Monday, June 28, 2010

Hero of the Week: George St. Pierre

Time for another hero of the week.

George St. Pierre is the welterweight champion of the UFC.  He's an incredibly gifted athlete, and widely considered to be one of the best wrestlers in all of MMA.  What's odd about that is the fact that he doesn't come from a heavy wrestling background - the guy was a striker and jits guy before he wrestled.

Now the fact that he's a talented athlete and probably the most successful fighter in North America isn't why he's my hero.  In fact, I'm not a huge fan of his fighting style, though it is effective - I'm not a big fan of wrestling in MMA. 

St. Pierre is my hero because of his willingness to recognize his own deficiencies and then travel far and wide to correct them.

The first time he won a title he got knocked out by a huge underdog, Matt Serra, in his first title defense.  Lots of guys would react in lots of ways, but St. Pierre did something I really admire. He went to see a sport psychologist to get his head right.  He started working with new trainers and camps to improve his skills.  He started to surround himself with new people to make sure it didn't happen again.

I'm not a huge fan of his fighting style anymore, but I can't help but admire St. Pierre for his relentless commitment to improving himself and becoming the best MMA fighter he can be.  His willingness to go outside the box - to see a psychologist, to work with a strength and conditioning coach who doesn't do the typical MMA training routines, all show the kind of qualities I'd like to see in a karateka.  We should all be willing to try new avenues for improvement in our art, whether or not they fit in with the history of karate practice.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

What Makes a Good Conditioning Exercise?

Some martial arts practitioners have a bad habit of using the movements of their art as conditioning.  To get "in shape" they'll practice basic movements, either by themselves or in free sparring, deep into exhaustion.  I understand the impulse - it seems like killing two birds with one stone.  You get in lots of reps of your basics and develop your endurance all in one fell swoop.  There are a couple of basic reasons why it isn't, however, a good idea:

First is the safety issue.  Sparring yourself into exhaustion is probably a good idea if done very sparingly.  Do it often, however, and you're asking for an injury.  Think about it - what happens to your control and reactions when you're exhausted?  You lose both.  During free sparring that's asking to get hurt.  Do it three times a week and what do you think will happen?

Second, and a bigger issue, is the neurological development question.  Your nervous system respond to repetition.  The more you do something the more those nerve activation patterns get sort of burned into your system, the more automatic that skill becomes.  And your nervous system remembers best the last thing you did in a practice session.  So what happens when you throw 200 kicks, and the last 50 are sloppy and slow because by the time you did them you were exhausted?  Your nerves remember those 50 sloppy, slow kicks.  If your partner does 100 sharp, snappy kicks, then runs sprints or whatever to finish the workout, he could be improving his kicks more than you despite doing half as many reps, because his nervous system will remember the sharp, snappy repetitions.

I'm not saying to quit your workout while you're still fresh.  I am saying you should quit your practice of martial arts techniques while still fresh.  To improve your conditioning you should end practice with some exercises that are not part of your art that will force you to dig deep into your oxygen reserves.  We can call these exercises finishers.  They're in your workout at the finish of the workout, and they're put in place to finish you!

There are lots of possibilities for finishers.  Running some sprints would work.  This would be a bad idea for a sprinter, of course, for the same neurological reasons I mentioned earlier, but as a martial artist you're not worried about maximizing your time in the 100m run.  Shadow boxing?  Not so good - remember, you'll get sloppy as you get tired, and your brain will remember your sloppy techniques.

Finishers should be low skill, safe, and involve as much of your body mass as possible.  Wrist curls are an obviously bad idea - working your forearms in isolation just isn't going to make big enough inroads into your body's oxygen carrying capacity.  The same goes for pushups or crunches.  You want something where you fail because your heart and lungs are operating at capacity, not because you have a pain buildup in some isolated part of your body.

I like a few exercises.  I do power snatches with a light to medium weight - it has to be a weight that you are capable of reverse curling and pressing - no near maximal loads.  You don't want to snatch heavy when you're exhausted, because then when your form breaks down you'll end up dumping a bar on your head.  Air squats (squats done with no load, at a very quick tempo) are good.  Jogging in place could work.  Kettlebell swings and thrusters are another nice, rigorous finisher.

Lately I've been doing burpees as my finishers.  Squat down, place your hands outside your feet, jump back into a pushup position, do a pushup, hop your feet back up, jump as high as you can.  Land.  Repeat.  I'll do sets of 10, 8, 6, etc. at the end of my workout, when I'm already in oxygen debt from doing kata.  The burpees really get my heart and lungs going, and if at the end I'm a little sloppy, that's okay - I'm not worried about developing the perfect burpee.  I'd much prefer learning a sloppy burpee to learning a sloppy Seienchin kata.

Post other favorite finishers to comments!

What Does a Good Instructor Need?

I've been pondering this question for a while, for purely academic reasons (I'm quite committed to my current style and instructor).  Maybe because I'm starting to think about teaching classes at some point in the future.

