After taking 2021 off to focus on weightlifting, I’ve made the very easy decision to return to my first, and true, love: CrossFit. No disrespect to weightlifting. I like it—a lot. I also really miss the intensity of CrossFit. So back to CrossFit I go. At least, for now.
I started CrossFit in early 2013. Except for the break I took in 2021, it’s been my primary fitness focus for the last decade-ish. For the entirety of that time, I’ve been stuck between being scaled and RX: I’ve always been pretty good at bodyweight-based conditioning pieces, and’ve struggled to develop gymnastics and strength.
Like I wrote in my last post, for a long time I thought this was an innate limitation. That I wasn’t trying hard enough, that I didn’t want it badly enough, that my body wasn’t designed to do what I wanted it to do. Since learning I’m autistic, I’ve realized that none of those things are true. My progress in the gym—or lack thereof, really—isn’t rooted in some innate character flaw, or an inherently incapable body. It’s rooted in my autistic brain and how it works (differently, not deficiently); the lack of understanding among the general population about what autism is and how it intersects and interacts with health, wellness, and athleticism; and ableism. A classic example of the medical model of disability in action.
But I digress.
At its core, autism is in large part a different orientation to information and sensory stimuli. Autistic brains process, respond to, and engage with sensory input and other information, like instructions and cues, differently.
I know from my experiences over the past 10 months in pelvic floor and shoulder PT that my brain and body are absolutely able to work together to grasp and master movements—I just need different cues and more time to get there. Now that I know this, my goal, which hasn’t changed since I started CrossFit nearly a decade ago, doesn’t seem ridiculous anymore.
My goal is to compete RX—without having to scale the weight or substitute a movement because I’m not strong or skilled enough. Realistically, I think I’m at least two seasons away (not including the current one, which is close to being over).
There are a lot of things that need to happen for me to get to where I want to be. The rest of this post is a high-level list of those things, grouped into six, well, groups (domains?), and listed in the order I think I need to approach them.
1. Joint health
My joints are janky as hell, y’all. I’m hypermobile, important aspects of my body awareness are trash-ass, and I experience and express pain differently—sometimes I struggle to recognize pain, other times I can’t make it make sense to the people who could help me figure out how to fix it if I could figure out how to tell them what I’m feeling.
All three of these things are common in autistic people. All three of these things directly, and can negatively, affect athleticism. All three of these things are why I have multiple joint injuries—a torn labrum in one hip, which is mostly under control these days; unexplained pain in both knees; a fucked-up rotator cuff and labrum in one shoulder—and’ve been significantly limited in what I can do in the gym, and in my daily life, for most of the last year.
My end goals here: pain-free movement, and stable and strong joints. This is square one. There is no other starting point. I simply cannot progress in many of the other ways I want to until I rehab my joints.
What I’m already doing to get my joints healthy:
- Twice-weekly shoulder PT, and daily at-home PT protocol.
- Awaiting a referral from my ortho for PT for my knees.
- ATG ZERO program.
- Daily collagen.
- Daily fish oil.
- Daily curcumin and turmeric.
- Not training through pain.
- Not training any overhead exercises.
- Not training any hanging-from-the-rig exercises (pull-ups, toes to bar, etc.).
All things considered, I think this is going to be the most frustrating part of training. I’m antsy to get back under a barbell—it’s already been nearly a year since I’ve been able to train without pain, and without scaling or substituting movements—and patience isn’t my strong suit. I hope this doesn’t take the rest of this year—or longer—to achieve. I understand that it might.
2. The basics
One not-terrible thing about being so restricted in what I can currently do in the gym is that it means that all the time, attention, effort, and energy that I usually put into training can now be dedicated to rehabbing my injuries, and to returning to the basics and working on the weaknesses and imbalances that helped get me here (injured).
The things I most want to improve:
- Core strength.
- Pelvic floor health and function.
- Glute strength and activation.
- Tissue work.
- Mind/muscle connection.
- Body awareness.
- Body mechanics.
Some notes about a few of the things above:
By “posture” I mean: unfuck my anterior pelvic tilt and droopy-ass, rounded shoulders.
By “body awareness” I mean mostly proprioceptive-related things. I don’t know if I lock out my arms, or reach full hip and knee extension, or when I hit parallel (or a whole bunch of other things) because I literally cannot feel/sense those things. It’s why for the last couple of weeks I’ve recorded all of my workouts, including warm-ups and post-workout PT protocols—so I can see with my own eyes what an exercise looks like immediately after performing it, and then pair that data with what a rep felt like moments earlier when I performed it.
