release push-ups to 30 hand release push-ups
  3. Deadlift eliminated
  4. burpee + barrier jump to crawl + barrier climb

The last one, the crawl + barrier climb, is a lot more difficult than you might imagine, especially if you are beyond pre-teen years. Actually moving your body when you’re carrying dead weight gets very fatiguing very quickly, and puts a lot of stress on the wrists and shoulders. Which makes it a great workout because it is one of the few things that elevates the heart rate and keeps it in the zone. We set up a mat about 10 yards long with a stacked mat in the middle. Getting from one end to the other is tough enough, but then having to actually climb up and over an elevated obstacle takes it over the top. Needless to say, this can be a pretty important life skill for wheelchair bound athletes in case they ever find themselves without one.

(It also helps to have a gym and coaches who remove all sense of personal embarrassment you might feel dragging yourself across the floor. In the beginning, I didn’t like the crawl because, well, I was crawling. But then my coach said, “I’m the coach, so you have to trust in what I’m asking you to do. And if anybody else in the gym has an issue with that, I’ll throw them out.”)

I completed a full 2 rounds within the 12 minutes.

April 17, 2015 WOD: pushing, pulling, dipping, pressing

Today’s workout was comprised of 2 phases, which focus on strength and strict movements.

  • Bench press, 5 rounds, 8 reps per round (max reps final round), superset with ring rows (8-12 reps)
  • NFT 5 rounds of…
    -7 Muscle Ups or Tough Variation (working on this as a skill)
    -7 Burpees with 1ft target

This is a good workout that requires minimal modification.

Phase 1

Floor press adaptation. I worked up to 155lbs, concluding with a max of 10 reps in round 5.

Ring rows – 10 reps per round, finishing with 12 on final round.

Phase 2

In the past I have used banded muscle-ups to get that kind of volume. This time around, I adapted with Russian dips, which is a good approximation for the muscle-up transition, which is often the most difficult part of the movement for both para-athletes as well as able-bodied athletes.  The lower you can get into the dip, the greater the approximation to the transition phase of the muscle-up. Seven per round for 5 rounds.

Instead of a burpee, the goal was to get some vertical pressing in. For this, I adapted with kettlebell presses, doing 7 per each arm for 5 rounds.

April 13, 2015 WOD: modifying an entire workout

Today’s WOD was comprised of 2 segments:

Dynamic Effort
A1. Box Squat 31X1; 5 x 2 (speed, speed, speed)
A2. Max Height Rebound Vertical Jump 3 reps; 5 sets

Conditioning: 3 rounds @ 90% effort
-1 min burpee broad jumps
-1 min db/kb thrusters – 25/15#
-1 min box jumps – 20/14″
rest 3 min actively and then repeat

This type of workout is always going to be problematic for para-athletes because nearly every single movement is prohibitive. Instead, focus on what the workout’s goal is.

Part 1

Replace box squat with shoulder press. In today’s workout, we first worked on explosiveness, and then moved to a max effort. For my own records, I finished with a max effort of 115 lbs for 2 reps for the shoulder press.

Part 2

Replace the three prescribed movements with 3 adaptable movements that allow lots of reps in short periods of time. The challenge for the wheelchair athlete however is that there is no rest time in between the 3 movements (only the 3 minutes of rest after the 3rd movement).

I replaced the 3 prescribed movements with these:

  1. Wall balls
  2. Elevated push-ups
  3. Medicine ball crunches

The workout was as much about getting from one movement to the next as quickly as possible as it was about the reps. This is also the kind of workout that might require some repetition in order to get the positioning of all of the equipment in the right place. For example, after you finish the wall balls, where do you drop the medicine ball so that when you get to the crunches, you can easily grab it? Where do you put the mat so that you can go straight from the chair to the mat and start push-ups? How do you position your body so that you can drop straight out of your chair into a natural position for the next movement?

I have found that thinking about these things before, during, and after the workout are beneficial because one of the big challenges for the para-athlete is to get the heart rate elevated and to stay elevated during the workout. If there is too much downtime in between sets, it becomes difficult to stay in that ideal zone.

Crossfit Open 2015: Adapting WOD 15.5 for wheelchair athlete

The workout for 2015’s Crossfit Open 15.5 presents some obstacles, but is not too difficult to adjust for someone who is wheelchair bound.


27-21-15-9 reps for time of:

  1. Row (calories)
  2. Thrusters

Men use 95 lb.
Women use 65 lb.

Adjustment for wheelchair user:

  1. Some rowing machines allow you to detach the seat, leaving only the front end with the fan, display, foot plates, and the handle. If you prop this against several boxes, it can be anchored to prevent it from moving. Brace the front of the chair against a box so that you can reach the handle.The other outstanding issue is that, without the use of leg power, the calorie number may be too high to match the workout with others. Consider cutting it into 3rds to match the rowing times. I.e. change the reps to 18-14-10-6, or 9-7-5-3.
  2. For thrusters, a shoulder press is an easy substitute. It may be necessary to scale the weight, since without the power coming from legs/hips, accumulating this amount of volume for the RX weight will be difficult.

For my own workout, I applied a 9-7-5-3 row with 27-21-15-9 shoulder press at 65 lbs. My final time for this workout was 8:49.

While I was happy with the speed, to me, by scaling the row so drastically, I felt like it was more of a speed workout than an endurance workout, so if I were to do it again, I would likely adjust the row up to 18-14-10-6 calories per round, and keep the shoulder press the same.