Friday, November 8, 2013

Why Shang Chi, not Iron Fist, should be the new Marvel TV series

Marvel just announced a slew of new TV series, to be released through Netflix, and Iron Fist is one of them.

I want to love Iron Fist. He has everything I love in a comic book - martial arts based powers, a killer tattoo (on his chest! Yay!), a visually awesome "super power," and a generally excellent backstory full of mystical lost cities and dead dragons.

Yet I can't. I have, at best, mixed feelings about the character, and I doubt he'll ever be a breakout star for Marvel.

First of all, if you're not familiar with the character, make yourself so. I'll wait.

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My basic problem with the character, and this is ironic, because he was paired with a black partner and they had fun liberal adventures together, is that his story is awesomely racist.

Let's recap. White kid, with no special training or abilities, winds up in the mystical (and Asian) city of K'un-L'un, where he begins intensive training in kung fu. Now, being white, OF COURSE he just happens to be the most talented kid there, even more than all the native K'un-L'un-ites who have lived and breathed martial arts starting at conception. He's so good that he becomes the best fighter around, surpassing all the darker skinned natives who have been training for decades longer, kills their dragon, and takes its power. And leaves.

If you wanted to purposefully write an allegory for cultural appropriation and imperialism I'm not sure you could. And he's the hero!

So he tries to get revenge, doesn't (which is cool, I like that bit), and then what does he do? He's the heir to a ginormous fortune (I just realized Blogger doesn't red-squiggly-underline 'ginormous'), so he hangs out in the slums of NY and fights crime with Power Man. Now Luke Cage is a man who actually grew up in those slums, who is actually struggling to do the right thing and make a life for himself. And her comes Danial Rand, a rich white dude just pretending to need to be there - an heir to a vast fortune, who's literally slumming, so he can learn about the gritty underworld.

Iron Fist fights crime and injustice because he's bored. Not driven by inner demons - he's no Batman or Moon Knight - not trying to make amends, just needs something to do with his badass kung fu skills so he figures, "hey, why not chill with the poor people and beat up the ones who don't meet my standards of behavior?"

By the time Brubaker took over the series Daniel Rand seems to loath himself. As he should. He's a douche.

To add insult to injury, Iron Fist's basic power (rad martial arts skill, plus every so often he can make his fist Like a Thing Unto Iron (and glowy) and hit stuff really, really hard) is a story killer. It's like Voltron's sword - if he can take out the bad guy without pulling out the Iron Fist, they were never a threat, and if he uses it and it DOESN'T work, the bad guy's way out of his league. He's a one trick, one shot pony, and that's a story killer.

For a contrast, let's look at a contemporary of Iron Fist's: Shang Chi, Master of Kung Fu. He was an infinitely better character in every way, except that he had no cool tattoos.

Shang Chi is awesome at martial arts. Why? Because his dad, basically a super rich megalomaniacal supervillain, had him trained from birth by the very best instructors in the world to be a killing machine. No implied white supremacism here (he's pretty Asian), just hard work and dedication!

Plus he has a great motivation - his dad was super evil, and he isn't, so he goes back and defends the free world from his father's evil plots time and time again. Then, when he's bored (i.e. in between evil plots by dad), he wants to fight against injustice to make amends - because he feel responsible for the sins of his father AND for bad stuff he did while still under the old man's thumb.

Making up for your father's sins. That's some classic, nigh-Shakespearean shit.

Shang Chi has no one super killer martial arts move. He has to work to figure out a strategy to defeat every skilled opponent he comes across. He has no superpowers at all, other than metal bracelets that can, Wonder Woman style, deflect knives and throwing stars and stuff. He trains hard, learns new things, and goes through crises of conscience.

In short, he's a much better character than Iron Fist could ever hope to be.


I don't mean to be all negative. I will here offer a way to fix Iron Fist as a character:

1. Make his mom from K'un L'un. She left/escaped/whatever, she had super duper skills, fell in love with a white dude, had Daniel. They came back for some reason - she dies protecting him from wolves, but had taught him great stuff or he inherited great genes from her. Takes away the white people can do everything better angle, plus adds a hook into the mystical city (maybe people there were fans of hers? Maybe some internal conflicts going on?) Maybe it's an ongoing search - why did she leave to begin with? What was going on?