A lot of elements can go into this question, so I figured I'd start with the necessary conditions.  It's a short list:

  1. Your instructor must know more than you.  Not be better than you - someone might have sloppy technique because of physical infirmity, time off, whatever, but have the intellectual knowledge needed to help you advance.  Now many people would want an instructor who is a master of their discipline, but that isn't necessary, especially for a beginning or intermediate student.  In my old club we often had third or fourth kyu students leading the beginners through their techniques.  In all honesty, a green belt could do as good a job showing someone who knew nothing how to make a fist or stand in sanchin as our chief instructor - sometimes better, maybe because they'd "been there" more recently.  The more advanced students needed more advanced help, of course.  But really, as long as your instructor is a few steps ahead of where you are they can help you advance.
  2. Your instructor must be able to assess your technique and break down what's wrong with it.  Some people are naturally gifted - they see a kick, and they move their bodies into that position.  They might not realize consciously that they're pivoting on the supporting foot.  When these people see someone struggling they might not be able to understand what's going wrong.  They see that the kick is "bad," know it should be done better, but can't tell yo what to fix in particular.  That person may have very good karate but isn't a good instructor.
  3. Be able to give constructive feedback, or coaching cues, relative to the mistakes you're making.  This can be verbal, but I've seen some instructors see a flaw in my technique and then just show it to me in such a way that I could see the specific problem.  A language barrier isn't insurmountable, although the ability to give good verbal feedback and coaching cues is probably a good thing.
I originally stopped my list there, but I've had some second thoughts (and I might have some third thoughts later).  I'll add one more to the list:  your instructor must know enough about proper technique and safety to limit the injuries that occur in class.  If your instructor forces you to push to the point where you are injured very often or permanently damaged or have to quit then you won't make progress.

Now, having a list of necessary conditions is all well and good: I think this represents a good start on the bare minimum qualifications for an instructor to have if you're going to make progress.  I considered, but left off, a few things other people might include, such as issues of character.  Could you learn karate from a jerk?  I think you could.  It might not be ideal, but it's not impossible.  If you're an adult, I think it might not matter much at all.  You might not enjoy the experience, but you could still develop very good skills.

Is this list also a set of sufficient conditions for a good instructor?  I'd say probably not.  An instructor with just these qualifications would be enough to guide your progress, but you'd want to see more from a good teacher.  Maybe an inspirational demeanor.  Good knowledge of how to structure a workout to maximize its benefits.  A knowledge of the history of the art that he/she could pass on to you.  Impressive physical skills, which can both inspire and demonstrate for you.

A lot of what we need from an instructor is also relative.  I'm almost forty.  I don't need a teacher with good management skills or patience.  My two year old son, however, will need a very patient teacher with strong kid-skills when he starts training.  A beginner doesn't need a teacher with advanced knowledge.  At my age and rank most fourth kyu students aren't going to be able to spot my mistakes, or at least not all of them. Motivational skills are another issue.  I'm pretty self-motivated.  If my daughter were to train, she'd need a teacher who was really good at getting her to want to train, or she'd give up very quickly.  I'd also want my kids to learn from somebody who was something of a role model in general - someone fit, with good ethics, and a calm demeanor.  For myself, it's not as important.  My teacher is an excellent person, but I don't feel that she needs to be to guide my personal moral development.  

Please comment if you can think of other attributes to add.  I consider this a work in progress.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Bodybuilding vs. Functional Training

I was reading a blog post from the always excellent Conditioning Research blog and came upon a link to this very interesting web page.  It has a couple of free videos, and I recommend you watch at least the first one, to get a nice background for what I want to talk about.

Bodybuilding, and bodybuilding workouts, get a generally bad rap in the strength community, or at least certain parts of it, and I'd like to weigh in on the subject.

First, understand that I am a semi-serious fan of the sport of bodybuilding.  I'm not a huge fan of the physiques of today, but I was really inspired by the physiques of the late 70's and 80's.  So I've put a lot of thought into the philosophical issues around bodybuilding.

Bodybuilding is the sport of building a physique that matches a certain aesthetic.  In other words, training to look a certain way.  The bodybuilders of today train to look a certain way that may appear overly muscular or overly vascular to many onlookers - including me - but that means we don't share the aesthetic, not that it's somehow invalid.  The easiest comparison to make is with powerlifters.  Powerlifters don't care how they look as long as they can lift heavy objects. 

I would argue that any training program that focuses on achieving appearance goals is bodybuilding.  Even some of those idiotic slim down - toning type workouts advertised by celebrity trainers fits that bill.  The aesthetic they are chasing is very different from that of modern professional bodybuilding, but it's still bodybuilding.

Functional training is training in order to achieve movement goals.  A track athlete squatting to improve his sprinting speed is doing functional training, while a 40 year old guy squatting because his girlfriend likes men with big legs is bodybuilding. 

Now the two are not completely separate.  There is no program on earth that will build size without any increases in strength, especially not for a beginning trainee, and no program that will drastically change movement quality without changing the appearance of your physique.  If you are looking to have an "atheltic" type of physique, a track star's program may be the best way to get there.  But for the most part any program will address these goals to different degrees.  If your primary goal is to look good you should train one way.  If your primary goal is to be a kickass martial artist or the best free safety you can be, you should probably train differently.  The two programs may share certain elements but they will also differ considerably.

Bodybuilding training gets a bad rap for many reasons, but the biggest one is that, because of the popularity of bodybuilding magazines, many athletes in search of a functional training program follow a bodybuilding program, out of ignorance, and often get poor results.  If you're a 16 year old kid looking to get in shape for football, your first source of information is quite likely to be Muscle & Fitness magazine - or at least it was when I was 16 (I'm not sure how things have changed).  Muscle & Fitness is, or was, a bodybuilding magazine, and the programs in it are designed to make you look good, not to be more athletic.

To be "against" bodybuilding based on this confusion is wrong-headed.  Bodybuilding training isn't bad, it just isn't the same as functional training.  It is training towards a different goal.  I'm not opposed to this goal at all.  A martial artist does, however, need to understand the difference.

Now remember that functional training will affect your appearance.  Getting lean, building strength, developing the core, all will make you look good, and certainly better than your sedentary peers.  Also remember that there's nothing wrong with adopting elements of a bodybuilding program for the sake of vanity.  For example, I do sets of shoulder presses because I like having wide shoulders.  Is it functional?  I'm sure it is to some extent, but there are probably more efficient ways I could maintain shoulder health and ability.  There's also nothing wrong with doing a couple of sets of curls at the end of your workout.  But I work out understanding which elements of my program are addressing functional needs and which are for vanity and I emphasize them correspondingly.  If you start your program with 12 sets of dumbell presses for chest and end with two sets of hip adduction on a machine you're training for appearance, not performance.  If that's your goal, then that's fine with me, but don't think you're going to maximize your potential as a fighter that way.

