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Rest Day

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.

Breathing and Breath Control for Olympic Weightlifting
Catalyst Athletics
Self-healing Plastic Mimics Blood Clotting BBC

Reader Comments (23)

Wednesday's Programming


Fitness: Snatch Halting Deadlift + Snatch
If you have a hard time organizing the pull off the floor, perform snatch from the mid-hang.

Performance: 1-1-1, then (1+1) x 2 at 75% from high hang and knee
After working up to a heavy single in 3 attempts, perform 2 reps of the Two Position Snatch (high hang and knee).

Back Squat

Fitness: 3 x 5 Linear Progression
Add 5 pounds to last week.

Performance: 80% x 4 x 4, then 82.5% x 4 x 4
Rest about two minutes between sets. Use the lifting time wisely and get to work weight within 2-4 warm ups so you can get all your work sets in.

May 12, 2014 | Registered CommenterDavid Osorio

Great profile on Bob! Future CFSBK Hall of Famer.

May 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJay

6am with D.O and McDowell

Performance Bench Work at 185# and 190#. The first weight was rounded up a bit and the second was rounded down. That was a lot of volume. Reduced the rest to about a minute between the last few sets so I could get the work in before the time cap. Last rep on every set was a grinder.

Perfomance WOD Rx'd. First time that I can remember where I didn't check my time. I think I was around 10 minutes. OHS in 12-8-5-5-5-5. Rest was minimal.

May 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMattyChm

Hi friends,

Brooklyn friends! I have a beautiful room for rent in Prospect Heights available soon. It's in a duplex in the old Jewish Hospital on Prospect and Classon (beautiful building). It's $650 a month and just blocks from the Franklin 2/3/4/5 stop. Right next to Guero's, and all kinds of other gems. Email me if you're interested at LisaFerna (at) gmail


May 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterLisa F

Bob is the man. He also has a mean change up. Good interview.

Bench last night: 210x4x4, 218x4x4. I broke out the fractionals.

WOD in 8:35 I think. Did the OHS in 20/10/10. I had trouble getting into a rythm at first as my right Achilles was hurting a little. Fun times though.

May 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterBen W

Loved working on this interview with Bob and McDowell, two lovely gentlemen. Well, most of the time on McD's end. ;)

Guys, that Catalyst article about breathing during lifts has already helped me so much. Check it out.

May 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterKate R

Great profile about Bob! Love seeing him in action!

Programming Question:
Performance is seeing some intense volume this cycle and so far i'm really enjoying it! I'm curious about lifting one weight for 4x4 then increasing for another 4x4 in the same session. Other than the obvious reason "to be strong", why this type of programming? Does this type of programming benefit more than others? I know (and appreciate) that things at SBK are not done willy-nilly or "because we said to do it", just curious for the sake of knowledge!

May 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterBeccaWolf

Really enjoyed reading this interview. Yay Bob!

May 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterCharlie

YEAHHHH BOB!!! Bob is good people.

May 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterKMo

Great interview with Bob and McD!

If any of you cats are on reddit, pretty please upvote my ITA article


May 13, 2014 | Registered CommenterDavid Osorio

6am with McD and D.O.
Snatches: 89, 111, 133, 133, 133, 133, 133, 144, 144F, 111 x 2 x 2

Slow to warm up today, and kept getting the headache back from yesterday, although not very intensely. I spent extra time at 133 trying to get down. Not a good day for snatching :/ I ended up on my butt for the last attempt at 144 due to a pull that was just completely out of position.

HBBS: 220 x 4 x 4, 225 x 4 x4
Just a lot of volume. Had trouble keeping my knees out.

cash out 100 hollow rocks and 100 pushups. Sets of 20 for two rounds then sets of 10 and 5s for the last 20 reps.

May 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAlex C

If you have a hard time with the link David posted to the Reddit post (it bleeds off into the right column on my screen), here's the direct link.

May 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterKate R

Very impressed with Bob! Wish I could have taken one of his courses now!

6am with McD and DO.

I was totally burned out today after a tough 2 days. That said, the snatch started off better than I expected. I worked up to 115 and hit one or 2 but then just started failing. McDowell noted that I was leading with my hips (and not being patient enough off the floor). I felt like I had my later reps but kept bailing. I hope to be better rested next week.

LBBSQ: 240x5x3 - this is getting heavy. I still need to focus on knees out but I managed to get these up pretty well. Up 5# from last week. Will likely add another 5# next week.

Finished up with the cash out + 30 ring dips.

May 13, 2014 | Registered CommenterElliott

Great Interview, I love reading about the elites at CFSBK!

Make up post from yesterday:
WOD: 10:10 Rxed, I think there might have been 1 out of 40 OHS that were low enough to count. Boo.

Snatch complex 115, 120F, I think I have to take some weight off and concentrate on technique a little more. My lower back was still sore from yesterdays overhead work.
LBBSq: 195x5x3, Fox told me that my bottom position was more of a High Bar and I had to stop my decent before my thigh and calf meet. It will take me a few more rounds to get used to this new position. Always appreciate a good feedback.

