Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Intermittent Fasting for Karate

Intermittent fasting (IF) is an eating strategy that's been around for a long time, but has been more prominent in the news the last few months for some reason. I'm a fan (the blog description even lists IF as one of its cornerstones), so I thought I'd discuss it for anyone who is curious.

What is Intermittent Fasting?
This is sort of tricky, because almost everyone practices a kind of IF. Most people go at least 8-10 hours a day without food - while they're sleeping. I know there are some people who get up in the middle of the night to grab some kind of snack, but they're in a minority.
So for an eating plan to 'count' as IF the fasts should be longer than 8-10 hours. Here's a pretty good start:
IF is a plan whereby one deliberately and on a regular basis goes without calorie containing food (so water is fine) for stretches of time that are at least 12 hours (NOTE: for most IF strategies the fasts are at least 16 hours long, so consider 12 the very shortest fast that might barely count as a fast) but NOT longer than 36 hours.
The MOST COMMON strategies I've seen are:
1. Restricted feeding window - Eat every day, but only for a period of time between 4 and 8 hours. So maybe every day eat normally between noon and 8 PM, then fast until noon the next day - this is a 16 hour fast, and an 8 hour eating window, sometimes called 16:8. You can shorten the feeding window, to get a 18:6 or 20:4 or whatever.
2. Every other day eating - one or more days per week, don't eat or eat MUCH LESS food than normal. So if your fast day is Monday, you'd eat normally on Sunday, stop at night, on Monday consume either NO calories at all or many fewer calories than normal - perhaps 20-40% of your 'normal' daily food intake. Obviously, you couldn't do this more than three days a week (or alternate 3 and 4), but most plans like this seem to average around 2 'fast' days per week.

What is IF good for?
This is the question.
In my opinion, you have to look at IF, and at the evidence supporting it, in 3 ways:
1. IF (probably) helps you create and maintain a caloric deficit, and caloric deficits have benefits;
2. IF may have health/performance benefits even compared to a diet with the same calories that are more spread throughout the day;
3. IF has lifestyle advantages that are completely separate from 1 and 2.

The reason I split these up is that the evidence in support of each point is different, and people comparing IF to other eating plans often get these confused. I'll address each one.

#1: IF helps you create and maintain a caloric deficit
Not everyone wants a caloric deficit (the leangains guys will use IF to build muscle), and this is NOT the only reason to do IF, but a huge selling point for IF is that it makes it much easier to eat fewer calories, and to sustain that lower caloric intake for a long period of time.
Suppose someone eats 4 times a day, about 500 calories per meal (that's like, a small sandwich and a Diet Coke), for 2000 total calories a day (much more likely is a 350 calorie breakfast, a 450 calorie lunch, 2 snacks for 100 calories each, and a 1000 calorie dinner, or something like that, but I'm trying to keep my math simpler). Suppose that person wants to create a 500 calorie deficit, because they're trying to lose bodyfat or increase insulin sensitivity or for some other health/appearance goal.
That person COULD shrink all their meals by 125 calories each. Eat 3/4 of a sandwich instead of a whole sandwich. OR that person could just skip one of the 4 meals, and eat 'regular' meals the rest of the time.
This probably isn't universally true, but for many (possibly most) people it is much easier to skip a meal every day than to eat the same number of smaller, less satisfying meals. Think about how people overeat - most people eat a large dessert or something at the end a meal, we are less likely to just go have a huge dessert in the middle of the afternoon. Eating triggers more eating for many of us, especially those of us who are overweight (those of us who need that caloric deficit the most).
Now there is definitely an adaption period to IF - if you're used to eating all day, then going all morning or an entire day without food is not easy. But in my experience it takes at most 2 weeks to adjust, and most often less than that. Your body 'learns' to go without food. Obviously, 36 hour fasts are a little more challenging than adopting a 16:8 eating window, but almost everyone I've known who has tried it has been surprised at how easy it is, and how much easier it is than eating the same number of meals but with smaller portions.
Now, what's the point of having a caloric deficit? That's primarily (though not entirely) about body composition. Meaning, in order to lose bodyfat, you pretty much have to cut calories. There are also probably benefits for everybody to be in a caloric deficit at least some of the time, to improve insulin sensitivity and increase autophagy, but that's less clear (in other words, I'm really sure that if you have too much bodyfat, you should be in a caloric deficit, and I suspect that periodic caloric deficits are good for everybody, but I'm less confident in the latter).

