The Miracle of 21-15-9

If you’re in the know, 21-15-9 is the rep scheme for many of the original "girl" workouts in CrossFit. Its usually a couplet of two somewhat antagonistic exercises. That refers to a push-pull, press-pulldown, or other combination. Sometimes I do what I call a heartbreaker WOD (workout of the day) that involves two aerobic exercises for calories or reps (running, rowing, ski erg, jumprope, boxjumps,…). So it doesn’t always have to be antagonistic.

21-15-9 is doing one exercise of 21 reps, then the other for 21, then 15 each, then 9 each.

These are the workouts I did the past 2 days:
– wallballs & close grip rows
– ski erg for Calories & kettlebell swings
– deadlifts & pec dec flyes

The beauty of 21-15-9 is how it feels on your body. Its painful. But you know the pain only lasts under 5 minutes. That point has to be highlighted. Make it under 5 minutes. If you don’t do a lot of pullups and you have to string together singles and doubles to get it done, you’ve just undermined the purpose of the workout. It should be fast. Instead, sub the pull-ups for lat pulldowns, ring rows, or even jumping pull-ups. For selecting the weight for a movement, make it so that 21 is possible unbroken, but just barely. Even one quick break is OK too. But don’t make it where you have to do doubles or triples to get it done.

I’ve been short on time and energy the past two days, so this WOD has been instrumental. I did a 21-15-9 Sunday morning when I only had about 10 minutes to workout. Then I did another later in the afternoon. Yesterday, I found out I was teaching a yoga class, so I did a quick 21-15-9 beforehand. Another huge benefit of 21-15-9 is that, even though it kills you, you are only dead for a short time. Then you can go about your regular day. You don’t even get super sore from it. Just very tone and your heart and lungs get a super taxing workout.

On a normal day, I may start or finish a powerlifting or bodybuilding style workout with a 21-15-9. Or it may surround an Olympic weightlifting session. I may also do several in a row. You can do the same thing with a different rep scheme, like 15-9-6, but make it super heavy or technical. For instance, if you are just developing your handstand pushups or muscle ups, this may be the time for a shorter rep scheme. Heavy power cleans, heavy squats, or stone loading may be other options. If the workout tends toward 8-10 minutes, that’s OK. Just make sure you keep moving. But its better if you can do it in 5 minutes. If you are stuck in a hotel, you could do pushups and situps.

In a Ben Greenfield podcast, he talked about research that said the time interval that produces the most testosterone response is 6 seconds. Yeah!! That’s it. Also, if you hear people talk about hypertrophy, the only requirement is that you lift a weight close to failure. If you set up a 21-15-9 knowing that it is near your maximum for the 21, then you’ll benefit from both a testosterone response and hypertrophy.

What we haven’t mentioned is entering into the glycolytic metabolic phase. This means you are reaching that super uncomfortable anaerobic glycolysis where you are taxing your system beyond the oxygen you have available. This is where we maximize all aspects of fitness from strength to endurance. This means you are beyond the Bro session of doing a set and then sitting around for 5 minutes before the next set. And its not a comfortable steady state jog that lasts an hour. Its where the two worlds meet in a Blitzkrieg fashion. Get the best of all worlds.

Try a 21-15-9 and see what it does for you. No, it isn’t meant to be the entire workout and your’re done. But it could be. There’s never an excuse not to workout. Ask yourself, do I have 10 minutes free? That’s all you need. And you can literally take yourself to death’s door in that amount of time. Believe me.

OTHER: Fran is the ultimate test in this realm. It is 21-15-9 of thrusters at 95 pounds for men and 65 pounds for women, then pull-ups. Thrusters are with a barbell in the front rack position. Squat down and then "thrust’ the weight overhead to full extension. Try it out and tell me what you think.

Update: Lessons Learned from Shoulder Injury


That’s the key. And its difficult for me. I’m a very impatient person. I suppose that’s relative. But when it comes to working out and my health, I want to be 100% right MEOW!

Just to recap, I was teaching an Acro Yoga class and caught someone while they were falling. I immediately heard something pop. I took it "easier" but I was still trying to do my normal routines of teaching yoga and CrossFit. I remember still bench pressing, though very sore and with pain, and trying overhead presses. My doctor diagnosed me with an injury to my subscapularis. These tests were correct and that was a problem. I figured, muscle strains heal fairly quickly, but after a few months, I wasn’t feeling healed at all. So I entered Physical Therapy. They diagnosed me with a torn shoulder labrum. That seems more serious. So the biggest part of my treatment was rest by way of avoidance. I didn’t do any pressing or overhead movements at all. I didn’t demonstrate chaturanga’s or anything crazy when I taught yoga. I think this was the right course of action. I also worked hard on my shoulder stability, which I still do today.