2. Take away the Rand Corporation. Nobody likes rich people these days.

3. Give him some recurring villains that aren't plant people (God I wish I was making that up). Ninjas from K'un L'un (yes, I know I'm crossing cultures, sue me) out to get back the Dragon Spirit or whatever. He goes to NYC to fight them on his own turf. Or mystical dudes from another city - another culture, even - out to steal his power. Or, you know, there's some bad thing out there that the Dragon Spirit is supposed to defend us from.

4. Make his powers more... varied. Maybe the Iron Fist is his big KO, but let him do little bits of other things (jump real high, climb walls, heal himself, whatever). Maybe he has a power meter, so he can only do X units of stuff per day, then has to meditate/get laid/whatever to recharge, but add a strategy element to it - does hie put all the power into his fist, or save some for a shield/ for healing/ to make a bright light & distract his opponent? More tools = more interesting battles. I learned that from Naruto.

You want a really fantastic idea? Mash the two characters together. Guy (I'm resisting the urge to dub him Shang Rand or Daniel Chi) is from a mystical city from which his super evil father wants to rule the world. His mother escapes with him, and they go to New York & he's raised there, being trained intensely by his mom against the day when dad comes to get him (which can only happen periodically, because mystical city).

Kid grows up poor in NYC slums. After 10 years his father's minions kill his mom, kidnap him, and bring him back home. He trains more, all the while plotting revenge, gets even better (using mom's secret techniques), kills dragon, gains superpowers, defeats his father.

Now picture this: super powered kid goes back home, hangs out with childhood friend Luke Cage, and tries to help people he actually knows and cares about. Plus, make up for evil father. Plus, maybe father's minions come and offer him power - like, "become our leader & we'll help you clean up the city." Which was, like, an awesome Daredevil storyline. What does he do? Plus, the ever present tension - is he helping the city more by crimefighting or hurting it because evil dudes are always showing up to take his glowy hands away?

Which character is more compelling? Sadly, the least compelling, to me, is the actual Iron Fist. But he's blonde, so that's the one they'll go with. I'll still watch it, but I'll be saddened by what could have been... if only Marvel listened to me.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

An Open Letter to Gluten-Free Skeptics

I've been noticing, here and there online, a significant backlash against gluten free (GF) diets and dieters. You may have noticed the same thing - snarky comments like:

  • Oh, did a doctor diagnose you with celiac? No? Then why are you wasting your money?
  • Gluten free food section! For weak minded people who like overpaying for products that won't help them lose weight!
  • Gluten free - the latest fad diet. Would you like some homeopathic remedies with that rice flour muffin, sir?
And so on.

I can imagine many reasons for this backlash. Many people dispute the evidence in favor of the benefits of a GF diet (or think there is NO evidence). Many people see it as a scam to sell overpriced substitute products. I'm sure many GF proponents overstate the evidence for this lifestyle, and that can make scientifically minded people cranky (and justifiably so). And, like with many other lifestyles, people who see benefits from it are often... shall we say, aggressive... about promoting it. And that can be obnoxious. I get that.

So I'm writing this open letter to the snarkiest, angriest, most ticked-off, bread enjoying, GF hating person out there on the internet:


Dear GF Skeptic:

I gave up gluten in 2010. At the time I had no symptoms of gluten sensitivity - no digestive issues, no overt symptoms of problems. No diagnosis of celiac. I was, however, obese (and have been for most of my life), and prone to uncontrollable binge eating. I gave it up as an experiment - not sure that it would help me, just hoping.

And it did.

I've been leaner, and generally healthier, during the past 3 years than at any prior time in my life. And this hasn't been an easy 3 years - it's been very stressful (for reasons having nothing to do with food), yet despite lots of travel and lots of serious life changes, I've been able to lose most of my excess fat and keep it off, without very much effort

This was not my first attempt at leaning out - I've tried many different eating strategies, from low fat to low carb to vegetarianism to intermittent fasting - over the years. None of them "stuck" until I went gluten free.

At this point, I can imagine many things you might be thinking. "n=1 doesn't prove anything." "Show me the science to back up any of your claims." "So why should I go gluten free? I'm not obese."

Here's my answer: You are correct. n=1 does not, in fact, prove anything. I don't have compelling science to show you (I'm not saying there isn't ANY science, or that there never will be, but I'm not going to argue about what's available right now). I'm not even necessarily telling YOU to try a GF diet.