#2: IF may have health/performance/longevity benefits even compared to an isocaloric diet
There is a ton of research on the health impact of caloric deficits, but IF proponents often claim that IF has benefits separate from the caloric deficit. In other words, an eating plan where someone eats 1800 calories a day in a 4 hour window (maybe 2 large meals) will have a different outcome than someone who eats the same number of calories spread out through the day (3 small meals and a couple of snacks, covering 12-16 hours of the day).
I'm going to sum up the research on this. Basically, there are a few reasons why we think regularly going without food for long-ish periods of time does things to your body that don't happen when you trickle in a constant supply of food, even if the total amount is the same.
A: Longevity - there is some evidence that IF makes small animals live longer. This may or may not cross over to humans. I find the evidence compelling but not certain.
B: Insulin Sensitivity - IF may improve insulin sensitivity. I have heard diabetes researchers (actual MD's working in clinics, not the trainer at the gym) who claim IF does wonders for patients with type II Diabetes. If you're overweight you probably have poor insulin sensitivity, so this would be a good thing. I find the evidence here more compelling but still not absolutely conclusive.
C: Preserving Lean Tissue - IF, counter-intuitively, seems to make it easier to hold onto your muscle mass. This is a good thing. When you lose 'weight,' you really want to lose bodyfat while NOT losing muscle. IF may help with that. The evidence here is moderately convincing.
D: Autophagy and cancer prevention - When you don't eat for a while, your body starts 'looking' for places to get nutrients. One of those ways is to ramp up the cleanup processes that normally happen, clearing damaged proteins out of cells, looking to recycle nutrients. This is probably a good thing. Some research suggests that periods of fasting can help prevent cancer by putting your body in a position to kill cancerous cells very early in their formation. Evidence? More than none, but don't skip your chemo just because you didn't have breakfast.

#3: Lifestyle benefits of IF
Once you get used to IF, the benefits to everyday life are pretty large, especially when compared to an isocaloric (same total food in take) but more spread out plan.
A: Time - Eating fewer meals means saving time - less time preparing, less time eating. Cooking a 1000 calorie meal does not take much longer than cooking a 700 calorie meal, so removing a meal or two from your day is a big savings.
B: Social - On IF it is MUCH easier to eat out and socialize than on a 'regular' calorie-restricted diet. For better or worse, a lot of modern social life revolves around eating. It is VERY hard to be on a regular diet and go to a restaurant or a family function without either cheating or having a miserable time staying away from all the food. On IF, as long as you schedule social events during your eating window (which is usually pretty easy), you can often eat pretty much everything you want and still stay on track. For example, last night I knew I was going out to my favorite restaurant, so I ate only a light snack, about 320 calories, at 3PM and really pigged out on Korean food at 7. If I'd had a 'normal' breakfast and lunch I would have had to really restrain myself at dinner to stay in a deficit for the day. If your style of IF means fasting 2 full days a week, just pick days when you aren't out with friends.
C: Building resilience to fasts - IF builds up your ability to skip meals (because you're doing it every day). Suppose you're traveling and can't find a place you like for lunch. Just... don't eat lunch! If you're used to getting 3 or 4 squares a day, skipping lunch can be daunting, but for an experienced IFer it's no problem. And traveling is MUCH easier if you know you don't have to find places to eat all day long. It is very liberating to not worry about getting all your meals in.

But can I train while fasting?
Short answer: yes, especially once you get used to it (that is, workouts while fasted might be tough for you for a couple of weeks, but you'll adapt quickly).
If you're doing longer fasts, followed by longer workouts, you might have a hard time. So don't plan any 36 hour fasts that lead up to, for example, a belt promotion, or a weekend of camp where you're training 6 hours a day. Skip the fasts during times right before exceptionally long training sessions. But I've often followed 20 hour fasts with 2 hour martial arts classes, including sparring, and seen very little downside.

Summary:
IF definitely frees up some of your time and makes travel easier.
IF is a really, really good way for many people to help manage a caloric deficit (in other words, if you're trying to cut calories, IF is a good way to make that easier to maintain).
IF is very likely a good way to improve insulin sensitivity. So if you're pre-diabetic, have a history of diabetes, or are Type II Diabetic (in which case talk to your doctor before making any dietary changes), IF is probably going to help.
IF might improve your immune system, might increase your lifespan, and might help prevent cancer.
IF might help you increase or preserve muscle mass, especially when in a caloric deficit.

