MVMT Physical Therapy

Break It Down

In our third part of our conversation with Nick Novak, the Head Weightlifting Coach at WillyB CrossFit Bowery, we get into some of the nitty gritty of Coaching and breaking things down. (Part 1, Part 2 here) Let’s get to it!

Question 1 – Rookie Mistakes


Mark Lusk, MVMT Physical Therapy: What are the most common mistakes that novice lifters make?


Nick Novak, WillyB CrossFit Bowery: 1) Focus on product not process – aka ignoring technique. It makes my skin crawl every time I hear someone say “Counts in CrossFit” after they press out a rep. Every rep you do makes you better or worse. And that is magnified in your novice stages. Lifting moderate weights well makes you better. Lifting heavy weights poorly can help with the mind but does not help the body. And usually people who are willing to go heavier than they should don’t need that confidence boost that comes with a heavy weight – they are already overly confident! (As a quick aside here, the biggest mistake I see intermediate lifters make is being overly focusing on technique. Lifting is complex but it’s not rocket science. Once you have it down you have to focus on being aggressive and athletic. Analysis is the opposite of aggression in that it slows down action instead of spurring action.)


2) Trying to lift like a professional or advanced lifter – this applies not only to technique but to programming. I got this idea from Arnold’s Encyclopedia of Bodybuilding. If you see someone who can snatch double bodyweight while you’re struggling with 50% the temptation is to do what they’re doing so you can be like them. False equivalency. What you should do instead is what that great lifter was doing when they were at your level. This way you can follow their steps and be like them eventually. This applies to technique as well. Even the most bizarre technicians learned the textbook technique first, then they experimented and modified for their specific proportions. Without having a solid grounding in textbook technique you will never know if you’re bending your arms because your arms are truly too long or if it’s just that you need a grip adjustment or to work on using your lats instead of your biceps. Monkey see monkey don’t!


3) Overtraining/Under-Recovery – one of the blessings of getting older athletically is being able to say: not today. Yes I can lift this weight, yes I have done it before and yes I will do it again but it’s not gonna happen today. What can happen today is I can bang my head against the wall until I’m so frustrated I want to quit or I hurt myself. Both a waste of time. With novices those Not Today moments are usually rooted in stress outside the gym – sleep, work and interpersonal relationship challenges, and diet – but sometimes they are from doing too much physically the day or even hours before. In either case, it’s the same thing – not being adequately recovered. I’ll acknowledge that novices can do more of a variety of activities usually because their relative strength and skill level is so low that it’s not as taxing. But everyone has a limit. Prioritize your training and be ready to cut second tier movements out when the priority movements are suffering.



Question 2 – Good Coach or Great Coach


Nick: As an athlete, what do you think makes someone a great coach, as opposed to a good coach?


Mark: To me, a good Coach is one that shows up and leads the class with enthusiasm. They’re generally encouraging, and they might even learn the name of drop-ins and new members. They can spot gross positional faults and give simple feedback. The good Coach can give feedback to an athlete when they ask for guidance on improving. A great Coach is one who is as invested in the athlete that drops in as they are in their experienced and competitive athletes. They know that the devil is in the details, and the basics are a beast. She or he is able to spot dysfunctions within movements and knows how to give a simple verbal correction. The great Coach understands their regulars goals, their weaknesses, and proactively gives feedback and guidance to athletes on how to improve.



Question 3 – Out Of Their Heads


Mark: I find Oly lifting quite mentally challenging – more so than physically. How do you get an athlete “out of their head”?


Nick: Every person is going to be different and it’s always going to be a process. Even day to day, your internal chatter can vary wildly! One of my favorite examples of overcoming mental challenges is in working on box jumps with an athlete. She absolutely could not handle the 30 inch box jump; it was just too scary. So we moved to the soft blocks, and she got up to 30”, no problem. Back to the wooden box, and again she couldn’t. So we went through a process of setting the boxes side-by-side, jumping onto the soft one only, landing with one foot on both, and then jumping onto the wooden box only. This whole process took about 3 weeks. Now, she doesn’t even need the soft block unless she’s going higher than 30”, which she does! I know that’s not about lifting, but by going through the process of identifying the barrier and chipping away at it day by day, the athlete gained some perspective and experience. So then, when she hit a barrier with a heavy clean and jerk, she already had the tools to say look, this is the same as the box jumps!


Pick just one element (of the dozens that you could!) and focus on getting that one thing right. Celebrate your success! Start acknowledging how capable you are and see if that doesn’t make you feel more capable going forward. A good coach should know the hierarchy of errors and be able to tell you which thing to focus on during a given set or session. I also find a meditation or mindfulness practice to be invaluable. In this way, the things we do outside the gym make it easier for us to do our things inside the gym (and vice versa). So, know that it’s a process: break it into pieces and attack it from all sides.



Question 4 – More Or Less


Nick: As a physical therapist and an avid CrossFitter what are a few things you would like to see CrossFit Coaches do more of? Do less of?


Mark: Awesome question! I always want to see CF Coaches prepare the class with a good, specific warm-up that is specific to that day’s workout. Stretching alone is NOT a warm-up! I’m always impressed with a Coach who explains movement well. I like for Coaches to speak from a place of experience, rather than a memorized phrase for cueing movement. Many movement professionals – dance teachers and CF Coaches alike – often regurgitate phrases they’ve heard which may be ineffective or incorrect. Finally, I feel that Coaches can always give more feedback – even if it’s positive reinforcement or a simple “Good job!”.


As for Coaches doing less of something – I have the utmost respect for a Coach who dares to get up in front of a class and lead. I’ve never really seen behavior that I’d say “Don’t do that”. Instead, I think the only “crime” is to be disengaged – from the class, the athletes, and from continuing their education and skills.


But wait – there’s more! In our next chat, we talk about what Coach has in store for you, new rehab techniques, working through an injury, and how some of us perceive pain. Should be interesting!

If you’ve got questions about an injury, simply call us at (646) 430-5717, or email us at We’re here to answer your questions and help you get back to doing what you love!

Mark M Lusk, DPT, OCS, CSCS, CF-L1, CFMT

Nick Novak, USAW L1, CrossFit L1

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