Thursday, October 28, 2010

A Primer on Intermittent Fasting

I've mentioned before that I practice intermittent fasting.  If you're familiar with the topic, you can probably skip this post.  If not (and many people aren't), I thought I'd write a brief introduction to the idea with some basic facts about what it is and why people do it.

We all sort of know what fasting means - it means not eating for a period of time.  Most people include an 8-12 hour fast nearly every day of their lives - when they sleep.  Some people talk about juice fasts or maple syrup fasts or "cleanses" - I don't want to discuss those too much other than to say that a juice fast or a syrup fast is like an eating program designed to give you type II diabetes as quickly as possible while cannibalizing as much muscle tissue as possible.  I can't imagine a quicker way to destroy your health and performance without using illegal substances.  When I talk about a fast, I mean something like a water fast.  In other words, eat no food (or very little food) and drink water, or possibly other low or zero calorie drinks.  For some people this means they'll include diet soda or tea or coffee, sometimes even with a small amount of cream or sugar - it has to be a very small number of calories.  I, for example, drink tea sweetened with stevia during my "fast," and I take some fish oil in the middle of it.  Otherwise no calories pass my lips. 

Intermittent fasting describes a lifestyle where someone periodically fasts.  I'd say that the fasts have to be longer than 12 hours - most people fast 12 hours a day (from after dinner until the next morning), so it doesn't make much sense to call that by a special name.  Fasting periods go from 16 hours (leangains) to 36 hours (ADF, or alternate day fasting, where fast from day 1 after dinner until day 3 breakfast).  Fasts longer than 36 hours are problematic because the chance of breaking down lean body tissue is too high.  Fasting frequency varies from daily (fast 16-22 hours; condense all eating into a shortened period, which is what I do) to weekly or even monthly (usually used with all day fasts from 24-36 hours).

Intermittent fasting is done primarily for two reasons: weight loss or health/longevity.  I'll talk a little bit about each.

Fasting for weight loss is a fairly simple idea.  To lose fat you have to establish an energy deficit - your body has to burn more energy than it uses.  People usually do this by trying to reduce their energy intake on a daily basis.  You can do the same thing with fasts - going periods of time each day or each week without eating.  Some find this easier to deal with - I personally find it easier to skip meals than to eat a small amount.  I'd rather just be hungry, and eat to satiation when I do eat, than graze all day.

Fasting for health/longevity is a more complicated issue.  Forget the cleanse myth that not eating will somehow help your bowels clear out fecal matter that's been stuck there for days or weeks - that's just not how your bowels work, as every surgeon knows.  On the other hand, periodic nutrient deprivation may force your body to do a whole bunch of things that improve health and extend life.  For example, when you don't eat your insulin levels tend to go down.  Insulin is pro-inflammatory and is implicated in a whole host of health problems.  Less insulin, less inflammation, less aging.  Another example is cellular autophagy.  Your cells accumulate junk organelles - damaged proteins and other molecules that don't do anything.  This junk is also implicated in the aging process - as the junk builds up the cells run less efficiently.  How do you force your cells to break down and clear out the junk?  Stop feeding them.  Without a flow of nutrients your cells will metabolize the junk for fuel. 

The science behind fasting for health/longevity is a lot weaker than that behind fasting for weight loss.  There is some evidence that fasting can reproduce some or all of the benefits of calorie restriction (which is pretty much the gold standard for extending life in anmials) without the drawbacks (loss of muscle and energy, lethargy, etc.)  I don't want to start quoting hundreds of studies here, but trust me that the evidence is mixed, but convincing enough for me.

At this point you might be somewhat interested but worried about all the things you've heard that are bad about fasting.  Let me guess - eating less often will screw up your metabolism, cause you rmuscles to waste away, kill your energy levels, make you miserably hungry, cause you to faint, and wreak havoc with your performance.  All untrue.  If you want, check out some of the sites I'm going to include at the end of this post to read up on the science.  Or, just think about this for a minute.  We evolved from hunter gatherers.  They often went periods of time without food - they didn't have refrigerators or supermarkets to shop at, and we know they weren't always successful in their hunts.  Do you think they evolved to pass out or waste away any day they didn't manage to get in 3 (or 4 or 5) square meals?  Do you think a species that got faint and weak at the first signs of hunger, right when they needed to be able to go out and hunt effectively, would be competitive biologically? 