If I wanted to bodybuild I'd seriously consider a program like the one in the link I started with.  I'd probably rather be built like Brad Pitt in Fight Club than like a powerlifter.  I'd start by working my hips a lot less and my arms a lot more.  But I'm not a bodybuilder, and haven't trained like one in many years.  However you choose to train, be aware of how well your program matches your goals and you'll have a better shot at achieving them!

Hero of the Week #2: Robb Wolf

First off, I changed the name from "Heroic Thursdays" to "Hero of the Week," so if you got last week's post re-sent it's because I had to edit and re-publish the post.
My Hero of the Week this week is Robb Wolf.  He's been in a lot of media lately because he has a book coming out soon (which I do plan to purchase), but I've been following his articles, forum posts, and podcasts since long before the book was anything but a gleam in Robb's eye.
Robb is a former research scientist, now trainer, who is squarely in the Paleo camp as far as diet is concerned.  If you don't know what Paleo means, it's a dietary plan roughly based around eating the way we evolved to eat - the way our ancestors spent a couple million years eating.  Mostly meat, vegetables, some nuts and seeds.  No grains or dairy (which didn't even exist until ten thousand or fewer years ago, just a blink on the evolutionary scale). 
The Paleo diet is very popular right now in the blogging/ fitness community, and a number of people have blogs focused around the concept.  Art De Vany was probably the first to do so, and do it well, but his blog is subscription based now, so I won't link to it.
Paleo bloggers/ endorsers generally fall into a handful of categories.  First are the research based guys - these are the people who take the basic theory and either look for or do scientific studies to support their position or to fine tune the diet.  Loren Cordain is a pretty excellent example of this, but there are others, many operating on an amateur level, using PubMed to refine their ideas.
I'm all for doing research, but for reasons I'll address in future posts I'm somewhat skeptical of the validity of basing an approach to lifestyle on any scientific studies - basically because no science done on human behaviors can be done in a double blind fashion. 
Next are the self-experimenters.  These are people who basically had some kind of health issue - overfat, autoimmune diseases, heart disease, poor athletic performance, whatever - and, after turning to a Paleo style of eating, saw dramatic improvements.  They report on their personal progress and spend time either promoting the lifestyle with encouragement or recipes, making arguments supporting the diet, or picking apart anti-Paleo press statements or studies reported in the popular media.
I'm all for self experimenting, but just because an individual or a group of individuals gets great results from a lifestyle change doesn't mean it will work for many or most people.  Art De Vany is an amazing specimen of health at his (or any) age, but he might be just as vigorous if he'd lived on donuts and coffee for the last forty years.  The guy could just be a genetic freak that way.  The same could be said for any other "I eat this way and now I'm healthy" bloggers - they could be the exceptions, not the rule.
Last is Robb Wolf.  Robb does a ton of research - the guy's about as well read as anybody I know of, probably because he's been doing a lot of reading as research for the book he's writing.  And he's turned his own health around with a Paleo diet.  But he also has a large population of clients, many with drastically varying goals, with whom he experiments, and has been doing so for many years now. 
If Robb's recommendations didn't work for the majority of the people who wander through the doors of his gym then he wouldn't have a job anymore.  This broad base of experience lets him address questions in a way many other authorities can't.  For example, take the nightshade question - basically, can people eat nightshades (which are a family of plants that includes potatoes and tomatoes) despite the fact that they weren't available paleolithically.  Many bloggers can report on their own experiments with eating nightshades or removing them from the diet, but Robb has done this experiment with many clients, measuring their performance with and without nightshades in their diets, and can report that some saw big improvements while some didn't.  This may not sound like that great of an answer, but it actually is - I can tell anybody who asks that they may or may not be sensitive to nightshades, and that they should try taking them out of the diet for, say, 30 days, and see how they feel.  Contrast that to the advice I'd give about whole grains, which is simply that no human should eat whole grains ever, and that if at all possible we should take them out of our diets completely.
Robb answers questions on his excellent podcast, and his advice generally looks like this:  Eat Paleo.  If you're not meeting your goals, make adjustments depending on the goal - need to bulk up? Try adding some dairy.  Still dealing with inflammation?   Add some fish oil, cut the nightshades, get stricter.  He's a lot more knowledgeable than I am, but that's the gist of it.  Make the change for 30 days and measure your performance.  If you get better, stick with it.  If not, go back and try something different.
Within the basic framework of the paleo philosophy Robb does, and encourages others to do, actual science.  He's not a knee jerk, drank the Kool Aid follower of Cordain - if someone needs to bulk up, he might advise them to try adding dairy in to see if they experience adverse reactions.  He knows from past experience that some clients will respond very well to that change.  He's got a central standpoint but he's not enslaved by it.  He's only a slave to results. 
One last attribute of Robb's I really enjoy is his willingness to admit when he's not sure of something, and to admit that he might change his ideas as time goes on and his understanding of various issues deepens.  I've heard him say on his podcast a number of times that he's leaning towards one position or another on a topic but isn't yet convinced.  That kind of honesty and open-mindedness is invaluable and rare in the world of thinking.
That's why Robb Wolf is my hero.  Of the Week.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Martial Arts and Metrics