The problem with the process is how slowly the healing has been. Even last week, I was thinking I would need surgery because I wasn’t improving. The "avoidance" was necessary because I feel that healing has taken place in my labrum. But I totally lost mobility and strength. I haven’t done a pullup or bench press in more than 3 months. But just this week I felt closer to doing those things. I did bench presses last weekend and they felt good. I went really light though, never over 135# (60 kilos). I did incline dumbbell presses. And just two days ago, I did jumping pullups, something that was super painful a few months ago. I thought I would have pain and would totally have regretted doing them. But I feel pretty good. Actually, really good.

Last night, I taught Rocket Yoga and then Hot Yoga. I felt like my muscles in my pecs, lats, and shoulder have gained back the pliability that they had lost. I am moving so much better and feel stronger. I don’t think it was until last night that I felt like I was really improving.

I am going to Costa Rica in June and hope to start Massage School in the Fall. I thought if I needed surgery, it would derail all my plans. But now I’m much more hopeful. Though, I know I’m not out of the woods yet. I still have to play safe. I’m still not ready to go back to Acro Yoga yet. And, anything forceful or unstable to my shoulder is just not happening for a while. No heavy bag work, no heavy stone lifts, and no butterfly kipping pullups. But I’m happy where I am right now. I do what I can do. And I’m getting much stronger and healthier.

So I am happy! Happy Valentine’s Day!


What is scaling? Well there are several ways to look at it. And I’m definitely not talking about a dental procedure.

Scaling, as in "scaling back", is a way to modify something so that it is more accessible. At some point in life, or even later in life, we all end up scaling things we do. We make it so we can live a more fruitful life by not killing ourselves doing more than we are capable.

The context I’d like to explore are for both Yoga and CrossFit, two activities I am keenly a part of.

I teach a Rocket Yoga class that has higher elements of Ashtanga Yoga included. There are many poses that are not possible for many newer students and even for trained students with injuries or limitations (like me!). I just ask that students "try". Trying is what matters. Actually doing a pose is nice, but its the journey, not the goal to attain. But, once you have attained a pose, then that’s where higher levels of yoga begin. Its where you begin to focus on pratyahara, dhyana, and dhurana. These high levels of consciousness that lead to focus, meditation, and concentration are where you reach a next level of yoga. But, you don’t actually need to do a difficult pose to reach this higher level. This is most often reached in a seated position. And it doesn’t even have to be full lotus; any seat will do. Regardless, whether we are doing the full pose or "scaling" to what you can do, we all reach toward something more for our lives.

In the world of CrossFit, there is an adage that says that CrossFit is "infinitely scaleable". Its really true. In the Adaptive Athlete division, this is such an amazingly wonderful reality. If you have the strength to use one arm, one leg, or even no legs, then there is something for you. If you are challenged with sight or hearing where you have to focus on other senses, then there is a way to compete. For someone like me who has an injured shoulder, I’ve spent the past 5 months finding what I can do despite my limitation. It is totally freeing and gives me great acceptance of what I "can" do. You don’t focus on what you can’t. A pull-up becomes a ring row, a toes-2-bar becomes a seated leg lift on a bench, and a handstand pushup becomes a dumbbell overhead press. We are all met where we are in life.

In yoga we call it Ahimsa. Ahimsa is a Sanskrit word that means no-harm. No harm to others or yourself. I will add "acceptance", which in Sanskrit is Santosha. Santosha means contentment, satisfaction, or acceptance. These words have great meaning in a yoga practice. To be honest, I’ve seem people very frustrated with themselves in yoga; even to the point of anger. This is definitely not where we want to be. We are causing both self-harm and a lack of acceptance of where we are in life. My first rule in life, "always be happy". Its doesn’t matter where you are.

I’m amazed that there are even yoga teachers who don’t follow these ideas. They have Samskaras, or ingrained habits, that plague their lives. It could be a hatred of society, of genders, politics of the day, eating habits, or even themselves. Yes, much has to do with a self-hatred, but they lash out at everyone else. They should refresh themselves on the Yamas and Niyamas. And not just recite them for knowledge, but live them out in their lives. These same concepts are the basis for most of our world’s religions. But they are also part of just being a good person.

