Friday, July 23, 2010

Exercise for Fat Loss

I wasn't originally going to post about exercise for fat loss, but a comment left on the last post led me to reconsider.

Why wasn't I going to write about this?  Well, the unfortunate fact is that exercise alone is a pretty poor way to lose fat. 

If you're gasping in shock right now, I understand - the popular media (and gym owners all around the country) would have you think that sweating away on a treadmill is the quickest route to abs of steel and glutes of zinc (or whatever).  But it rarely works, because most people, when they try to just exercise, compensate by eating more and end up losing little to no fat.  It's really easy to out-eat even a very vigorous exercise program.  Burning 1,000 calories is a LOT of work, but eating that much food is pretty easy, especially if you're the sort of person who got fat to begin with (meaning, you're not exactly a light eater).

Having said that, I would also say that dieting without exercising presents its own drawbacks.  If you cut calories without exercising you will lose unacceptable amounts of muscle mass, which has long term negative effects on performance, health, and your ability to keep losing fat.  I personally also find that if I'm exercising while restricing calories the exercise helps blunt my appetite (this phenomenon is not supported in the literature, but it absolutely works for me, so take what you want from that).

So if you are watching what you eat (details to come in another post), exercise can serve various functions.  First, you must exercise to preserve muscle - you want your body to burn your stored fat for energy, not  your muscle.  Exercise will also burn calories, both during and after the workout, which will accelerate your fat loss if you are eating properly.  Exercise may blunt your appetite, or at least motivate you to maintain the strictness of your diet. 

The next question is which type of exercise will serve these functions best.  If you answered hours of steady state cardio (otherwise known as LSD for long slow distance, or long slow death), then you're wrong.  There are many reasons why hours on the treadmill won't get you ripped - your body gets more efficient at a movement the more you do it, reducing the calories burned; you tend to sustain injuries from doing long term repetitive movements; chronic overexercise will jack up your cortisol levels, messing up your metabolic rate.  Hours on the treadmill will also make you a worse martial artist.  Muscles forced to move slowly for long periods of time get good at moving slowly for long periods of time - it's called specificity of adaption.  You don't want muscles good at moving slowly over long periods of time - fights are quick and fast, and you want quick and fast muscles.

So what should you do?  Metabolic conditioning and high intensity interval training are all the rage in fat loss programming.  There are great sources available for details on how to do these, but the core of both is short bursts of very intense activity - moving fast, or with a heavy load - interspersed with short periods of rest.  In short, do things you can't do for very long (anywhere from 20 seconds to a minute or so), rest, repeat.  Run sprints, jump rope for 30s, then rest for 30s, repeat, do sets of dumbell snatches, something like that.

One could argue about the best interval/ rest ratios or whether complexes are better than bodyweight sequences, but I doubt we'd find huge differences between the different protocols.  Making sure your exercise is intense makes sure your body holds onto its muscle mass.  It also encourages your body to burn calories far after the session is over (called EPOC, I believe), which means you burn more fat. 

If you've been following this blog you might notice that these protocols are not only good for fat loss, they're what I recommend for improving your endurance.  They also closely mimic many martial art classes.  Think about it - you do a few techniques, very intensely, then get some pointers from the instructor, then repeat.  Do a bunch of pushups, then stretch, then a bunch of leg raises, stretch - it's all high intensity intervals.  In other words, if you're a martial artist looking to lose fat, you should already be doing the exercise that helps you lose fat.  So why are you still fat?  That comes right back to diet (and another post).

I will add one more complication to this mess.  Remember when I wrote that long, slow cardio was not good for fat loss?  Well, I lied.  LSD is a bad foundation for a fat loss program.  Getting onto a treadmill and sweating away for an hour is not a good basis for your fitness regimen.  It is both too high intensity (causing wear and tear and a stress response in the body) and too low intensity (not intense enough to preserve muscle or boost metabolism).  You HAVE to do high intensity work first and foremost, for the reasons I described already.  But once you've got that base covered, you can't just keep adding in more and more high intensity work and lose weight faster.  You're going to overtax your body if you try - your recovery ability is limited, especially if you're restricting calories.  You can't do serious metabolic conditioning every day without getting hurt and overstressed.