I'm jealous of Powerlifters, marathon runners, and Crossfitters.  There.  I said it.
If you don't know anything about these sports, let me fill you in.  Powerlifting is a sport where you try to accumulate the highest total number on three lifts - bench, squat, and deadlift - in a single day (a meet).  Some associations allow special clothing to be worn, some don't, some drug test, etc., but the basics are there.  A higher number is better.
Marathon runners try to run their marathon as quickly as possible.  The lower the time, the better.
Crossfit is a bit more complex.  It's a training system with really varied training (mixed modality, where you train for many different components of athletic performance to try to be as well rounded as possible), but one of the sport's hallmarks is a series of named workouts (all with girls names, like Fran) that are hit every so often.  Crossfitters can always compare their performance with a sentence like, "Hey, I just did a four minute Fran.  How's yours?"  (By the way, I have no idea if a four minute Fran is good or bad, it's just an example).
Why am I jealous?  Because in all these athletic pursuits, and in many others, the athletes have very clear ways to measure performance.  You're a powerlifter with a new diet plan and your total dropped by 50 lbs.?  Maybe you need a new plan.  You're a marathon runner who gained some weight and your times improved by 8 seconds?  Maybe the weight was needed.  Hopefully you see my point.
As a martial artist I don't have any numbers to work with to assess my performance.  I can tell when I've improved - when my kata are cleaner and crisper, when my sparring is more on point - but I have no real way to measure progress.  I can't say, "my kata were improving at X rate, but when I dropped grains from my diet they improved at Y rate instead." 
I'd love to have a very accurate grading system for movement quality.  You send in a video of your Taikyoku I or something and get back a three digit score on how well you're moving.  Whoever/ however this was done it would have to be repeatable - that is, if you sent in the same video again, it would have to return the same score.  It's not really feasible.  Any person who would be capable of that kind of feedback would probably have better things to do than spend all day looking at videos of idiots like me looking to measure their progress.
The best we can do is some sort of self-scoring system.  We can give ourselves a score, say out of 20 poitns, for our technical proficiency, then out of 20 for our energy level, etc.  I suspect it would be worthwhile to keep a training log that recorded those scores, but they're too arbitrary to be as useful as, say, a powerlifting total.  Does anyone think that a score from your first year of training would correlate meaningfully with your score after 20 years?
One last point: don't make the mistake of thinking that progress in ancillary exercises is the same as progress in your art.  Being able to do more pushups might be a good thing, but it doesn't necessarily mean you've become a better karateka.  It just means your strengh or strengh/endurance has improved, which might mean you've gotten better, but it might have come along with a decrease in actual power output, which would be bad.  Don't get bogged down in trying to hit 100 pushups at the expense of your art.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Tweak your way to fitness

I was listening to an interview with John Berardi of Precision Nutrition fame in a FitCast episode and he said something I found very interesting.  He sells a system of lifestyle changes that lead to body recomposition (fat loss) and health improvements and so forth.  When he puts clients through the system he only has them make one change at a time, week by week, rather than implementing many changes at once.  He feels that this improves client compliance - people can stick to one change at a time more easily than to a whole raft of changes implemented at once.
I don't necessarily agree with everything Berardi says but I will say that I think he's onto something here.  Think of your life now as a baseline - think about what you eat, how you sleep, how you train, what you wear, everything.  Now imagine the lifestyle of somebody who is going to get absolutely optimal outcomes in their life - be the best martial artist, the happiest person, the healthiest or longest lived person, whatever.  There are probably ways in which your lifestyle falls short of that in almost every area of your life.  Maybe your diet is crap.  Maybe you don't floss.  Maybe your shoes are bad for your posture. 
You could spend months researching all the ways to improve your habits, then try to change them all at once.  You could consult some guru (even me!) and adopt our recommendations wholesale, again trying to do these things all at once.
The problem is that most people cannot make drastic changes in every area of their life all at once and stick to it.  Change is itself a stress, and stress is bad, so too much change, even changes that reduce stress and improve health longterm, can cause excess short term stress. Plus, willpower is not an infinite commodity for most people.  I know that there are some people who can change everything around all at once, and if you're one of them, fantastic for you.  But most of us will fail if we try to take on too many things in too short a period of time.
Take me as an example.  Since I embarked on this weird adventure (of getting fit) I've drastically altered my diet - I eat none of the same foods I used to eat, and I eat with drastically different timing than I used to.  I wear different shoes than I used to.  I shower differently.  I sleep differently.  My work habits are different.  I've totally revamped my life. 
But I didn't come close to doing all these things over a week - it's been years.  I made changes to my diet in small incremental steps.  Not necessarily because I planned it that way, but when I tried to make big changes I'd find myself cheating and backtracking a lot.
If you read this blog you'll see a lot of recommendations from me.  Add this one to the list: don't try to adopt them all at once.  Make small changes - tweaks.  Maybe drop the jogging from your program this week and run a handful of sprints instead.  Pass up the bread with dinner next week.  Start taking a multivitamin.
Two more quick points:
  1. Some tweaks are harder than others.  Doing some dynamic stretching every morning is relatively easy and pain free.  Giving up grains is going to make much greater inroads into your willpower.  If you're having a relatiavely stressful time (for example, a busy period at work, relationship difficulties, allergy season, whatever), put off the harder tweaks in favor of some simpler ones.  If you just had a baby, now's not the time to make huge changes.  But maybe you can start taking a multivitamin every day.
  2. Some tweaks are more important than others.  Don't think you're going to radically improve your fitness by wearing minimalist shoes.  Will they help?  Yes, but only marginally.  On the other hand, trading long slow cardio for high intensity interval training?  That can make drastic short term improvements in your fitness.  Don't get bogged down with the minor tweaks while leaving off the major stuff - the bread and butter changes.  We see this a lot in bodybuilders.  They'll take creatine like clockwork while eating at McDonald's every day.  Or people will obsess over using a 20s/10s intervals vs. a 30s/15s interval.  Those kind of changes may matter to an elite athlete, but to most of us cleaning up our diets, sleeping enough, and training hard but briefly will make much more difference than most other specific changes.
Another advantage of making small changes is that it's easier to see their individual effects.  If you change 10 things at once, then feel better, you won't necessarily know which changes mattered.  That might make you more tempted to falter later on - "it wasn't the fish oil that helped my joints, it was the fact that I stopped jogging, so I can start skipping the fish oil now."  Every day of life should be a little science experiment for you.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Hero of the Week #1: Mike Boyle

