Finding His Way

Finding His Way

By Patrick Cummings

"You must plan to
obtain certain objectives."

- Louie Simmons

WHAT YOU SHOULD BE READY FOR INCLUDES: pulling off blocks, jerking off boxes, pause front squats, dip squats, split shoulder presses, barbell turkish get-ups, reverse hypers, and banded deadlifts. You should be ready to squat. You should be ready to tape your thumbs. You should be ready to spend ninety minutes in the gym some days, and at least two hours on the others. You should be ready to make a fool of yourself at the beginning. You should be ready for failed lifts that crash down onto the bumpers-on-top-of-plyo-boxes you've jerry-rigged into pulling blocks and you should be ready to apologize to the nearby class learning how to deadlift for causing such a racket.

When you tell people you're doing Outlaw programming for an article you're writing, be ready to hear they've been thinking of doing the same. That they have a coach, or a boyfriend, or a distant cousin who's following the site, and loving it. You should be ready to defend it even before you understand it, because to the people who care about these kinds of things, what program you follow is everything.

WALKING INTO OUTLAW CROSSFIT in Alexandria, Virginia is like walking into a black and white photograph. Except for the red wood platforms, the resistance bands on the wall, and the ink covering Rudy's left arm, this former milk distribution plant and radiator repair shop is all grey barbells and black bumpers, and will be for a while. They just signed a five year lease, with an option for five more after that.

When I arrive, Rudy is sitting on the only set of wooden pulling blocks they have, putting his Oly shoes on. An athlete nearby finishes putting away his weights and asks Rudy what he owes for the drop in.

"How long you gonna be here for?" Rudy asks.

"About a week."

"Just buy a tshirt, we'll call it even."

I take a seat on a stack of bumpers behind the blocks, listen and watch as Rudy holds court. Two hours into my visit, I estimate he's made about seven pulls on the bar, and he's generally unhappy with every one of them.

"I have pretty severe ADD," he tells me. "I was the kid who almost flunked out of school, then got a 1300 on the SATs. I was that kid."

In between lifts, he works with a female client on the low bar back squat, explaining for fifteen minutes why he thinks it's a more effective developer of strength in the glutes and hamstrings than the deadlift. He checks his phone, often. He swears, often.

He tells me he doesn't follow Outlaw Way anymore because he can't keep his ego in check enough to avoid writing programming that will make him look good. He tells an intro class, "Put your shit away, in the right place...or someone may kill you. Maybe."

He tells me when he first started CrossFitting in 2005, he became obsessed with a sub-three minute Fran.

It's not the last time we talk about obsession.

IF YOU WENT TO ANY OF THE CROSSFIT GAMES REGIONAL COMPETITIONS THIS YEAR, chances are you saw Rudy Nielsen. He was the one pulling at the end of his beard, pacing, watching intently, a skull cap on his head and his ten-month-old son Deacon strapped to his chest. He went to five events on five straight weekends this year, and not just to socialize.

Some names you might be familiar with: Brandon Phillips, Elizabeth Akinwale, Talayna Fortunato, Jason Hoggan, Alicia Gomes, Candice Ruiz, Patrick Burke, Chad Mackay and Austin Stack. These are just some in Rudy's stable.

In all, when the CrossFit Games kicks off in Carson, California this year, fifteen individual athletes and five affiliate teams will have Rudy to thank in some way for getting them there.

It was almost an accident it happened at all.

RUDY'S DAD WAS A POWERLIFTER, and Rudy remembers being taught to deadlift at four. He grows up to become a "shitty two-sport athlete," playing basketball in college at a division three school.

To compensate for a lack of natural athleticism, Rudy lifts weights ("This is in the era pre-Jordan, pre-guys that worked out"), and uses what he calls his Larry Bird advantage ("I had to be smarter than everybody else, and work harder").

After college, as a trainer and director of a corporate gym, he tries bodybuilding ("It didn't work. My biceps were the same size"), so he decides to train his clients like athletes and digs into the strength and conditioning texts of Louie Simmons and others.

In 2005, he sees a video of Annie Sakamoto doing 25 pregnant pullups--something he is unable to do, despite not being with child--and becomes determined to match it.

Three year later, running what was then called CrossFit Alexandria, Rudy competes at home with the competitors at the 2008 CrossFit Games in Aromas, doing well until the final event of 30 clean and jerks at 155 pounds. "I could squat pretty well, like high threes, which was for then pretty good. I pulled high four, which for then was pretty good. I considered myself a strength guy, but I never worked a ton on lifting technique." He doesn't finish "Heavy Grace" within the time-cap.

Shortly after, Rudy hurts his back pulling 490 pounds off the ground at the East Coast Challenge at Albany CrossFit. "The combination of the back injury and the way I got owned with that heavy barbell work made me reassess everything."