So what if you want to lose fat faster and you're at the limits of your own recovery?  Add in some very slow work into your program.  What doest that mean?  It doesn't mean jogging on a treadmill.  It might mean casually walking your dogs - not power walking, not racing around with a heart rate monitor, it means moving casually for a period of time - up to a couple of hours - slowly enough that you're not sweating profusely or out of breath, yet you're burning more calories than you would sitting on your couch and watching TV.  Your muscles won't adapt to the exercise (won't get slower) because you're not going to work hard enough to force any kind of adaption - you're working so far within your ability that your body doesn't need to change, other than by providing the fuel for the activity.

Want to really lose a lot of weight, fast?  Get one of those weird treadmills that goes veeery slowly and put it at your desk.  Spend your entire work day walking at, say, .5 mph.  Or park one of those weird little portable pedal setups - like a tiny little exercise bike that you put on the floor in front of your chair - and pedal away, very casually, all day long.  You can get your body to burn calories constantly the way skinny people do (they do it by fidgeting, but I don't think one can learn to be a fidgeter). 

The trick to this is to understand that the long walks or all-day-low-intensity-activity won't get you in shape, it won't keep muscle on, and it won't make you better at karate.  It will help you lose fat, as long as your diet's in order.  It will also make everybody in your office think you're crazy, so beware.  Give it a try and post to comments if you get anywhere!

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Are You Lean Enough?

The other day I was watching a video showing some bunkai for a kata - Pinan 1 I think it was - demonstrated by a severely obese man.  The fact that he was obese has nothing to do with the practicality of the techniques he was demonstrating, and his karate seemed quite good, but it got me thinking about other fat or pudgy karateka I've seen in the past.

I'm sure many fat karateka are fat by accident - they might rather be lean, but don't know how or aren't able to get there.  I have sympathy for that situation, and I'll talk more about methods of leaning out in future posts.  But I wonder if some doubt the value of leaning out or see being lean as part of their karate practice.

The case can be made that there are advantages to being fat for a fighter (for recreational fighters, at least - if you have to make weight for competition that changes the story somewhat).  Like what?

All else being equal, a fatter fighter might be able to hit harder.  Imagine two fighters, one very lean, and the other his identical twin but with 20 lbs. of added fat.  The fatter twin will be slower, but will have more body mass.  If both are able to use their weight in their strikes (i.e. aren't arm punchers), and the fatter twin isn't much slower, he will hit harder.  If the added weight slows down the fatter twin's strikes enough then that will overcome the advantage of the added mass.  Figuring out which really happens would take some interesting experimentation and some math, but we can safely assume that it's conceivable that the extra mass would help, at least some of the time.

Fatter fighters can take punishment better.  Don't believe me?  Kick a lean guy in the belly.  Then kick a fat guy in the belly.  If the fat guy isn't in bad shape - that is, if he has an adequate amount of muscle under the fat - the layer of fat will increase the time of the impact, decreasing the force (look up the equations for impulse to see what I mean, or take my word for it).  Think of it like a built in airbag.

Fatter fighters are going to be harder to move.  We use some techniques specifically to move another person around or disrupt their position - I'll sometimes use a front kick to create distance (push my opponent back).  The more your opponent weighs the less they'll move when you hit them.  It's also harder for them to move themselves, but that's another part of the story.

If you're not convinced, look at K-1.  The open K-1 class does not have weight divisions.  Many of the fighters in that class are kind of pudgy.  They might be in great shape in the sense of having good cardio, but they're not lean.  Now these guys are professional athletes, and I'm sure they train hours a day and work hard to gain every advantage they can.  Don't you think there's a reason so many of them have extra fat?  I have to think that, at least up to a point, the extra mass confers advantages to them in the ring.  It is equally obvious that there is a point of diminishing returns with this - if not, we'd see only super-obese fighters in the ring.  Too fat and you're too slow and have no wind.  Too lean and you might not have enough mass to maintain position in the ring.