However:

Even if I DON"T have dozens of double blind studies published in peer reviewed journals showing that a GF intervention reduces inflammation, improves digestion, and leads to weight loss, I DO have evidence that it vastly improved MY life and health. I have the size 40 pants in my closet to prove it. And please remember - I had tried VERY MANY other things before going GF, and couldn't stick to any of them. And I've been lean(ish) and healthy for over 3 full years on GF, with very little effort, and in every other way those 3 years should have packed MORE pounds onto my body (divorce, career change, moved 5 times).

And I bet you know at least a couple of people with similar stories.

Is it possible that those of us who benefit from GF diets are outliers? That we represent only a tiny portion of the population? Of course. I have seen MANY people try a GF diet and see very little benefit. Maybe they didn't give it long enough, or were eating hidden sources of something damaging, or maybe... they just don't need to be gluten free. I have no idea.

But as much as YOUR argument that I don't have science proving gluten is bad for everybody - nobody has any science showing that NOBODY benefits from a GF diet.

Let me reiterate: NOBODY has ever done even a single study that shows in any sense that NOBODY benefits from eliminating gluten from their diet.

If I were recommending that you eliminate something important from your diet, you'd have every right to hold me to a higher standard. If anyone says to avoid meat, dairy, eggs, nuts, fruits, vegetables, or berries entirely from your diet you should be VERY skeptical - because they'd be telling you to eliminate a source of important nutrients from your diet. Not that you CAN'T eliminate any of those categories - you can probably eat a healthy diet that skips any one of those categories - but you're definitely giving up some important stuff, and you'll have to be careful to replace those nutrients.

What do we give up when we give up gluten? Please don't say carbs, or fiber - there are PLENTY of carb and fiber sources that aren't wheat, and I'm not talking about anything exotic - potatoes, rice, and vegetables are not fringe foods in our society that can only be purchased in specialty stores. The fact is that there are NO nutrients in wheat that aren't quite easy to get with other foods (and people will argue about the necessity of carbs and fiber anyway, but I don't want to address that here).

If I were to say that everybody SHOULD give up gluten, you'd have every right to be skeptical. But I'm not. If I started going into details regarding mechanisms by which gluten harms you, we could start a biochem knowledge war that neither of us is really equipped to wage. But I'm not.

Here's my claim - and the biggest claim made by sane GF advocates:

A gluten free diet seems to be very helpful to SOME people. If you are struggling with your bodyfat levels, systemic inflammation, or digestive problems, you MIGHT want to TRY a gluten free diet for a while to see if YOU ARE ONE OF THE PEOPLE WHO WILL BENEFIT.

I'm not promising that going gluten fee will turn you into Wolverine - or even into Hugh Jackman. I'm not promising it will help YOU lose weight. Or take better craps. I have no idea what percentage of the population would benefit from a GF diet - maybe it's 1%? Maybe it's 20%? Maybe it's 100%? I have no idea.

But I DO KNOW that it's NOT 0%. Some portion of the population sees dramatic improvements in health from going gluten free. And the nutritional cost of giving up gluten is pretty much nothing - there's no important nutrient in wheat that you can't get from potatoes, rice, vegetables, meat, eggs, nuts, fruits, berries.

Does going gluten free suck? It sure does. I miss pizza, and bagels, and brownies, and cookies... I love that stuff.

But I don't miss my size 40 pants. Or feeling crappy all the time.

So, if YOU are overweight, or have digestive issues, and maybe have already tried other interventions, and not found success... maybe it's time to try this whole GF thing?

You might be mocked by internet trolls or derided by science nerds talking about evidence based practices. And I CANNOT promise that you will be any better off for having tried it. I can't prove that gluten is bad for everybody, or that you're one of the people who will be better off eschewing it. But I CAN ABSOLUTELY prove that it's very, very helpful to SOME people. And you might be one of them.

That's the part that I find heartbreaking - I KNOW GF was a huge part of the solution for me. I strongly suspect that's its part of the solution for LOTS of other people (just because I find it hard to imagine that I'm special or unique). Yet so many smart people are soooo skeptical - and let's be honest, if you're arguing that it's IMPOSSIBLE that being gluten free will benefit any particular individual who hasn't tried it, then you're actually on weaker footing than I am, scientifically speaking.