Scaling goes beyond yoga and CrossFit. It goes into all of life. Maybe you are emotionally challenged right now. So don’t do something that inflames more problems for you. Instead, partake in what is possible at this moment in time. Don’t set out on a 20 mile walk when a mile is a chore. I know it sounds like common sense. But we often set ourselves up for failure and frustration. Instead, set yourself up for success. Set attainable goals. Do some things that make you feel accomplished. Set a few easier goals and reach them. Then feel good about reaching them. That is what scaling is all about. Its about being able to do something. Stay in the positive.

Endurance Training versus Testosterone

Let me start off by saying that I love running. I stopped running roads many years ago when my trust in humanity totally failed. The trails are where I flourish. I’ve run in all contiguous United States plus Hawaii, Germany, France, and Australia. It was the central part of my life since the 6th grade. At the end up my ultramarathon career about 4 years ago, I developed a chronic calf tightening issue that wouldn’t go away. I saw therapists and tried every remedy I could and nothing worked. I would rest a month and it would always come back. Then I rested 6 months, then a year. I ended having to stop running completely. And it made me really sad.

But, since the middle of last Summer, I haven’t had a single calf cramp when running. I’ve really missed all the wildlife I see, the smell of the forest, and the total adventure every run can be. Its been glorious every time I’ve gone out.

To protect my calf, I’ve focused mostly on doing CrossFit to prepare for a running race coming up in a few months. Then I hope to do another race in June. Its exciting to have a goal to run again. But this time around, I’m doing it totally differently. Long ago, there was a CrossFit athlete who decided to run a 50K with CrossFit training alone. He finished middle of the pack, but he did it without much specific running. I wouldn’t recommend that to anyone. But that’s mostly my plan too. I would like to do one longer run a week and a few hill repeats during the work week. I believe that will save my body.

I was listening to a podcast yesterday that was so profound and it has me embracing my training philosophy. The podcast was about testosterone and how endurance training is antithetical to its production. Its one reason why you see runners either very skinny or, quite frankly, a little chunky. More on the chunky later. Testosterone, the growth hormone that encourages building of muscle and improves mechanical repair in our tissues, is totally inhibited with long distance training. And if you ask me, loss of muscle, which causes loss in strength, is something I choose not to seek. In fact, metrics of aging show that loss of muscle mass is the single most important measure related to mortality. Its much more important than endurance activities and the heart health it provides.

The other aspect of endurance training is its effect on cortisol. A doctor on a podcast I listened to last week was all about cortisol. Endurance training creates a lot of stress on our bodies and over a long duration. You would think the increased metabolism and steady state cardio would have more of a positive effect on stress. But it turns out its quite the opposite. Cortisol is a stress hormone that encourages insulin production, norepinephrine, and fat storage. So without calorie deficit, a lot of people who start running to change their body shape find it an uphill climb. And the stress doesn’t end after the run. It continues through much of your day.

Amazingly, Ben Greenfield in a podcast about testosterone, presented published research that says 6 seconds, yes 6 seconds, is the optimal interval work time for increasing testosterone production. The length of the rest time surprises me too, though I don’t recall what it was. Its longer than expected. Also, testosterone is important for women too though to a smaller scale. It helps us all for the same reasons.

Lastly, I did a workout yesterday that really took it out of me. It is called Christine, one of the newer "girl WODs". It is:
3 rounds for time of—
500 meter row
12 bodyweight deadlifts
21 box jumps

On paper it doesn’t look bad at all. But I was struggling for some reason yesterday. Most CrossFit workouts are short, lasting from 5-15 minutes. But its all like a sprint and your heart and lungs are working full capacity. I usually combine a WOD with strength work or cardio intervals, like Tabata’s. Strength often is an EMOM (every minute on the minute). Then you’re not tempted to look on your phone and end up resting 5 minutes between sets. It keeps you on task while also keeping your heart rate elevated. Most of my total workouts last 30-60 minutes. But I honestly only need that short WOD to feel complete for the day. Sometimes that’s all I have time for.

Instead of running 5 miles a day, why not explore other options? Interval training has been scientifically proven to be effective in heart health. And you’ll look better too. There are people I’ve worked with who look pale and emaciated; basically like twigs. Then I find out they are long distance runners. It makes total sense. Why not look and feel strong and healthy instead? Try lifting a few weights or doing bodyweight calisthenics. Yoga is super awesome for strength too. I was in a yoga class yesterday and noticed the traps and infraspinatus muscles on women’s backs. I mean totally buff. I’d rather look like that than skinny. Man or woman.