The first place Rudy turns, or returns, are the texts of Westside Barbell and powerlifting legend Louie Simmons. He knows Louie hurt his back in the eighties pulling heavy and wanted to learn what he could from Louie's experience.

What Rudy determines is what Louie determined after his injury, and it changes everything. "I figured out that, A, I'm doing it all wrong because there's no monitor to my volume," he says. "And, B, I'm pulling heavy deadlifts twice a week, and the Westside guys hardly ever pull heavy deadlifts, if they do at all. They squat twice a week."

Like he had done with the stats of professional basketball players as a kid, Rudy becomes obsessed. "If you give me the top level of [something], I'll end up getting deeper in a couple weeks," he says. He finds and reads the same Russian authors Louie read, guys like Yuri Verkhoshansky and Vladimir Zatsiorsky. He finds Prilepin's Chart, which speaks to volume of work as it pertains to percentage of maximal lifts. He begins putting the pieces together.

In August of 2008, Amanda Miller walks into his gym. "She was immediately good," Rudy says of the multi-sport athlete and former member of the U.S. Navy. "I realized I had fucked myself up. So I kind of said, 'What can I do better to get her better?'"

Using Westside's Conjugate Method as the umbrella, Rudy puts together a strength template for Amanda. He starts thinking about Olympic Weightlifting "in the context of the Conjugate Method."

The following season, Amanda qualifies for the Games, but hurts herself shortly beforehand, deadlifting heavy (outside of Rudy's programming), and goes into the event injured. She finishes in 55th place.

"Not to be sappy or sad," he tells me, "But when we got back from the Games, about two weeks later, she started crushing everything. She was the first girl I saw snatch over 135 pounds. She snatched 150 pounds." (At the 2009 Games, a one-rep max Snatch was the first workout on day three. Amanda had been cut by then, and the winner of the event, Tamara Holmes, snatched 145 pounds.)

Rudy knows they're onto something.

"A LOT OF HOURS AND WORK HAVE GONE INTO PERFECTING THE WESTSIDE SYSTEM," Louie Simmons wrote in 2010. "It has been a 40-year odyssey of pain, work, and experimentation."

A large part of what emerged out of those years is known as the Conjugate Method, which got its start in the 1970s, at a place called the Dynamo Club in the former Soviet Union. There, they took seventy highly skilled Olympic-style weightlifters and introduced them to a system of twenty to forty-five "special exercises"--movements designed to target specific muscular deficiencies or micro-skills within the lifts, to be grouped together two or three per workout and rotated often to produce continual progress. As Louie writes, "They soon found out that as the squat, good morning, back raise, glute/ham raise, or special pulls got stronger, so did their Olympic lifts."

Simmons married what he learned from the work done at the Dynamo Club with the "Bulgarian system, where near-max lifts are performed every workout. The Westside system is a combination of the two."

Four hundred miles to the east of the Westside Barbell Club, the Outlaw Way was starting to come together, built off the work Louie had been doing for years. Rudy called it the "Limited Conjugate Method," though it could be argued it's less limited than simply focused toward a different goal.

Simmons and the lifters at Westside have three objectives: squat more, bench more, deadlift more. The "special exercises" they perform--movements such as the lat pulldown, sled pulls, or rack lockouts--are chosen to strengthen muscle groups lagging behind, hindering overall progress toward those ends.

As a coach of athletes looking to compete at the highest level of CrossFit, Rudy knew training to increase the bench press was of little value. He believed, however, that success in the sport did come as result of strength. "My girls that have the biggest back squat are my best girls," he tells me a month from the start of the 2012 Games. "My dudes that clean and jerk the most are my best guys. That's all there is to it."

Olympic-style weightlifting would be the bridge between the Westside methods and his goal of producing the best athletes he could. In a recent CrossFit Radio segment he explains by telling host Justin Judkins, "Olympic weightlifting will develop more things than anything else," and then provides the wishlist of any athlete: speed, mobility, power development, strength, kinesthetic awareness. "Not to mention," he says, "many of the movements in the sport are based upon weightlifting movements."

Between the summers of 2010 and 2011, the program was refined and focused, in full swing for the Regional competitions the latter year. Rudy worked closely with Becky Conzelman, a former high-level cyclist, and she handily won the Mid Atlantic Regional competition.

However, Rudy admits now, he "fucked up" between her podium finish and the Games a few months later. "We decided we weren't going to continue to do the things we'd already done," instead turning toward a more linear progression of training like you would see with a track athlete. "I was going to make her do ten percent more every week, and all I did was tire her out." At 39 year old, Becky didn't have it in her to overcome the fatigue, and finished a disappointing 22nd place.