Once again: if you are struggling with digestion, weight, or inflammation, and you've tried other things and failed, please try eating gluten free. Give it a month. If you don't feel better, eat a huge pizza and breath a sigh of relief that you can again do so. If you DO feel better, then... you'll be feeling better.

And maybe think twice before you mock the soccer mom heading over to the gluten free aisle at Whole Foods. She might be sheepishly following a fad diet with no real thought or understanding, but she might be fitting into her size S yoga pants for the first time since she was a teenager thanks to her switch to a gluten free lifestyle.

Sincerely,

Joe
(now needing a belt when wearing size 32 pants)

Thursday, May 9, 2013

What to work when there's too little time

It's useful to think sometimes about how much total time you have for training in a typical week and the optimal ways to break down that time into different types of training. For example, imagine someone with about 5 hours a week total to devote to training. They might do a single 45 minute session of steady state cardio (I promise to blog more about this someday, and explain why this might actually be useful, a position I used to dispute). They might do two 30 minute sessions of strength/ plyometric training. They might do 3 minutes of dynamic stretching, five days a week.  Then they might spend 3 one hour periods doing skills training (or, probably better, spend 45 minutes on skill training four times a week, or 30 minutes 6 times a week!) Maybe one of those skill sessions (or parts of all of them, perhaps the final 5-10 minutes) could be used for high intensity interval training.

Looking at this hypothetical person, we can pretty quickly figure out percentages of time spent on each of these activities. For example, they spend 15% of their training time doing steady state cardio, 5% on stretching, 20% on strength work, etc. (In case you're wondering, I think that's actually a pretty good breakdown for most people, though I can't promise it would be optimal for everyone).

Now suppose that same person had to - for whatever reason - cut down their training time. Perhaps to just an hour a week - perhaps even down to half an hour, or 10 minutes. How should their training choices change?

With an example as extreme as 10 minutes it's obvious that we'd have to completely redesign things, but when the differences are smaller - going down to 4 hours or up to 8 or 10 - I think there's an inclination to try to maintain the same proportions.  And that's probably wrong.

First, let's get one thing out of the way: if you think you only have 10 minutes per week to exercise you're probably wrong. There are lots of strategies for sneaking more time for exercise out of your day - putting a chinup bar in your house, brushing your teeth in horse stance, and so forth. But let's put that aside and assume that you've already pursued those strategies and you're only left with 10 minutes a week.

My recommendation? Stop doing karate.

That might seem strange for a karate blog, but bear with me. Being good at karate is wonderful, but your first responsibility is to yourself as a human being, not as a karateka. As you age, being able to throw a nice middle punch is great, but not nearly as important as being able to stand up after a fall, pick up your groceries, play with your grandkids, and have a cardiovascular system strong enough to keep going even if it experiences a shock - a good scare, an orgasm, whatever. Your middle punch won't help you if you're dead (this is not true if you're a bouncer or a corrections officer, but if that's your line of work you have no business training just 10 minutes a week!)

10 minutes per week is barely enough to maintain a moderate level of fitness (I'm assuming here that your life is otherwise fairly sedentary; if it's not, then we have another story). And let's face it - it's not enough time to get very good at karate.

So what should one do in 10 minutes a week? The training that gives us the biggest bang for the buck - if we want to keep ourselves out of the hospital and out of the ground - is heavy strength training. I'd say go for 3 sets of 5 of some kind of heavy deadlift.  You can do them one legged or two, use any variation you'd like - in fact, I'd say probably do them 'wrong', lower your hips a lot at the bottom, almost as if you're squatting (get your ass close to your heels when you grip the bar). It will reduce the weight you pull but really increase the range of motion in your hips. You'll get plenty of grip work (don't want to starve to death because you can't open the mayonnaise jar), lots of core stabilization, posterior chain strengthening, and build up all the muscles supporting your spine. Plus, you'll be working the biggest muscles in the body (hips, legs, lats), which will give you the maximal metabolic effect (more muscle = higher metabolism = less fat, fewer problems with glucose regulation, etc. etc. etc.) And, last but not least, you'll get some nice bone density outcomes. You're never going to get osteoperosis with a 300 lb deadlift. Just can't happen.

Don't like deadlifts? Try kettlebell swings. Not the same, but lots of crossover benefits. Have a little extra time? Try this conditioning trick: stand on a soft-ish surface, maybe a yoga mat or a wrestling mat or even an old futon. Fall to the ground - break it as well as you can. Then stand back up. Alternate falling to your left and to your right. Repeat for 2 minutes. You want to live long and be healthy? Be strong and learn how to fall without getting hurt. Don't think it matters? Visit a local nursing home and walk around for 15 minutes. Then come back and we'll talk.