Welcome to the first post in a (hopefully) weekly feature I'm starting.  Each Thursday I'll bring you a description of one of my personal heroes, somebody who exemplifies some set of virtues I find particularly appealing or interesting.  Not all of these individuals is necessarily a paragon of all that is good and decent, but each will serve to illuminate some aspect of good character in my eyes.
I'm not doing these in any particular order, so don't get all cranky about who was first or who hasn't been addressed yet. 
My first hero is Mike Boyle.  Mike Boyle is a well-known strength and conditioning coach.  He coaches the Boston University hockey team and has a couple of facilities where he trains a number of professional athletes as well as regular people.  He has released a few products, including a great book I would recommend to anybody about functional training, a bunch of DVD's, and so on.  He is associated with Perform Better, though I'm not sure exactly how, and it's one of my favorite places to buy training equipment.  I know of him mostly through reading a few of his articles and through podcast interviews.  He's been on the Fitcast a couple of times, on Superhuman Radio a couple of times, and is on The Strength Coach Podast every week.
Philosophically, Mike is best known as one of the most famous proponents of functional strength training.  Basically, rather than having his athletes do bodybuilding routines or whatever, functional training is all about tailoring routines so they address the movement patterns specific to an athlete's sport.  Mike is not the only guy to say things like that, of course, but he's one of the better known in the field today.
So why is Mike Boyle my hero? Well, let me start by saying that I don't actually know him, I'm going by what I've heard him say, and I've probably listened to 30 hours or so of interviews with the guy. 
First of all, he is open minded.  He's not training his athletes the same way, or with the same movements, as he did five or ten years ago.  He's constantly changing his training to reflect a growing understanding of strength training.  And he doesn't let ego interfere with his knowledge.  I've listened to him change his training methods based on his own ideas, but also based on criticism from physical therapists (Gray Cook) and even lesser known personal trainers (the whole CNS burnout thing, if you follow him).
Here's a relatively successful and famous strength coach who is willing to listen to and consider the opinions of relative nobodies, if their ideas make sense, and is willing to throw out the conventional wisdom to try some fairly radical training methods.
He also doesn't buy into a philosophy of training and ignore real world results.  The guy tests everything - not as in publishing scientific papers, but by training real athletes and measuring the results they get. 
He's been famous recently for saying that he doesn't have his athletes squat anymore.  Squatting heavy puts a lot of load on the spine and doesn't mimic any athletic movement other than the powerlifting squat.  In athletic events we almost always push off one leg, not both.  So he started having his athletes do one legged squats or rear leg elevated split squats.  That way they need less weight to work the leg, reducing the load on the spine.  They also work the hip adductors and abductors, which need to fire to maintain the level pelvis, in a way that isn't required during the two legged squat.
Nothing about that seems crazy, but the guy's been lambasted in online forums for walking away from a movement that's considered the cornerstone of serious strength training. 
He's open minded, but only to things that make sense (as oppose to some people whose minds are just open - too open - and have no logical filters at all).  He's constantly trying to find new things that work with his athletes, despite having achieved a large measure of success with his systems.  He's willing to gain knowledge from anywhere.  And he's constantly striving to learn and grow within his discipline. 
I'm not saying that Mike's necessarily right about everything he says.  I do think that he's right about most of it, and I think that with his general attitude, his methods are only going to get better as he experiments and learns. 
To me, the kind of intellectual honesty that Mike exemplifies, the willingness to entertain new ideas and test one's own theories against reality, then discard them if they don't work, is both rare and highly valuable.  He may not be the smartest coach in the world (I mean, he might be, but I don't know) but he's going to work to get the best answers he can with the information available.
In short, Mike Boyle is my hero.  Listen to some of his interviews and see if you can't tell why.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Karate and Cross Country: Please combine them!