If you need to/want to lose bodyfat IF is probably a really good choice. If not, it might be a good choice for the other reasons, but I can't say that with as much confidence.
Last point: if you're pregnant or still growing or breastfeeding, don't fast. If you have a metabolic disorder (like diabetes), talk to your doctor first. Otherwise, remember that if you're not used to fasting, you'll probably feel like crap when you first try it, but the adaption is really fast. As in, you'll be okay within a week or two.

Osu.


Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Agility Ladders and Speed for Martial Arts

Every martial artist wants to be fast; the faster you are, the better you're going to be at hitting the other person while not getting hit yourself. The questions are, what is speed, and how do you train for it? Martial arts speed is not the same thing as speed for a marathoner or for a 100 m sprinter.

I was listening to two podcast interviews about speed training and realized that part of the problem is people thinking the wrong way about speed - seeing one attribute and thinking that it means the person is fast, when in fact it doesn't.

The first interview was with Mike Boyle on the Strength Coach Podcast (which I love). I can't remember which episode, but he was talking about training hockey players, and how he introduced a test where he timed how fast they could skate across the rink. What was interesting was that his results didn't match what the coaches thought of their own players. There were players who seemed slow but actually got across the ice quickly, and players who seemed fast but weren't actually getting across the ice fast.

What was the difference? The players who were thought to be fast but weren't tended to have fast, quick movements with their feet. Their feet were moving around a lot, but that wasn't necessarily translating into higher velocities in the rink.

Think about hockey - you want players who can get from one side of the rink to the other quickly - move their bodies along the ice quickly - not just move their skates fast. But fast moving skates makes someone look fast, so that's what the coaches were thinking about. Until someone came along with a stopwatch and actually timed how long it took to get from blue line to blue line (or something like that, I'm not a hockey guy).

The second enlightening interview, this one on the Just Fly Performance Podcast but I can't find the episode, was with a track coach talking about how useless agility ladders were for speed training.

Agility ladders are a common tool for speed development. They look like a ladder made of ropes or thin chains, laid out on the ground, and people either run through them or do little drills - hopping side to side, trying to get their feet to move faster and faster through the squares set up by the ladder.

The coach (again, sorry I forgot his name) found that players who did a lot of agility ladder work didn't actually get faster at moving their bodies, just their feet. In fact, the ones who did the most on the agility ladder got slower. What do I mean? They got good at having their feet dance around, left to right, in intricate patterns, but worse at actually accelerating their center of mass.

Watch some video of agility ladder training. In a LOT of the drills, the trainees are moving their feet really quickly, back and forth, often changing direction really quickly. Now watch the video again, and pay attention to the center of their body - somewhere around the sternum. Is that part moving fast, or are the feet just dancing around?

Having quick feet isn't a bad thing, but it's not that valuable to a martial artist (or a football player, or a soccer player, or really almost any kind of athlete). What you WANT is to be able to quickly accelerate and decelerate your center of mass - get your body moving fast, then stopping, then moving back the other way. If your feet are all over the place but your chest stays relatively still, your'e not going to be able to escape an attack or get yourself into position to counterattack. Imagine someone coming at you with, say, a front kick to the solar plexus. What's important there - having fast feet or getting your torso out of the way?

But, being able to fly around an agility ladder LOOKS impressive. It looks fast. And that's the problem.

I do not want to recommend a complete speed training program at this point - I have some ideas, but nothing definitive. I'm pretty sure that something like kettlebell swings and some work with minibands will do a lot more for your combat speed than running through an agility ladder routine.

If you are thinking about an exercise, and wondering if it will help speed, here's a quick list of things to think about:
1. Does the drill involve moving your body (the center of your torso)? It should!
2. Does the drill involve more than two steps in any direction? It shouldn't! Fighting speed is how fast you can take one or two steps, no more.
3. Are you doing the drill at maximum speed and force, or does it last so long that you pace yourself? Speed drills should be done fast an explosively. If you're pacing yourself to get through it, it's not going to make you faster (though it might be improving your endurance).

In short, agility ladders might be good for a warmup or a supplement to speed training, but they shouldn't be your primary tool. To get faster, get better at putting larger amounts of force into the ground, quickly.

Osu!

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

6 things you're probably (maybe) doing wrong in your training

I've had a lot of posts lately going over some details about training. Details are important, and a big part of why I write this blog is to organize my thoughts about some cutting edge ideas. Lately, almost all I've been talking about is aerobic development, largely because that's where I'm learning the most new stuff over the past year or so.

But not every reader of this blog has read every post, and the biggest take home points I'd like to make are probably buried a year or more back in the archives.