I fast to help manage weight, to save time (I don't cook breakfast or lunch, and cooking a big dinner is not as time consuming as cooking three separate meals), and for longevity (I believe it will extend my life).  If I have a very hard day of physical activity planned - say, an 8 hour promotion or something - I'll snack during the day, but otherwise I train all the time without having eaten anything for 16-20 hours.  There was definitely an adjustment period when I first started this (which was about 3 years ago) but now there's no problem.

Fasting is absolutely one of those things that I recommend with reservations.  I believe it's good, but I find the evidence sketchy.  That just means the subject hasn't been explored fully, not that the idea is wrong.  As I learn more I'll share, through this blog, what I learn.  In the meantime, if you want to learn more check out some of these sites and resources:

The first stops:

For some more help:

I think I'm missing some, but that's a good start. 

Is Karate a Sport?

I have a habit of comparing karate to sports in this blog - or at least in my head - because a big part of the purpose of this blog is to provide the kind of strength and conditioning information to karateka that is already widely available to, and targeted towards, participants in major sports. It occurred to me that people might assume that I think karate is itself a sport, and so I figured I'd address the issue. Also because arguing about stuff like this is fun (at least to me).

When I was in high school an acquaintance of mine mentioned that he had practiced karate in junior high, but had stopped because he didn't have time to go to tournaments anymore.  He said something to the effect that there was no point in training karate if he wasn't going to compete.  I was horrified.  To me, he was missing 95% of what karate was about - a discipline, a way of life, a means of self defense.  He thought of karate as a sport.  Was he right?

In order to answer this question we have to start by looking at what the word "sport" means. Nothing fancy here - the meaning of a word is its use in the language. So rather than relying on some dictionary definition we can just look at the way English speakers use the word "sport." What sorts of things do we clearly regard as sports?

There are a number of activities that lie on the fringe of the meaning of sport, activities that lead to arguments regarding their sporthood. But there are also a large number of iconic examples of sport. The major ball sports come to mind - football, soccer, baseball, basketball, hockey (okay, not a ball sport, but the same idea), tennis, golf. Most of these are direct or indirect athletic competitions - competitors trying to achieve some goal while the other team (or player) tries to stop them or competing side by side (as in golf, where there really is no defense). Combat sports like boxing, wrestling, and MMA are also direct competitions. Then there are performance sports - events where athletic activities are judged, and those scores compared. Think figure skating, dance competitions, gymnastics. Bodybuilding is sort of a weird fringe case because what is judged onstage is the physique - which might be the product of an athletic endeavor, but isn't itself an athletic endeavor (sorry, posing doesn't count). We'll put that question aside for now.

So what about karate? Well, there are clearly karate competitions. Parts of those contests fall into both these categories. Sparring is a direct competition. Kata competitions are judged. You'd have a hard time, I think, arguing that sparring is not like a sport when boxing, fencing, and MMA are sports. Does that mean karate is a sport? Not so fast.

We should look at the scope and the history of the activity. Karate did not originate as a sport - it started as a means of self defense. The old masters did not get into rings and fight with rules and judges. Karate has plenty of techniques and aspects that have nothing to do with competition, due to their risks (eye gouging is part of karate but not a good idea when part of sport). Is that true of iconical sports? Is there any component of football that is unsuitable for football competition? Do people intentionally practice football techniques or moves that they wouldn't ever be able to use in a game of some kind? 

I think the question of whether karate is a sport is answered already. There are tournaments - that makes it a sport. In part. But think about what my friend from high school had claimed.  He thought of karate as only a sport - that there was no point to it without competition.  That's not the same as claiming that it has sporting elements.  If we re-phrase the question to say, "Is karate just a sport?" then we get a very different answer. 

Karate includes sporting elements but it also includes a rich series of elements outside of its position as a sport.  To practice karate but never compete would not be unusual; to practice tennis but never compete (play against another tennis player) would be extremely odd.  

If you're a sport karate person (someone who sees karate as only, or primarily, a sport) then that's great.  But karate practice is, for many of us, and I suspect especially for those of us practicing traditional arts, much more than a sport. 