Does this mean I think karateka should all leave the dojo and head to the donut shop?  Not exactly.  First of all, fat slows you down.  The more mass you have to move, the lower will be your acceleration when you do it.  That's simple physics.  So while extra fat may help you survive being hit, it will make it harder for you to avoid being hit, and fat doesn't protect a lot of the vulnerable parts of your body (head, pressure points, testicles...) 

Plus, while fat may help you hit harder, the fact that it slows you down means it will be harder for you to land those strikes.  I've seen some people who are great at working around this, using timing to land their techniques, but it's better to have speed you don't need than to be slow and eventually get stuck fighting someone where good timing isn't enough to hit them.

There are other compelling reasons to get and stay lean.  Extra bodyfat is unhealthy - it's pro-inflammatory, which leads to heart disease, diabetes, and a host of other problems.  Fat is hormonally active, which means that it reduces testosterone levels and raises estrogen.  This will impact your mood (make you feel relatively crappy) as well as making it harder to build and maintain muscle, train hard, and... lose fat.  Extra fat will also decrease your endurance, which will mean you can't train as long before becoming sloppy.  Being lean means extra quality training time which results in greater skill.  Being lean also looks better, if you care.

Does that mean I think you should get as lean as humanly possible?  Actually, no.  There is a point where the caloric restriction and hormonal effects of being really, really lean actually reduce performance.  People who do crossfit notice this - at a certain bodyfat level they actually do worse, despite the expected improvements from an improved power-to-weight-ratio.  Unfortunately, that level of a bodyfat is very low - you're probably not there yet.  If you don't have a sixpack or if any part of you is still moving when you jump up and down, you're not as lean as you should be.

Next time, I'll talk about how to get leaner if you're like 95% of Americans and need to lose some fat.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Does Your Dojo Need a Strength Coach?

In the earliest days of MMA competition the athletes pretty much came from a single discipline.  There were guys from kickboxing gyms, guys from jiu jitsu dojos (usually Brazilian), guys from boxing schools, guys from wrestling programs, etc.  The interest in MMA had a lot to do with answering the old martial arts question - if a tae kwon do guy fights a judo guy, who wins?  I wouldn't argue that those contests actually answered those questions - a lot of the result has to do with the rules of the contest (I still think Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is a lot less useful if groin strikes and eye gouges are allowed, but I could be wrong) and the actual competitors, but a lot of interesting information was generated anyway.

As the sport of MMA has progressed into a big money, high stakes endeavor, most of the athletes have moved away from that single instructor or single school model.  Modern MMA athletes may have a single-art background - say, they were wrestlers for many years - but they all train in a very cross disciplinary environment before reaching a high level of competition.  You just never see a guy win in MMA at a high level without, for example, training for many months in BJJ. 

The top MMA athletes may train at one facility or many, but they all have multiple coaches, one or more for each discipline in MMA (usually wrestling, submissions, and one or more striking arts), with often a head trainer overseeing the fight plan and training schedule and an additional strength & conditioning coach to make sure the fighter is in shape.  Why?  Simply because no one teacher knows enough to adequately prepare an MMA fighter for all the things that can happen in the cage.  And the good teachers all know that - does anyone think Lyoto Machida's father (an accomplished karateka) gets pissed that his son took BJJ lessons?  There's no way he'd be as accomplished a fighter as he is if he hadn't done that cross training.

The traditional martial artist is in a slightly different situation.  For example, I personally want to become as accomplished a karate practitioner as I can be.  My art includes some grappling (joint locks and throws), which I have to learn, but relatively little ground fighting, for example.  If I never learn ground fighting it will be fine with me.  So there is really no need for me to take BJJ or wrestling lessons.  Another student from my style might have other goals, and that's fine, of course, but I couldn't say that every traditional martial artist has to cross train in different martial disciplines.  You could argue that someone like me will never be a complete fighter without studying ground fighting, and maybe you'd be right, but that's okay - being a complete fighter is not my goal

So maybe not everybody needs to cross train.  But every person seeking to excel in any martial art needs to pursue a rigorous strength and conditioning program.  Why?  Because no matter what your art, it involves movement, and movement only happens when muscles contract.  For any given level of skill, the stronger and better conditioned those muscles are the better the technique will be.  Now someone with great skill may be better than someone who is stronger but with less skill, but if that person with great skill becomes stronger, they will get better than they were.