By “body mechanics” I mean: de-program my body from the compensatory movement patterns its developed, and learn how to move my body and perform exercises correctly. I’m convinced that my body’s been doing the somatic equivalent of social masking for the entirety of my lifting career (lol “career”), and is finally at it’s breaking point—literally.
What I’m already doing to work on the basics:
- Weekly pelvic floor PT, and daily at-home PT protocol.
- Static stretching.
- Dynamic warm-ups.
- Unilateral work.
- Iso work.
- Bi-weekly massage.
- Recording my training.
- Performing at-home PT protocols in front of a mirror.
- Physically touching different body parts as I perform different movements—so that I can feel them working, and to improve mind/muscle connection.
The first two milestones I’m working toward: properly plank, and master the hollow hold.
Get my speed and engine back.
Of the three main things I train—speed, skill, and strength—this is the one I’m naturally best at, and it’s the only one I currently have no medical restrictions, and few and mobility-based limitations, on: I can bike, row, and run without pain, and, lately, sometimes even without peeing my pants (full brag!). The ski erg is probably the only thing I need to wait a bit longer to add back in.
Each/any/all of these things will obviously help me improve both my cardiovascular performance and my overall engine. They’re all great on-the-job training opportunities for my pelvic floor, my core, my posture, and my body awareness and mechanics, too.
What I’m already doing to get my speed and engine back:
- Running intervals.
- Bike intervals.
- Row intervals.
No specific time- or distance-based goals yet. My focus right now is to reacclimate to conditioning by consistently including it in my training, and to get back to the point where I don’t feel like I’m dying every time I metcon.
4. Skill building
Leverage the progress made in rehabbing my joints and remastering the basics to develop and master bodyweight skill-based exercises, especially:
- Pull-ups, all variations and grips.
- Muscle-ups, bar and ring.
- Dips, bar and ring.
- Toes to bar, strict and kipping.
- Handstand push-ups, holds, and walks.
- Rope climbs, including legless.
- Peg board.
- Grip strength and endurance.
The end goals are to (1) do these movements strict, (2) do these movements kipping, with proper form, unbroken, and under fatigue in WODs, and (3) spice things up by adding weight, doing deficits, and mastering complexes, etc.
I’m not currently working on any of these things. Not directly, anyway. I have to unfuck my joints, strengthen my core, develop my balance and coordination, and improve both my mind/muscle connection and my body awareness before I can start working on anything listed here.
5. Strength training
Get stronk under load.
To get to my overall goal of competing RX, I need to get stronger in every lift. This has always been my biggest challenge in the gym—I struggle to put on weight, on both my body and on the barbell—and because of that, I anticipate this to be the most mentally and emotionally challenging piece of everything I’ve laid out here.
That being said, I think that having a weak core, weak glutes, shitty posture, and an underdeveloped mind/muscle connection played a big role in my struggle with this in the past. Approaching strength training after putting in the work on addressing these weaknesses and imbalances might make this piece less challenging than I expect.
As my body allows, try new exercise-y things that (a) interest me, and (b) will help me develop skill and strength, build endurance and engine, and improve body awareness and mind/muscle activation. Some of the things I’d like to try:
- Pole dancing.
Pilates is the only thing on this list I can even consider starting any time soon, although I may need to take out a small personal loan to do so (Pilates is so expensive????). I need to wait until my shoulder is rehabbed to try the other three things.
* * *
I’m not a coach or trainer or expert on any of this type of stuff, and this list is my best guess of how to approach my training going forward. I know enough to know that there’s a lot that I don’t know, and that I’ll need the help and guidance of people who know more than me and who have more experience than I do, to help get me to where I want to be.
I’m eager to find a coach I’m compatible with, and to come up with a training approach and plan that works for me and my autistic brain. Until then, I’m doing what I can on my own.
I’m actively and consistently working on the first item on this list (joint health).
Technically, I’m also able to work on the next two (mastering the basics, conditioning). My body is able to handle these two things. I need a coach’s help with, well, coaching, and also programming and cueing.
I need to make significant progress with the first two things on this list (joint health, mastering the basics) before I can work on the last three (skill, strength, cross-training).
So, what are my next steps? Find a gym, a coach, and a program, and then do the damn thing.
I’m checking out a potential new gym next week that I’m really excited about, and I’m hopeful it ends up being a good fit.