My dojo is in a YMCA (note: I mean the dojo I attend, not as in it belongs to me, I'm not the instructor).  There are classes for kids and a number of high school age students who rotate through the class - they usually train for a number of years, go to college elsewhere, and then we don't see them for a while.  A few times we've had parents who train with their own children, sometimes multiple children, which is sort of cool, but not the point of this post.
A popular sport for high schoolers in that area is cross country track.  If you're not familiar with it, in cross country one runs a few miles...across country areas.  Hence the name.  I think the events are usually around 5km, which is a bit over 3 miles.  The point is, they're not sprints, they're distance events.
We've had a few of our students joint their high school cross country team in order to "get in shape."  That follows the conventional wisdom pretty well - after all, nothing gets you healthier or in better shape than running long distances, preferably while indulging in a high carbohydrate, vegan diet.  Right?  (Please note the sarcasm here).
In a similar vein, when adults I know want to get in "better shape" for, perhaps, a promotion (belt tests can be grueling in my style), they take up jogging.  You know - get out and run 3-5 miles at a time.  Again, this matches the conventional wisdom nicely.
The problem is that running distances (anything over a mile or two) is probably not the best way to get "in shape" for karate.  In fact, it may be more than inefficient - it may be counterproductive.  Why?
The problem is specificity.  Your body adapts pretty specifically to the demands you put on it.  If you do a ton of wrist curls, your wrists get stronger, but your legs don't.  If you sprint, you get faster and better at sprinting, but that won't allow you to run a fast marathon.  Running long distances at a relatively constant pace makes you good at moving: 1) relatively slowly (the steps in a 5km race are nowhere near as fast as your steps during kumite should be), for 2) a long, steady duration, with 3) relatively little force.  It will hike up the efficiency of your aerobic energy pathways (which aren't the ones used in karate).  It will also make your body lean towards developiong slow twitch muscle fibers (the ratio of fast twitch to slow twitch fibers is partially genetic but there are undecided muscle fibers, especially in kids, that can go either way depending on your training).
Being a good karateka requires the ability to generate large forces (big force = big acceleration = speed) over short bursts of time (watch people spar - it's all stop and go, it's not a constant long duration output of energy) using anaerobic energy pathways (you just can't generate maximum force with aerobic energy) and fast twitch muscle fibers (the kind that fatigue quickly but produce lots of force).  The same is true of kata.  Explosions of movement, pauses, etc. 
Notice anything?  They don't match.  The unfortunate fact is that building up a large aerobic endurance will do little or nothing to enhance your anaerobic work capacity - the ability to do lots of anaerobic work in a short period of time without getting gassed.  Building up to running 5, 7-minute miles in a row will not make you better at sparring all-out for 2 minute rounds, or at least not much better.
What's wrong with running distances?  Well, here's a few problems:
  1. High injury rate.  Runners tend to get hurt, unless they're freaks like my friend Kathy, who can run a marathon before lunch, then eat and run another one and never get hurt.  But she's a freak, and you're probably not.
  2. Repetitive motion over a limited range.  Runner's joints take a pounding - repeating the same kind of impact over and over, for thousands of reps, can permanently damage your body.  Watch the actual range of motion in a distance runner - the angles generated at the hip and knee.  They're pretty small.  Do you think that's conducive to your ability to kick high?  Remember, your body only wants to maintain the capacity it needs.  Convince it that it only needs thirty degrees of hip flexion and that's all it will maintain.
  3. Conversion of fast twitch to slow twitch muscle fibers.  Basically, it makes you slow.
  4. Development of the wrong energy system.  Surprise!  Begin able to jog forever doesn't help your endurance at higher intensity levels.
I have seen high school kids run cross country, then at season's end come back to class.  They think they're in great shape, but they're huffing and puffing after a few rounds of jiyu kumite (free fighting).  The big benefit is that it makes old geezers like me seem faster and in better shape than we are.
Why do I want you to combine karate practice with cross country and/or jogging?  Because if I ever spar with you I want every advantage I can get.  I want you slow, out of breath, and nursing some nagging injury or movement restriction.  If you've ever seen me fight you'd know I need every advantage I can get (I'm not what you'd call a natural athlete - in fact, pretty much the opposite!)
If you want to be good at karate, however, focus on shorter bursts of higher intensity exercise.  Sprint 100 m (the length of a football field, more or less).  Really sprint it - go all out, knees high, so at the end of it you're totally dead.  Walk slowly back to where you started and do it again.  Repeat 5-10 times, if you can.  That's teaching your body to put out a lot of force and energy in a short period of time, which is exactly what you need to move and throw a strong punch or kick.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Metabolic Advantage: The Final Answer

A little background first:
The conventional wisdom is that weight loss depends on a simple comparison of calories ingested vs. calories expended.  Consume more calories than you burn, you gain weight.  Consume fewer, you lose weight.  Simple physics. 
Some people claim, for a variety of reasons, that this is false.  For example, many low carbohydrate proponents argue that if you eat fewer carbohydrates you can consume more calories total without gaining weight, or even lose weight while eating more calories.  Perhaps a low carb eater could lose weight on 2200 kcal/day while his twin brother living on 2200 kcal/day of pasta and bagels might fail to lose weight or even gain weight, even if their activity is the same.
If you care to investigate this you can find a really large number of studies and arguments thrown back and forth between these people.  The truth is difficult to determine for a number of reasons:
  1. Certain diets make you lose or retain water.  Don't believe me?  Add 10 g of salt to your next meal.  Salt has no calories.  I promise you'll gain "weight."  Not fat or muscle, but weight.  It's not meaningful in the sense of proving or disproving anything about metabolism.  I haven't broken the laws of thermodynamics; please don't send me to physics jail.
  2. Calories in food are VERY hard to count.  Know how they get the calorie counts on a food label?  They put the food into a bomb calorimeter. It burns the food (literally) and measures the energy output.  Know what happens when you put a twig into a bomb calorimeter?  You get energy.  Do you think eating a twig will make any difference in your body mass?  No - your body can't metabolize wood.  Repeat after me: my stomach is NOT a bomb calorimeter.  So if you eat a high fiber diet the calorie counts on the packaging will overrepresent the amount of energy your body can actually get from the contents.  A 100 Calorie pack of food with 5 grams of fiber only has 80 Cal of energy that you can actually use, unless you're a woodpecker.  Boom - anybody on a high fiber diet will seem to have a metabolic advantage that is the result of bad measurements.  Does that mean a low carb, low fiber diet is bad for weight loss?  Not exactly. 
  3. There are legitimate and inarguable scientific reasons why certain macronutrients give you less net energy.  There is a thermogenic effect of eating that varies - eating protein causes a loss of heat energy that you don't get from eating sugar. 
The take home message here is twofold: 1) determining whether there is or isn't a real metabolic advantage to different diets is very difficult; and 2) it doesn't really matter.
Why doesn't it matter?  I'll make this simple - why should it?
Suppose Abe and Ben are identical, fat twins starting diets.  Abe is on Ornish and Ben is on Atkins.  Do you really think Abe or Ben care if one of them eats 2000 kcal/day and the other eats 2150 kcal/day and gets the same results?  No!  Most people have no idea how many kcal they're eating, nor should they.
What does matter is how sated Abe and Ben are by the food they eat.  I propose an imaginary number - the  Satiety Point, to replace the Calorie.  Food gets Satiety Points depending on how sated they make you.  If you eat meal X, and then find that you're full, and stay full for 6 hours, then meal X gets some number of Satiety Points.  If you eat meal Y and are still hungry, or you get hungry again 1/2 hour later, then it gets fewer Satiety Points.  We can argue over the exact method for measuring Satiety Points later, but I hope the idea is clear.  Now think about this: if you're a dieter, would you rather be able to eat a higher calorie meal that had fewer Satiety Points or a lower calorie meal that had more?  What actually matters to you in terms of fostering compliance with the diet?
What matters to a dieter is not how many Calories they can eat while losing weight but which method of eating can make them the most sated while maintaining weight loss.  If Abe eats 1500 kcal/day of meat and fat with a few veggies and is full all the time, never craves food, and loses 2 lb/week, while Ben eats 1800 kcal/day of high carb stuff and is hungry all the time and craving junk and also loses 2 lb/week, do you think that Ben has somehow "won" or proven his plan superior because it has a metabolic advantage?  Of course not.  Which twin is more likely to cheat over the long haul?  Which twin is more likely to be happy with his eating style?
Higher protein, high fat diets are much easier to follow, especially if you're metabolically deranged (insulin resistant).  If you're overfat, you're probably metabolically deranged.  Sorry.  I don't care, and neither should you, whether low carb diets have a metabolic advantage or not.  We should care about which diet can result in weight loss while maximizing general satiety. 
When I eat clean I'm rarely hungry, rarely crave junk food, and lose fat at a good pace.  I do it by eating moderate protein, lots of fat, and carbs from only paleolithic sources (veggies and tubers, no grains).  I don't eat a large number of calories, but what I eat satisfies me.  If I eat three slices of pizza, however, I can quickly put myself into a situation where I choke down 3000 calories in a day and am still hungry, roaming my kitchen at night looking for chocolate.  At that point, who cares about metabolic advantage? 
In the coming weeks I'll post a little bit more about nutrition, supplementation, and how I eat.  If you're training in martial arts and carrying around extra fat or not paying attention to your nutrition then you're making a mistake as fundamental as somebody who comes to class every other day but never stretches or who smokes two packs of cigarettes a day.  I'm not saying you can't get better at karate, but you're limiting yourself significantly.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Bad uke, bad! (How students can make bad martial arts look good)