There are other benefits to good strength and conditioning.  A better conditioned person will sustain fewer injuries, leading to less time away from training, which will help them improve their skill level.  A better conditioned athlete will be able to train longer without fatiguing, leading to higher quality training and a higher skill level. 

Strength and conditioning training can be overdone.  There is an upper limit to how much hypertrophy a martial artist should have - huge biceps are probably not important to a martial artist and may be slightly counterproductive.  Strength and conditioning takes time and energy, which leaves you with less time and energy for skill development.  Anyone spending an hour and a half a day on strength training probably won't have anything left for becoming a better martial artists.  Strength and conditioning needs to be both specific to your art and efficient in terms of time and energy expenditure in order to be beneficial.  Your program has to do enough to optimize muscle strength in the right areas without compromising your skill training.

Here's the next question you should be asking:  Is my instructor qualified to both teach me proper karate technique and guide my strength and conditioning program in the most effective way?

Obviously, I can't answer that question for anybody else.  It is entirely possible that any particular karate instructor also happens to have the knowledge base to be an effective strength and conditioning coach.  However, those areas of knowledge are distinct.  Understanding good technique has very little to do with understanding those aspects of muscle physiology that inform good training practices. 

Think about the NFL, or any other professional sport.  All these teams have coaches to teach skills to players, but they hire a separate guy to do the strength and conditioning.  Why?  Because they want someone who has dedicated a lot of time to learning what there is to know about strength development. 

I think that your dojo should be the same.  If you have a head instructor who is up to date on the most current information on strength and conditioning, that's fantastic.  But very few people have the background or time to learn about S&C and still improve their technical knowledge in their art and their ability to coach effectively.  Instead, your instructor should have a S&C person either on staff or consulting with them to guide your strength development program.  That person should have input into class design (how much time should be allocated to different parts of training), warmup design, assessments of new students, exercise choice (not choosing skill development drills, but choosing schemes for conditioning exercises within the class) and so forth.

Just to complicate things more, your S&C guy (or gal) also needs a fairly extensive knowledge of your art.  Ideally, that person would be proficient in your art, but if not, they need to spend considerable time studying the way you move so that the program design can be appropriate.  This is no different from how S&C coaches work in any other field - guys who design programs for golfers spend a lot of times studying the specific movements and demands of golf so they can do a good job.

I imagine that different instructors would react to this suggestion in different ways.  Some might think that consulting another person on class design would violate the hierarchical nature of their art.  Some might welcome the chance to stay away from certain kinds of decision making, especially if their confidence in their ability to coach strength development is relatively low.

If you are a student of martial arts you may be in a position of being your own strength coach.  For example, if you have organized classes just once or twice a week, then you're in charge of your own conditioning program. If you're in class six days a week, then that's going to be the bulk of your physical activity.

If you are your own strength coach you have two choices:  do it yourself or find someone to help you.  If you want to get good results you will need good guidance.  That means either learning a lot of information about strength or finding a coach/trainer who can offer you quality programming.  Either way, make sure that your training is both efficient and specific to your needs and you'll be able to make the best progress in your chosen art. 

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Modeling vs. Coaching

There are two separate functions for a coach or instructor in the martial arts, modeling and coaching.  By modeling I don't mean posing in trendy outfits, I mean demonstrating - whether it be demonstrating proper technique, proper attitude, or proper intensity.  Coaching is also multifaceted.  Coaching entails structuring group workouts, directing progress (you need to work on X and Y, but not Z), and offering appropriate coaching cues to improve technique (keep your elbow down when your punch, etc.)

Both functions are important, but not equally important to every student at every time.  I remember thinking I was doing okay at a particular set of pre-arranged movements in my style (not kata, but something similar).  One day in class, by chance, I happened to be lined up next to a 4th degree black belt who trains with us on occasion.  He was half a step ahead of me and I noticed the way he was moving.  It's not easy to describe, but there was a quality to his movements that mine were lacking - they were forceful, dynamic, and very clear.  This was a pretty good example of modeling.  He wasn't showing me anything - I have no idea if he even noticed that I was there, or that I watched him, and he certainly wasn't trying to demonstrate anything - he was just going about his daily training.  That experience really motivated me to work harder, and probably gave me a little humbling that I needed. 

