Thursday, September 30, 2010

My Battle Against Libraphobia

My name is Joe and I'm a Libraphobe.  (Now you all say, "Hi, Joe," and I stand and tell my story).

You may be wondering what Libraphobia is or how I came by this affliction, so let me start with some background.

One of the more difficult things to do in fitness is to measure small changes in body composition (how fat/ muscular you are).  Having a trainer at your gym measure your bodyfat with calipers is a fine idea but those measurements are notoriously inaccurate.  The best methods available, which probably starts with hydrostatic weighing, are too expensive or too inconvenient for most people to use on a regular basis.  Which leaves most of us with two methods for assessing progress:  the scale and the mirror.  Neither is very good at indicating short term progress.

Scales are bad for measuring body composition changes in the short term for a couple of reasons.  The first is that a scale doesn't tell you how much of your weight is fat and how much is muscle.  Here's a trick question: which weighs more, five pounds of fat or five pounds of muscle?  Neither, of course; they weigh the same.  So if someone adds five pounds of muscle and loses five pounds of fat (which is quite possible, especially for someone new to strength training) their body composition will have changed significantly but the scale will show nothing.  The scale also can't distinguish fat and muscle from water.  If you retain water - which can happen due to stress (including the stress of dieting), hormonal changes, and salt intake, among other things - you can lose fat but gain water weight and all your scale will show is that you're heavier - even if your diet is actually working.

Mirrors are bad for measuring body comp changes for some similar reasons.  We often can't tell puffiness caused by water retention apart from puffiness caused by fat accumulation.  Remember, dieting is a stress, so hard dieting can cause water retention, which can make it seem as though fat loss has stopped when in reality you're still making progress.  Mirrors are also bad because most of us aren't very good judges of physique - we might see progress where there isn't any and miss progress that is happening for a variety of complex psychological reasons.  You also can't see all parts of your body equally well - sometimes you'll lose fat from around a part of you that you don't notice.

The real problems come when people look at either the mirror or the scale every day, or multiple times each day, and use the feedback they're getting to evaluate their diet or exercise program or for motivation.  The problem is that any time you start to retain water for whatever reason you'll lose motivation or change your diet, thinking it's not working.  The other problem is that you'll binge - pig out on food after a long period of dieting - and drop a bunch of water weight.  You might look really good after that even if you put on a small amount of fat.  (This, by the way, is what I think happens with cheat meals in general - they don't boost your metabolism, they reverse short term water retention caused by dieting.) 

My personal problem is that I do tend to retain water when dieting, so I'll reach a point where my scale won't budge.  I also seem to lose fat in uneven spurts - it will seem as if a diet isn't working, then all of a sudden I lean out.  What's really happening?  I have no idea, but I'm far from the only person to report results like that.

Now you see where my Libraphobia (fear of scales) comes into play.  I'm not afraid of using scales to weigh food, but I am afraid to step on one.  A few times in the past year I've thought I was on a good streak of eating well and exercising, and I felt I was looking better, then stepped on a scale and realized I was not as close to my target as I had hoped.  That disappointment left me kind of depressed and derailed by diet and exercise plan for several weeks.

I haven't stepped on a scale now since 2009 - I am a full blown Libraphobe.  At some point I'll have to do it, but I'm still afraid that if I think I've gotten pretty lean and the scale still says 180 lbs. (about 82 kg) I'm going to be really maudlin for a while.

What can one do to measure progress?  Well, measuring day to day progress is almost impossible, so... don't try.  Over extended periods of time - over weeks or months -  your clothes should get looser (at least around the waist) and your weight should trend downwards.  Weigh yourself no more than once a week, or less if you can stand it.  I'm pretty sure I've gotten leaner because I can wear pants that didn't fit a year ago.  Have I lost weight?  I honestly don't know, but I'm pretty sure I have!

Another way to track progress include those famous near-naked pictures.  Take a shot of yourself in the mirror, wearing something skimpy (or nothing at all).  Every time you do it use the same clothing, lighting, etc.  Over time you should get happier with what you're seeing.  You may have somebody you trust look over the pictures - some of us are not good at evaluating ourselves, as psychological baggage rears its ugly head.  Once again:  do NOT try to track your progress on a daily basis.  Too many things that don't really matter will give you the appearance of short term improvement or backtracking.


Tuesday, September 28, 2010

More on Paleo eating

Quick recap:  For optimum health and performance, eat a paleo diet - a diet composed entirely (or at least predominantly) of foods available to our ancestors during the paleolithic era.  That means meat (preferably from animals also fed a paleolithic diet, which means grass fed beef), vegetables, fruit, nuts, eggs, and berries.  That means especially no grains (wheat, barley, oats, corn, rice), legumes, or dairy.  Different versions of the diet tolerate breaking this rule to a greater or lesser extent - some permit certain types of dairy, some corn or rice (but rarely wheat), and so forth.  Nobody owns the concept, so you'll see "paleo" authors and bloggers differ, but the emphasis on meat and veggies over grains and sugar is pretty constant.

Having established that, I think that people following a paleo diet go wrong in two different ways, to greater or lesser detriment.  The first is not recognizing that not all neolithic foods are bad for you.  The second is not recognizing that not all paleolithic foods are good for you.

The first point is less of a serious problem than an inconvenience for the eater.  If you take the "paleo" concept too religiously you will avoid foods that are probably okay to eat and might even be good for you.  Many paleo authors openly endorse a handful of neolithic foods, based on whether the foods in question contain anti-nutrients or toxins that cause problems.  Chocolate is a good example.  While the sugar and milk solids that go into commercial chocolate are definitely problematic, cacao itself doesn't seem to have negative effects on health.  So very, very dark chocolate is probably okay, at least as an occasional treat - and it's certainly a pleasant break from meat and veggies at every meal.  Butter, especially clarified butter or ghee, and cream are also relatively unproblematic - they don't contain the milk proteins or lactose that cause digestive problems.  I suspect tea and coffee also belong to this group, although the evidence on the safety of limited amounts of caffeine is somewhat mixed.  Another (little discussed) example of an absolutely neolithic food that really has no health impact at all is seltzer - it's just carbonated water.  No impact on digestion or the immune system.  Also definitely something cavemen didn't drink.  Now if someone else wants to avoid seltzer because it "isn't paleo," that's fine with me, and it's no detriment to them, of course, as long as they're not too bored drinking plain water.

As far as the second point goes, this is where some people get themselves into trouble.  If you look around the paleo websites, especially the cooking oriented ones, you can find recipes made from ostensibly paleo ingredients that are probably serious problems.  I've seen desserts made with crusts made of nuts, fillings made from dried fruit or crushed figs or nut butters, and more nuts on top.  I'm sure we've all been tempted by bags of dried fruit or nuts that seem paleo.

The problem isn't that nuts or fruit are absolutely bad for you - the problem is quantity.  If you make a pie out of nuts and fruit with an almond butter/cocoa topping, and have a slice for your birthday or Christmas, you'll be fine, and you'll be better off than if you ate half a dozen regular cookies or a big piece of regular cake.  BUT if you make that pie and have a slice each day after dinner and two slices on weekends, you're regularly getting a huge load of omega-6 fats (and not omega 3's) and fructose, both of which can lead to insulin resistance and increased inflammation.  You could probably make yourself quite sick and fat on a paleo diet, if you tried.  Now if you eat a handful of nuts each day and an apple or half a cantaloupe after dinner, that's fine.  But if you chow down on a bag of dried fruit or keep an open bag of almonds by your side all day long you can eat yourself into some real problems.

The take home message:

You can probably make yourself fat and unhealthy by eating too much of almost anything, but within reason there are certain foods that can make up the bulk of your diet without causing problems, foods that are okay to eat daily, foods that are okay only as an occasional treat, and foods that you should probably never, or very rarely, ingest.  You need to keep a handle on which is which: I group foods into staples (make up the bulk of my diet); daily but limited (I'll eat them all the time but in smallish quantities); treats (I'll eat on the weekend or for a cheat day or if I'm out to dinner); and forbidden (self explanatory).