In case you weren't aware, there are many martial arts whose effectiveness is debated.  Gasp!  For example, take the internal Chinese martial arts - the ones that purport to generate power by some vehicle that isn't muscular force.  Or read up on the Shotokai.
Here's the problem: you can find testimonials and even videos of people getting hit or thrown around by various martial arts experts.  They say things like, "he hit me so hard I was thrown across the room," or, "he touched my arm and electric pain shot across my body, and I was paralyzed."  Sounds great, right?  I mean, who wouldn't want to learn to do that to another person?
Now some or all of these so-called experts might really be that good.  Maybe they could reproduce those effects with an unwiling partner - say, an attacker who didn't know anything about them.  My first karate instructor could cause almost unbearabale pain at any time in me, at least, and I was as skeptical as one gets.  But in some cases when the person on the receiving end of those techniques isn't a believer - isn't the expert's student or follower - the techniques don't work, or don't work as well.
I tend to be skeptical of so called internal arts.  Anybody who starts talking about using their joints or internal energy to drive a punch or kick is either speaking metaphorically or is full of crap.  Movement comes from muscles or gravity, and that's pretty much it.  You can get a little extra boost by pre-stretching tendons and ligaments, but the primary movers have to be muscles or gravity.
Now... I could be wrong.  Lots of people believe in all kinds of other ways to generate power - go to amazon and check out some books on ba gua or tai chi.  The thing is that I'm not going to be convinced by any number of demonstrations of some guy's students getting tossed around like rag dolls.
How could I be convinced?  Maybe a breaking demonstration under controlled conditions.  Get a tai chi master on one of those "Science of Sports" shows and let him hit a force meter or kick a crash test dummy a few times.  Numbers don't lie. 
How about a throwing/ grappling art?  Well, grappling competitions are a good start.  If you can submit a guy who is: a) trying to win a trophy; and b) not your student, I'll be impressed. 
I just read a chapter on the Shotokai and Shigeru Egami's techniques.  I've seen videos of it.  It looks like crap.  Internal kung fu styles - pretty much the same thing.  If you're trying to hit somebody and words like "silk reeling" are coming out of your mouth, you're trying to stay completely relaxed while you strike, and you think muscular development will make you a worse fighter, you've lost me. 
I could be wrong, of course - I'm wrong a lot!  And I'll be happy to admit it.  As soon as one of those guys uses that technique to break something hard or mangle a scientific instrument in a setting managed by skeptics.  Or hits me, I guess, though I'm not a huge fan of that particular method!
I will add a couple of caveats.  One: tai chi might be great for health, fitness, peace of mind, oneness with the universe, etc. - I'm not disputing any of that, I'm only saying I doubt it's good for teaching people to hit hard.  Two: many people talk about internal practices or softer practices and what they mean is a style of training that emphasizes reading subtle changes in an opponent's body position, using someone's strength against them, etc.  That's a completely valid emphasis for training.  There's nothing crazy or mystical about that.  It's the difference between a person doing half an hour of push hands training versus another one doing half an hour of punching a makiwara.  The two are just cultivating different qualities that go into making a good fighter.  We could have a discussion about which method is the most efficient way to become a good fighter, but I certainly wouldn't say the guy doing push hands is crazy or wasting time.

