The Master: An Interview with Bob Semmens and Coach McDowell
By Kate Reece
Most of us who walk through CFSBK’s doors probably don’t harbor dreams about going to the CrossFit Games—but not Bob Semmens. Bob comes to CFSBK by way of a progressively eastern-bound journey. He grew up in Arizona (living for a time on the Navajo reservation), spent time during college at the U of A working at the Grand Canyon, and after finishing graduate school at Northwestern’s Law School and Kellogg Graduate School of Management, he and his wife moved to New York in 1983. He’s been around CFSBK since its 2007 beginnings in a park—which happens to be the same year he won a Gold Medal in the International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation’s Pan American Senior Jiu Jitsu Championship.
Bob’s affable smile and bone-deep kindness might blind you to the reality that he is a formidable and intense competitor. He contends in a handful of regional events each year, winning many of them, and he almost made it to the 2014 CrossFit Games. CFSBK sat down with this impressive man to hear a bit more about his story and training. Bob has been working with Coach McDowell for over a year in the interest of upping his CrossFit game, so we also asked him to weigh in.
CFSBK: Bob, tell us how you first got into CrossFit and when you found CFSBK.
Bob: In the spring of 2006, a BJJ friend told me that I should look at a new exercise regime, Crossfit.com, as a way to improve my conditioning for Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and Judo competitions. I did, and as luck would have it, I came across Fight Gone Bad, the infamous WOD programmed by Greg Glassman for BJ Penn, a BJJ and MMA competitor. I figured if CrossFit helped BJ Penn perhaps it would help me. So I started following the web and doing two to three of those WODs each week to supplement my other training. In the fall of 2009, for medical reasons, I had to retire from martial arts, so I moved to doing CrossFit about five times a week.
I actually started following David Osorio back when he was coaching CrossFit in the playground. I remember admiring his determination but also thinking that coaching CrossFit outside in the winter in Brooklyn under the F train was crazy. I was doing some private training at CF NYC, which at that time was the only CrossFit affiliate in NYC. Hard to believe, isn’t it! When David moved to the Lyceum I started to attend classes. My first formal WOD with David was “Fran.” However David did not have enough pull-up racks that particular day so he made me do pull-ups on the rings. I thought that was a tough way to introduce a CFSBK newbie to “Fran.” I loved the challenge though so here I still am today at CFSBK. I also attended and completed the first Level 1 Certification held in Brooklyn at the Lyceum. By the way—I would not recommend trying to learn CrossFit just from the web. I think I developed some bad habits that I am still trying to break.
CFSBK: When did going to the Games become a goal that you decided to pursue?
Bob: When CrossFit added Masters divisions to the Games I thought I would go for it. It helps my daily training if I have a goal. This year CrossFit Headquarters added a Regionals to the Masters competition. Prior to this year, the top 20 from the Open in each Masters’ division went directly to the Games. From each Masters’ division, the top 200 in the world now compete in a virtual regional: four WODs in four days at a box with an official judge and with each WOD filmed for review by Headquarters and the community. From this, the top 20 go on to the Games. I finished 38th out of 1100 plus men in my Masters division in the Open and 35th out of the 200 in the Regionals. I was pleased with the result but did not reach my goal.
CFSBK: What kind of training did you and McDowell do together? Why was it valuable to work more one-on-one with a coach?
Bob: McDowell has been wonderful to work with. I think my biggest CrossFit issues relate to range of motion and technical skills. McDowell has been tremendously helpful to me on both issues. One-on-one training allows us to focus on my problems. During my 30 years of work life I basically sat at a desk. So my ankles, hips, shoulders and t-spine all need lots of work to enable me to efficiently do the more complex and challenging movements. So we work on range of motion constantly. For me these flexibility issues also tie to technical skills. For example, I have had issues with thrusters. I could front squat and I could push press but I could not combine them efficiently in a thruster because of range of motion difficulties. So when I did thrusters, I held the bar with a push press grip during the front squat, which in turn slowed me down, decreased my squat depth and fried my forearms making something like Fran even more difficult. McDowell and I worked hard on this. In the open this year, I managed to handle thrusters much better than I ever have.