I'd say you probably shouldn't spend any time on actual karate unless you have more than an hour a week to train. That is, your first hour of exercise (I don't mean the first hour on Sunday, I mean the first hour we're counting) should be dedicated strength training. Keep your muscle and bones healthy. If you have 2 hours a week, still spend 1 hour of it strength training, but add in dynamic stretching and skill training sessions for the second hour. And, if you have it, the third. And even if you have 10 hours a week to train, the amount of dedicated strength training you should need to do is probably never going to get above 2 hours, and maybe less than that - do very hard things, do them quickly, get it done. As you have more time to train you can spend proportionally more time working on skills. The nervous system doesn't adapt the way muscles and bones do - it benefits from lots and lots of practice, while muscles just get worn down from too much hard strength work.

Strength training and conditioning should't represent a fixed percentage of your exercise time; instead, you should prioritize them above everything else, but only do the amount that you need to get their benefits (bone density, resistance to injury, looking good naked, healthy metabolic function), and spend the bulk of the time you have beyond that on skills and a little cardio (to be discussed more in the future!)

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Head Contact? Yes... No... What was the question?


I'm a big proponent of jiyu kumite, or free fighting. Why? I suspect many people who like free fighting will say they like it because it's more like "real fighting" than drills or preset techniques - that it's a better simulation of self defense situations. To be honest, I'm not sure I buy that. In order to free fight safely you have to restrict the distance, the techniques used, and the equipment (i.e. wear protection) enough that I'm not sure it actually applies at all to self defense, and I suspect that well designed drills can actually do a better job of teaching self defense. But I could be wrong.

Still, free fighting is awesome because:

  • It's fun. It's fun the way a tennis match or ping pong or a football game is fun - there's something inherently more fun about having to respond to an unpredictable environment, and competing with another person, that for most people is always going to be lacking in kihon or kata practice. And fun isn't just a "nice bonus" - if a workout/ training regimen is fun you're more likely to stick to it, and as they say, the workout routine you stick with is the best workout routine.
  • Because free sparring is so chaotic it's going to spur on neural development you won't get otherwise. Sparring is a never ending set of new problems to solve - all quickly and in three dimensions. That kind of practice is going to cause your brain to stay sharp, to develop new connections, in a way that repeating the same old thing can't. That's not just fun, it's a huge benefit for long term health.
  • Free sparring trains muscle groups in ways that basic training can't. Getting out of the way of being hurt - or at least hit hard - is going to make you exert more force, in more random directions, than you ever will doing solitary practice.  Notice how sore your legs are after some free sparring - everyone will work harder, more intensely, and in more varied ways, when motivated by an impending ass kicking, than they will when training alone. 
Now, there are many ways to free fight. Free fighting has to have rules and restrictions - without them it would be too dangerous and everyone would get maimed within a few sessions (imagine free fighting without protection, allowing groin shots, eye pokes, rabbit punches, ground and pound...)

Then the questions is: what rules and restrictions should you have?

Here's the basic tension:
  • The freer the fighting the more fun it is. Imagine sparring using only jabs to the body. All the time.  Now think about how you'd feel if you got to use your back hand to punch the body - I bet it would be like getting out of prison. The more open the sparring, the more complex the strategies involved, the more possibilities - different tactics, different techniques - open up, the more fun and neural development you'll have.
  • The freer the fighting the closer it is to "real fights" and the more applicable it is for self defense. If you only train without groin shots you'll be ill prepared to defend against that guy in a bar kicking you in the groin.
  • If you compete in a fighting sport your sparring better include everything you'll see on the mat/ in the cage/octagon/whatever. If you want, watch an ill prepared kyokushin or taekwondo guy do kickboxing for the first time and eat a ton of punches to the head. Not pretty. If you spar without ground fighting, head contact, or whatever, you'll probably be ill prepared to deal with those things.
  • However, the freer the fighting the more likely it is that you'll be maimed doing it.
Here's the sad truth: getting punched hard in, say, the stomach, hurts. Getting kicked in the leg hurts. Armbars hurt. And these things happen when sparring. After every good sparring session I'm wearing a set of bruises for days.