I don't mean to insult anybody - it's possible that you, dear reader, are training according to principles much better than mine, in which case this blog post is going to be worthless. But I have seen a lot of martial artists make some or all of these mistakes. So here are my big take home points:

1. Your strength training is too easy. Trying to get stronger? Build more muscle? (These are not the same thing, but they're related). If you're counting on pushups and deep stances to do it, that's probably not going to be effective for long. To get stronger you must do an exercise that is loaded in such a way that you couldn't do more than 10 or 12 reps or 30-40 seconds worth of that exercise. If 10 pushups is a real struggle for you, then great, doing sets of 8-10 pushups will be strength training. If you can do 25 pushups, then no number of pushups will get you stronger effectively. You have to either modify the pushup (take an arm away, change hand position, elevate your feet) or change the load (wear a weight vest, have a friend sit on your back) to make it a strength training exercise. Holding a deep horse stance for several minutes sure is hard, but it's not going to make you significantly stronger than doing it for 30 seconds.

2. Your practice techniques too hard and for too long too often. We train to kick and punch. What better way to get better at kicking and punching for a long time (i.e. improve our endurance) than to punch and kick until we're exhausted, right? Except that's probably not a good idea. Sure, doing one of those super hard challenge workouts where you're falling over at the end once in a while is probably a good thing, but you should be as fresh as possible for almost every repetition of your basic techniques during practice. Why? Because when you're tired you're slow and sloppy. Practicing while tired means practicing slow, sloppy techniques. And your nervous system adapts to what it practices. So MOST of your repetitions should be done fast, hard, and crisp. If you need to do improve your endurance, add a few sets of burpees or sprints to the end of your practice, when you're tired. After all, your goal isn't to be good at burpees, it's to be good at karate techniques.

3. You don't think enough about recovery. Do you even own a foam roller? Do you get massages? Do you measure your protein intake? Do you plan rest days and deloads into your practice? It's probably okay to stretch and so some light skills practice almost all the time, but your harder work can't be done every day. If you do your hard workouts every day, either you'll be doing them hard enough, and you'll break down and get hurt, or you are not actually working as hard as you think.

4. Too much static stretching. Don't do static stretching (getting into, and holding, a stretched position) for long periods (holding for 20 or 30 seconds or more) before training. Static stretching may be beneficial, or at least not detrimental (the research is mixed) if you do it AFTER training, but do NOT do it before training. You'll just make your muscles less powerful and impair your practice. Warm up carefully, stretching dynamically, and only do your long static stretches at the end of your workout (24 or more hours before you plan to work out again).

5. You eat like crap. Yes, nutrition matters. And it's confusing - paleo, low carb, keto, vegan, vegetarian, mediterranean... there are lots of diet plans out there. Not sure what to do? Let's make it simple. A. Eat less (ideally no) simple sugar. I'm NOT saying eat no carbohydrates, just little or no simple sugar (look for sucrose or high fructose corn syrup in the ingredients). Soda and sweets are the biggest offenders. B. Eat no hydrogenated vegetable oil. Trans fats are bad. C. Use little or no seed oils. Don't cook with corn oil, vegetable oil, or canola oil. Use olive oil, coconut oil, macadamia nut oil, walnut oil, or butter. D. Eat way more vegetables and fruit. E. If you're fat, eat a little less every day. If you're too skinny, eat a little more every day. 

6. You train  your core muscles the wrong way. Your core - the set of muscles that work together to either move or prevent movement of the spine - are super important. Lots of martial artists train their core by moving it, doing things like crunches (flexing the spine), back extensions (extending the spine), or windshield wipers (rotating the spine). This is probably wrong, and you should either never or rarely do these kinds of exercises. The thing is, you don't really want your spine moving much when you perform techniques. You don't want to rotate your spine to generate punching power - you really want your spine to NOT rotate when your hips twist, so the power from your legs can be transmitted through your arms. How do you train your core to keep your spine in place? Train it to! Think planks (hold the spine steady while gravity is working to try to extend it - anti-extension) instead of crunches (flexing the spine). Think one arm planks (gravity is trying to rotate the spine, your core has to work to keep it straight, so it's anti-rotation) instead of windshield wipers (rotating the spine to move your legs while your shoulders stay in place). Your back will thank you for it, and so will your performance.