My staples include grass fed beef, coconut oil or animal fat, green leafy veggies, and green tea.  My daily but limited foods are 85% or higher dark chocolate (no more than 100 cal/day), root vegetables (1 lb/day), caffeine, nuts and fruit.  My treats are grain fed beef, dried fruit, ice cream (less frequently), white potatoes, food made with vegetable oils (like Taro chips), and 60%-85% dark chocolate.  My "forbiddens" are basically wheat, diet sodas, and legumes.

The categories aren't important - what does matter is that you organize your foods in a way like this.  I find that if I try to forbid myself all but the healthiest foods I'm asking for trouble.  By having a treat and limited category I give myself permission to "cheat" or indulge myself without eating the most harmful foods.  But I remember not to make these foods part of my every day menu.

Exactly where should each possible food item go?  Here things can get tricky.  I can only suggest that you both continue reading and continue experimenting on yourself.  Are you feeling lousy?  Having trouble sleeping?  Look at what foods may have crept into your daily eating that are problematic.  Six months ago I tried to keep all starch on my "treat" list.  It didn't work out for me - specifically when working out with high intensity.  So I moved things around.

Remember that the paleo idea is just a guideline.  There is no logic to the notion that every neolithic food is bad - but there is a lot of logic to the idea that we should be much more skeptical of the healthfulness of neolithic foods and much less skeptical of the healthfulness of paleolithic foods.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Skill Acquisition and Development

Back in the Soviet Block era the Bulgarian (Olympic) weightlifting team was suprisingly dominant in international competition.  It's a small county and we have no particular reason to think that Bulgarians are naturally stronger then other Eastern Europeans, or people from anywhere else, for that matter.  As time went on stories began to come out about the training methods used by the Bulgarians, methods which were somewhat shocking to the bodybuilding oriented American weight training community.

What the Bulgarians would do, for the most part, was get into the gym multiple times a day - up to 5 times every day.  Each time they'd put out their cigarettes, walk up to the bar, and hit just a few singles with heavy or very heavy weights.  Then they'd walk away and take a nap or whatever they did until the next training session.  No marathon training sessions, working until exhuastion, no sets of 10 or 20 or 50 (all of which are advocated by some bodybuilding authorities), and repeated many, many times over each training week.

Here's another story.  When I was in high school there were a number of skateboarding afficionados at the school.  They were part of the background all the time - always skating, working on various tricks, like hopping up on the board and flipping it over, then landing on it.  You've seen the same thing outside malls or shopping centers I'm sure.  There would be a group of skaters near every open space in New York.  They'd sit or stand around, talking, then one or more would practice a couple of tricks, then sit around some more, then practice some more, with no particular structure.  And they'd do this every day, all day, at least when they weren't actually in class.  They never said, "I'm going to knock out 25 reps of half barrel rolls" or whatever (I have no idea what any skateboarding tricks are actually called). 

One last example.  Watch the way a baby learns to do something new, anything from roll over to reach for an object or eat a Cheerio or walk.  They'll try, a bunch of times, then get bored and move onto something else.  Then try again.  Many times a day, never really doing too many in a row, but going back and revisiting the attempt over and over until they've mastered it. 

Why am I bringing this up?  These are all stories about skill acquisition.  Every physical ability people have is a combination of muscle/ heart/ lung adaptions (think about what makes an Olympic marathon runner different from you) and neurological adaptions (a concert pianist has strong and limber fingers, but many people with strong limber fingers can't play the paino - the difference is the neurological ability the pianist has acquired).  What makes a great skateboarder?  Well, you have to be in decent shape, lean, and have some strength, but let's face it, Tony Hawk isn't among the strongest or fittest people on the planet (though I'm sure he's well above average).  What he has is a neurological ability to skate.  His brain is really good at making his muscles contract at just the right time, in the right order, with the right amount of force, to keep his feet on the board while it's doing all the crazy stuff he can do.  What's the difference between a baby or toddler that can walk over and one that can't?  Some of it is muscle strength, but some of it is the skill of balancing and controlling all those muscles.

What about the Bulgarian weightlifters?  Isn't weightlifting about building muscles?  Well, yes and no.  If you're a top level weightlifter you're going to have a good amount of muscle - but so will all your competitors, and they'll have similar amounts of muscle, because you compete in a weight class.  Progress at that point (not for beginners, but for advanced lifters) is about using the muscle you have more efficiently - being able to contract more of the muscle at exactly the right times to lift the heaviest weight.  If you're an elite 154 lb. lifter you can't improve by just building more muscle - you'd quickly end up being a mediocre 163 lb. lifter.  You improve by getting all 154 lbs. of your body to work perfectly and in concert to move the weight.  That adaption is largely the brain, not the body.

Now, to build stronger muscles we have to work the muscle hard, until it is quite fatigued, which damages the fibers.  Then we have to rest it for a significant period of time so the body can repair and then create supercompensations in the muscles - fix it, then make it stronger, so it can do more the next time you work it.  That's why to build muscle you  have to work out for longer duration, until the muscles is very tired, and then take a lot of time off - from a couple of days to a week or more depending on your genetics and level of advancement.  Which is not how we get neurological adaptions. 

What's the difference?  Your brain changes by reinforcing patterns that are used a lot - and that means pretty much any pattern.  This can happen fairly quickly and doesn't involve the kind of damage - repair cycle that controls muscle growth.  Let's say you are learning to punch.  You keep throwing a punch - which is a pattern of activating certain muscles in a certain order.  As you repeat it, your nervous system recognizes that it needs to get good at doing that pattern of things, and it strengthens neural connections to make that pattern fire more easily and more strongly.  These adaptions can happen as fast as you can make them - as far as the nervous system is concerned, you can practice more or less all day, every day, and keep improving (the stress of doing that might cause other problems, but I'm not advocating all day training in any case).

A few things are important to note at this point.  If you practice sloppy punches you will reinforce the firing pattern that makes sloppy punches.  You will get better and better at punching sloppy.  If you practice mostly slow motion (which you need to do when first learning a technique, but maybe not so much afterwards) your nervous system will get better at moving slowly (which may not be your long term goal).  Ideally, you would practice all your techniques done really, really well, and not when they're done poorly, and you'd do it very often.

How would we do that?  Well, the typical way to train is to take a 1 or 2 hour class a few times a week and train all the techniques until we're super tired.  That's a good way to build muscle but not to force neurological adaptions - once we're fatigued, the techniques get a little sloppy or slow, and we end up reinforcing the patterns that make sloppy, slow karate.  Instead, we should do a LOT of very brief practice sessions - practice the techniques done really sharply and explosively but stop long before fatigue sets in.

For example, I like to take a minute or two out of my day, often several times a day, and throw 5-10 kicks with each leg, maybe do 3 different kicks, then a few punching combinations.  Total time?  Maybe 2 minutes, maybe less.  When I'm done I'm breathing a little bit heavily but have barely broken out in a sweat.  Then I go back to my desk and work some more or do whatever I need to be doing.  These mini-sessions have the added bonus of giving me a lot more energy for the rest of my daily activities.  Remember:  I stop long before I'm tired, and I really focus on doing the techniques with good form, sharp, and all the power I can muster.  The point is to repeatedly practice good reps, not to do 100 or 1000 kicks in a row.  Think like the Bulgarian weightlifing team!

This type of training won't get you in good cardiovascular condition by itself.  You also won't build a heck of a lot of muscle doing it.  That's why you need to do conditioning and hypertrophy (muscle building) work as either a separate workout or tacked onto the end of a shorter skill workout.  And make sure your conditioning isn't done with karate movements!  Don't get in shape throwing punches and kicks (at least not all the time) - your form will deteriorate as you push deep into fatigue and you'll be practicing, and reinforcing, bad punches and kicks.  Instead, do your techniques while you're fresh, and really push the fatigue levels with sprints, burpees, dumbell snatches, or something else at the end of the workout.

  1. Develop muscles with hard, fatigue inducing workouts spaced several days apart.
  2. Develop cardio (metcon, wind, endurance) with hard interval training done at the end of a workout with movements that are NOT part of your art as often as several times a week (you don't need as long for your heart/ lungs to recover as the muscles need to recover from resistance training.
  3. Develop neurological ability (skill) with brief, technically sound practice done as often as you can manage.
  4. If you combine these, do skill practice first, then muscle work, then metcon/cardio work - DO NOT rearrange these.
Now I happen to have a job where I have an office of my own, so I can close the door and shadowbox for 60 seconds anytime I want and nobody will be the wiser.  You may not have that luxury.  You can practice kicks in the corporate bathroom, I guess, but you can also do this at home.  Wake up, throw a few punches.  Do it again before you leave the house.  Again when you get home.  Remember, each "session" can take as little as 30 seconds.  It shouldn't be hard to spread these out throughout the day.  Do them at the start of every strength training session and every cardio session.  That's how skills are built.