BUT when you get punched in the stomach, even if it leaves a bruise, the long term consequences are negligible. I've had a lot of bruises on my arms and chest over the years - once they healed all that was left was a memory.

On the other hand, every time you get hit in the head hard enough to make you see stars, or black out, even for a second, or get knocked out, you're probably doing permanent long term damage to your brain.

Think about that. Every slap to the ear, every face punch, every fall that has you experience flash dizziness - each of these events is probably doing irreversible damage to your brain.

Talk to an old boxer. Or former football player. Or a soccer player who heads the ball. Or anyone who's been hit in the head a bunch of times. Pro sports are starting to try to come to terms with this reality, that we have every reason to think that the damage from even minor concussions is cumulative and basically never heals. Symptoms include severe depression, memory loss, and a bunch of other shit you wouldn't wish on your worst enemy. There's a reason people are so worried about MMA fighter like Chuck Liddell who get knocked out many times - current medical knowledge seems to say that those guys will never be the same, never recover full neurological function.

Does that mean nobody should train with head contact?  Well, I wouldn't say that.

If you have a serious chance to make a living as a fighter then you have to think long and hard about this. I'm not going to tell you not to train with head contact - you'll need to do so, at least somewhat, in order to survive actual fights. I would say that you should NEVER train Chute Boxe style (those guys regularly knock each other out in practice) regardless of your career goals. And you need to think long and hard about the fact that your profession - for however long it lasts - will absolutely result in permanent brain damage, which will impair all sorts of things for the rest of your life. I'm not going to say it's not worth it, that's a personal decision, but it's worth thinking about.

If you're a police officer, corrections officer, bouncer, military dude, or someone else who has a serious need to be in real fights on a regular basis, then you have to figure this out. You can't count on being able to deal with a punch to the face when the first one you ever see is during an actual prison riot thrown by a guy who is actually trying to kill you.

But if you're not one of those guys - if you're a recreational martial artist, in it for the fun and the health benefits and for something cool to do - you might want to rethink allowing even small amounts of head contact in your practice.  The damage from head trauma is subtle, insidious, and cumulative

In summary: head contact makes sparring more fun and more vigorous, but shots to the head - probably even relatively mild ones, certainly hard shots - cause permanent and cumulative brain damage. If you're training to acquire skills that might establish you professionally or are likely to save your life, that's one thing. If you're training for fun and fitness, go full contact to the body but leave your head untouched. Yes, your training will be less "realistic," possibly less authentic, and possibly less fun, but you'll be much, much better off in the long term.

Osu.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Why Marriages are Just like Black Belts

I started a new blog with my ramblings & thoughts that are not martial arts related.  Thought this post was worthy of cross-promotion:

http://philosophydujoe.blogspot.com/2013/04/a-wedding-is-like-black-belt-exactly.html

Monday, March 4, 2013

When Life Interferes...

I haven't been very active as a blogger lately... which is no coincidence, as I haven't been training much, and this IS a training blog!

To make a long, complicated story short:  my marriage ended in March 2011.  I  moved out at the end of that month.  At the end of November 2011 I moved again, this time to a different city, from which I commuted to see my kids.  I started a brand new career in a completely new field in which I had no experience whatsoever.

In May 2012 I moved again, to Grand Island, NY, which is the same state but 400 miles away.  I was in a very stressful relationship (no blame, just a tough situation).  I was tele-commuting, living 7 hours away from my children, and in a very tough relationship trying to make it work.  I failed.

In September 2012 I moved back to Brooklyn, NY - still 3+ hours away from my children, but the same job, and a great situation.  Started yet another relationship which continues, but with a woman who has 2 kids of her own, which adds a dimension of stress and strain.

I don't mean to whine - I'm ridiculously happy and have had ridiculously good luck in my recent life.  I have wonderful kids, an awesome job I love, and a fantastic relationship.  BUT it would be silly to pretend that my stress level has been anything other than through the roof the past 2 yeas.

I hope you, my reader, never goes through tough times.  However, the odds are that many of you will, at least occasionally.  Here's my advice regarding training during times of life duress:

1.  Don't overdo it.  Progress is possible, but slow, when you're under a ton of stress.  Give yourself permission to do light workouts, to have periods of stagnation, and to not push 100% during every workout. Your cortisol levels are already elevated, killing yourself in the dojo is not going to be productive, it will just lead to sickness, injury, and/or overtraining.