I tried to make this post as generic as possible. We don't have all the answers to every detail around training. Think about #3 above - what exactly is the best way to enhance recovery? Should you ice sore muscles? Well, the science around that has gone back and forth, and I can't give a definitive answer right now, but I bet almost all of us could benefit from a little more quality sleep and a massage now and again. What's the optimal diet for performance? Again, it's unclear - but I know it's not centered on Corn Flakes and McDonald's.

This is the kind of advice that every strength coach in high level training for things like football or soccer would take for granted, and it's also the kind of advice every martial artists should be incorporating.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Moral and Spiritual Implications of Hard Training

I was listening to this podcast the other day, an interview with Jonathan Bluestein.

[Sidenote: Bluestein is really worth paying attention to - I really enjoyed his book. He writes mostly about internal martial arts, and I disagree with at least 40% of what he says, but most of it is well argued and thought provoking.]

In the podcast Bluestein makes an assertion about how training in the internal martial arts - such as tai chi - makes people morally better. He did that thing that drives me nuts, making an interesting claim about internal martial arts and supporting it with nonsense (I think it was something about tense muscles having a negative influence on character, which is pretty unsupported and kind of ridiculous), but he got me thinking.

My first reaction was to dismiss this idea. But this notion - that the slow internal arts lead to moral superiority - is very tightly ingrained in our culture. Think about our stereotypes - who is more likely to start a fight, a kickboxing instructor or a tai chi instructor? I don't mean that hard martial artists are actually more violent or of lesser character, only that our stereotypes align with that view. I've also heard from many practitioners some version of "I felt like a better person when I gave up external, hard training for softer, internal arts." Could there be some nugget of truth to this story?

I have an hypothesis about this topic.

First, if you don't remember what the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems are, do some reading, you can look at my blog post about this topic here. Short review: these are two parts of your autonomic (involuntary) nervous system; the sympathetic is activated with fight or flight - stress, adrenaline, getting you ready to run from or kill a predator. The parasympathetic system is opposite -it's kicked in when you're relaxed, happy, digesting a huge meal or something.

The thing is, when your sympathetic system is strongly engaged, your body is preparing for violence or extreme physical activity. Generally speaking, that means you're going to have a higher heart rate, higher levels of stress hormones, and be jumpier. It also means that, at least for many people, you're going to be quicker to anger, quicker to violence, and more likely to snap at others or overreact to stimuli. Your body is primed for combat. Different people will get dramatically different degrees of this behavior, but for any given person, they are most likely to be irritable or violent when highly sympathetic.
[Don't believe me? Do something that scares the crap out of your spouse (jump out at them or set off an airhorn), then do something that really annoys them. Then, a week later, repeat that experiment, but feed them a huge meal instead of scaring them, then do the same annoying thing. Let me know how it works out for you.]

When the parasympathetic system is engaged, your personality gets pushed in the opposite direction. You're more relaxed, less prone to a quick reaction, and less violently emotional.

I'm not saying that this completely determines behavior. I'm pretty sure that a parasympathetic Mike Tyson is still quicker to anger than a highly stressed sympathetic Dalai Lama. But for any given person, they get pushed one way or the other depending on which system is most active.

Now imagine someone who does a stereotypical external art - karate or kickboxing or something like that. They engage in hard, spirited training on a regular basis. They get deeply anaerobic, doing very intense activity, flooding their body with signals that say, "we need every last bit of reserves here, we're doing some very difficult things." And remember, your body doesn't really know the difference between a hard sparring session and an actual fight.

That training style - high intensity, all the time - is constantly activating the sympathetic nervous system. That's the system that gets us through hard workouts. And some people are really naturally good at coming down from that state, and getting into deep relaxation quickly afterwards. But most people won't. They'll just have an overactive, overstimulated sympathetic nervous system all the time.

And what do you think happens when such a person runs into a confrontation or a challenging situation? We know that some hard training karateka have very tranquil demeanors, but someone who does a lot of hard training is going to be less likely to be calm and tranquil, and more likely to be emotional and tense, because their body is flooded with stress hormones and neurotransmitters that were designed to help us fight off bears.

Suppose that same person, instead of karate, had taken up tai chi. The training sessions for tai chi involve a lot of standing or moving very slowly and focusing on easy breathing. The workouts aren't intense (physically) or anaerobic - your body doesn't get the signal "start releasing energy, because we're doing something very demanding" the way it would with hard physical training. In fact, while it's not the same as tai chi, yoga (another discipline made up of slow, easy movements) has been shown to activate the parasympathetic nervous system. Slow, deliberate moving is probably even better for activating the parasympathetic system than resting on a couch.