Examples of good coaching are, if anything, easier to catch.  Anytime your teacher taps you on the shoulder and tells you to keep your abs tight or mentions that you should work on a particular kata you're being coached.

The skills of coaching and modeling are very different.  Some people are more gifted than others.  They may move well without knowing "how" they move.  These people tend to be good modelers but are often mediocre coaches.  My best coaches have tended to be the least athletically gifted - they're the ones who had to intellectually break down every technique, every bad habit, every facet of movement, and they're often the ones who are best at verbally conveying that information.
The ideal combination would be to have a karate genius to watch, for modeling purposes, and a karate idiot (talent-wise) as your coach.  Scott Sonnon does a great job of selling himself this way. His entire pitch is that he's a guy with learning disabilities and a distinct lack of talent who had to learn techniques for developing himself into a great athlete - techniques he's willing to share with us.  I'm not necessarily a huge fan of his particular system (that's a topic for another blog), but I love the marketing thrust he uses.

Not every genius will be a bad coach - some geniuses, through working with less talented students, acquire excellent coaching skills.  But as a student you have to identify the strengths of your seniors and work accordingly.  If you think you're moving well, who can you watch at practice and compare yourself to?  If you are having trouble throwing a spinning kick, who is most likely to be able to pass on the cue(s) that you need to improve them?  If you don't know what to work on next, who is going to give you the best guidance?

In addition, coaching and modeling skills vary across techniques and areas.  The best kicker in class might not be the best puncher.  The person who can guide your technique might not know much about strength and conditioning.  And so forth. 

In the modern era good coaching is more important than good modeling.  Why?  Because you can see good karate on YouTube (along with lots of bad karate, of course).  Your coach has to work with you personally, which makes remote coaching very difficult (though possible - I can imagine a scenario where you send videos of yourself to a coach and get feedback, but I have to think that's less valuable than having a coach in class).    Unfortunately, it's harder to tell who is going to be a good coach.  You can see the quality of somebody's karate - which tells you how good they are at modeling - but assessing coaching ability takes a lot longer if you're trying to choose an instructor.

If you are yourself an instructor, you need to work very hard to assess and re-assess your own coaching ability.  Are you giving too many cues at once?  Are you providing feedback to your students?  Are you giving coaching cues in the right order (fixing big mistakes before little ones)?  Are your workouts structured properly?  Most importantly, remember that many of your students are probably less talented than you, and will need help with things that you mastered easily.  That is the downside of having talent.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Hero of the Week: Dorian Yates

Another post delayed by my vacation, sorry!

If you're not a fan of bodybuilding (and few of us are) you might be unfamiliar with the name Dorian Yates.  Yates burst upon the bodybuilding scene in the early 90's with a physique that was freakily dense and massive, outmuscled his competition, pushed Lee Haney into a quick retirement and proceeded to dominate the Mr. Olympia contest for the next six years.

I'm not actually a fan of Yates' physique or his look.  He was very impressive (and by accounts I've heard still is), but to me his look was a step backwards for the sport.  Why, then, is he my hero?

What I admire about Yates is the way he went about his training.  Rather than jumping into a program or lifting with his friends at the gym, Yates set his mind to be a bodybuilder.  Then he went to the library and learned about training, deciding to go with a heavy duty style (a Mentzerish training system, a subject for another post) despite the prevalence of volume based training, because the writings behind heavy duty impressed him as being more rational.

As his career progressed he adjusted his program, adding and taking away volume to solve problems with injuries and sticking points, all while staying close to his high intensity roots.   Unlike many current pros he was his own "guru" - designing his own training programs and carrying them out with absolutely brutal intensity.

The amount of planning and research he put into his training is what impresses me most, as well as his constant use of his own body as an ongoing platform for science experiments, his Olympia victories and injuries all contributing to the body of knowledge that let him dominate the sport for so long.  I might not like the way he looked, but I have to admire the work and thought that it took to get him there!