2.  Focus on Strength.  Say that, like me, you're 190 lbs, and between moves, working long hours, and so forth you don't have time to train properly - perhaps you only do 2 workouts a week, and you have to choose between cardio & strength.  Suppose you don't do any cardio, and only strength train, for 6 months.  You'll probably lose a chunk of your aerobic capacity - VO2 max, whatever.  Sad.  You'd have to train hard for a month or two to recover all that aerobic conditioning.

Now suppose that instead you kept up your cardio but cut back on the strength training.  You'd lose muscle mass, which would most likely lead to an increase in fat mass as your metabolic rate slowed.  You'd very possibly lose bone density as well, which would take a lot of time to get back.  Skip strength training for 6 months and if you're old enough you could be looking at a year to get back to where you were.

The adaptions from endurance training come much more quickly and max out much faster than those from strength and power training.  So if you HAVE to skip one modality for a period of time make it cardio!

Here's another tip:  Do at least 5 or so of every kick you know, full power, at least twice a week.  Kicks are hard on your body and the soreness will be crippling if you come back to training after not throwing any for a half a year (trust me!)

3.  Sneak In Mini-Workouts.  Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good.  Whatever your ideal workout program is, you're very probably going to fall short of it.  Be happy that you're doing anything (remember, your peers are on a couch eating Doritos).  Do 2 minute kettlebell workouts if that's all you have time for (5 clean & jerks per arm, repeat 2X - 2 minutes for a full body workout).  Super short workouts done at high intensity can do wonders for maintaining strength levels without requiring a serious commitment of time.

4.  Work out at home.  Try to have enough equipment around your home or workspace to get those sneak workouts in - I keep a 54 lb kettlebell next to my desk and a chinup bar in the nearest doorway.  Total cost around $150, and I use them almost every day.

5.  Dynamic Stretching!  You can maintain your flexibility on a schedule of 10-20 front swings per leg and 10-20 side swings per leg every day, which probably takes a total of less than 3 minutes.  If you don't do this, and lead a typical sedentary lifestyle, your range of motion in the hips will drop faster than a Republican's credibility on gender issues.

6.  Stress is no excuse to eat crap.  The ironic thing about stressful times is that our ability to resist crappy food is lowered but the consequences of eating that crappy food is higher.  When you're stressed you're ever more likely to store excess calories as fat, you're going to be more inflamed already, and generally you'll suffer more from a bad diet than you would have otherwise.

I'm not going to pretend that sticking to a clean diet when you're super stressed is easy - it isn't.  I ate quite a bit of crap and put on some weight in the past 2 years (it's mostly gone now, it comes off when I'm happy!)  But you have to just work to minimize the damage.  Remember that you can't exercise your way out of a bad diet and workouts won't add nutrients to you - you have to eat well, at least most of the time, or everything will just get worse.  Being stressed is bad - being stressed AND inflamed AND fat is not better!


Take Home:  You might want to charge on, full steam ahead, when under serious life stress, but that's probably not going to happen.  If you can't, accept your limitations and at least minimize the setbacks so you're set to make huge progress when things settle down!



Thursday, April 5, 2012

Overeem, TRT, and Drug Testing

If you don't follow MMA you might want to skip this post.

I'm writing this just as news of Alistair Overeem's failed Testosterone: Epitestosterone test are coming to light.  As of right now his B sample hasn't been tested, nothing's been confirmed - as far as I know this is a huge mistake (not that I think it is).

Having said that, I've already read a few comments (some posted by professional reporters) that indicate that the authors don't understand this test or what it means.  I thought I'd explain.

We're all probably familiar with testosterone, a sex hormone produced in naturally higher levels in males than in females.  Testosterone positively influences muscle hypertophy (how big your muscles can be), recovery (how fast you can recover from a tough workout), mood, health, and a bunch of other things.  People's levels vary naturally - men almost always have higher levels than women, levels tend to peak in early twenties or so then decline gradually, and levels can be affected by your genes, stress levels, sleep, nutrition, various legal herbs, and even looking at naked women (seriously).  How much those things can influence T levels is relative - if you're at a 400, watching a bunch of porn and getting a good night's sleep might get you  up to 500, but it won't get you to 1200.