Who's going to be more likely to snap at their kids or curse and yell at someone cutting them off in traffic? We can see this with people all the time - stress makes us worse people (some people under terrible stress are still wonderful people, but not as good or easygoing as they would have been without it). And hard workouts are a stress just as much as divorce or problems at work or obnoxious kids.

This is why, in my opinion, hard training people often take up meditation or internal martial arts later in life and talk about that practice in such glowing terms. It makes them feel better. After an hour of karate, doing a half hour of seated meditation or tai chi or yoga will activate the parasympathetic system, and if yours hasn't been active, that can be a blissfully enjoyable experience (try it!)

The mistake is in thinking that the softer, easier practice is a good replacement for hard training. You simply don't get the adaptations from slow easy movement that you can get from striving to be as forceful and explosive as possible. I don't have data on it, but I seriously doubt that tai chi is going to do as much for bone density or jumping ability as Crossfit or kyokushin karate training.

So what are our choices? Train hard and resign ourselves to being snappy, angry people? Absolutely not.

The thing we need to do, especially if we train hard, is to recognize that the hard training is pushing us into a place where we shouldn't stay. We don't want to be sympathetic all the time. It's not good for our bodies or our character.

You need to plan, as part of your hard training, activities that de-activate that sympathetic system and bring you back to a middle ground. You need to plan activites that activate the parasympathetic system, maybe the day after your hardest training sessions.

Have a 2 hour sparring day? Don't just sit around the next day - actively compensate for it with some yoga, some tai chi, a gentle walk in nature, a massage, or significant seated meditation (and sorry, I doubt 3 minutes at the end of class is going to do the trick).

This will not only make you an easier person to live with, which is its own reward, but will improve your health and help you recover physically for the next hard session of training.

[Another side note: I don't mean to denigrate tai chi as a combat art, or say that its only purpose is to relax people after hard training. I only mean that I think the reason so many people feel spiritually connected to tai chi is because the physical qualities of its practice - the slowness, breathing, and mental concentration - are all likely to activate the parasympathetic system, which most of us need more of.]

Conclusion: Train hard, but relax hard too. Osu!

Saturday, February 3, 2018

What you should be listening to

I'm a big fan of podcasts - I listen to several a day, often playing while I'm either working or working out. I mostly listen to podcasts related to martial arts or to training, and I wanted to share some of my favorites.

Traditional Martial Arts
My all time favorite podcast for traditional martial arts is The Applied Karate Show, but Des hasn't posted a new episode in years, so I've had to branch out!

Whistlekick Martial Arts Radio is a really nice podcast, hosted by the owner of a sparring equipment company of the same name (I will one day buy stuff from him and review it, but haven't yet). The show is quite good, but it's greatest strengths are consistency and volume. Jeremy puts out two episodes a week, meaning there's a lot to listen to, but not every guest is stellar. I do find that later episodes are consistently higher in quality, as you might expect. Episodes formats are a short audio blog from Jeremy on some topic (they're fine) alternated with interviews with various martial artists, some of which are really well done. It focuses more on stories than on technique or training specifics.

Martial Thoughts is put out more sporadically but still regularly. Early episodes were more round table discussions, but the host settled into an interview/news format that works really well. This show has a greater variety of guests - not just practicing/competing martial arts instructors, but also people who research traditional European swordfighting, a guy who hand crafts wooden swords, and other interesting people around the martial arts world.

Both of these shows are hosted by men I identify with strongly - they both seem like people I'd be friends with. Both shows made really good additions to my listening.


Sport Martial Arts
Two podcasts focus on analysis of striking in MMA - Fights Gone By and Heavy Hands. Fights Gone By is Jack Slack's show, with every episode consisting of Jack, by himself, breaking down fights, making predictions about upcoming events, and generally being amazing. Jack Slack was the pioneer of striking analysis for MMA. If you like to fight in any way (any kind of free sparring, not just MMA), Jack's work is invaluable.

Heavy Hands might be even better than Fights Gone By. That show has two hosts, Connor and Patrick, who break down fights, but even more valuably cover generalizations and trends. For example, they spend a lot of time talking about types of fighters and their tendencies (outfighters, pressure fighters, etc.) in a way that has really helped me both in my training and in how I apreciate and understand fights I watch.

The dropoff in MMA podcasting after these two is sharp. Lots of other shows cover news, personalities, and so forth, but these two are head and shoulders above the rest for technical analysis.