What about warmups?  Well, if you do your dynamic flexibility and some mobility work (shoulder circles, things like that) early in the morning, then do these mini-sessions spread out through the day, you will probably be surprised at how much of your flexibility remains available to you.  And isn't that the point?  Don't you want to be able to throw a high kick without a long warmup and no warning?

A couple of final points.  First, training your techniques in deep fatigue once in a while is probably a good thing.  On special occasions throw a thousand punches in a row.  Many people describe learning things about movement only when pushed to the edge of their physical ability.  But make it infrequent.  Second, everyone, especially beginners, are certainly going to need longer sessions periodically to really work on refining or learning new techniques.  I'm not saying that the hour class is inappropriate - only that the skill refinement should be done early, the calisthenics/cardio at the end, and that the bulk of the in-between class training should be done in short, intense bursts that don't push you into exhaustion.

You can only reach your maximum potential as a martial artist if you combine muscle, endurance, and neurological efficiency to their respective maxima.  That means training each trait using the appropriate methods and timing.


Thursday, September 23, 2010

The 30 Day Challenge

I just got Robb Wolf's new book The Paleolithic Solution in the mail.  I haven't read enough to provide a full review, but it reads really nicely so far.  He really starts with the basics - what fats, proteins, and carbs are, the hormones involved in metabolism, and goes from there, so you don't need to have a biochem background to understand what he's talking about.

I'm a fan of Robb's (he was a Hero of the Week for me a while back).  His podcasts are phenomenal, his science is fantastic, and his experiences are worth his weight in gold.  Today I want to address one particular idea he comes back to often - the 30 Day Challenge.

Let's say that you, for example, want to get healthier, maybe lose a few pounds of fat or add some muscle, and improve your performance in the gym.  Suppose you recognize that you should change your diet to help this happen - you know you're not eating great.  So perhaps you read my blog, where I recommend you eat more meat (from grass fed animals), more fat, more saturated fat (butter, coconut oil, lard), and no grains at all.  Then your mom or coworker or friend or personal trainer or sensei or another blogger gives a talk or publishes an article telling you to become a vegan and base your diet on whole grains, soy products, and vegetables to improve your performance.  Who do you believe?

First, you could listen to the arguments or justifications that we offer to our plans.  You could be convinced by my point that we were predominantly meat eaters for 2 million years, grain eaters for fewer than 10,000, and that we just haven't evolved that much in 10,000 years to tolerate our grain based diets.  Or that hunter gatherers are always healthier in every measurable way than their farmer cousins or descendents.  Or you could be persuaded by whatever arguments the vegans come up with - maybe they'll convince you that you have a gut like an orangutan, despite all evidence to the contrary.

If the arguments leave you feeling bewildered you might start to look at the science.  There are tons of studies showing that meat gives you cancer and heart disease, aren't there?  Except that the people who ate meat in those studies also ate a ton of sugar, flour, and often smoked and did other unhealthy stuff.  So maybe that's not so convincing.  Then you look for studies comparing people on paleo diets and vegan diets... except there aren't any.  The closest you'll come is to primitive populations who start to adopt western diets - they always get much less healthy very quickly - and you might be convinced, but you might be confused even more.

So what can you do that doesn't require putting blind faith in somebody (like me, or even Robb Wolf for that matter) or spending a year of your life poring through scientific journals and doing statistical analysis on raw data from the China Study?  Well, a simpler option might be the 30 day challenge.

The 30 Day Challenge is a very simple concept.  Suppose you're trying to evaluate a new diet.  Try it for 30 days.  Keep your training, sleep, etc. roughly the same - if you suddenly go from 4 hrs a night to 8 hrs a night of sleep you won't know if your increase in energy is from the new diet or from getting enough rest.  Same with training - keep roughly the same training schedule.  At the end of the 30 days, see how you feel and how you perform.

This is a pretty good example of why I'm frustrated at my participation in an activity where progress is hard to measure.  If we were powerlifters we'd just just check our lift totals after 30 days and see where they were - how much they went up or down.  As karateka we don't have numbers to work with.  If you're trying to lose fat or gain muscle you could do a body comp analysis.  You could go by feel as well.  Neither is ideal, but we work with what we have.

Why 30 days?  Why not 10?  Well, if your trial period is too short you might get some results colored by an adaption period.  A great example is someone switching from a high carb to a low carb, high fat diet.  They often experience a real loss of energy for anywhere from a couple of days to a couple of weeks because their bodies aren't used to burning fat for energy.  It takes times for the enzymes involved in lipolysis to ramp up to handle a low carb diet.  Does that mean the diet sucks?  Well, many people find that once they've made it through that adaption period they feel and perform better.  So the results after just 10 days may not really represent how one would do long term.  Why not longer than 30 days?  Well, I could propose any number of days or weeks, but it's pretty unreasonable to ask you to try a diet for 10 years, suffering all along, to evaluate how it works for you.  So 30 days is a random amount that seems longer than the adaption period for lower carb intake but short enough to be a reasonable thing to ask people to do.

The same plan would work for evaluating a new workout as well.  Try interval training for 30 days and see how your fitness improves.  Wear Vibram Fivefingers for 30 days and see how much better they feel.  You get the idea.

Remember, regardless of what the science says, if some diet or workout strategy doesn't work for you, don't do it!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Basic Strength Training for Martial Artists

Martial arts training alone will help you get stronger (more in some areas than in others), and the calisthenics that are part of most martial arts classes will provide some basic strength.  But to maximize your potential for performance and to make yourself as injury resistant as possible some time devoted to strength training is very important.

Notice I said some time.  If you are a strength athlete (powerlifter, weightlifter, bodybuilder, whether competitive or recreational) then strength training should form the bulk of your workouts.  If you are a martial artist, however, you can't afford to devote as much time to strength training.  Unless you're a professional martial artist (MMA fighter, dojo owner, something like that), you just don't have time and energy to spend 1-2 hours in the gym 4-6 times a week focused on strength training.  Even if you have the time, for whatever reason (you lucky people without kids or full time jobs), that much strength training would put too much strain on your muscles and your nervous system to allow you to continue to make good progress in your art.  All of which means that you have to make your strength training as efficient as possible and as targeted as possible.

The first thing you should do is pick up a copy of a popular muscle magazine from your local bookstore and try out some of the routines inside.  No, I'm kidding!  That's what many of us do and it's probably the wrong approach.  Most of those routines are aimed at helping someone look good, rather than perform well, and many are only effective for drug using athletes or athletes preparing for a contest (this depends on which magazine we're discussing - Men's Fitness will give very different advice than Flex, being aimed at a different audiences, and I'm not going to spend any more time discussing this here).

How do we make our strength training efficient?  There are a few steps to this:
  • Focus on movements, not on muscles or bodyparts.  You can develop good strength (at a basic/intermediate level) by working your biceps, triceps, pecs, lats, quads, etc. all in isolation, but there are two problems with this approach.  First, it's time consuming, and extra time spent strength training is time taken away from training in your art or spending time with your family (or reading blogs).  Second, it's easy to "miss" some links in the chain - this is why core training is so popular, for example.  Bodypart routines tend to skip over some critical area like the core, making your "strength" less than useful.  Another reason is that using your body as a unit using compound exercises (think pushup instead of tricep extensions, pec dec flyes, and planks performed separately) helps you get better at using your body as a unit, which will have crossover benefit to your art.
  • Work hard.  Get two guys of equal strength to do curls.  Tell one he's going to do 2 sets and tell the other he's going to do 9.  See which one works harder for the first two sets.  I pretty much guarantee the guy told he's going to do 9 sets isn't putting nearly as much effort into the first couple.  He's saving energy, both muscular energy and neurological energy, for his later sets.  Solution?  Do just a couple of sets, but work really hard - use a lot of weight or choose exercises that are really challenging.  Don't fart around in the gym for an hour doing things that don't make you breath hard and sweat. 
  • Work infrequently.  You don't need four sessions a week to get strong - at least not to intermediate levels.  I do two sessions most weeks (each at or less than 30 minutes total time), and drop to a single session if I'm tired or not recovering quickly.  That's all you need - remember, you're not a strength athlete, you're a martial artist. 
  • Once you've gotten the basic movements done, focus any extra work very carefully - make it brief and very specific.  There are probably thousands of different productive exercises you can do.  Focus on things that will improve performance in your art.  I have a couple of examples of this I'll explain below.
Short, hard workouts done twice a week won't make you a successful Olympic lifter, but I'm not writing this blog for aspiring olympic lifters.  Your goal should be to get as strong as is reasonable with a reasonable amount of training - the gains in strength you'd make by strength training more often would be more than offset by the decrease in skiill from martial arts training time.  You could make a case for periodization here - do more advanced programs for brief periods, like 4-8 weeks, a couple of times a year to bump up your strength, and focus on a more well rounded training program the rest of the year.  That's a good plan, but I wanted to start with a more basic program here and move on to that sort of plan in a later post.

The movements:

There are lots of ways to break up the movements in which you get strong, but my favorite is this system (which is taken from similar ones I've seen in lots of places, most recently Dan John's book):

Horizontal push:  pushing in front of you.  Pushups (most variations), bench press (free weights or machines), that sort of thing.
Horizontal pull:  pulling things toward you from the front.  Rows - bent rows, barbell rows, one arm rows, that sort of thing.
Vertical push:  pushing things overhead.  Military press, kettlebell press, jerks, handstand pushup (think about it).
Vertical pull:  pulling things down toward you.  Pullups, chinups, lat pulldowns on a pulley.
Squat (knee dominant):  Squatting motion where a lot of the stress is around the knee joint.  Regular squats, front squats, one legged squats, pistols, thrusters.
Squat (hip dominant):  Squatting motion where the stress is around the hips.  Deadlift, kettlebell swing, good morning, glute/ham raise.

Depending on your body (what you're most comfortable doing) and your equipment, pick one exercise from each category.  If you want, spread the movements over two workouts - either do both types of squat each workout or do knee dominant one day and hip dominant the next day.  The important thing is to regularly cover all of these movement patterns and not to over-emphasize one over the others.  For example, if you do a lot of horizontal pushing and very little horizontal pulling (like, lots of pushups but no rowing) you'll create a strength imbalance that could lead to injury in the shoulder area. 

To this list I would add exercises to address these areas of specific concern to martial artists:

Core:  See my post on core training.  Do some anti-rotation work and anti-extension work every week.  If you use pushups for your horizontal push you might be fine, but if you're bench pressing there, add in planks or ab wheel rollouts to your routine.  Also train anti-rotation; medicine ball throws, one arm planks, something like that to remind your core how to keep you from twisting.  This is especially important for martial artists.
Hip abduction and adduction:  Not to be crass, this means spreading (abduction) and closing (adduction) your legs.  Why is this important?  Two reasons.  First of all, hip abduction and adduction allow you to move side to side (lateral movement).  Now in most sports you just don't see athletes move laterally most of the time - even in, say, tennis, when a player has to cross the court he or she will turn and run straight to get there, which is hip extension.  In football you'll see the same thing.  In martial arts, however, we often want to sidestep an attacker (as quickly as possible) but not turn our hips so we can stay in position to counterattack.  So we need to emphasize this movement pattern more.  The other reason to work adduction is to increase range of motion.  One key to getting good high kicks is to be strong with our hips adducted.  The stronger you are in that position the less of a threat your body will sense when you raise your leg to the side, and the less it will tense up to prevent that adduction.  How do we work this?  Isometrically, in a very wide horse stance, squeezing the ground, or by putting one foot into a pulley machine and pulling down to raise the weight stack, or doing splits from two chairs or rings.  I work abduction (spreading forcefully) by doing slow, high side kicks and roundhouse kicks with weights on my ankles (don't do these fast - you're asking for a knee injury) or wrapping a heavy band around my ankles and practicing footwork - rapidly stepping from side to side, using the band to load the movement.

How does all this work out?  I can give you my sample workout - this is what I do, on average, twice a week, at home, in about half an hour:
  1. One arm pushup partials (I can't do a full range of motion yet)
  2. One legged squats
  3. TRX rows (lie on the floor, grab two handles suspended from an overhead bar, row yourself up).
  4. Kettlebell swings (two handed, usually).
  5. One arm kettlebell press.
  6. Splits done from rings (put feet into rings, raise/ lower self from split position)
  7. Pullups/chinups
  8. Abduction work - alternate slow kicks w/ ankle weight and stepping side to side with band around my ankles.
  9. Ab wheel rollouts or moving planks on a stability ball.
  10. forearm work - I mix in 4 sets of forearm exercises for a reason I'll explain later.
I do these as a circuit - moving from one exercise to the other.  I do the first four movements as a warmup/ first set, then do the entire group two times.  I try to alternate upper/ lower body movements - I wouldn't do squats then swings, I'd do squats, then forearms, then rows, then swings, to give myself a chance to recover.  For all the single arm/ single leg movements I do each leg/arm every time I do the exercise and always back to back - I won't even put the weight down between arms.  By doing this as a circuit I get a pretty nice cardiovascular benefit as well, which just makes things more efficient.

Now I'm not fantastically strong, but I'm doing pretty well for a guy my age, and I get progressively stronger with this routine while working out 25-30 minutes at a time no more than twice a week (and often less).  That leaves plenty of time for karate practice and my family.

Could one get stronger, faster, on a more thorough routine?  Sure.  And mixing that into your yearly plan would probably be a good idea.  But this kind of program will help you get stronger in a simple and sustainable way.

Monday, September 20, 2010

What I Eat (plus a little bit about confidence)

I got a comment asking about my food intake and I thought it would make a better post than a comment (plus my computer won't let me write comments right now).  But first a little bit about confidence.

I had a logic teacher in grad school who was always annoyed by statements like "I think that..." He felt that it added no information to the proposition.  I always thought he was wrong - knowing how confident someone is in some claim is important in many situations.  Diet is one of them.  There are some things I am very sure about, things I'm less sure about, and things I suspect but am really not sure about.  The first two groups are what I'll recommend to others - that is, if I tell you to absolutely do something it's because I'm at least pretty sure that it's right.  Now I could find out later that I was wrong all along - nobody has all the answers in this business.

What am I sure about?  Artificial trans fats and high sugar intake are bad for you.  I'm really sure that wheat is bad for you, less sure about legumes and dairy.  I'm sure that interval training is better for your karate-specific endurance than jogging, but I'm not at all sure which intervals are best (20 seconds work, 10 seconds rest?  30 s work, 30 s rest?  30 s work, 4 minutes rest?)  I'm pretty sure that green leafy vegetables are good for you but not absolutely sure.  I think you get the idea.

One thing I suspect but which I'm not confident about is the value of intermittent fasting (IF).  Basically, this is a style of eating where one fasts for extended periods of time on a regular basis.  Now everybody (almost) fasts for 8-10 hours a day, every day (when they sleep), so I wouldn't count that as IF.  To me IF means fasting at least 16 hours (leangains style) and at most 36 hours (alternate day fasting, or ADF), repeated anywhere from every day to once a month.  I do something very like the Warrior Diet (a book you can pick up) - I eat most of my food during a 2-4 hour window in the evening.  Is this something that works well for me?  Yes.  Is it something I would recommend to others?  Not until I get more evidence.  I suspect that periodic fasts will improve longevity - literally that they'll help me live longer - and there's some science to back that up, but it's pretty minimal.  If you want to try it, go ahead (as long as you're over 18 - it's not something I'd recommend for somebody who's still growing!), but I can't be sure it's a good idea.

Keep that in mind.

So here's what I eat most days:

I get up and have 5 capsules of fish oil, 3 capsules of Respir-All (a quercetin supplement with bromine), 1 Allegra D (prescription allergy medication), 1 capsule of green tea extract (about 80 mg caffeine and some other good stuff), 4 tablets of calcium carbonate (Tums - but not actual Tums, the Kirkland knockoff, because it's cheaper), all with water.  I make a mug of green tea sweetened with 1 packet Truvia to drink on the way to work.

At work I don't eat.  I drink water and up to 2 liters of cold green tea sweetened with Truvia that I made up the night before.  I have another capsule of green tea extract on my way home if I'm working out (which I do most days).  If I'm home I'll drink water and hot green tea.

If I work out early (like on a weekend, where the workout might end at 2 or 3) I'll have a snack when I get home.  Maybe 2 oz. of roast beef, 2 oz. of cheese from grass fed milk, and a couple of ounces of nuts (I like cashews from Trader Joe's - they come in individual bags so portion control is easier).  If it's a regular workday I won't eat until dinner (which is right after my workout.

Dinner:  Usually 1 lb. ground beef (from grass fed cows) browned in a pan with 2 tablespoons coconut oil.  I'll mix in some mashed sweet potatoes - I get white sweet potatoes (called Korean yams by my grocer), peel and cut them up and roast them in coconut oil or in tallow if I have any around.  I mash then and add in some more fat - tallow, coconut oil, lard, or butter, and stick them in the fridge.  Each day I try to eat about a pound worth - but not a pound of mashed sweet potatoes, I mean whatever I get after starting with a pound of the raw stuff (they lose a lot of mass because they lose water when I roast them, so it's the same calories but doesn't actually weigh a pound when I put it in the pan.)  I mix the mashed potatoes and beef together - the potatoes absorb all the fat and liquid, so I'm not losing any nutrients.  It looks kind of disgusting (I"ll post pictures as soon as I get a camera situation worked out), but I don't mind.  I also season it - garlic, cayenne pepper, a little salt.

Some days I'll have a package of smoked beef ribs and some noodles instead - I get these noodles called "korean vermicelli" which are made from sweet potato starch.  I make about 100-120 grams of raw noodles.  I cook them and add some sesame oil and red pepper flakes to taste.  I'll use the leftover fat from the ribs to cook my potatoes for the next few days.

Some days I'll eat (instead of either meal above) 5-6 eggs cooked in butter, half a package of nitrate free bacon, 4 oz. or so of cheese (from grassfed cows), some leftover cold cuts like turkey, ham, or roast beef that my wife leaves me, and the sweet potato vermicelli. 

With dinner I'll take a multivitamin, my D3 and K2, C and E.  I'll drink water or seltzer (plain, just carbonated water). 

Closer to bedtime - maybe 2 hours after dinner - I'll take 5 more capsules fish oil or 2 teaspoons of cod liver oil, eat about 100 calories worth of dark chocolate (85% dark from Trader Joe's), all with water.  I might also have some fruit or some nuts (nuts only if I haven't had any earlier).  Last night I ate 1/2 a cantaloupe at that point.

I'm actively trying to lean out now.  If I can get down to a good bodyfat level I'd add in more protein and more fat, but NOT more carbs.  I might start eating more fruit, or more low-carb desserts (I don't know if I wrote about this, but I take coconut milk, cocoa, and erythritol and a little vanilla and xanthan gum and refrigerate it - comes out like chocolate mousse). 

IMPORTANT:  My diet is not perfect, even by my own standards.  I should be eating more vegetables, I just don't like them very much.  I'm working on it!  I should probably cut back on caffeine - again, I'm working on it.  I'd like to do away with artificial sweeteners altogether, but I think I'm doing better with Truvia than I was with aspartame (I gave up diet soda just about a month ago).  I go out probably once a week on average - I stay grain free, but I'll eat regular potatoes, steak from grainfed cows, salads made with regular Caesar dressing, and so forth.  I have a bad habit of eating dried fruit with added sugar as a night time snack - which is not good, I know, I only do it occasionally.  I also cheat and have some ice cream over the weekend (but not every weekend).

So if you ate like me but cut down on the tea and sweeteners and added a large mixed salad every day you'd be doing pretty well!

This diet has me at the leanest I've ever been with relatively few cravings.  When I ate low carb I'd keep breaking the diet - like the day before a sparring session I'd eat some carbs, knowing they'd help me perform.  By intentionally putting carbs into the diet I have no excuse for cheating, and... I don't cheat as much.  This works suprisingly well!

I've always had trouble controlling my food intake when eating carbs.  By eating all my food in one sitting and staying away from grains I've been really successful lately keeping the portions under control. 

Feel free to ask more questions if anybody wants more details or if you want more explanation about why I do certain things the way I do them!  And thanks for all the positive comments!

Living La Vida Lo Carb mention! Plus more on podcasts and carbs.

If you're reading this post, congratulations!  Because I'm pretty lousy at marketing/ publicizing this blog, a failing for which I have no real excuse.  Anyway, despite my lack of efforts, my blog got mentioned by Jimmy Moore of the Livin La Vida Low Carb blog and podcast!  Check this out.

If you look at the right side of this page you'll see a list of blogs I like and, further down, a list of podcasts I listen to religiously.  Why?  Well, the fact is that I have a 30+ minute commute to and from work each day and I fairly regularly have vacations that involve 4+ hours of driving at a clip.  I also have a job where I sit at a desk and, at times, engage in fairly routine computer type work that doesn't require my full attention span.  About five years ago I discovered a couple of podcasts that let me fill in that time while learning valuable things.  Jimmy's is one of them.

Now the Livin La Vida Low Carb podcast is probably not the most valuable one on the list - I'd say start with The Paleolithic Solution or the Strength Coach Podcast - not because of any fault of Mr. Moore but because it's an interview show.  Some of his guests are full of valuable information and some... are not.  Mr. Moore does a very good job with the questioning and has a lot of knowledge about nutrition and weight loss (along with personal experience) and a ton of positive energy, but there's no way he's going to find 3-5 guests each week, week in and week out, who can fill 45 minutes with awesome information.  The weekly shows are always going to be denser.  If you have very little time to listen, keep that in mind.  If you have a little more time to fill, absolutely add Jimmy Moore's show to your schedule!

Now Mr. Moore put me down as a low carb blog, and I wanted to go into some details about carbs and my opinion about their role in nutrition.

First of all, you absolutely do not need to eat carbohydrates for your health.  I can't emphasize that enough.  If anybody says you "need" carbs or starts talking about the importance of whole grains in a balanced diet nod politely and back away.  They do not know what they are talking about.  There are no essential carbohydrates - there are essential fats and amino acids, substances your body can't manufacture and can't live without - but no carbs.

Now your body does need some glucose to run.  Certain cells can't get their energy directly from fat.  I hear what you're thinking - "but Joe, isn't glucose a carb?"  Yes, it is.  But you absolutely don't need to get that glucose by eating it - you can survive just fine on the glucose your body can manufacture from extra protein through a nifty process called gluconeogenesis.  Wikipedia it.

The story does get a little more complicated.  To optimize health you probably need to eat some vegetables, berries, and fruits - there are some arguments against that, but the evidence is in favor of some veggie intake.  And veggies mostly contain carbs - some more than others.  The point is you need to eat some veggies despite the carbs they contain, not because of it.  If we had a magic wand that could take all the carbs out of broccoli without altering it in any other way the broccoli would be just as good - if not better - for our health.

"But Joe, won't we fall into ketosis if we don't eat carbs?"  Yes, we will.  And no, that's not a problem.  Ketoacidosis is a dangerous condition that can befall diabetics with out of control blood sugar.  Ketosis sounds similar but isn't the same thing and isn't bad for us.  In fact, there's all sorts of evidence that ketosis preserves muscle, helps fight cancer, helps us lose fat fast, and is, in general, a healthy state of being.  Keep in mind that there are populations of people that spend most of their lives in ketosis and show perfect health.

The fact that we don't need carbs doesn't necessarily mean that they're bad for us, does it?  Not necessarily, no.  But there are a few problems with carb intake:

First, fructose specifically seems to cause a host of metabolic problems by increasing insulin resistance, especially in the liver.  Basically, a high fructose intake will push you towards a pre-diabetic state, which is bad for all sorts of reasons including both health and performance.  Does that mean you shouldn't eat fruit (after all, fruit has fructose in it)?  Not exactly.  Sure, fruit has fructose, which means you should somewhat restrict your fruit intake - you shouldn't get the bulk of your calories from bananas or apples or anything - but a much bigger danger is sugar, or sucrose (which is half fructose) and high fructose corn syrup.  You need to eat a lot of bananas to get a dangerous load of fructose - more than one - but a can of regular Coke will damage you a lot more easily.  Fruit juice will also make it easy to overdo the fructose intake.  So eat your berries and fruits, in moderation, but cut out juice and sugar and HFCS completely and you'll be better off.

What about starches (which are made up of glucose molecules predominantly)?  The problem with starches is where you get them from.  Grains (especially wheat) and legumes (beans and peanuts), which are the source of most American starches, have all kinds of compounds in them along with the starch that damage you in a number of ways - increasing inflammation, irritating the gut lining, and increasing insulin resistance.  They are also often empty calories - if you eat 250 calories of bread as opposed to, say, 250 calories of grass fed beef - you'll get a lot fewer nutrients like essential fats, vitamins and minerals, and protein.  That's fine if you only eat 250 calories of starches, but if they make up the bulk of your diet you're going to have a hard time getting in optimal quantities of those other nutrients.

[As an aside - I suspect (but can't prove) that a big source of the health benefits for low carb dieters is that they aren't eating much fructose or grains.  It would be interesting to take a group and put half on a low-carb diet and the other half on a moderate carb diet where all the carbs came from non-grain and non-sugar sources and see if the low carbers did all that much better.  It also makes me feel sick when I look at some supposedly safe items sold to diabetics - like cookies sweetened with fruit juice.  Yes, fructose won't raise blood sugar on its own, but it will worsen the diabetes.  Oh well.]

So if all you're interested in is perfect health, I'd suggest just getting your carb intake as low as possible - just eat the carbs that you get with your fruits, nuts, and veggies and stop there.  Try to keep the total number as low as you can (under 30 g/day is best for weight loss.)

BUT if you're interested in maximizing performance there's another side to things.  If you engage in high intensity exercise (which, if you practice karate, you do) then your body will need to use glucose to fuel those workouts.  The energy system involved in really intense, short term efforts just can't use fat well.  Where can this glucose come from?  Two places - either your body makes it from amino acids (protein) through gluconeogenesis or you eat it directly.

Say you need 400 calories worth of glycogen each day to make it through your workouts (which is quite a lot - that's enough to do a whole lot of very intense training every day).  Say you need 75 grams of protein each day to support muscle growth and repair, cellular health, and so forth.  Say you eat only 35 grams of carbs in your diet.  Now 400 calories worth of glycogen is 100 grams of carb.  If you eat 35 you need another 65 grams of glycogen from somewhere.  Your body just isn't good at turning fat into glycogen and it isn't perfectly efficient at converting protein either.  So you'll need to eat an extra 85-100 grams of protein to make up those 65 grams of glycogen through gluconeogenesis.  So to stay very low carb and keep your muscles packed with glycogen you'd be looking to eat 175 grams of protein a day.  That's a solid amount, but not ridiculously so - we're not talking protein shakes every 2 hours or anything. 

I personally find that I feel better and perform better if I try to get that glucose directly from starch and keep my protein intake more moderate.  What does that mean?  I only eat 100-125 g protein/day but I try to eat 100-125 g carb/ day as well.  The rest of my calories come from fat - primarily saturated and monounsaturated fat.  Mmm, fat....

Does that still qualify me as low carb?  I'm not sure.  It's a lot lower carb than the Standard American Diet, that's for sure, but probably not low enough for me to be in ketosis most of the time.  To be asolutely clear:  I only eat that much starch because I feel it benefits my performance during very high intensity exercise, NOT because I feel it contributes to health.  Most people do not need anywhere near that amount of carbs.

Now you might be wondering where I get my starch from if I am so opposed to grain and legume intake.  The answer:  Sweet potatotes!  Stick to sweet potatoes and yams for your carb.  Mix it with some cassava if you have to.  You can also try white rice - it seems to have a lot less damaging effect on your health than wheat (which is part of why those eating traditional Asian diets tend not to show signs of the diseases of civilization like heart disease and atherosclerosis).  For a yummy treat stop by the Asian market and pick up some white sweet potatoes instead of the orangey/ yellowy ones.  I find them much tastier.  Add in some fruit (in moderation) and some nuts (also in moderation, because of the high amount of omega-6 fats, not fructose) and some veggies (green leafy ones especially) and you'll have no problem filling up your glycogen stores to get ready for some serious training.

Thanks again to Mr. Moore for mentioning my blog!

Friday, September 17, 2010

Muscle Activation: Why "turning on your glutes" is not a sexual reference

Bear with me for a little background.

If you're like me you learned about muscle function using elbow flexion as the model.  The elbow is a nice, relatively simple hinge joint.  You've got biceps and triceps.  When the biceps contract the triceps relax and the elbow flexes, when the triceps contract the biceps relax and the elbow extends.  We know the story is a little more complicated - there's a brachialis to worry about and two bones in the forearm - but not much more.

This is a nice starting model to understanding reciprocal inhibition and muscle function, but it has serious limitations.  The joints that are more important to movement - the hips and shoulders, and the spine (I know the spine isn't technically a joint, but you get the idea) - are not nearly as simple.  Take the hips.  Do the quads flex or extend the hip?  Why, flex it of course.  So the quads relax when the hip extends?  Well - not exactly.  Do a heavy squat and tell me if your quads are nice and relaxed.  Hip function is just a lot more complex, and most hip movements involve a lot of different muscles working together in various ways.

The shoulder is similarly complex.  Why does tensing your lat improve pressing power?  Doesn't the lat pull the upper arm down?  Well, yes, but it also settles the shoulder in its socket.  Don't believe me?  Try doing heavy kettlebell presses.  Now tense the lat - pull the shoulder down with the lat and see how the bell moves (by the way, this is a nice thing to do when throwing an upper block - actively pull the shoulder down towards the back of your hip by tensing the lat as your arm moves up.  You should see a nice boost in power as well as preserving the integrity of your shoulder joint).

I'm not going to fully descibe the way these muscles interact to produce movement in this post - I don't know enough and I don't have enough room.  The take home points are as follows:
  • In most cases muscles work together in teams to produce movement.  The hip and shoulder are not much like the elbow in this regard.
  • In many people muscles will work inefficiently or incorrectly to produce movement.  There's a "right way" for your muscles to extend the hip ("right" meaning most efficient and healthiest for your alignment) and if you sit at a desk all day your body is probably not doing it the right way!
  • Muscles can "shut down" - which just means they don't do their fair share of moving you around.  The glutes, parts of the core, and the shoulder stabilizers are all prime suspects for this.
  • One way to help imrpove your performance and alignment during movement is to "wake up" those underperforming muscles.
How do we "wake up" sleeping glutes (remember, they're not actually sleeping, they're just under-contributing to hip extension, probably because you sit on them all day at a desk)? At the beginning of your workout do a few quick muscle activation exercises, as part of your warm up.  A good example?

Try this as your warmup:

  1. Get warm (literally, raise your body temperature).  I like doing a breathing kata (sanchin, tensho) for this.
  2. Do some dynamic stretching (leg swings to the front and side for 1-3 rounds of 10)
  3. Get a pair of light dumbells and do YWTL's (check these out on YouTube - much easier to see than to explain). 
  4. Do a round of planks - front, side, and one armed to each side - but not to exhaustion, just 10-15 s so you feel a nice contraction where you're supposed to.
  5. Do some glute bridges - lie on your back, plant your feet flat on the floor, and thrust your pelvis up at the sky.  If you feel it in your hamstrings your glutes are asleep.  Squeeze the glutes, hard, as you do the movement.  You can try these one leg at a time as well.  Or do some kettlebell swing (my favorite choice).
This isn't foolproof, and these aren't the only exercises you can use by any stretch, but this is a good start to "waking up" the muscles you want firing when you do karate.  You can also focus on those muscles during the workout.  When you move in stance, focus on squeezing the glute as you push yourself forward.  Concentrate on keeping the shoulder down and in its socket when punching and blocking.  Consciously tighten your core muscles (your midsection) when you do basically any technique (don't stop breathing, though). 

Now if you have a big enough issue you may need to see a physical therapist or massage therapist or some kind of movement specialist to fix your inactive muscles.  But try some other things first.  I can feel a big difference in movement just by trying to tilt my pelvis forward and intentionally squeezing my glutes when moving.  You might too!

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Stretching for Performance

Nearly every aspect of my own training has been altered by the things I've learned from books and online sources over the last five years, but perhaps the way I stretch has changed most of all.  I see many martial artists stretch incorrectly, which can cause injury or decrease performance at worst and waste time at best.  As you know, I'm not a fan of wasting time! 

There are several different types of stretching, but I'm going to focus on two:
  • Dynamic Stretching:  This means moving a limb to the limits of its range of motion, then back (as opposed to holding a limb in the stretched position).  Think leg swings, or mae keage, or yoko keage.
  • Static Stretching:  This means holding a limb at a point near or at the limit of its range of motion.  This is the typical sitting on the floor with legs spread, leaning over one leg or the other and holding the position for some period of time.
There are two different goals for stretching:
  • Movement prep:  This is stretching before a workout, as part of your warmup, or before a performance of some kind.  Think of the stretching you do before practicing kicks.  Also known as limbering up or loosening up.
  • Flexibility enhancement:  Stretching you do to increase your long term flexibility. 
Some people may combine these two goals in one session:  this is a mistake.

Look, we've all been told at some point to sit on the floor and static stretch for fifteen minutes or half an hour before karate class or other exercise.  We've been told that it prevents injuries and prepares the body for the workout.  This is just not true.  The scientific evidence behind using static stretching pre-workout for injury prevention is nil - it just doesn't work.  Holding stretches for a long time, like sitting in a near - split and trying to touch your chest to the floor for 30 seconds or a minute, significantly reduces the amount of force your muscles can generate for quite a while thereafter.  Do you think that's what you want to do - weaken your leg muscles right before practicing kicks?  Or before fighting?

On the other hand, two to four minutes of dynamic stretching will get you to the limits of your dynamic flexibility - that is, get you to the point where you can kick as high as your body will allow you to kick.  Don't believe me?  Try it.  Do a quick warm up - any movement that raises your core body temperature.  Do some planks and some glute bridges maybe (lie on your back, put your feet flat on the floor, and thrust your pelvis at the sky.  Repeat).  Then do some leg swings - 10 each leg, first 10 to the front, then 10 to the side.  Repeat for 2 or 3 rounds if you need to.  Do these fast, but not full speed - you're trying to move your leg through its full range of motion and then back, not hold it up in the air.  Total time?  Maybe 5 minutes.  Then practice your high kicks.

Does that mean no static stretching?  Well, not exactly.  There are two reasons to do static stretching.  The first is that some static stretching will help you increase your flexibility, if you need it.  And if you have minor muscle damage (tweaks, not full tears) stretching seems to help recovery.  So if you're still working towards a full split, sitting in front of the TV every night and cranking your legs apart will probably help you get there.  Do this stretching while fairly cold and preferably after some foam rolling or massage. 

The other thing to do if you're trying to improve your range of motion is to increase your strength in those muscles at the stretched position.  How? Well, try getting into a horse stance (kiba dachi).  Widen it as far as you can - keeping the knees bent, try to get as close to a split as you can.  Then squeeze the floor with your inner things - try to pull your heels towards each other.  Hold, really working hard to contract those muscles, for 30 s or so. 

You can do anything else that works those muscles from the stretch position.  My favorite?  I set up a pair of gymnastic rings.  I put my feet into the rings (one in each).  Then I lower myself into a split position, or as close as I can get, without using my hands (I'll usually keep a palm on the wall in front of me for balance).  Then I pull myself back up - so my feet come together - using my hip adductors alone. 

Bottome line:

Do only dynamic stretching before your workout.  Save the static stretching for off days or nighttime, not close to your workout.

I recommend dynamic stretching once or twice a day, every day.  There are two reasons for this:  the first is that it prepares you for mini workouts - like getting out of your chair and just throwing five or ten kicks with each leg.  The second is a self defense issue.  If you use high kicks in your karate practice and get into a fight you should be prepared to throw those kicks anytime.  No mugger (or whatever) is going to jump you, then stand aside and wait ten minutes for you to warm up and stretch before continuing the beating.

If you're curious, the core of these recommendations comes from Thomas Kurz and Mac Mierzejewski.  check out their stuff at

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

On Supplements

Supplements (as in dietary supplements) are a fairly contentious issue in the health and fitness community.  The research on supplements, like general nutrition, is hard to do - there are just so many variables in diet and in performance, let alone in genetic makeup from person to person.  A lot of supplements should work but don't seem to actually work for practicing athletes (HMB, anyone?)  A lot should work to improve health, in theory, but in practice have mixed or even negative results (multivitamins are the classic example of this).  A handful of supplements definitely do work to improve performance - but it's a small handful.  Creatine is one - it's safe, effective for most consumers, and has few to no side effects.  Other substances will work but have side effects of various sorts - think anabolic steroids.  Worth it?  Well, I'll offer my opinion on steroids in a future post.

A lot of the disdain for supplements is a reaction against those people, usually young people, who buy into the supplement company marketing and think that supplements are the key to health and fitness.  They'll eat crappy diets and have crappy training and focus on getting the latest, greatest pills and powders into their mouths.  This is silly - you can't supplement your way out of a crappy diet, unless the "supplements" are anabolic steroids, and even then you won't come close to maximizing your potential.  That doesn't mean supplements are of no benefit.  Think of them like extra stretching sessions - if your training is good, extra stretching will somewhat improve your karate.  But stretching alone or instead of real training won't come close to making you a great martial artist.

Down to brass tacks.  You do NOT NEED any supplements to be healthy and perform well IF you eat a good diet.  By "good diet" I mean lots of grass fed beef (including the organs) and wild caught fish, fresh fruits, vegetables, and berries in a wide variety, and plenty of sunshine year round.  So why take supplements?

There are two general reasons.  First, some supplements can enhance your performance above what it would be on an excellent diet.  A person eating a great diet who added in some creatine would probably see a boost in endurance and size - even a fantastically healthy diet won't supply an optimal dose of creatine.  Another example is caffeine.  Take a fantastically healthy person in great shape and have them spar for an hour.  Compare them to another equally healthy and in-shape person who spars for an hour after taking 250 mg of caffeine.  We can argue about the overall benefits of caffeine, but in the short term at least you'll get a definite performance boost out of it.

The second reason to take supplements is to make up for some deficiency in diet or lifestyle.  For example, I work indoors in a climate where there isn't much opportunity for sun exposure during half the year.  So I take Vitamin D3, 5,000 - 10,000 IU of it, every day.  Would it be better to spend hours in the sun with my shirt off?  Well, it would be healthier for me, but it's just not going to happen.  The same goes for sleep.  I'm sure I'd be better off reducing my stress levels, going to bed earlier, and staying away from electronics for an hour and a half before bedtime - but none of that is going to happen.  So I take supplementary magnesium before bed, which seems to help my sleep quality.

If you have limited money:
  • Seriously consider spending it on better food first.  You're going to get a lot more out of a pound of raw butter from grassfed cows than from $10 worth of pills.  Upgrading your beef to grassfed and adding in some more fruits and vegetables, are both better investments than anything from a bottle.
  • Go with the sure things first.  Probably start with a multilvitamin (there is mixed evidence about this, but this is a pretty common recommendation).  After that, fish oil (aim for 3000 mg/day total of EPA and DHA - ignore anything else in there, and DO NOT take flax oil, it's not useful for humans) and Vitamin D3 (2000 - 10000 IU/day) are pretty well researched, important for health and inflammation, and relatively inexpensive. 
  • Creatine is cheap and safe if it works for you.  I personally don't respond to it.  Try it out.  Creatine should cause some immediate weight gain (not fat, just water in the muscles).  I don't know how that might affect your lateral quickness.  Post to comments if you have insight into this issue!
  • ALWAYS shop around.  I personally buy most everything from Netrition (no, I don't have any relationship to them other than customer).  They usually ship quickly and have good prices and good customer service.  Plus they send free t-shirts with your order, so now I have a drawer full of t-shirts that I wear to the gym all the time.
If money is less of an issue for you, by all means do some experimentation.  Buy something, try it for a month or two, and see if you feel any different.  Things I would try (but I'm not confident in them) are:  Beta alanine, Acetyl L-Carnitine, green tea extract, phosphatidyl serine, Vitamin K2, ZMA, greens products, digestive support, and joint support products with glucosamine, chondroitin, and MSM.  There are lots of others, too many to list.  As I find products with good results I'll write individual posts about them.

I personally take a multivitamin, quercetin (great for asthma and seasonal allergies), fish oil, 5000 IU D3, 100 mg K2, calcium carbonate in the morning, magnesium or ZMA at night, green tea extract (for the caffeine, mostly), 1 g C, 400 IU E, and am always throwing new stuff in there to try.

One last point - I tend to have a slightly laissez faire attitude towards supplements (I'm a little bit of a supplement junkie), but many openly sold, legal supplements do have potential side effectcs.  Do some research before you just fill a basket with pills to take.  Beware of anything that's supposed to affect hormone levels or stimulants.  Not to say that they're all dangerous, just that I wouldn't pop them willy nilly without putting some thought into it.

Hero of the Month: Denise Minger

I"ve been more than lax in my "Hero of theWeek" entries, so I'm going to try to post monthly and hope I can stick to that schedule. 

Denise Minger is many things, I'm sure, but she's my hero specifically because of her blogging activities.  As you can probably tell by the name of her blog, Denise is a raw food advocate, and I'd place her roughly in the raw paleo camp - she eats foods available in paleolithic times and doesn't cook them.  Yes, that means raw meat, egg yolks, and so forth. 

Now I'm not a raw food advocate - I'm not against it, but I can't personally get over the ick factor of eating raw meat.  Would we be better off eating raw?  I'm not sure - the science I've seen on this seems mixed.  Some nutrients are more bioavailable in cooked foods, some less.  I don't do a lot of research into this area because even if I discovered that an all raw diet was healthier I just can't bring myself to do it. 

There are two overall reasons Denise is my hero.  The first (but not the one that brought her to my attention) is her overall approach to nutrition.  You can read her blog yourself to see what I mean, but she's the best kind of scientist.  She has experimented with  many diets, on herself, and made many modifications until she found a mix that works for her - makes her feel and look good.  She's very open about acknowledging that this eating style may not work forever and that she may tweak it further in the future if she finds something else to make her healthier.  So a strong research background combined with a nice lack of dogmatism - that's how you get at the truth.

The second thing I love about Denise is her posts dissecting various scientific publications, including most famously The China Study.  If you're not familiar with it, The China Study (I won't link to it out of sheet spite) is a book based on a massive amount of data taken in China (go figure) that got detailed dietary information and health status information from a huge number of people.  The book took this raw data and tortured it to make a case for veganism.  It's been torn apart by a number of people - the authors don't understand statistics, they ignore strong correlations that don't match their argument, so on and so forth.  Denise took that criticism to another level entirely.  She took the raw data (publicly available) and did a much more sophisticated analysis of it, showing how specious the book's authors conclusions were and finding some new stuff - like a very nice demonstration that wheat consumption may be pretty bad for us. 

This was a massive task, labor-wise, and not done to further a book sale or supplement company.  She did it, I assume, to satisfy her own curiosity, and shared it to edify the rest of us.  To be honest, these posts could form the core of an intro to science course at a university.  In fact, we'd all be better off if intro to science courses were all based on this kind of writing.  Until then, I highly recommend going through Denise's blog regularly.  I guarantee it will provide food for thought and help you clarify your own thinking about science and research and the dangers of just reading abstracts!

Monday, September 13, 2010

Core Training

Training for "the core" has become a buzzword in the fitness industry, and an oft-maligned buzzword in many circles.  Understanding jsut what core training means might provide a useful boost to your martial arts training.

The term "core" refers roughly to the muscles that connect your ribcage to your pelvis.  There is no single, universally accepted definition, but the core always includes the surface and deep abdominals and lower back muscles, and often includes the lats and serratus, and sometimes the glutes and hip flexors. 

Why train your core?  Fundamentally, the core transfers energy from the lower body to the upper body or vice versa.  Imagine for a moment that you had no core muscles.  What would happen when you turned your hips, say to drive a punch?  Well, the hips would turn, your spine would twist, and your shoulders would stay right where they were.  There would be two problems:  first, your punch would have very little power.  Second, your spine would be in big trouble - spines are meant to twist, but only a little, and not very vigorously.  So bad punch and bad back.

Now nobody actually has no core muscles - when somebody says they have "no abs" they mean they're too fat to see their abs, not that the muscles are actually missing.  But many people have weak core muscles, and they end up with sloppy technique.  You can see their hips move, but the ribcage isn't totally in sync.  Basically, they're losing energy in their hand techniques because some of the hip drive isn't transferred properly.  Again, bad for the punch, and bad for the back.  Ideally you want your hips and ribcage to move together as if there were iron bars attaching them.  Want a good visual of this?  Watch Enter The Dragon and watch the scenes where Bruce Lee is fighting a bunch of no-name bad guys.  Watch him punch them - every time his hips twitch his whole upper body moves perfectly together.  There's a reason the guy was such a fanatic about ab training, and you can see the value of having super strong abs in his movement.

So how to we train the core?  Let's think about what the core does.  Basically, the core flexes the trunk (brings your chest forward), extends the trunk (brings your chest backwards, like when you arch your back), twists the trunk both ways (like when you throw a cross with either hand), and bends the trunk side to side (I'm sure there's a fancy word for this but I don't know it).  Or, you could say it does all those things for your hips, if your upper body is stationary - so if you hang from a chinup bar or something, the core moves the hips in all those ways.  Now here's a mindbender - since the core flexes the trunk, it also works to prevent extension.  In other words, if some force is pushing your upper body backwards, the core is what allows you to maintain your alignment.  The same is true for rotation.  Imagine throwing a medicine ball with one hand.  the reaction force of that medicine ball pushing into your shoulder tries to twist your trunk away from the throw.  Your core prevents that from happening.

Most people train the core with lots of crunches and leg raises.  That's trunk flexion - crunches flex the trunk, during leg raises the weight of your legs pulls your trunk into extension (your back wants to arch) and your core has to prevent the extension (preventing extension is roughly the same muscles as flexion).  That's not a terrible start, but we can do better.

Here are the bullet points:
  • Pick exercises where your core is working to keep your posture neutral, not ones where you are moving the spine.  Planks are better than crunches.  Throwing a medicine ball is better than that exercise where you lie on your back with your arms out and legs sticking straight up and rotate your legs from side to side.  There are two reasons for this:  First, the core muscles work harder when resisting movement than when they initiate movement (sounds weird, but it's true).  Second, rotating or flexing the spine a lot is asking for trouble - as in back injury trouble.
  • Work exercises where you resist extension (planks), resist rotation (one armed planks, birddogs, one arm medicine ball throws), resist yaw (side to side movement - like side planks), and resist flexion (deadlifts, swings).  The exercises can absolutely be ones you already to for other reasons.  Swings aren't "core" exercises, but they work the core.  That's fine.  Just make sure to add core dedicated exercises if you aren't incorporating a challenge in your other exercises.
  • Progress to movements where you are resisting that motion in unstable ways.  Planks are great.  Try doing them on an underinflated exercise ball (Swiss ball) instead.  Don't settle in - jiggle around the ball so your core is challenged by a rapidly varying force.  Try carrying around a slosh pipe (a 8-10 foot pipe, pvc or something, half filled with water).  You'll get a better contraction and you'll prepare your core to stabilize you in a dynamic environment - like a sparring session.
  • Don't settle for doing looong sessions of moderately challenging exercises.  There's no reason to hold a front plank for five minutes.  Once you can hold it for one or two minutes progress to something harder - ab wheel rollouts, swiss ball rollouts, superman planks, something hard.  Treat your core strength like your strength anywhere else in your body.
  • Don't think that because the core is so important that you should make core-specific training the bulk of your workout.  Working only the core is as silly as working only the legs in isolation.  You can't actually punch or kick anybody with your core! 
  • Don't exhaust your core early in your workout!  The last thing you want to do is really fry your core muscles early in a routine, then throw a bunch of punches or kicks later.  You need your core for all that other stuff!  Do your core last or close to last in your workout.
In my routine I regularly do kettlebell swings, one arm pushups, ab wheel rollouts, and swiss ball plank/rollouts.  These movements are mixed in with my other strength training, done twice a week.  When I do the swiss ball movement I get into a plank position on my elbows on a swiss ball and move my elbows in big circles on the ball, then in a cross pattern.  It's a pretty nice movement.  This list changes regularly.