Incidentally, one way to permanently decrease your T levels is repeated head trauma.  Think about that in terms of fightsports for a moment.  And one of the most serious consequences (in my opinion) of depressed T is increased risk for depression (along with heart disease)... think about that the next time a former fighter commits suicide.

So we can all imagine that if you're going to compete in almost any sport that involves strength and/or power, higher T levels, at least up to a point, are going to be beneficial.  They'll allow you to train harder, recover faster, hold more muscle in the face of high stress, and generally be, all else being equal, a better athlete.  How do you get higher levels of T?  Sleep, nutrition, porn - they'll all help a little bit, but the most effective way is to add testosterone to your system - inject it, use a cream, whatever.

Of course, that's against the rules.  Mostly.  There's an exception - Testosterone Replacement Therapy (TRT).

You see, if a normal joe (like me) has low T levels - that is, significantly lower than those of an average male of our age (roughly mid-600's are average) - we can go to our doctor and get a nice legal prescription for injectable T or a T cream.  Boom, levels go back up, but, depending on how much we take, our levels may not be very high - they may still be on the low side - just higher than they were.  If your T level is 200 and you use a cream or injections to get up to 500 your T level is still lower than the average guy on the street.

Now to compete in MMA there are all kinds of hoops you have to jump through - just because something is legal doesn't mean it's okay with the athletic commission (see Nick Diaz, marijuana).  They'll accept a fighter on TRT if they go to certain doctors, file specific forms, tell them ahead of time, etc. - like I said, there are hoops to jump through, but the use of TRT isn't banned outright.  In theory, they would test you to make sure you weren't on a high enough dose of TRT to give you a competitive advantage.  Basically, if I can show them that I'm using TRT to bring my 200 up to an 800 (still well within the range of "normal"), I'd be okay, but if I bring my 200 up to a 2000 I wouldn't be allowed into the cage.

There ARE tests that check your overall T levels - blood tests, not urine as far as I know - but that's not what Overeem failed.

You see, along with T, your body makes another hormone called Epitestosterone (E) that isn't very interesting - it doesn't do too much that we're aware of, and doesn't seem to help with athletic performance.  About the only reason we do care about E is that humans tend to make about as much of it as they do of T - in other words, for pretty much everybody, whatever your T levels are, your E levels will be almost exactly the same.  Have a lot of T (say, you're a teenager watching porn)?  You'll have a lot of E.  Have a low T?  Low E.  The ratio stays at around 1:1.  But what if you inject a bunch of extra T?  Well, the ratio gets out of whack, because it's the stuff your body makes that comes out in a 1:1 ratio - when you inject extra T there's no feedback loop that has your body ramp up its production of E.

Overeem's reported T:E ratio was 14:1.  If that's true it ONLY means that he had a lot of artificial T swimming around in his system.  As far as I know he doesn't have a TRT exemption - that information may be available - but we don't actually know if his T levels were really high OR if his natural T level was ridiculously low an he used supplemental T to get his overall levels to a high-normal range.  I'm not saying that is the case - I'm just saying that we don't know if his T levels were very high, offering him some competitive advantage - only that he was injecting (or smearing through cream) extra T.

Now if Overeem hadn't applied for a TRT exemption and was still applying/ injecting extra T then it doesn't matter if his overall levels were higher than normal or not - he broke the rules, he'll be punished for it.

Please note that I'm not arguing in favor of the current regulations (or against them), I only think we should be clear on what the various test results actually mean.  I'm a little sympathetic to the view that the athletes should be allowed to drug up however much they want to - we're not seriously worried about their health, are we?   If we cared about the long term health of athletes they'd all be in headgear, if combat sports were even legal.  Forget football.  Or marathon running.  High level sports is not good for people!

One last note - if you're an amateur athlete buying illegal drugs to improve your performance then you're an idiot.  Overeem makes hundreds of thousands of dollars to risk his health - if you're an accountant who trains in martial arts for fun, to risk your health at 60 for your hobby is just dumb.  When you buy steroids from some guy at your gym you don't know what's in them, the purity level, etc.  Now if you have low (or low-ish) T levels and you want to get TRT from your doctor, that's another story (the pharmacy will sell you real T, no rat poison in it).  I don't claim to be an expert on Hormone Replacement Therapy, but I suspect that artificically replacing your T levels back to where they were when you were in your mid-20's will have only positive side effects for most people (but I'm NOT positive about this).  

So, stay away from illegal drugs, but consider legal ones.  Osu!