General Training
I've been listening to the FitCast for around a decade, and the show has only gotten better with age. However, the focus of most shows is on the business side of fitness, coaching, and so forth - not as much on things like physiology, exercise selection, sets and reps, and that stuff. I highly recommend this show if you're a trainer or a coach or running a business, not so much if you're just looking to get in shape yourself.

For high end training info I've been really enjoying Just Fly, which is aimed mostly at track and field athletes but has really good information that can be adapted for anyone trying to be more athletic.

I should probably look into some more of this type of show to get more training information. I will, once I've caught up on the martial arts stuff (I'm about a year behind!)


General Nutrition and Health
I've gotten less and less value from general health and nutrition podcasts over the last couple of years. There was a time when a lot of what I heard was really interesting, but the message has gotten more and more repetitive (which isn't really a bad thing). I'm not going to pretend I live a perfectly healthy life, but I have a pretty good understanding of what's involved in it, and taking in more podcasts telling me to sleep more, eat whole foods, de-stress, and hang out with friends isn't going to help me do it.

I get a nice mixed bag of more cutting edge nutrition and training information from Sigma Nutrition Radio. If you're going to listen to just one health/nutrition show, make that it.

I still listen to Rob Wolf and Chris Kresser, but it's more out of habit than out of the hope that I'll learn anything new.


How to Listen
I'm an Android guy, and the app I use is Podcast Republic. It's pretty much perfect - makes it easy to get my shows, makes it easy to organize them, and is fairly intuitive to use. It has really nice sound manipulation features (for shows that are too soft or have bad sound quality), and my favorite feature, which is speed manipulation. I listen now to most shows at 1.3 - 1.5 speed. It's not hard to understand most people if you speed up their speech - I think it takes a lot more mental effort to compose a sentence than to comprehend it - so there's a lot of wasted time if you listen to a podcast at real time speed. Try upping the speed.

Also, DONATE. These shows are all free, but most have ways you can funnel them money, like a Patreon page. Obviously, if you're strapped for cash yourself, don't give Jack Slack money and skip meals. But if you can afford it, try sending them some money, both as a thank you and to motivate the creators to keep putting out quality content (and yes, I do this, I contribute small monthly amounts to almost every show on this list).

Monday, January 29, 2018

Why You Should Kiai

There was some UFC card the other weekend where many female fighters were kiai-ing with every strike, and I saw an unrelated debate on an online forum about the value of the kiai. Most of the commentary kind of missed the point of the kiai, so I thought I'd weigh in.

What is a kiai?
In case not everyone means the same thing when they say 'kiai,' allow me to clarify. A kiai is a quick, loud (more or less as loud as you can make it) shout that is done pretty much at the point of contact for a strike (or block, I guess, though more often a strike). A proper kiai should have no hard consonant sounds in it, though some people kiai with some 's' sounds in it. A super loud 'ha' usually does the trick. The louder the better, and it should not drag on for several seconds (you do see that long drawn out scream in some performance kata, but I believe that is a mistake). And the shout is supposed to come from the belly, not the upper chest (which is necessary if you want to make the loudest sound).

What are the benefits of a kiai during a match? (short answer: not much)
It's a fun little trick to stand close to somebody who isn't ready for it and kiai, to demonstrate the way their body locks up. It would be nice if performing a kiai during a sparring match or a 'real' fight would have the same effect, and maybe it could, but I rather doubt it. When someone is ready for you, facing you, and psychologically prepared for some kind of combat, I highly doubt yelling at them is going to have any significant impact.

A secondary possible benefit of the kiai during a sport competition is to help convince judges that you have, in fact, scored a point or a significant blow. I have heard this from more experienced competitors, and I'll put it out there as a possible good reason to kiai during point fighting or even contact fighting (in situations where judges sometimes render decisions about the fight outcome).

What are the (psychological) benefits of a kiai during training?
Some people (maybe most?) can feel energized by being in a class full of like minded people shouting loudly as they execute techniques. Some feel this is a display of strong karate spirit.

I am absolutely on board with anyone who sees this as a benefit. On its own, I don't see that it justifies the importance we place on the kiai in training, but there are other reasons (see below!)

What are the physical benefits of a kiai during training?
Now we get to the bread and butter of this post.