What all of us can agree on is that karate is a disicpline of movement - if you saw someone whose karate practice consisted entirely of seated meditation I think you'd agree that while their practice may be very valuable to them it's not really karate (not to deny that seated meditation can or should be part of your practice).  Football, baseball, and dancing are also disciplines of movement.  The fact is that in our society (and I'm not being critical here) vast resources are poured into studying ways of making better football and baseball players - largely because there is competition.  If you have a kid who is a talented karateka, you send him to karate classes.  If your kid can throw a baseball really fast, you might send him to baseball practiace, then get dreams of big league money (or college scholarships) in your head and start sending him to special facilities that make big bucks over developing athletic potential.  Sure, there are karate competitions, but the money and status available aren't nearly big enough to drive an industry of support the way baseball and football are.

I talk about karate in the context of sport because in our culture sports are the systems of movement that have the most support and research around them.  There are lots of very smart people who spend all their time working to make better baseball players - because there's a lot of money in it (and because there's a lot of passion for baseball in this country).  Using the knowledge those guys generate - adapted to the specific demands of karate - can only make us better martial artists. 

There is another reason to study competitive sports, another reason (other than popularity, money, and passion) why sport often leads to innovation in training.  Competition does two things for athletes and coaches - it provides both motivation and feedback on their training.  Think of a strength coach in football.  He's going to be highly motivated to get the most out of his athletes - he wants to win on Sunday.  In fact, his job may depend on it.  Is he going to be more motivated than your karate instructor?  Not necessarily - but all your sensei really needs is for you to continue training with you.  You have to be satisfied that you're progressing - that doesn't mean you have to get the absolute best training possible.  If the football coach gives his players anything short of top notch training then they will lose on Sunday - instant feedback.

This post contains an unusually high degree of meandering, for which I apologize!  If anybody wants to argue the sport question feel free to post to comments.  Otherwise, keep training!  Osu.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Conflicting Goals and some link love

A couple of my favorite karate - related podcasts have resurfaced.  Check out Karate Cafe, which was on hiatus for a few years but is back again.  Basically a bunch of guys talking about their martial arts practice.  Also one of my all time favorites, the Applied Karate Podcast, is back.  Check it out. 

If you want some more info on paleo eating, including recipes and tips, a great way to start is the Paleo Rodeo, a feature put on a wonderful Paleo blog.  It's a list of links to hot paleo-related posts from the previous week.  Bookmark Modern Paleo and check through the Rodeo every Friday.  I'll put the link in myself, periodically.

Now a little bit about goals.

Programming errors (in exercise selection, training frequency, or nutrition) are often the result of poor understanding of specificity of adaption, but are just as often (if not more) the result of a failure to properly organize one's goals.  The classic example of the first situation is someone who takes up jogging in order to get better endurance for sparring.  That's a physiology mistake - long slow cardio will do very little to improve our endurance for high intensity activity.  But what about someone who wants to be both a better karateka and a better runner?  Say, someone who enjoys both karate and running for their own sake?  A karateka who wants to be a half decent marathon runner?

I personally have a difficult time empathizing with anybody who runs any distance at all for pleasure, but I've met some of these crazies and they seem sincere.  Dealing with this situation requires a couple of steps:
  1. Recognize and accept that if you chase two dogs you don't catch either one.  If you try to be both an endurance and a power athlete (and make no mistake, karate is a power endeavor, karateka are power athletes) you will never reach your maximum potential in either one.  If you're gifted enough you may end up being above average in both, but you won't be your best in either.  Sorry.
  2. Remember that although the training for running and karate are different they tax the body in some overlapping ways.  You can't just add a hefty running schedule on top of your karate practice and expect to recover fine from both.  You'll need to abbreviate the training for both or periodize them.  Consider doing heavy running for a few months, then taper to a once or twice a week running schedule and really focus on your karate.  Switch every few months or even weeks.
  3. If you can prioritize your goals you can simplify your life. Maybe running (or karate) just aren't that important to you. Maybe you just want to do enough running to make it through a half marathon once a year, or just enough karate to maintain some upper body strength.  That would be more manageable.
  4. Stay honest and transparent with yourself about what you're doing and why.   Don't try to justify either practice in terms of the other - your karate isn't really helping your running and your running isn't really helping your karate, unless your training for one of those disciplines really, really sucks.  You are doing both because you want to and that's okay.  Be who you are.
If you're lucky you'll have different goals that don't compete.  For example, I'm a little vain, and I want to be good at karate.  That works out well - training and eating to be better at karate happen to also be a pretty good way to look better.  If I was dedicated to high level sumo competition I might have a problem.  If my vanity was a higher priority than my karate I'd probably train a little differently, but not by a huge amount (you can imagine how - I'd do more sets for arms, more for abs, and spend more time posing in front of a mirror).