CFSBK: McDowell, tell us about how you approached Bob’s training.
McDowell: I had coached Bob previously in group classes and he was looking for some personal training to get better at certain things. He's a competitor, so I was both excited and nervous to get the opportunity to work with him one-on-one. With competitors, it can sometimes be hard to get them to take one step back to take many steps forward, but Bob was on-board right away. He came in with a list of specific things he wanted to improve on. So we took that list and added a few things, took some out, then broke everything down into different categories, putting the most emphasis on the higher-skill movements. We looked at what was holding him back in certain movements, and we attacked those aggressively. Take thrusters, for instance. The thruster is a pretty simple movement—a front squat into a push press—but it can be extremely frustrating if you don't have a good front rack position or if you can't hit depth in a squat because of hip or ankle limitations. So, in fixing that, we were able to clean up not only his efficiency on lower-skill movements like a thruster and a wall ball shots, but, more importantly, we were also able to improve a higher-skill movement, the clean and jerk, simply by being in better positions. This applies across the board for most everything we have done so far.
Also, we always spend a lot of time working on mobility, targeting certain areas—ankle, hip, shoulders, thoracic spine. Each session, we start with mobility before getting into skills or movements. Bob was really disciplined about doing mobility exercises both at the gym and at home. For example, he stretched his thoracic spine a couple times a day, and he would do some sort of hip and ankle mobility one to two times a day. Since he was working so hard, we started seeing improvements very quickly.
CFSBK: What did you both think about the Open WODs this year?
Bob: I thought they were very challenging. I thought they were better programmed than the past. One needed a complete and full toolbox to get through the programming in an efficient way.
McDowell: I was only able to perform two of them before I had surgery, but they seemed well-programmed and very balanced across all five weeks. When it came to my work with Bob, we deconstructed all aspects of each workout, from warm-ups to each movement within the workout to each rep scheme to his work-to-rest ratios, in the interest of achieving optimal performance. The Open allows the better-rounded athletes to rise to the top, and that’s where Bob excels.
CFSBK: McDowell, tell us about your experience training Bob.
McDowell: My overall experience of working with Bob has been wonderful, and it has only reinforced my perception of him as a badass. He came in with certain ideas about what and where he wanted to improve and worked hard to make those improvements. It is always a rewarding experience to train someone who is as willing as Bob is to work hard to achieve their goals. Even though he didn't make it to the CrossFit Games this year, the work we did was and is still valuable. Bob competed at a few local and regional competitions and was able to win one or two, so his training is paying off—and he beats guys who are younger than him. It's fun to work with an athlete like Bob—you tell him what to do and he does it. I'm looking forward to the year to come as both a coach and a fan.
CFSBK: Bob, what's on your training schedule next?
Bob: I am competing in a Masters' event on June 28 called the Nor’easter Masters 2014. I missed it last year but it has a good reputation as a fun and challenging event. Jacinto Bonilla is also going to compete. In the fall, I will probably compete in three to four other events. McDowell and I will continue to work on range of motion, technical skills, and improving on my weaknesses.
CFSBK: Tell me a bit about your life outside of CrossFit. Where and when you born, how do you spend your days outside the gym?
Bob: I was born in Michigan in 1957 but raised in Arizona. Growing up in Arizona was wonderful. As a child I lived for a time at a trading post on the Navajo reservation near Four Corners, very close to Monument Valley. During college I worked and camped on the north rim of the Grand Canyon planting trees for the U.S. Forest Service. My wife and I moved to New York City in 1983 from Chicago where I was in grad school. We have lived in the same house in Park Slope since 1986 and have three children, and the youngest still lives at home. Outside of the gym, I play tennis, enjoy CFSBK softball, coach girls’ softball, teach finance at NYU Stern, and am active in our church. I also travel frequently for my business. I am very fortunate that for one of my business trips I travel to Paris three to five times each year. C'est formidable!
- Happy birthday, Katie M.!
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