I don't talk about the 'core' enough, but here's the idea in a nutshell:
1. Your upper body (ribs, shoulders, arms) is connected to your lower body (hips and legs) by your spine.
2. Your spine is not rigid. It can bend and twist in all kinds of directions.
3. When generating power from your lower body, and transmitting it to your upper body, the more your spine twists and bends the less efficient the power transmission. Imagine trying to hammer in a nail with a pool noodle.
4. When transmitting power through your spine, you need the muscles in that region to contract, making the link between your upper and lower body as rigid as possible (it won't be perfectly rigid, that's okay, but you don't want to be floppy either).
5. Those muscles are collectively referred to as the 'core.' The core is a bunch of muscles, some of which you can see (if you're lean enough, like what people call 'abs' and lats) and some of which are 'deep' (meaning closer to the spine).
6. Even if your core muscles are strong, you have to be able to contract the right ones at the right times in the right pattern to get the most stiffness in your core.

Why am I saying all this now? Because one of the best ways to make sure that those deep core muscles are activated (working) is to make a hard, deep exhalation (blow out), using the diaphragm (so breathing from the belly, more than from the upper chest).

In fact, in sports performance, lots of strength coaches are making a big deal out of having their athletes exhale forcefully, from their bellies, when they want to perform high force movements.

Now guess what?

You can't kiai without making a forceful, deep, diaphragmatic exhalation. The exact kind of exhalation that maximally engages the deep core muscles and stabilizes your core.

Now of course you can contract those muscles without exhaling, and you can exhale without shouting. But the cue (the instruction) to kiai is an external cue, which is generally better than an internal cue (like, "squeeze your abs really hard"). For many people, especially not-great-athletes, shouting comes fairly naturally, while controlling the deep core muscles requires a lot of concentration.

Another advantage of the kiai is that an instructor can hear it. You can sort of tell if a student has a floppy core when they punch, but it's much easier to hear that someone's kiai is weak. It's a fast diagnostic that can help you figure out quickly if there is something particularly wrong with the way a student is executing a technique.

In short:
1. A kiai, because it requires a hard exhalation, will force the core to contract, stabilizing the torso and improving power transmission from the lower body;
2. A kiai can be heard, making it easy for an instructor to make sure the student is exhaling at the proper time, with the proper force.

When you should kiai
I wouldn't argue that students should kiai with every repetition of their training, every class. I think it would make your throat hurt and make classes kind of annoying. And I think that our goal should be to learn from the kiai how to use our core, so that we are able to do it without thinking and without shouting. In other words, I think the kiai should be seen as a great training tool for relatively newer students, and something to be used more sparingly with more advanced students.

But for those who think the kiai is 'just dumb' or 'pointless,' I say that it's a very effective and simple way to teach students how to use their deep core muscles, and that's extremely valuable for instructors.


Friday, January 12, 2018

Some Motivational TV and Crossfit

I'm sure we'd all love to say that we're always 100% committed to training hard, but... that's not always true, at least for everyone.

Martial arts films and books are often good ways to get re-inspired, and I've talked about some in the past.

Another type of documentary I've been enjoying lately are related to professional athletes in Crossfit or strength events. These are people who are in amazing shape, and can do amazing things, even if they aren't making newspaper headlines on a regular basis.

On Netflix in the US, catch Fittest On Earth - there are at least a couple of them out, and each covers one of the Crossfit Games events. These are the highest level Crossfit competitors on earth, and in pretty much every event each athlete does things I can't even imagine doing.

There's also a documentary called Functional  Fitness, which has more coverage of run of the mill Crossfitters (as opposed to the absolute elites). Seeing passionate amateurs doing some impressive things may be more (or less) motivational to you than watching the elites.

While you're on Netflix, if you want some good martial arts action watch the Daredevil TV show. Great fun. NOT realistic, but it's not supposed to be.

For some strongman stuff, Eddie Strongman, Born Strong, CT Fletcher, and Generation Iron were all fun (I clearly spend too much time streaming and not enough training).

None of these films are particularly worthwhile if you're looking to develop a training routine or learn more about fitness, but they're entertaining and motivational.

Now a word about Crossfit: martial artists often ask whether 'doing Crossfit' will help their martial arts. The short answer is that it might. Not all Crossfit gyms are created equal, and MANY Crossfit gyms (they call them boxes) pay too little attention to scaling workouts. Crossfit in general emphasizes workouts that push you into a very, very fatigued state, and doing high risk explosive movements when you're very tired is a very, very good way to get hurt.

In other words: doing Olympic lifts until you are ready to throw up is probably not safe. If you're a fantastic athlete you can probably get away with it, but this blog is not for people who are already fantastic athletes.

So if you want to do Crossfit, be careful that you find a gym that is less gung ho and more about scaling and safety. And no, you don't NEED to do Crossfit to get into very good shape.