Thursday, February 26, 2015

Neurological fatigue, stress, and high intensity training

I've had a very stressful few years.

I'm not looking for sympathy - far from it - but it's important context for what I'm writing about. I've gotten divorced, started new relationships, gotten engaged, switched careers, and been splitting my time between 2 or 3 locations with 4+ hours driving between them, switching at least every other week. I'm also getting a bit long in the tooth (44!)

Now I've never been particularly athletic in any way, but I've always been able and willing to work pretty hard in various athletic pursuits. That's what I love about martial arts - there is such a systematic and well developed skill set that hard work can achieve so much to level the playing field against better athletes (compare that to, for example, sprinting, where technique means a lot but the best technician who is predominantly slow twitch still won't run nearly as fast as an untrained but very athletic person).

So I'm the guy who's happy to go somewhere and work on something until I've soaked through all my clothes and hit a new pr in whatever I'm doing, five days a week, week in and week out. [Please note that I'm not claiming to be one of the hardest working people out there, just that I'm not below average.]

But over these last few years I've found my ability to push the envelope in my workouts is diminishing.

It's not that my work capacity has gone down or that my ability to push hard has gone down, but I find now that when I push really, really hard, especially if I do it repeatedly (as in, several times a week for several weeks), I get wrecked.

Not wrecked physically - wrecked psychologically.

I had all the signs of being overstressed - noticeably increased anxiety, difficulty focusing, irritability, etc. My workouts were short, but their impact on me was preventing me from living the rest of my life.

The solution?

I started to mail it in when I worked out. I didn't get this idea all by myself - Dan John has been a big influence - but it's the first time in my life I've deliberately taken it easy when exercising.

That sounds crazy, but it works better than you'd think. Suppose I could do 12 reps with an exercise - instead I'd stop at 6 or 7, but do many more sets, with plenty of rest in between. My rule was simple: if I had to get myself psyched up to do something, I didn't do it. I only attempted efforts that I could knock out with little to no real preparation, and nothing that left me shaken afterwards.

Four things:

First, 2 sets of 6 reps of an exercise is much, much less mental stress than 1 set of 12, assuming 12 is pretty close to a max effort for you.

Second, 2 sets of 6 reps (with a load you could handle 12 times) will do a lot more to maintain your strength and fitness than you think - and certainly much more than doing nothing.

Third, keeping all your reps sub-maximal in effort makes it a lot easier to concentrate on proper technique - none of the reps are ever sloppy.

Four, if you're overstressed by life and your workouts, your health and fitness will suffer. Reducing the stress might actually end up leaving you MORE fit than you were when you worked harder. This is doubly true if you're trying to lose bodyfat - being very stressed (high cortisol) can cripple that effort, while easing off some on your workout intensity might leave you leaner than when you were killing yourself in the gym.

I've long been a huge proponent of higher intensity training - and I still hold to that. I still think that you're better off doing light intervals (say, 10s work/ 20 s rest with with something that gets your heart rate nice and high) over a slow, steady jog for the same overall timespan (more on this in a future post).

But if you're in a position where those high intensity killer workouts are killing you, keep the same style of effort (peaks and valleys of effort) but back off on the intensity.

There are certainly days when I push it much harder than others - days when I go for 12 reps at once. But I don't even try to do that every day.

If my life gets any easier, I might go back to regular balls to the wall training. I enjoy doing that. If I do, I'll write about my experiences. But for now I'll be doing much more moderate work, more frequently, and seeing just how fit I can get using that modality.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Pain, the nocebo effect, and good instruction

I just listened to a very interesting podcast here. I'm not a huge fan of Jon Fass as a fitness expert (he seems like a perfectly lovely person, I just have intellectual qualms about his stuff generally), for reasons not worth addressing here unless someone asks in comments, but he is pretty knowledgeable about some things and what he said about pain jives well with things I already knew.

The podcast is worth listening to, but I can summarize the key points:

  1. Pain is not as simple as: damage to the body ==> pain. For example, some people have back pain. Some of them, when examined with MRI's, have damage to parts of their spines (herniated discs, fractured vertebrae, etc.) It is easy to assume that the damage causes the pain. But when people who have no pain are picked off the street randomly and tested they often show very similar damage - but no pain at all.
  2. Pain is profoundly influenced by expectations and psychology (which is not the same as saying it's 'all in your head'). Take the placebo effect. Give someone a sugar pill but tell them it's a painkiller and they will often feel better - the pain goes away. Similarly, there is a nocebo effect - give someone a treatment that they think might have side effects and they might experience pain even if you're not actually doing anything to them.
  3. In short, a person's beliefs and expectations can influence whether or not they experience pain from a particular physical situation. There are probably physical states that are always painful (broken leg?) and some that are never painful, but there is a much wider range in the middle that might go either way.
None of which is to say you should ignore pain or encourage your students to do so (in the context that I think we all understand that there is a difference between the temporary, normal, and mild pain of muscular exertion and the pain of injury). Pain is often a real and important indicator of mechanical injury. Unless you're an orthopedist, if a student of yours is in injury-type pain I wouldn't suggest you do anything other than refer them to a physician.

But you should also understand that certain beliefs might make your students more likely to experience pain. And as an instructor or a fellow student, your words can have a profound impact on other people's beliefs and expectations.

Let me give a quick example. I played (American) football (poorly, but I was on the team) in high school. Everyone was hyper-aware of the risk of knee injury, and it was thought by most of us that almost all hard training was likely to cause long term knee damage. We all told each other this, and all believed it. We took it in stride (and some misguided pride) that playing football would give us all 'bad knees' eventually. 

So my knees hurt. By my junior year I had constant low grade pain in my knees. Then I stopped practicing (my career ended), and the knee pain dissipated.

Did I have damage to my knees that healed? Was there some physical, mechanical abnormality in my knees in high school that went away? Perhaps. But I often did more and harder training (albeit of slightly different kinds) in later years and never had even a tiny amount of pain at any other point in my life, up to and including now. I have also never done any training since then that I believed would cause knee pain.

I'm pretty sure my expectations of getting 'bad knees' led to my knee pain in high school. It's hard to imagine another explanation for a pain that simply went away, without any intervention, never to return, even as I aged and did a lot of hard training later in life. 

What is the point? If a student comes to you with a sharp pain, take it seriously. I would never suggest otherwise. HOWEVER there are things you can do during training that might prevent the pain from ever occurring.

When you teach proper form, it is (I think?) only natural to suggest to people that doing things incorrectly can lead to injury. Locking joints while striking, letting knees cave inwards in stances, etc. all put the body in compromising positions that can lead to injury.

The problem is that telling your students this makes it more likely that they'll experience those injuries (by the nocebo effect). Obviously, the right solution is NOT to avoid teaching proper form. But when teaching proper form, emphasize the non-injury-related aspects of that form. Teach your students to use proper alignment because it's more efficient, takes less energy, increases accuracy, or increases power. Or even because it looks better.

You should continue to demand that your students constantly improve their technical abilities, but you should probably emphasize all the reasons for this without talking about how it will make them less likely to get hurt. Because if you do, then when they realize their form isn't absolutely perfect (because almost nobody has perfect form), they might believe that their technique is hurting them - and that belief itself makes it more likely that it will.

Once again: Don't lie to your students. Don't ignore a student in pain or suggest that they ignore pain. Do teach proper movement to minimize the chances that your students get hurt. Do emphasize all the reasons for that proper movement EXCEPT the fact that it will minimize their risk of injury.


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.


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.


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.


(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.


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: