Tuesday, November 30, 2010

What about those enzymes?

Today's post will be one part nutrition lesson, one part common sense lesson, and eight parts rant. 

One of the popular arguments in favor of certain diets has to do with the enzyme content of various foods.  Some advocates of eating raw foods, for example, argue that raw foods are better because they contain more enzymes, and that ingesting those enzymes can help us maintain a youthful, healthful body.  Now there may be many benefits to eating foods raw but the enzyme content is not one of them except in a limited situation.  It cannot be, and anybody with a middle school understanding of biology and chemistry should be able to understand why not.

Let's do this step by step.

What are enzymes?  Enzymes are proteins that act as catalysts for various chemical reactions in the body.  This is a fancy way of saying that enzymes basically allow, or make, those reactions occur.  Pretty much every step in every chemical reaction that goes on in your body would happen too slowly to support life unless there were enzymes around to speed them up.  Since you're basically nothing more than a big, complicated bundle of chemical reactions, enzymes re pretty important.  Incidentally, this is why you feel like crap when you generate a fever - enzymes work optimally within a narrow range of temperatures, and once your body temp goes above that range all the chemical processes that your body depends on slow down.

There are different enzymes in every part of every cell in your body.  There are digestive enzymes that break down proteins, for example.  Guess where you'll find them?  In your gut!  There are other enzymes that form melanin when exposed to sun.  Guess where you'll find those?  On your skin.  If they switched places you could digest meat on your chest and get a tan inside your stomach, but luckily we have a complex web of control mechanisms to keep that from happening.

When you eat proteins four things can happen to them:  they are either digested or not digested (most of which happens in the stomach) and either absorbed into the bloodstream or not absorbed into the bloodstream (most of which happens in the small intestine).

Proteins that aren't absorbed aren't a worry for us right now - you poop them out, which might be a waste of protein but isn't otherwise of consequence.  Let's think about the proteins that are absorbed.  Ideally, do you want whole (undigested) proteins passing from your small intestine into your bloodstream?  Of course not.  Sure, some of those proteins might be beneficial, but most won't be - you don't want digestive enzymes in your blood - they'd digest stuff that you need, like pretty much anything in your body that's made out of protein.  So your body is usually careful about what it lets into the blood from your intestine.  It will let amino acids through - that's what you get when a protein is broken down into small, small pieces.  But unless you have a seriously leaky gut big proteins - like enzymes - can't make it into the blood.  If they can't get into the blood, they can't get anywhere else, either.

So when somebody tells you that you can regain youthful levels of enzymes by eating raw meat or whatever they're crazy.  If enzymes are getting from your food to your blood undigested then you have serious health problems - lots of allergens and other crap are getting into your system from your gut.  The only exception is digestive enzymes.  Enzymes that help with digestion - which occurs in the mouth and stomach - will obviously make it to the mouth and stomach if you swallow them.  What they won't do is pass through the wall of the small intestine to get to your blood, which is fine - you don't want them in your blood!

If somebody tells you to eat Food X because it has beneficial enzyme Y (like, say, telomerase) which will do Z for you, they have absolutely no understanding of human physiology.  Unless Z is "help you digest food." 

Now there are lots of other nutrients that might get absorbed and do whatever for you, and they might be denatured by heat, which might turn out to be a good reason to eat raw foods.  Just because a position is supported by bad arguments doesn't mean the position is wrong.  There are bad reasons to eat a Paleo diet, too.  So eating raw foods might be beneficial.  But the talk about re-stocking your supply of enzymes from raw foods is... simply ignorant (again, unless we're talking about digestive enzymes that act in the stomach - those don't have to cross into the blood to work, so they're an entirely different story).


Thursday, November 25, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving!

So today is a holiday, at least if you live in the US and aren't Native American.  I like the basic idea - to give thanks for all the cool stuff we have, like hi def TV's and dark chocolate (and family and friends, of course), but this holiday seems to be more about watching football and eating ourselves into insulin comas than anything.

The insidious thing about holidays (to us compulsive overeaters) is that they seem like an excuse to blow our diets.  "Go ahead and pig out, it's Thanksgiving!"  Which is fine, as Thanksgiving comes once a year, but it all too easily turns into "Go ahead and pig out...

  • It's your birthday!
  • It's Christmas!
  • It's New Year's!
  • You got a promotion at work!
  • Your brother/ best friend/ cousin/ sister is in town!
  • It's your wedding anniversary!
  • It's the anniversary of your first date!
  • It's the anniversary of your first kiss!"
And so on.

Remember my tips from before - if you're going to overeat, do a nicely brutal strength training session beforehand (I've already done mine).  Don't try to do seven hours of cardio to make up for the calories - a huge shot of cortisol isn't going to help you as much as you think.  Make sure to get some protein in with your food - don't skip the turkey for sweet potatoes and pumpkin pie.

I'm thankful for a lot of things, but also for this blog, which is an opportunity to share my thoughts with a bunch of people, some of whom I don't even know.  Frankly, none of the people I interact with on a daily basis care even a little bit about karate or fitness, and there are only so many times I can start talking to my wife about suspension training while her eyes glaze over before I take pity on her and shut up.  So, thank you for reading and giving me an outlet for discussing all this stuff!

Fitness tip of the day:  if you can't do one arm pushups well, try building up to them by doing them with your legs spread as far as they can go, then build up to real ones by bringing your legs closer to each other.  This eases the load on your arm/ shoulder without really changing the angle (at your shoulder joint) or range of motion.  I like this a lot more than doing partial reps (only going down part of the way) or using the other arm for assistance (which I find really hard to measure, so I can't tell if I'm making progress).  

I plan to post some videos of this stuff in the next couple of months as soon as I get the tablet I've been wanting...  I have my eye on a NotionInk Adam, but it's not out yet.  :(

Enjoy your holiday and don't let it be an excuse for a five week break from training or eating well!


Wednesday, November 24, 2010

You should be watching combat sports

If you're a martial artist and you aren't watching combat sports fairly regularly, you should be.  There are two reasons:  

First, you can learn from combat sports.  Now I know that MMA isn't the same as an actual fight, but it's closer than most of what I have access to - I haven't seen a "real fight" (no rules) since the third grade, if you can count a couple of eight year olds fighting as a streetfight.  Watching MMA has taught me a few things about combat, like the fact that head kicks can be effective (just don't lead with them or throw them alone) or that "knockout points" along the jaw that my teacher used to talk about are very, very real.  Don't think that you're learning a lot, because MMA does have a bunch of rules and fighting with gloves is not the same as without, but you can get something out of it.

Second, watching good combat sports can be very motivational.  If you can watch Giorgio Petrosyan fight or see Glaube Feitosa throw a Brazilian kick for a knockout and not be overwhelmed by the urge to go out and train then... I have nothing to say to you.  

Obviously, many non-martial artists have no interest in combat sports, and I have no argument with them - it's a matter of taste.  I don't watch golf.  If I played golf I'd probably get more out of watching it.  But if you are a martial artist and you enjoy the intricacies of combat, then I bet you don't watch MMA for one of two reasons:  either you've never tried it, or you watched a match where the fighters spent interminable lengths of time hugging each other either pressed up against the cage or lying on the floor, doing nothing.

If you've never tried it, watch something on Spike or HDNet - there's a ton of free fight sports on tv.  If you don't want to wait, you can always YouTube a bunch of fights, also for free.

A less widely available alternative to MMA is professional kickboxing.  I can't recommend K-1 highly enough.  It's available on HDNet for free, and it's tons of fun.  They call it (correctly) the highest level striking on the planet.  If you can catch a K-1 MAX show, that's even better.  MAX is the middleweight division - 154 lbs. and under - and the energy level and technical ability of the lighter fighters is amazing to see.  Best part?  No hugging.


Monday, November 22, 2010

Pistols, Advertising, and the Rodeo

Check out this week's Paleo Rodeo for a ton of Thanksgiving related posts.  Apparently holidays are a problem for everybody - which makes me wonder.

Look over to the right and you'll see a banner for Pro MMA Radio.  You 'll be able to click on it and listen to the most recent show while reading this blog, once we get the code fixed.  It's the best source for MMA analysis, interviews, and discussions that I've come across, and I'm not just saying this now.  I've listened to every episode, I linked to it with the first podcasts I put on this site, and I'm pretty sure I've written this before on this blog.

I get no money from Pro MMA Radio, though I'll apparently end up with my site listed on a page of Broadcast Members on their site, which might direct some traffic my way.  Just so you know I haven't sold out yet (though I'm totally willing to, given the opportunity!)

I'm thinking about setting up Google Adsense and putting up some affiliate type links.  I imagine I could make almost no money by doing so, but maybe it will amount to a non-trivial amount over time (I'm hoping to fund some book or DVD buying or light equipment purchase, not quit my day job).  If anyone has an objection to me enabling ads please let me know, it's more important that I not alienate readers than make a couple of bucks. 

I've been working on pistols and one arm pushups for a while now, on and off, for vanity reasons, and I finally did a sort of unassisted pistol the other day.  I've done various different assisted versions - usually limiting depth by sitting back to a step or short box, then more recently holding onto a doorframe.  There's one tip I'd read about but forgotten for a while, which is to do pistols while holding some kind of weight in your hands out in front of you.  It sounds a little bit crazy, as the more weight you hold the harder it will be for that supporting leg to lift you out of the bottom position, but if your problem is keeping balance in the bottom, meaning you tend to fall backwards at the bottom, then the counterbalance might be enough to enable the pistol.  I tried this with just two five pound dumbells and... voila... pistols accomplished (my butt touched my ankle at the bottom, which as far as I'm concerned is a full range pistol).

Is this a true pistol?  I guess not.  Here's where we get back to the vanity thing, though.  Am I doing pistols to be cool at parties or to improve my leg and hip drive for kicks and such?  If vanity, then all I've done is found another progression to use to work toward "real" pistols.  But I'm not sure that learning to balance in the bottom position has anything to do with improving my strength for kicks.  I might just work on using more weight instead of building up to a naked pistol and see where that takes me.

I got my first spam comment, which for reasons of hubris I don't want to delete (I'll delete spam when the problem gets more serious).  It was a link to the most ridiculous looking ab building device I've ever seen.  Check it out iff you're looking for a good laugh (iff is philosophy-class short for if and only if - I suddenly can't remember if that's common knowledge or not).  I can't even begin to figure out how anyone thinks that rocking around in that thing will build up your abs - where's the resistance coming from?  What's the point?  The nicest thing I can think to say is that while it doesn't seem like it would do anything at all it doesn't seem particularly dangerous either - though I could be wrong about that.

I'm planning a few posts.  I want to talk about rank, contrast bands and dumbells, and discuss some dietary supplements in a little more detail.  If there's anything specific you, the reader, are curious about, let me know by e-mail or comments and I'll see if I can help. 


Thursday, November 18, 2010

Hero of the Month: Bruce Lee

First of all, I apologize for the lapses in this series.  I have no excuse, really, other than laziness.

If you haven't heard of this month's hero, Bruce Lee...  Actually, I don't even know how to finish that statement.  Crawl out from under the rock you've been living under?  Carefully reach down and remove your head from your colon?  I'm not sure...

I will admit that many people might not understand how far reaching Lee's influence was.  Lee is probably best known for being one of the most charismatic and visually impressive martial arts movie stars in history - his popularity was extraordinary, and was partially responsible for the explosion of martial arts awareness in the US in the 70's.  He was not only popular but innovative as a film star.  His action scenes and even the structure of his films were vastly different from the work that had gone on before.  But even if he hadn't made a single movie Lee would still be an important figure in martial arts history:
  1. He was one of the first to popularize cross training.  Lee studied not only different Asian martial arts but also Western boxing and fencing to try to cull out the best techniques for his own system.  He's been called the first mixed martial artist.  I can't say he was the first to do that, but he was certainly the most influential.
  2. Lee was an early adoptee of weight training and cutting edge (for the time) fitness and nutrition ideas - remember, this was at a time when most people thought weightlifting would make you "musclebound" and inflexible.
  3. He rigorously tested his ideas in combat, rather than accepting the old "my master taught me this way so this is the right way" ideology so prevalent in martial arts.  Lee was famous for taking on all challengers in no holds barred streetfights even while his fame grew as a movie star.
Bruce Lee was a scientist, a self-experimenter who constantly sought out new ideas in training and in fighting, tested them, and ruthlessly discarded the things that didn't work.  You can argue with some of his conclusions but you can't fault his methodology. 

There's a ton of material about Lee - movies about his life, biographies, and his own writings.  You can read inspiring stories - one after another - about his wife finding him on the floor in front of the television with a boxing match on while in a full split working a hand gripper in one hand with a book open in front of him.  He trained constantly - not jogging mile after mile, but working on his speed, his precision, and his art.  That combination of intellectual openness, work ethic, and intelligence made him a powerful force for change.

Lee's movies changed my life.  I was a kid during the kung fu explosion of the 70's, and the central theme of the martial arts film (which to me was always that with hard work and correct training a person could overcome literally anything) might never have trickled into my consciousness if Lee's films hadn't pushed so far into the public awareness.  Now what's interesting about this is that we can imagine that someone like Jackie Chan or Jet Li, had they been around earlier, might have had the same cultural impact if kung fu films hadn't been popularized by others before them.  But neither of those individuals were anywhere near as accomplished or innovative as actual martial artists.  Lee was, in that sense, an awesome talent.

And my hero.  This month.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Performance Vanity: Gymnastics for Martial Artists

There is a trend in fitness today to incorporate gymnastics training into one's strength routine.  As far as I know (and I could be wrong, though it's not that important a point) this was mostly popularized by Crossfit, but they're certainly not the only ones advocating it, and historically gymnastics training was always a key part of physical culture. 

It's easy to see the appeal of gymnastics training.  It usually requires little or no equipment - mostly bodyweight exercises and maybe a set of rings or paralettes - builds impressive physiques (check out the body on any high level gymnast) and looks impressive as hell.  Watch someone knock out a handstand pushup or hold a full planche and you can't help but be wowed, even if you aren't an athlete yourself.

There are roughly three reasons a martial artists should or could incorporate gymnastics moves into a strength routine:
  1. Build strength in a movement to balance force production around a joint (for injury prevention).  For example, you should so some kind of pullup or body row regularly because most martial artists do a lot of pushing (pushups, punches, etc.) and if your strength in one direction is too much greater than the other direction you set yourself up for injury (in this case, at the shoulder joint).
  2. For functional/ tactical reasons.  The best example of this is the muscle-up (start hanging from a bar or rings; pull up high enough that you end up above the bar or rings, like the top of a dip).  The movement in a muscle-up is a lot like what you have to do to climb over a wall or ledge or high fence.  This has clear self defense implications - imagine you're trying to escape from some attackers and come up on a low wall or fence.  Strength developed from muscle-ups could help you get over that wall or fence very quickly to escape.
  3. For performance vanity.  Performance vanity is my term for feeling proud of yourself not for looking good but for being able to do something you think is cool.  I'm sure we've all felt this - the first time you made your gi snap while kicking, your first knuckle pushup, your first board break.  There's nothing wrong with this - I'm not against vanity as long as it motivates you to do good things (vanity that makes you exercise and eat right is good; vanity that makes you shoot botox into your head is bad).  But you should recognize why you're doing what you're doing. 
The fact is that gymnastics moves are rarely, if ever, going to directly improve your karate.  They're done at the wrong speed and in the wrong positions.  Take the planche.  It requires tremendous shoulder and core strength - which is good.  But it's a static position.  Karateka don't need to hold their arms stiffly out in front of them against tremendous resistance - they need to move, explosively.  Handstand pushups are fantastic, but if you're in a fight and both hands are on the floor and your feet are in the air something has already gone horribly wrong.

Look, if mastering some new, esoteric movement jazzes you up and gets you excited about training (that's performance vanity), then there's nothing wrong with that.  But if your training routine is already full and you're out of time to add to it don't feel bad about skipping the work on pistols, handstands, and planches in favor of movements that directly improve your art.

Let me dissect the pistol for another good example of this.  The pistol is a one legged squat - you hold one leg straight out in front of you and squat down until your butt touches your heel, then stand back up.  Fantastic exercise, right?  Most people can't do one.  I'm sure it impresses people at the beach.  But why can't most people do one?  It's because of either their balance or strength down in the hole - in the bottom position where the hip and knee are both fully flexed.

If you want to be able to do a pistol you can add a bunch of work in a deep squat - building up your strength in that bottom position - and spend time developing your balance in that position.  But I doubt you ever have to get into that position in your art - I know I don't.  Even if you do, most of us have to do our pistols so slowly that the strength won't carry over well to fighting speed.  You'd be better off doing deep two legged squats and working at a faster speed - you'll get better carryover.

Take home message:  practice gymnastics moves or weird bodyweight exercises if it gets you motivated to train (I do this myself).  But don't sacrifice the kind of work that will directly improve your art for the sake of being able to do flashy stuff that's peripheral to your karate.

More caveats:  I don't mean to disparage people who incorporate gymnastics into their martial art - who do tricking or extreme martial arts.  I love watching that sort of stuff - I don't do it myself and I object to people who think that it makes for good self defense, but that's another story.  If you do practice that then by all means gymnastics should take a central role in your training!

Let me say also that I have the highest respect for gymnasts - they're fantastic athletes, and if you're interested in a physical activity other than martial arts you could certainly do a lot worse.  In fact, if you want to be fit and don't want to do martial arts you should seriously consider a program of mastering gymnastics moves.  Just remember the whole thing about chasing two rabbits...


Sunday, November 14, 2010

Combat Sports: How to fix MMA

Check out Modern Paleo for this week's Paleo Rodeo.  I remembered to submit a post this time!  Now on to business...

Ever watch a UFC match that turns into two guys holding each other against the cage for long periods of time or holding each other on the floor, doing not much of anything?  If not, then I bet you've never watched the UFC.  I'm a fan of MMA, but the fact is that a good percentage of MMA fights are boring to watch.  We can fix this.

There are two layers to the problem with MMA's ground game and clinch game.  The first is that good ground fighting can be hard to understand.  Someone without a background in ground sports might see good ground fighting but just not get what's going on.  Imagine someone watching the NFL for the first time - all they see is a bunch of guys running around, they won't appreciate what went into a great play because they don't get what's going on.  It's like when I watch soccer - instant tears of boredom.  The cure for that is knowledge - learning about what goes on in a good ground match.  It helps to watch great ground fighters with good commentary.  You can't see a lot of Dustin Hazelett or Demian Maia without gaining love for what they do.  See, I'm not against the ground game - I'm against bad ground game.

The bigger problem in MMA is boring groundfighting and boring clinchwork.  Many UFC fights turn into bad wrestling matches.  Basically, good wrestlers can win fights by grabbing their opponents and holding them - "controlling them" - for large portions of the match.  Grab a guy, drag him to the ground, and lay on top for three rounds.  This strategy is often called "lay and pray."  See Jon Fitch, George St. Pierre (the current version, not the pre-Serra knockout version), Efraim Escudero, and a ton of other guys.

Why do fighters do this?  Well, it's effective - it wins fights.  It's hard to get out from under a good wrestler.  If you have control and you really try to damage your opponent or go for a submission, you open yourself up to being swept or counterstruck or submitted (see Chael Sonnen v. Anderson Silva).  If you just hold on and move just enough that the ref doesn't stand you up you can sweep the scorecards and notch a victory.

See, the scoring is the problem.  It is popular to blame the judges for this.  Sometimes that's justified - we've all seen some horrible decisions rendered, often because the judges are boxing people and not MMA people and don't understand what they're watching.  But the judges give St. Pierre wins for lying on his opponents because that's what the rules say to do, not because they're bad judges.

The rules say that a fighter should win the round for landing strikes, attempting submissions, or controlling the opponent (I'm paraphrasing).  In other words, if you can lie on top of someone for 15 minutes you're supposed to win - that's what the rules say.  And it is easier to do than to stand and trade with someone or try to finish them, especially if you're an experienced wrestler and your opponent isn't.

How can we solve this problem?  Defenders of wrestling in MMA say that guys should learn to get out from under a wrestler, not complain about it.  I say that the rules should be changed in as organic a way as possible to prevent lay and pray.

This has been tried before - having the ref stand fighters after short periods of inactivity on the ground is a common approach.  I don't like that.  Any time the ref interferes in a fight it's artificial - it stops the flow of the fight, and therefore of the entertainment.  Referee involvement needs to be minimized to protecting the safety of the fighters, not splitting the ref's attention between protecting safety and protecting entertainment value.

Instead, the scoring criteria should be changed.  Follow my logic here:  What's the most natural way to win a fight?  To finish the opponent.  Clearly, knockouts and submissions should win fights.  What if the fight goes the distance?  Then it should come down to who came closest to finishing the fight or had the best chance to finish.  Only those two things.  How do you finish?  Strikes or submissions.  So you should be rewarded for landing hard strikes or attempting submissions - ONLY.  Which should count more?  That's a harder question, and it really will come down to the judges'... judgment.

How would this work?  Well, think about takedowns.  A slam - where a guy is picked up and really driven into the mat - would score points because it damages the opponent - effectively it's a kind of strike.  A soft takedown, though, where someone is tripped to the mat but isn't hurt in the process - wouldn't score any points.  Laying on top of someone and controlling them wouldn't score.  Putting some ground and pound on someone or going for submissions from the top would score.  Improving position - getting into mount or side control from the guard - wouldn't score on its own at all.  Fighters would only get points (in the judges' eyes) by doing damage or beginning submissions.

In this situation, laying on top of someone for a long time wouldn't get you the victory.  If fighters couldn't lay and pray and expect to win, you can bet fighters would stop doing it.  They'd start making riskier moves from the top, dishing out strikes and going for kimuras and armbars, giving the guy on bottom a chance to escape and providing entertainment for the fans.  This will make for better fights.

Does this put wrestlers out of business?  Absolutely not.  Top position is an advantage - it's easier to finish someone from the top, but you have to try to do so.  Good wrestlers who could take their opponents down could get on top and ground and pound or submit people - I'm okay with that, it would be fun to watch.  This change would only end lay and pray, not the ground game in its entirety.

Summary:  MMA would be better if decisions weren't based on control but only on damage done and submission attempts.  Controlling your opponent and maintaining a position should not in themselves contribute to victory.

Postscript:  If you don't like watching guys hug each other in the middle of a fight, you could always switch from the UFC to K-1.  There's never, or at least very rarely, a dull moment in K-1.   (By the way, I'm opposed to men hugging during a spectator fighting event, I'm not a homophobe - if two guys want to hug each other for romantic reasons I couldn't care less.  I just don't want them to interrupt a slugfest to do it, and I'm not particularly interested in watching.)

Friday, November 12, 2010

A (Too?) Merry Holiday Season

I can't speak for everybody everywhere, but in this country, among my acquaintances, the holiday season often winds up looking like a 10 week eating binge where we get fat, decondition as much as possible, get a ton of presents we don't want and struggle valiantly to buy things for our friends who don't need anything.  Oddly enough, Christmas manages to dominate my life for a considerable period of time every year despite the fact that I'm not Christian and don't actually celebrate the holiday.

Now I can't help you if the holidays force you to spend time with family members you'd rather do without, but I have a few suggestions for avoiding some of the damage that you might otherwise do to your body and psyche.

Plan your de-load for the busiest time of year.  You should periodically back off from your training to give your body a chance to rest and recuperate.  Really ramp up your training - both intensity and volume - in the weeks leading up to the time when you'll be busiest (maybe Christmas - New Year's?)  Then, when you miss workouts, you'll be periodizing, not just slacking off.  You'll supercompensate during the "rest week" and come back stronger than ever.

Note:  I don't suggest you take a week off from training entirely.  Try to do some lower intensity strength training a couple of times and some dynamic stretching every day at least.  You want to recover, not de-train yourself.

If you're going to overeat, strength train beforehand.  People tend to think they should do tons of cardio before/after an eating binge.  Nice idea, but unless you're a real lightweight in the eating department there's no way you can burn off enough calories to outpace a good feast.  Do you know how much work it takes to burn 1,000 calories (a lot)?  Do you know how easy it is to eat 1,000 calories (well, at least for me, pretty easy)?  But if you can pack a grueling strength session before the binge you can try to shift as much of that excess energy into building muscle rather than just padding your rear end.  If you can come out of the holiday season with a little extra muscle you'll be much further along on the way back to fitness than if you gain fat and lose beef.

Blow your diet, but don't completely blow your diet.  Look, if you have the willpower to eat clean during the holidays, that's great for you.  But if you don't there are things to do to minimize the damage.  Here's my new favorite trick:

  1. Figure out which food is your biggest problem.  I don't mean the one that does the most damage - I mean the food that most often leads you into an eating binge.  For me the answer is wheat.  I can overeat chocolate or ice cream easily, but the foods that really send me on a binge are all wheat based - bread, pasta, bagels, pizza.  Now wheat might not be your weakness - I'm not saying it is (although I suspect that more people have issues with wheat than realize it, because of gluten's opiate properties, but I could be wrong) - but figure out what is your weakness.  Don't forget to consider alcohol.
  2. Make a rule for yourself:  Do NOT eat any of your "weakness food."  I don't mean eat it in moderation, I don't mean avoid it except in your mother's famous holiday dinner treat, I mean NONE.  Whatsoever.  
  3. Make sure your rule leaves plenty of room for eating treats that aren't in your big problem area.  For example, I won't eat wheat, but I can eat chocolate and drink tequila.  See?  I'm not totally depriving myself of all that is good in the world, I am only totally depriving myself of my favoritest thing that is good in the world.  If necessary, bring treats you can eat.  Dark chocolate covered cashews are delicious.
  4. People will tell you this:  "Oh, have some [food X] - it's Christmas!"  Ignore them.  If you wish, slap them.  You can say I gave you permission.  We could spend a lot of time going into the why's and wherefore's behind well meaning people trying to sabotage your diet, but I'm not going to.  Just smile, slap the person silly, and knock the cinnamon bun out of their hand.
In short:  make one single dietary rule and stick to it no matter what.  If necessary, eat yourself sick on foods that aren't forbidden by the rule - I might really pound back some ice cream or dark chocolate when I'm feeling weak - but don't violate your rule.  You'll see that over the whole season you'll end up much better off.

Ask for gifts that support your goals (think wish list).  Don't count on friends and family to buy you fitness equipment or martial arts DVD's - they're all too likely to get you pun-of-the-day toilet paper instead.  But if you're into fitness and karate most people will be happy to buy you stuff you actually want if you can let them know what it is.  Try using an online wish list - I've had great success with them over the years.

It feels weird to ask for presents - I understand this.  Try to remember that people want to get you things you'll actually appreciate.  If you need some ideas, here are a few (I have no financial relationship with any of these companies, aside from the fact that I give them money for stuff!):
  • A Gymboss Timer.  Great for intervals and so forth.
  • A heart rate monitor (I don't have a specific one to recommend, so no link.)  I think the next phase in my endurance training will be using a monitor to pace the workout instead of slavish devotion to a clock.  Plus, measuring resting heart rate can help you know when you're overtrained and if you're getting fitter, and who has time to stand around with their finger on their pulse for 15 s to measure it the old fashioned way?
  • Get some books.  Supertraining by Mel Sif might just be the only training book you'll ever need (warning: very dense and technical.).  If you're in the mood for some martial arts philosophy try some of the books by the founder of my style, Kaicho Tadashi Nakamura (shameless plug, I guess!)  I've found value in everything I've ever read or seen from Pavel Tsatsouline - you can't go wrong with this stuff.   I have a bad habit of picking out training and technique books written by popular fighters - try some!
  • Get some training equipment for the home..  Kettlebells?  Bands?  Weights?  Valslides?  A slideboard?  DVD's or books?  Spend half an hour browsing at Perform Better.  It's like porn for exercise junkies (that's like the second porn reference this week on this blog.  I'd better start cutting back).
  • Get yourself a new uniform, new patches, a heavy bag, or new sparring gear.  I like Karate Depot, and Fighting Arts has awesome stuff but a small selection (disclaimer:  Fighting Arts is run by my former instructor - but he doesn't know I'm plugging it here, and as far as I know he doesn't know I blog at all).  I haven't done enough comparison shopping to promise there aren't better places to shop, so if you have time spend some of it on Google or whatever and look around.
  • Pick up some martial arts movies.  Frankly, if you haven't seen Ong Bak an argument could be made that you should have your black belt taken away.  Get the movie "Black Belt," aka "Kura Obi" (again, not sure where the best deal is).  I think Kill Bill is one of the better martial arts movies of the decade, plus, hey, it's Uma Thurman - you can't go wrong.
This is far from a complete list, of course.  Depending on the situation (time where gifts will be sitting around) you might get some grass fed beef for the holiday.  You could get some supplements you've been meaning to try (which seems like a weird gift, but what the heck?) 

I'm asking for a Body Action System for myself - I am compelled by the website (I'm not saying it's good - I'll do a review after using it for a while!)  I'll also ask for Gray Cook's new book, a heart rate monitor, and a few other choice items.  The point is, anyone who feels compelled to spend money on me for some reason will have plenty of things to get me without resorting to whatever's in the bargain bin at Barnes & Noble.  Result - happy shoppers and happy me.  It's a win-win.

Get a designated driver.  Seriously, like I need to tell you not to drink and drive?  If you're going to overindulge (color me guilty on this one - I don't drink often, but when I do, it's usually too much) get a designated driver beforehand.  Stick to clear liquors - tequila's good - or gluten free beer (hard to find but not as bad as you'd think).  Wine is also fine.  Stay away from regular beer and malt beverages (gluten).

Surviving and thriving through the holidays is a combination of damage control and keeping your eye on your long term goals.  Look, if you're the type of person who can sit through a Christmas dinner and completely forego all the treats, that's a fantastic testament to your willpower and character.  But if you're not - and I certainly am not - don't use the holiday as an excuse to completely wreck yourself either.  You can do a lot of damage to your health in 10 weeks (I count the holiday binge as starting the week before Halloween, which is the earliest I'll dip into the Halloween candy, to whenever the leftovers run out, which is early January).

Regardless, have a great holiday season!


Thursday, November 11, 2010


You can boil all of strength and conditioning into 2 basic principles.  I don't know if there is a name for the first one - though some academic somewhere may have written whole books about it.  I think of it as Capacity Entropy.  The second principle is SAID - Specificity of Adaptions to Imposed Demands.  I'll deal briefly with the first and with SAID in more detail.

Capacity Entropy (again, this is my term, there might be a better name for it that I'm not familiar with) is the principle that your body "wants" to get rid of any capacity it's not using.  It's sometimes called "use it or lose it."  Any capacity - any ability your body has, from the ability to move, to think, to resist stresses, to fight off infection, whatever - is metabolically costly.  It takes energy to keep your bones solid.  It takes energy to produce melanin for your tan (though not a huge amount).  It takes energy to build and maintain muscle.  Your body is, thanks to evolution, adapted to surviving well in times when energy is in short supply.  In the name of efficiency your body will try to get rid of any excess capacity - any ability that it doesn't need.  Imagine a primitive hunter with 19" biceps (that's pretty big).  If he needs that arm muscle for hunting, then fine, he'll use it to hunt and his body will keep the muscle around.  Successful adaption.  But if it's not needed for hunting (or other movements that are important to survival) then in times of famine his body will shed that excess muscle as quick as it can to save energy for the important stuff - the leg and hip strength he uses in hunting, the brain capacity to outsmart animals, all that stuff.  If he's super vain and wants to have big arms (to impress the gatherers, I guess) he's going to have to do some extra work to trick his body into maintaining them.

Imagine a person who sits on the couch all day eating and changing channels on the remote.  Do you think that person's body will maintain the capacity to generate a lot of force?  To jump and run high and fast?  To move explosively?  To resist the sun?  To move easily through a full range of motion?  Will that person's bones stay dense?  No.  That person's body will maintain strength and flexibility in the right thumb and nowhere else.  That person's legs will soon only be strong enough to get their fat ass to the refrigerator and back to the couch.  The body will shed all excess ability beyond what is needed and store all the extra energy it can - by adding fat.  Don't believe me?  Walk through any mall in America.  Or do an experiment and spend six months on your couch.  See what happens.

Does that mean we're all doomed to a future of slowing turning into Jabba the Hutt?  Not necessarily, thanks to principle #2, SAID.  You see, your body is quite able to adapt itself to new challenges and tasks.  But since your body doesn't want to build up any excess capacity it will only adapt itself to the specific challenges you give it.  Hence the principle (Specificity of Adaption to Implied Demand).

If you lift weights you won't get a tan, and if you sit out in the sun you won't grow muscles.  Your body will only expend energy to adapt in specific ways to the very specific stresses you put on it.  Think of training like an argument.  You have to argue - to convince your body that it needs some capacity.  If you want a large capacity - to be very strong, very fast, very resilient - you have to make a very convincing argument.  In other words, a very intense stress of the right type applied repeatedly over time.

If you want to get good at plodding along all day, take up jogging.  If you want to get faster, sprint.  If you want to get stronger, lift weights.  All very logical, right?

Sadly, it gets a little more complicated than that.  If you're unadapted to strength training - if you're a beginner - almost any strength training will improve your strength any way you'd care to measure it.  But once that honeymoon is over your body gets a little bit more serious about how it takes specificity.  If you want to be exlposive - to be strong while moving quickly - you eventually have to start moving weights fast.  Slow, grinding movements (watch a powerlifter do a heavy squat) won't convine your body to get quick - it will convince your body to get slow and strong.  If you want to punch hard, the bench press may help a little, but eventually the bench press will make your body better at bench pressing and won't carry over to punching.

It's also easy to overstate just how specific your adaptions can be.  If you get a tan by the pool that melanin will still protect you from sunlight at the beach.  If you do preacher curls with an EZ curl bar you're going to get better at dumbell curls - maybe not to the same extent, but there will be carryover.  Need proof?  Get someone who has built up their overall strength a lot - maybe someone who's doing strongman competitions - and get them to do almost anything new involving force production.  They're going to be a heck of a lot stronger than they were when they started training.

So how close to our techniques should our training be?  That's in a way the crux of sport specific training.  If I had the full answer to this question I'd be a lot better off than I am now.  Just practicing techniques does not maximize your strength - it's too hard to progressively overload a simple punch.  At a certain point you'll stop getting stronger.  Just loading our techniques - punching with dumbells or bands - can be better, but it can also screw up our skills.  The dumbell or band or whatever changes the movement to the point where we might be making our punching skill worse even while we're building muscle tissue.  You need to push the  movement to the point where you're forcing some adaption without changing it so much that you're no longer specific enough to get the right adaption.

I'll post more on this later.  I'm still working through this issue.  Meanwhile:

Take home messages:  If you're new to strength training, early adaptions will be so general that you'll get better at everything as long as you put on some hard work.  Enjoy! 

If you're not new to strength training, try to focus on exercises that are close to the movement patterns you use in karate and at the same or similar speeds.  Yes, that means moving weights fast sometimes.  Yes, you have to be careful.  No, it will not kill you.  I'll work on providing some details regarding this issue as time goes on.

If you don't train some capacity - if there's a range of motion you don't use, forces you don't generate - you will slowly lose that capacity.  Which brings you one step closer to losing all your physical capacities, which is another term for death.

In other words:  Train or Die.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Wizard, The Scarecrow, and the Paleo-Hating Munchkins

Lately I've been noticing the stirrings of a Paleo backlash in the fitness/nutrition community.  Not that the backlash is just starting - I have no idea, to be honest, how entrenched it is - but I can guarantee that it's going to get a lot worse.  As more and more people use some version of the Paleo diet to look, feel, and perform better, more and more public authorities on nutrition (doctors on TV, nutritionists, journalists) are going to write articles and give talks about how misguided it is.  You will read these articles, your friends will read them, and your family members will read them.  You may or may not be swayed by some of the things these Paleo-haters will write, but I guarantee members of your family and circle of friends will start to think that you're killing yourself by eating the way you evolved to eat and avoiding modern innovations like "heart healthy whole grains" and the statins that come with them.

The Paleo-haters will use a number of tactics in their arguments.  They'll argue that you can't poop without fiber (because if you eat a grain based diet and are sufficiently mineral deficient you can't, and they can't imagine what it feels like to NOT be mineral deficient).  They'll simply lie and say that dietary saturated fat is harmful to your cardiovascular system.  They'll say a lot of things.  One of the most common tactics I've seen (and I can guarantee you'll see more of) is the straw man argument.  Now it's time for a little logic lesson (in another life I actually taught classes in logic, so I'm licensed to discuss this in public).

The basic format of a straw man argument is that you attach a weak claim or position to your opponent, then tear that weak claim apart, then claim victory over your opponent.  We see this in politics all the time - some candidate is pro-choice, for example, and  his enemies will make campain ads that say "Candidate X hates babies and wants all life to end."  Well, that's not exactly his position, but since baby hating is so horrid and indefensible, the candidate is lessened in the eyes of the voters.  You'll see, "Paleo authority Y thinks we should live like cavemen and stop wearing clothes," when in fact that authority wants us to eat our natural diet and has nothing against clothes (shoes might be another story...). 

Here's a short list of the things you're going to be hearing and seeing if you start a paleo diet (some of which are straw man arguments, some of which are not):

So you're living like a caveman now?  You won't immunize your kids or go to the hospital if your appendix bursts?  This is classic straw man at work.  While I'm sure some Paleo diet proponents are against vaccinations, that's not the position of the majority of them.  The Paleo diet just means that we're susupicious of foods that haven't been a big part of our evolutionary history, not that we eschew all modern conveniences or innovations with a proven track record (like trauma medicine and polio vaccinations).

How can you follow that diet when we don't even know what paleolithic people ate?  This is sort of true but both misguided and irrelevent.  We don't know exactly what paleolithic people ate - I'm sure the diet varied from place to place and over time with changing climatic conditions.  Even accounting for that, it's hard to be certain about the exact ratios - did they eat entire animals or did they eat the fatty parts first (as I suspect)?  How much of different types of vegetation did they eat?  The thing is that this argument misses the central point of Paleo eating.  We may not know exactly what they did eat, but we know for certain many things that they didn't eat.  No grains, for example (the technology to process grains and cook them is relatively recent).  No nightshades (they're Western Hemisphere plants, they didn't exist in the places where the bulk of our evolution took place).  No refined sugar, high fructose corn syrup, artificial sweeteners (this should be obvious).  So to be suspicious of those foods does NOT require us to absolutely know exactly how paleolithic peoples ate.

The primates that are our closest animal relatives are vegan, so we are obviously "meant" to be vegan as well.  This one you'll hear a lot from... vegans.  I'm not going to get into a huge debate about how many bugs or other animals chimps or apes eat - they do, but I don't care.  Here's a newsflash for you:  you are not a chimp (unless you are, in fact, a chimp, in which case I apologize, and kudos for learning to read!).  Chimps are related to us but have followed a distinctly divergent evolutionary path.  They have much larger guts than we do (room for lots of bacteria to process leaves and plants into usable nutrients), smaller brains relative to bodyweight (reducing the need for essential fatty acids), and can spend all day (or most of the day) chowing down on plants, which are not nutrient dense, to get the food they need.  Humans evolved thanks to eating meat - only the nutrient density of meat allowed our ancestors to support theirr energy-hungry and fat-hungry brains (try to develop a human brain with flax oil - not gonna happen).  It was meat eating that allowed us to become human.  Apes can eat leaves and twigs all day, and bacteria in their guts turn those into fats their bodies can use for energy.  Our guts are too short for this to work.  If we want that energy, we have to eat butter... or something.  If you had the gut of a chimp you could thrive as a vegan.  Otherwise, watch out.

You're using the term "Paleolithic" incorrectly - that term refers to the period from X years ago to... blah, blah blah.  Answer:  Who cares?  Seriously.  I'm not an anthropologist.  I have no idea what the word "paleo" really means in terms of actual years - I have spent exactly 0 hours looking into that issue.  The point isn't the correct use of the word - the point is that there was a lifestyle and eating pattern that distinguished our evolutionary ancestors from other primates, that allowed us to evolve, and it's pretty obvious that after a few million years we'd be well adapted to that eating pattern, and it focused on eating whatever animals we could hunt or scavenge and whatever vegetables we could find by foraging.  If we're calling it by the wrong name, so be it.  Let the academics worry about it.  Who cares if the eating style that makes us feel better and be healthier is mislabeled?

But Paleolithic humans only lived to be 35.  I think I've addressed this before.  It's simply wrong, and it's based on listening to people who don't understand basic math.  Paleolithic era humans (and primitive hunter gatherers through today) may have had an average lifespan that was much lower than ours, but that's because their child mortality rate was much higher than ours and their trauma medicine was much worse.  A badly broken leg in primitive conditions is often a death sentence - today, not so much.  So if three kids are born to hunter gatherers and one dies in infancy, one is murdered or gets mauled by a bear and dies at 40, and one dies in his sleep at 80, the average lifespan will be 40.  Can we infer from that number that their diet causes heart disease?  Absolutely not.  Lots of studies of both paleolithic remains and contemporary hunter gatherers living without modern medicine show that those people are almost free of the diseases of aging (heart disease, diabetes, arthritis) that plague modern man and that they live a nice long time barring injury, infection, or violence.

We didn't evolve - God slapped us down here just over 5,000 years ago, and He (or She) planted a fossil record and put vestigial limbs in animals and created a detailed mitochondrial DNA trail to falsify evolution to test our faith.  If someone pulls this one out on you, don't argue.  Pick up your drink and walk away.  There is nothing you can say or do that will help in any way whatsoever.  The ship of reason has sailed.  If someone is willing to rationalize away the quantity and quality of evidence supporting evolution then no possible evidence in favor of any diet will convince them.

You're just jumping on the latest bandwagon.  Well, okay, that's fair.  But the paleo diet is like Naruto - it's popular because it's good.  I know it's cooler to be into things that are fringe or counter to convention, and it's sad in that sense that Paleo is getting more and more mainstream, but that in itself is not a reason to think it's bad.  It just means that us Paleo eaters aren't as cool as we'd like to be.

But I need to eat every 2.5 hours or I pass out.  Let's say this is true.  Do you think that's your natural state of being or is it the result of you having trained yourself to consume food 6 times a day?  Do you really think that our hunter-gatherer ancestors would fall unconscious to the ground every time they spent 3 hours without food (say, during a bad hunting day)?  Without getting all National Geographic on you, do you really think we'd still be around as a species if that happened?  Try going without food for a few hours at a time until you've built up the ability to burn bodyfat for fuel.  Then you too can go 20 hours without food without skipping a beat - that's what I do!

I need carbs to function at the highest level.  Maybe, maybe not.  But regardless, this is another straw man - the Paleo diet is not necessarily low carb.  I personally eat a moderate carb diet - it's Paleo because the carbs come from fruits, veggies, and root veggies, not grains.  Most people who think they need to eat a lot of carbohydrate would be fine if they ate a low carb diet for a few weeks anyway.

We've clearly had enough time to adapt to neolithic foods - it's been 10,000 years!  This one is, to me, a little tricky.  Populations that ate dairy for 1,500 years did lose lactose intolerance - which is not to say that even those people don't suffer leaky gut syndrome from consuming dairy.  Maybe the prevalence of coeliac disease in the general population is a clue that this is wrong.  Maybe the fact that so many of us feel so much better, and get so much healthier, when we give up grains is the clue.  And maybe some people are adapted to a grain diet (though I doubt it) - how would one know?  The answer has to be to try Paleo eating for 30 days and see how you do.  If you feel better and are healthier, then none of the arguments that anybody brings up should hold any water with you.

Why do so many "experts" rail against the Paleo diet?  Well, think about it.  Suppose your name is Leigh and you're a fat loss "expert" or trainer or nutrtionist or whatever.  You have to either jump on the Paleo bandwagon yourself - and explain how you never realized before how much damage grains, legumes, and dairy do to your clients despite the abundance of research that's been published on the topic - or you have to rant against it.  Very few people have the intellectual integrity to recognize that they've been wrong, especially about some field that they supposedly know a lot about, and change their tune.  Plus, there's a financial issue.  Paleo is pretty simple to implement and doesn't depend on a whole lot of supplements or special powders.  If you plan to make a living doling out nutritional advice you don't want your clients reading Robb Wolf - they're not going to write you a check afterwards, they're going to follow his advice and get great results without you.

I'm sure you'll see more specious arguments against Paleo eating as time goes on.  When the munchkins try to bring you down you have two general choices.  You can study a ton of evolutionary biology and anthropology so you can answer their charges one by one.  OR you can use the 30 day test - just say, "hey, maybe you're right, but I tried it for 30 days and I feel better/ healthier - have you tried it?" every time someone challenges you.  Or just lift your shirt and show them your cheese grater abs.  Either way, don't let them derail you from your path to health.


Monday, November 8, 2010

Joys of the Internet (no, not porn)

This post has nothing directly to do with karate or fitness.

I've written about this before, but I may have new readers, and I wanted to revisit this point for reasons that should eventually become clear.

I'm almost forty years old.  That means I grew up, and did the bulk of my early training, before the internet was a viable means of sharing information.  The only ways I had to contact or learn from other martial artists were to:

  1. Train with them regularly.
  2. Actually go and visit their schools (which I could only know about through word of mouth or a phone book.)
  3. Read about them in a martial arts magazine, like Black Belt.
  4. Buy a book or videotape - with pretty much no access to meaningful reviews (this was in the days before Amazon).
If some brilliant karateka living in New Zealand or South Africa or even the next town over had some brilliant insights into technique or self defense or whatever, I'd have no way to know that.  If he published a book about his thoughts, I'd have almost no way to pick his book out from the others on the shelves at the local Waldenbooks (remember Waldenbooks?)  Even with the book, I'd have no way to see his work in action - no YouTube at that time.

My life changed inexorably when I first stumbled on www.leanandhungryfitness.com back in 2005-ish.  I was at work, with a half hour to kill, and on a whim I Googled fitness and came up with that blog.  I read about Tabatas, dynamic stretching, and was off to the races... figuratively.

The things is that the internet allows people with valuable things to say a forum to publish their thoughts, for free, in a way that allows people all over the world can share them.  It also allows people with nothing of value to say to do the same thing!  If your ability to distinguish the latter from the former is strong enough then you wind up with an astounding set of resources at little to no cost.  

I remember discovering Art de Vany's blog (back when it was free... no link, sorry) and reading through his entire archive over the course of a week.  It took a year for it to all sink in, but now I'm blogging about his diet.  

I hope somebody someday reads a post of mine and settles down for a long night of archive searching, finding gems in there somewhere that he or she can use in training.

Last week I stumbled across a fantastic blog about karate.  The author is an experienced karateka who has put a ton of thought into issues regarding proper technique, self defense, and all sorts of other things I know nothing about.  Is he right about everything?  I'm not sure - I'm not necessarily arguing that he is.  But most of it seems right to me, and the writing and videos are just fantastic.  I started reading some random posts, and am now working my way up in chronological order.  Seriously, go there and take a look.

My point... if I can be said to have a point... is that if you spend some time looking around the internet you might find some serious gems.  I suggest that everybody who has an interest (in anything) spend a couple of horus a week trying out new blogs, new sites, and generally wandering around the wonderful world of free information.

If you're reading this there's a good chance you're already on board with this idea.  Make sure to follow links inside blog posts you like.  If you find a decent blog, check out the blog roll - people with good things to say generally link to other people with good things to say, and I've found 90% of the quality stuff that I read through this method. 

So close your game of solitaire (or Bejeweled or Tetris or whatever) and do some surfing.  Start with Dan Djurdjevic's blog - it's awesome.  You will absolutely learn something or at least have your own knowledge challenged.  And go on from there.   Don't forget to thank Al Gore for inventing the internet while you're at it.


Saturday, November 6, 2010

About your Doctor...

I was recently posting something in an exchange on Facebook (yes, I'm on Facebook, and no, I don't feel bad about it) and I commented that most doctors don't know anything about nutrition.  A friend of mine, who happens to be a physician, rightly called me to task for this, so I thought it worthy of some discussion.

There are people out there who will argue that your personal physician is corrupt, or evil, or in the pocket of the pharmaceutical industry.  I'm not one of them.  I absolutely believe that most doctors want to do their best to help their patients, but there are a handful of things preventing almost all of them from doing that effectively.

First of all, your general practitioner or internist or whatever needs to know a lot of information about a lot of things and keep up on a lot of information.  They need to know the symptoms for a whole array of diseases, from the everyday to the obscure, and the standard of care for all of them.  If they don't, and some patient come in with a bursting appendix and doesn't get the right care, the patient dies and the doctor's in big trouble.  After learning all that stuff there's not a lot of time left to cover nutrition, especially obscure areas of nutrition.  Most medical schools offer just a few hours of nutrition coursework to their students.  So when I say that I know more about nutrition than your doctor, I'm not necessarily just being an arrogant prick.  I've spent a whole lot of time studying nutrition.  Your doctor has to spend a ton of time studying a ton of things that I know nothing about, leaving most of them with very little time to compare the effects of coconut oil to olive oil on your health.

In addition to having limited time, there is tremendous pressure on physicians to apply the standard of care to all their patients in all situations.  What I mean is that there are boards and organizations that publish papers and textbooks about what should be done for patients in specific situations.  If your doctor personally disagrees with the board's recommendation, and they go with their own feeling in a particular situation, and the outcome is bad, they risk serious lawsuits or losing their license.  If your cardiologist puts you on a high fat diet and you die 3 months later they could be in trouble.  If they put you on Ornish's program (low fat, high carb) and you die 3 months later, they're untouchable - they gave you the standard care for heart disease.  It takes overwhelming evidence to convince a doctor to go against the standard of care, and with the lack of good research done on nutrition (real double blind studies, which are almost impossible) doctors just don't have time to accumulate that evidence.

Now you  may be wondering why those boards and organizations don't do the work themselves - surely a handful of people whose job is to publish those papers have time to do the relevant thinking.  There we run into some combination of lack of research (the right research just isn't done) and a powerful political lobby that fights against it.  There is a tremendous amount of money behind the grain industry in America, and they have a LOT of money to spend to make sure that no government body looks too closely at anything that might lead them to think that a grain and carbohydrate based diet isn't the best thing for our health.

It would be nice if those people - who work for the government, for the most part, either directly or indirectly - would do what's best for the American people.  But they aren't really held responsible for making people healthy.  They answer to professional politicians, who know even less about nutrition (or just about anything other than how to raise money and get elected) than regular people, let alone dedicated researchers.  It's so much easier to tell a congressman that you're going to go ahead and put grain at the base of the food pyramid, making his corporate sponsors happy while complying with the conventional wisdom, than it is to explain why "heart healthy whole grains" is an oxymoron and telling him he should go without the fat check corporate farms are writing him.

So people get fatter and less healthy, and instead of revisiting the government's nutritional recommendations (which doctors mostly have to follow for reasons I explained above), people write papers crying about how much worse things would have been if the feds hadn't started telling people to eschew fat and eat whole grains.  And people like me tear our hair out (really, I have no hair left).

What would make things different?  I think there are probably lots of good ideas about this, many of them better than mine.  I'd like to see doctors specializing in wellness care.  You only see them if you're completely healthy, and they help you get healthier yet.  They wouldn't need to know anything about any illnesses, sort of, just cutting edge nutrition and lifestyle information.  They'd be the ones you go to for your annual checkup.  They'd also have to be protected from most litigation - if you could sue your wellness practitioner every time you got sick, the profession would die out pretty quickly.

This obviously isn't going to happen, and it's entirely possible that it's not a good idea for reasons I haven't thought of.  I see no realistic way the American health care system will change in the near future.  Which puts you, the reader, in an awkward physician.

If you get shot or get an acute pain or get really sick, see your doctor.  Seriously, they're good at dealing with gunshot wounds and influenza.  But you can't assume that your doctor knows how to keep you healthy or make you age more slowly if you're not sick.  That's become your job.  And it's not easy - there's a lot of conflicting information out there and it's hard to sort through.  I've spent a ton of time on it and there's still plenty I don't know (some of it because nobody knows it, some of it because I just haven't found the right answers).

The other choice is to go ahead and follow the government's recommendations.  But the track record isn't good - people just aren't getting healthier.  The people who tell you to eat whole grains are basically the same people (the same sort of people, I don't mean they're the same individuals) who told us to switch butter for margarine and stop breast feeding in favor of infant formula.  I think in 30 years we'll look back on the whole grain based food pyramid the same way we look back on baby formula - as a massive error in judgment.  But in 30 years you can do a lot of damage to your body.

There was a time when your family doctor might have known mostly everything there was to know about health.  That time is, sadly, long gone.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Correlation and Causation: NOT THE SAME

I've been meaning to write about this issue for a long time but didn't have a nice test case until now (I wasn't really looking for one).  I was listening to a podcast, the Performance Nutrition Show (9/26 episode if you care), which is mildly entertaining.  The host mentioned a study (no, I won't look up the reference and quote the abstract, there's no point).  The study looked at Vitamin D levels in people and found a correlation between Vitamin D levels and body fat (an inverse correlation, meaning people with higher Vitamin D levels tend to have lower bodyfat) and fitness (I didn't listen enough to remember how they measured fitness).

Sounds great, right?  Take a Vitamin D supplement, which is cheap, and watch the pounds melt away.  Except not really.  Why do researchers do studies like this if they don't really show anything?  Because they're easy.  Get a bunch of people to come in and do a bodyfat analysis and donate some blood, check their blood levels for a bunch of things, see if there's a match anywhere.  Quick and easy.

What's the problem?  Basically, the problem is that the fact that there is a correlation between two variables does not mean that either one causes the other.  And if we don't understand the causation then there's no  take-home message. 

Why do people with higher Vitamin D levels have less bodyfat?  Maybe Vitamin D improves body composition through some biochemical mechanism.  If so, fantastic.  But maybe people who spend more time in the sun, outside - being active, presumably - tend to be in better shape.  That is, some third variable - exercise outside - causes both lowered body fat and higher Vitamin D.  Maybe bodyfat somehow inhibits Vitamin D formation or removes Vitamin D from the blood.  That would be bad, and interesting to know about, but it wouldn't entail that adding dietary Vitamin D would lower bodyfat.  Maybe there's some genetic link between the ability to synthesize or absorb Vitamin D and the tendency to put on fat.  People who tend to absorb Vitamin D well also tend to stay lean.  I'm not arguing for any of these results - the point is that a statistical correlation doesn't tell you anything about which of these explanations is correct.  And whether fat people should start popping Vitamin D gelcaps and expect to lose weight does depend on which explanation is correct.

We see this in lots of situations, often to public detriment.  The classic examples are studies showing that vegans score better on some indicator of health, be it blood pressure, metabolic syndrome, rates of contracting cancer, whatever.  These are correlational studies.  They show that people who choose to be vegan tend to be healthier in some way.  Does that mean that you, the health seeking human, should become vegan?  Absolutely not.  The fact is that in our society most people who choose to become vegan do so for health reasons.  How many of them do you think smoke?  Or shoot heroin?  How many of them exercise, do yoga, take the medications they're supposed to take on time?  The type of person who cares enough about health to choose to eat such a crappy diet under the misguided belief that it will make them healthier is very likely to make lots of other difficult choices for their health - and most of them will probably work.  Not smoking?  Good for you.  Meditation?  Good for you.  Avoiding other carcinogens?  Good.  Exercise?  Probably good.  Do you see the point?  Veganism correlates with health despite the diet, not because of it.  Well, that's only partly true - if you compare vegan diets to standard American diet of eat whatever crap you can find at a fast food joint or a 7-11, then the vegan diet probably really is healthier for you.

How should these things be studied?  Take Vitamind D.  A large number of people with low Vitamin D should be found and analyzed - bodyfat, health, etc.  Half should be given Vitamin D supplements and half a placebo.  Neither the people nor the researchers should know who has which - you give everyone a number, the person giving out the pills doesn't know if they're giving the real stuff or the placebo, and the doctor doing the measurements doesn't know which group his subject belongs to.  After 3 or 6 months or a year or whatever do the same analysis over again.  Try to find some way to account for the people, placebo or not, who didn't take their pills.  Then see if the subjects getting the real pills do better than the ones who got a placebo.  That will give you some real insight into whether the higher levels of Vitamin D really improve anything - really cause a change in any of the other variables you're looking into.

Why don't researchers do this type of study more often?  To be honest, it's really expensive and really hard.  Instead of a one time interview and blood test you're asking people to stick to some plan for an extended period of time.  You have to wait a lot longer to publish your results - it might take a year to get your data, instead of a long weekend.  And since most people don't or won't understand the difference in value between the two studies (one type is worthless, the other priceless), you're not getting a lot of publicity bang for your buck.  You can still make headlines with the correlational study and tie up your lab assistants a lot less.  Which gives them more time to take in your dry cleaning or fetch you coffee.

Correlational studies are all but useless.  They do show interesting stuff - if two variables do correlate, that's worth knowing - as a guide for further research.  If D levels inversely correlate to bodyfat it means we should do another study - a double blind study - to see if there's a causal relationship.  That's all.  It shouldn't guide public behavior because it doesn't really show anything of value.

Really, correlational studies should be published in a separate journal that is only read by research scientists and to which the general public doesn't have legal access.  Guys in lab coats should look at them and say, "Hmm, that's interesting, I'll design a study to test that for a causal relationship so I can get published in a real science journal!"  Only after the real research is done should journalists be allowed to write about the study and my mom be allowed to read about it in the paper or whatever (my mom is actually a pretty bad example of the general public, being a Ph.D in chemistry and a high level radiochemist, but leave that alone for now).  We'd all be a lot better off not being bombarded by headlines ripped from poorly conducted studies with crappy conclusion sections.

Of course, that's not going to happen.  Science journalists aren't scientists - they're journalists.  That means they took journalism classes in college.  I'm sure some of them are super smart and talented, but frankly that's not exactly required to become a journalist.  The journalist's goal is to make their story exciting enough to be picked up by the media outlet, not to give you good information.  "Two things may be connected, but we're not sure how or if it really means anything" doesn't sell as well as "Meat causes cancer!" 

So be very, very wary of anything you read if it comes out of a correlational study.  This is especially relevant to anyone following a paleo or low carb diet!  There are a number of reasons for this, but one important reason is that health conscious people in the United States have gravitated to a low fat, low animal product, high carb vegetarian/vegan diet for the last 30 years or so.  Why?   Because the government told them to.  Which means that if you survey 100 people who eat a lot of meat a handful might be paleo dieters who eat only grass fed meat, exercise, and generally take care of themselves, but most of them are the people who have totally given up on health.  They eat their 12 oz. steak (from a grain fed, hormone and antibiotic laden cow) with bread covered in margarine, 3-4 bottles of beer, a piece of pie for dessert, and then step outside for a cigarette.  Followed up by more beer and potato chips cooked in vegetable oil while watching TV.  Who do you think will have more cancer, heart disease, and diabetes?  Do you think it's because of the meat?  Of course not - but the correlational study won't make that clear.  And that's why you regularly see headlines that claim that meat eating causes cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and erectile dysfunction.

You can glean information from scientific journals, but it's tricky.  Studies contrasting closely related populations with very different lifestyles - like people living a native lifestyle contrasted with their close relatives who have moved to another island and eat McDonald's three times a week - can be very illuminating.  Studies examining chemical mechanisms can be useful.  Common sense doesn't hurt (there's an excellent argument about animal fat intake made by Richard Nikoley - if eating lots of animal fat was bad, then anybody who lost a significant amount of fat would be harmed, since when you lose bodyfat it has to go through your bloodstream just as if you had eaten it.  Since people who lose a lot of fat are in all ways healthier, then eating a lot of fat can't be bad for you). 

Don't let the conventional wisdom about nutrition get you down or deter you from your plan.  If you're at all concerned about those headlines, you can always get some labwork down.  Get your a1c and crp tested, get your metabolic panels done, learn enough to understand the results.  Be in charge of your own health - nobody cares about it more than you do.

And last, check this out.


Monday, November 1, 2010

Get in Shape in Four Hours

Is your endurance not quite what it should be?  Do you find yourself gasping for air after four or five rounds of sparring?  Do your skill classes tire you out so much that your technique gets sloppy halfway through?  Worse yet, do you have some event coming up - a competition, a promotion, a tournament - that requires real stamina, and you're not up to the task?

You're in luck.  For the low, low price of only $99.99 $79.99 $49.99 $24.99 Free! you can get my top secret ultra awesome conditioning method.  All I ask for is your name and social security number your e-mail address that you keep reading, a little equipment, and four hours of your time.

You will need:

  • A timer of some sort - a Gymboss would be best, but any large clock with a second hand will do the job.
  • A dumbell or set of dumbells or selectorized dumbell.  I'm about 180 and moderately strong and I never need one less than 25 lbs. or much more than 45 - scale up or down based on your size and strength.  If you're an out of shape 110 lb. female you might want to go as low as 10- 30 lb range.  
  • A space at least 3ft. X 3 ft., preferably with a slightly padded floor.  A carpet or mat would be nice, but you could put down a couple of towels and probably be okay.
  • Willingness to work hard.
The exercise:

This is the simple part.  The only movement you'll do is the one handed dead power dumbell snatch.  Here's how to do it:
  1. Take an athletic stance - shoulders slightly wider than shoulder width, toes pointed forward or slightly out so when you squat down your knees track over the toes, core held tight (abs braced), shoulders down, neck straight.
  2. Put the dumbell between your feet, probably with the handle parallel to your shoulders (so as you grab the handle your palm would face your back, not either of your feet).  DO NOT put the dumbell in front of you or behind you - that puts too much strain on the lower back.
  3. Squat down, lowering your hips until you can grab the dumbell with one of your hands.  Don't bend forward at the waist to get the dumbell - your upper body should be fairly upright - you get down to the dumbell by squatting.
  4. Lift the dumbell off the floor.  When it's around the height of your knees, really explode upward (O-lifters call this a jump) by snapping your hips straight so the dumbell kind of flies upward.  You need to pull hard enough that the dumbell would be flung overhead if you let go of it (but don't actually let go).
  5. Guide the dumbell to an overhead position with your hand and "catch" it with your arm straight up, like you're a kid in elementary school asking to go to the bathroom.  You're not supposed to use your arm to push the weight up - it gets the momentum from your pull and the snap of your hips, your arm is just along for the ride.
  6. Lower the dumbell to your arm, then to the floor.
  7. Touch the floor.  Don't rest the weight on the floor, but make soft contact.
  8. Repeat steps 4-7.
When you pull the dumbell up keep it close to your body, but not so close that you whack yourself in the genitals or the chin (trust me).  The weight won't move in a perfectly straight line, but it won't be very far from it, either.

In a real snatch, the lifter "catches" the weight with the arm overhead but in a full squat position.  This, however, is a power snatch.  When you catch the weight your legs should be basically straight.  

The program:
  1. Find a weight that is comfortable to snatch for multiple repetitions - you should be able to get at least 12 or so reps in a row with either hand without your muscles screaming in agony (though you might be out of breath.
  2. Warm up.  Do some dynamic stretches for your hips, some glute activation, and some shoulder circles.
  3. Take that weight and set up.  Set your timer.  You need to be able to see intervals of 30 seconds.  
  4. Start with your non-dominant hand.  Start the timer.
  5. Do 5 reps.  That won't take anywhere near 30 seconds - more like 10-15.  Breath.
  6. Once 30 seconds have elapsed from the start of your first set, do 5 more reps with the dominant hand.  You're NOT resting 30 seconds - each set is some work and some rest totalling 30 seconds.  If you take 18 seconds to finish the reps, you only get to rest for 12.  
  7. Repeat, alternating hands.  Never do more reps with your strong hand than you got with the weak hand.  This should be taxing but not killing you.
  8. Start with this rep scheme:  5/5/6/6/7/7/7/7.  That's 8 sets - 4 with each arm - totalling about 4 minutes of work.
  9. Rest a full extra 60 seconds (whatever time is left on the 30 s clock after your last set is done, then 60 more seconds).
  10. Repeat.  Try for 7/7/6/6/6/6/7/7.  Do 7/7/6/6/6/6/6/6/ instead if you can't get 7's on the last pair of sets.
  11. Repeat step 8 - take an extra 60 s rest.
  12. Repeat.  Try for 7/7/6/6/6/6/7/7 again.  If you're not breathing real hard, do 7/7/7/7/7/7/7/7 or go for 7/7/7/7/8/8/8/8.  Take an extra 60 s rest.
  13. Repeat.  
The whole workout is 19 minutes if we don't count the warmup.  If you do it at the end of a technique session you won't need the warmup.

After each workout, adjust the reps and weights so you're having a hard time but you're not puking.  Once you can average 7-8 reps a set for the entire 32 sets go up in weight.

ALWAYS make your first few sets (the first 4 or so) relatively easy.  It's too easy to wreck yourself in the first couple of minutes and then you won't get enough work in.

Do this three times a week.  Each time, either up the weight 5 lbs. and back down to lower numbers or try to add reps.  I'd usually try to add 2 to 4 reps for each arm each workout.  For example, suppose Monday I'd do:
5/5/6/6/7/7/7/7; 7/7/6/6/6/6/6/6; 7/7/6/6/6/6/6/6; 6/6/6/6/6/6/6/6;
Wednesday I'd shoot for (and usually be able to do):
5/5/6/6/7/7/7/7/; 7/7/6/6/6/6/7/7; 7/7/6/6/6/6/7/7; 7/7/6/6/6/6/7/7.

Notice I added 4 reps to each arm - the last two sets in the second group; the last two sets in the third group, and the first and last sets in the fourth grouping.  Those are actual numbers for actual workouts I've done.

Continue for four weeks.

The goal here isn't to become a stronger snatcher - you're not aiming to us anywhere close to maximal weights.  The goal is to stress your cardiovascular system.  

At under twenty minutes a workout, three times a week, for four weeks, you're going to see real gains in endurance as long as you work hard.  Total time invested:  four hours.

Now you can't just continually progress with this until you're a cardio beast.  Your gains will peter out - maybe not at exactly four weeks, but somewhere in that ballpark.  By all means, keep going until you stop progressing, but at that point you should try to switch up to some other scheme.