To kata or not to kata

There's a longstanding debate about the importance of kata to karate practice.  I doubt I'll be providing the last word on this topic for anybody, but I wanted to put my two cents in.
As far as I can tell there are three distinct benefits to kata practice:
  1. A place for hiding techniques.  That low block to the left?  It's actually a lethal groin strike, or an over the shoulder throw, or whatever.  Studying kata can help us learn lots of cool techniques.  Unfortunately, this is not my strong suit, personally.
  2. A method of exercise.  Kata practice can be great for overall body strength and developing power in your footwork.
  3. Meditation.  The concentration required to learn and remember kata, as opposed to soemone shadowboxing with random techniques, is a form of mental training.
In my style we do a lot of different kata, and we often do our kata in weird ways - like adding a back spin to every techniqe where there's a forward step.  I remember thinking that this was a silly and impractical way to train (I don't do a lot of spinning during kumite), but I did it anyway, motivated by an upcoming belt test.  To my surprise, my movement during jiyu kumite was pleasantly improved by all the turning and spinning.  I believe that I'd strengthened my legs in ways beneficial to fighting by practicing my kata, in ways that weren't being addressed by squats and deadlifts.
I can see the points of those who are anti-kata, but I worry about the practice of abandoning kata for a couple of reasons.  First, they might be losing out on some of the physical benefits I mentioned.   Second, I don't know how we can be sure that there aren't still valuable bunkai hidden in the kata we practice.  I'm quite sure, given my personal interests, that I'm not going to be the one to finally figure out the real application of the fifth step of Seienchin.  But if I can learn it properly and transmit it to my students or my kohai, maybe one of them will find a really useful bunkai for it. If we all gave up the parts we don't understand that potential future gain would also be lost.

Review: High Kick Girl

I watched High Kick Girl with my wife and a friend this weekend.  It's from some of the same people who brought us Black Belt, and had a very similar action style.
Quick synopsis: very talented Japanese schoolgirl karateka wants her black belt to prove she's strong to her teacher.  Doesn't get it, so she runs around "black belt hunting" - beating the crap out of much bigger, stronger practitioners to take their belts.  Does more stuff to prove she's strong, gets in trouble, her teacher saves her.
The plot was... eh.  The dialogue was more eh.  The acting?  Eh.
However, the movie was fantastic if you love traditional karate.  Why?  First, the action scenes were splendid.  Second, the training sequences and background scenes had some unbelievably beautiful kata demonstrations.  Basically, I was foaming at the mouth throughout this stuff, while my wife and friend were somewhere between mildly entertained and bored by it all.
If you loved Black Belt, check out High Kick Girl.  If you were bored to tears by Black Belt, stay away.

Karate as Character Development

I've been reading Shotokan History: A Precise History (which is actually a lovely, if overpriced, book) and it's interesting to me how much emphasis has been put on karate practice as character development over the past century.
I'm not confused by this trend; if I wanted to market martial arts practice of any kind to a suspicious public, especially if I was trying to sell an Okinawan art to a xenophobic Japanese public, I'd put any spin on it I could to make it seem like a good idea. I guess saying, "we're going to teach your kids how to damage one another really effectively" isn't the best advertising copy.
The part that interests me is this: how much truth is there to the spin? Is karate really good for character development? Here's my take on the issue.
First, there are a couple of possible ways to approach this question. One is historical - was karate training a method of character development in Okinawa in the 1800's? What about Japan in the 1930's? Japan post-war? I'm not going to address that issue - I'm no historian. But what about karate in modern America?
Karate training certainly isn't always good for character development. Just think back to the infamous Cobra Kai class from the old Karate Kid movie. Those kids weren't improving their character. And while most karate dojos were probably not like that one, I bet more than a couple were and still are.
What about the good, or at least better schools? What's the value of karate practice?
There are two layers of answers to this question. First, compare karate practice to any other disicpline where one seeks mastery of an art form. Think of all the lessons inherent in somebody working hard to learn dance, the piano, painting, whatever. You learn the value of patience and hard work. You learn about frustration and overcoming it. You learn about goal setting and consistency. Anybody think that's not character development? Anybody think that mastering Sanchin kata or the tornado kick is fundamentally different from learning to play the saxophone?
But there are a couple of aspects of karate practice that transcend the general value of mastering a discipline. The first is that karate (like most martial arts) forces the student to confront a fundamental fear, the fear of violence, in a way that practicing the piano does not. Learning to spar, learning to control one's emotions while sparring, learning to overcome that set of anxieties, are valuable lessons that you don't get from learning to skateboard or paint landscapes. I think that all else being equal a karate student will have an easier time dealing with interpersonal conflict and near-violence situations (like somebody yelling at you or threatening you outside a bar) than they would had they never trained.
Another benefit of karate practice is specific to the traditional dojo in America. The complex set of rules of etiquette (the bowing, the dress code, the ways you're allowed to walk, the rank consciousness) are all alien to the American student. In the dojo we are forced to be hyper conscious of our behavior, especially when we're new. I'm sure this doesn't translate into other areas of life for everybody, but I know it's made me more aware of my behavior in other situations. I don't mean that I bow to people outside the dojo, but I am more conscious of proper etiquette in meetings, around new people, and so forth. I don't always do the right thing, but I'm usually more aware of it when I screw up. Oddly enough, this aspect of training (sensitizing you to your own behavioral nuances in relation to others) is specific to the karate student outside Japan. If bowing etiquette and rank consciousness are already part of your culture, then utilizing them inside the dojo isn't anything special.
There are other benefits to karate training, of course. I'm a big fan of karate for general physical development (few other modalities hit so many aspects of personal fitness - balance, strength, conditioning, flexibility, coordination). Karate is probably good for learning to defend yourself - we can argue about the relative merits of reality based arts all we want, but karate teaches you more about self defense than painting lessons. And I would absolutely disagree with the notions some have put forth that all karate students are good people or that one with poor character cannot be good at karate - that's obviously ridiculous, and counterexamples abound. But I really do think that most practitioners are better people for having trained in karate, in a variety of ways.