NOT LONG AFTER THE START OF TRAINING FOR THE 2012 GAMES SEASON, Talayna Fortunato had a request. Rudy had pulled together fifteen or twenty athletes and had taken to emailing out the programming every Sunday night and asking for results and videos back. Talayna wanted to be able to compare scores, and Rudy obliged by turning his already existing blog, the Outlaw Way, into a virtual meeting place for his geographically disparate athletes.

The first post to the group went up late September 2011, with Rudy writing: "This is most certainly the largest group of competitive athletes that I’ve ever had as a control group, and I’m incredibly excited to see where the whole thing goes."

At about the same time, both Brandon Phillips (who Rudy had been working with for over a year) and Talayna took first place at a Garage Games event in Georgia, and the buzz around their program started to build. The site traffic grew slowly to 250 visitors a day in October.

When the CrossFit Games website featured a video of Talayna from an event the following month, buzz grew even more, and traffic on the site jumped to over a thousand views a day.

The attention allowed Rudy to pick up more high-level athletes, including Akinwale, Gomes, and Ruiz. When Elizabeth posted on her blog about her new coach, traffic spiked again.

"There was never any rhyme or reason," Rudy tells me. "All I ever said was I want to make the program free and see what happens. I think my program is good and I want to prove the efficacy of it. That's all I ever cared about."

IN LATE MAY OF THIS YEAR, Rudy wrote:

We qualified 15 individuals for the Games. Those 15 individuals all followed the EXACT same program leading up to Regionals. It is the EXACT same program that was freely made available to every single one of you on a daily basis. This illustrates two truths that I have always believed strongly: 1) If the program is comprehensive, directed, and well planned, and the athlete is already fairly competent, there is almost never a need for “individualized” programming. 2) The reason those 15 qualified and you didn’t, while using the same program, is because they move better than you. They are more efficient, produce more force, understand pacing better, recover better, and generally get more out of their bodies than most humans. The fact is, if you move like shit, you better get someone to fix you.

When I asked him about this, he tells me, "I think people get so caught up in individualized programming that they lose the fact that you have to be a competent athlete before anything else."

He tells me his underlying belief, first and foremost, is that his job is to help make athletes more athletic, arguing--ironic though it might be--the biggest mistake a CrossFit athlete can make is to try and become good at the sport they're training for. "Try to become a faster sprinter," he says, "a better thrower, a better lifter. Those things are what makes you better at the sport. Not multiple thirty-minute metcons."

THE WEEKEND I VISIT OUTLAW CROSSFIT, Rudy is holding a training camp for a few of his Games-bound athletes. Coming back from a trip to Whole Foods, we find Brandon sitting in the parking lot beside the locked door, reading a book. Later, Talayna shows up, then Jason Hoggan. Elizabeth rolls in early Friday evening, and the weekend begins with three hours of Oly work.

Rudy tells me he thinks the athletes get far more out of a training camp situation than if they were regularly in the gym with him. "Part of my development of the remote coaching came from coaching Becky from Regionals to the Games last year," he says. "We ended up having these four-hour long sessions every day, where we would work on something over and over again. It became mentally and physically draining."

He calls the current approach both an accident and "the best possible version."

The virtual nature of the relationships have diminished Rudy's tendencies to micro-coach, working with an athlete on something for hours on end in hopes of perfection. Instead, his athletes send him a video of the day's work, which he can slow down and provide feedback.

That he only sees his athletes a few times a year, and then at major competitions, has also proven beneficial. Says Rudy, "If your coach flies in, especially to coach you for a week, you're going to fucking listen to what they say, and you're going to put out."

IF THERE IS AN UNOFFICIAL SLOGAN OF THE OUTLAW WAY, it might be Win Everything, a sentiment that shows up in multiple posts on the site. When I ask Rudy about it, and about the perception it might give off, he tells me he doesn't much care about how people might perceive it. The point, he says, is to let people know it's okay to want to win, that they won't chastise you for your ambition, that he too wants to win. He tells me, "I also said, 'Now you can stop saying you're just trying to make yourself better.'"

Rudy concedes he can't win everything at the Games, though. His job in Carson this year will be to give what he can of his time, his energies, his thoughts. But he can't be everything to everybody, and he admits there will be a delicate balancing act. "The reality is how to figure out which one of those people that got to the Games has a chance to actually win," he says, "and maybe--I don’t want to say this wrong--and make sure that they have the attention that they need."

This prompts the question, then, of just what Rudy will consider victory. "For me, if we go to the Games and there's not a single podium involved, I'll be disappointed. I won't be satisfied, ever, with my coaching career until I've won the big prize--until one of my athletes has stood on top of the podium." He thinks about it for a few seconds and finishes with, "Then, when they win, I'll probably be happy for a week. It's an obsession. To me, you've got to prove yourself over and over and over and over again."


Patrick Cummings is the Editor of the Again Faster Magazine.