Looking forward to a day of rest. Time to upvote our leader's article on reddit.

May 13, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterpigeon

Meat and Fish CSA pickup is tomorrow, 6-8:30!

Questions or issues? Email mignyc at gmail dot com.

And if you haven't signed up for the veg CSA yet... what're you waiting for?!

May 13, 2014 | Unregistered Commentermichele

Bob is an inspiration. Any time I think I'm too old to be doing this stuff. ( I'm 46) I remember Bob and I buck up.

May 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMichael

8am with McD. Worked up to 93# on the sntach, failed at 98# a couple times. Then dropped back to 68# for the couplet. HBBSQ, 120#x4x4, then 125#x4x4. I skipped the cash out in favor of getting some coffee at Runner and Stone with DO. I never pass up an opportunity to hang out with the Captain.

Personally, I think Bob Semmens is a total jerk. I have the misfortune of occasionally playing catcher to his pitcher on the CFSBK softball team. This season, after we lost our first game, he came up to me in the dugout and told me it was my fault that we didn't win. I really don't see what all the fuss is about over the guy. He seems like a mediocre athlete and a downright nasty human being to me.

Private note to Bob: Bob, je plaisante. Tu sais bien que je t'adore. Félicitations!

May 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterKH (a.k.a. Cage)

Note to KH (aka Cage)

Très amusant, mais il y à une problème. Je suis le seul qui sait que vous plaisantez.

May 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterBob S.

Snatch- work up to 85%

Clean and Jerk-Work up to 85%

Front squat- Work up to 85%x2

Press- 4x4

4 Rounds NFT
10 dips
20 hollow rocks

May 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJakeL

i was wondering the same thing, becca. its like a texas method double volume day but in a fraction of the time. maybe its to give you the most bang for your buck since theres only one squat day programmed this cycle?

May 13, 2014 | Unregistered Commenteruzef

6am...Monday's workout

Bench press - painful FAIL today. My muscles stayed in bed and decided not to join me for class. I successful hit 75# last week. Tried for 78# today and failed on the 4th rep., dropped to 76# and failed on rep 3; tried 73# and failed on rep 3....my muscles were just not firing at all today!!

WOD in 8:43 with lunges...this was fun!

May 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNan

8:30 with Noah.

Bench was tough after two shoulder-smoking days previous. 195x5, 4, 185x4. Need to convince myself when under the bar that the sling shot approach is not the way to go.
WOD in 8:19 Rx. Broke up the OHS 30-10. Final run was a total slog.

Two years ago this week I started at SBK. Long reflection coming.

If my first year was about getting over my anxiety about just being in the gym, year two was about getting over the anxiety of trying new things -- whether they were unfamiliar movements (muscle-ups, squat snatches, inversions) or experiences (stepping outside of SBK to compete at Subway Series and the Olympic meet). It was also about sticking with things once the PR train ran out of gas and realizing that progress means making measurable progress on specific weaknesses and letting other things wait in the wings.

I saw small gains in most of the slow lifts -- my high bar at three wheels now, my bench is hovering around 200x5, my press is holding steady from last year’s Wendler cycles -- the exception is the deadlift, which I haven’t trained in a while and have lost some serious ground on.

It’s in the fast lifts where the second year has brought dramatic growth. I added 33lbs to my snatch and 55 to my clean and jerk, and they’re the movements I most enjoy training now. Throw in some improvement in the gymanstic moevements and I look back and am remarkably pleased with the progress I’ve made.

Year two was also about cementing positive lifestyle choices I made during my first year at SBK and learning more about how I need to treat my mind and body to continue to perform well.

As for the next twelve months, I’d like to continue to train and improve on the Olympic lifts (BW snatch and a 250lb clean and jerk, specifically) and commit to the accessory strength and mobility I need to make those gains. They’ll also be about maintaining a connection with the programming and community at SBK despite my impending (and hopefully temporary) move out east.

A big thanks to the coaches and staff for all they continue to do to make SBK a nexus of personal and physical growth. A special shout out to MeLo and Noah, who, as the regular 8:30 coaches, deal with my litany of questions and requests with remarkable patience.

May 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRyan

Ugh I don't know what to say about snatching. Some may say I'm a head case. I'd been hovering at 83/88# forever and that's where I've been all cycle. On the plus side, I've decided not to give up afterall.

I was not looking forward to how heavy squats would feel today. Maybe it was only 4 reps instead of 6, but it went much more smoothly than I'd thought.
Been working off a sort of fictional HBBS 1rm of 185#
80% - 148x4x4; 82.5% - 153x4x4
I'm really trying to keep these true high bar and not stick my butt out on the way back up.

Cash out in my own sweet time: 100 push-ups in sets of 10, started 100 hollow rocks in sets of 10 but switched to 15 after first two sets.

Beautiful moon tonight. Happy that fire escape meditation is back in effect.

May 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterLauren

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