Be clear about what you want, then smart about how you go about getting it.  It's fantastically simple advice and something suprisingly few people manage to do well. 

Friday, October 22, 2010

n=1, An Offer and a Plea for Help

My goal in this blog is to provide a resource for martial artists (specifically strikers in external styles) to get cutting edge information about strength and conditioning training and nutrition specific to their art, and to a lesser extent provide a resource on fitness and diet for the general population.  Right now, I do this by culling information from a number of sources - books, DVD's, the internet.  I test the ideas using some basic logic (lots of the stuff people put out there just doesn't make sense) and by testing it out on myself.

There is an inherent risk in this approach - things that work for me may not work for other people.  For example, suppose that women respond to interval training in some unique way (which I'm pretty sure isn't the case, but bear with me).  I'd never discover that by training myself - I'm not a woman.  That's where you, the readers, come in.

If you enjoy this blog at all there are several things you might consider doing to help me with it.  The first is reading it - I track my page views somewhat compulsively, and I'm much more likely to stick to it if my reader base is larger than 0.  Comments are also good. 

If you're interested in doing more, I could use some help marketing the blog.  If you're active on some martial arts or fitness forum, put in a good word for this site.  Tell people in your dojo to check it out.  I'll be honest - I'm horrible at that sort of thing.  There's no excuse for that, but if anyone out there can drum up extra  page views that would be great. 

Beyond that, I could really use some guinea pigs test subjects clients for my training.  So here's my offer:

I will help anyone out there with their training.  I'll do program design, nutritional coaching, you  name it.  I don't mean teach you karate - that's not a good idea for a variety of reasons - I mean design your supplementary training.  You answer some questions - age, fitness level, goals, equipment access, etc., and I'll tell you what to do.  If you have any injuries or joint pain when doing regular training then I can't help you - you need to see a physical therapist before I can get you into shape.  The cost?  I won't charge any money, but I will want feedback - tell me what worked, what didn't, what problems you incurred. 

I'll use the information generated to drive the content of the blog.  I won't put anyone's name or personal specifics on the blog, but if, for example, a number of clients require more elbow mobilization than I usually use, I'll start recommending elbow mobilization in blog posts.  That's the kind of thing I'm looking for.

There is obviously a limit to how many people I could work with, but based on the readership numbers I'd be shocked if we got anywhere close to that.  So if you have questions or need some help, shoot me an e-mail (use my profile) and we'll get to work. 

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Stupid Motivational Tricks

There are many different sources people use for motivation, whether that be motivation for sticking to an eating plan or a training program or to quit smoking.  I have a tendency (and I'm sure I'm not alone) to separate these into "good" and "bad" motivations based on sort of moral grounds.  For example, take two people, Abe and Ben.  Abe has a mild heart attack at age 50 and, in order to extend his life and be around for his children, starts eating better (lots of saturated fat, low carb) and exercising more.  Ben is also 50 and developing the middle aged middle - a roll of unsightly fat around his belly.  He's married but has a hot secretary he's trying to sleep with.  He thinks his chance of doing so would be higher if he had a six pack, so he starts eating better and exercising more so he'll increase his chance of having an extramarital affair.  

Who has a better motivation?  Thank you English language for giving us words like "better" that have so many different meanings.  Well, I think we'd mostly agree that Ben is a bit of an ass as a person.  We have a tendency to respect Abe's motivations a lot more - his reasons are in line with a good, moral life, while Ben's are not.  But who will be more likely to be successful in improving their health?  That really depends on a lot of factors about both individuals.

My father died at a young age (58) of heart disease.  I did take a lot of motivation from that and increased my own activity level a lot to avoid the same fate.  But I've also taken a lot of motivation for working out and eating better from what amount to pretty stupid sources.  I'll list some examples.

We can start with vanity.  I don't see myself as overly vain, but lately I've been possessed by a fairly strong desire to have a six pack for a few fairly ridiculous reasons.  I want to put a picture of myself, looking lean and ripped, on this blog.  Sort of proof that I know what I'm talking about when it comes to diet and fat loss.  I want to be lean and muscular before I turn 40 (which is happening quite soon) for no other reason than to be lean and muscular when I turn 40.  I want to put one of those stupid vanity shots on my Facebook profile - you know, the kind taken by somebody in their bathroom mirror, with their face obscured by the flash - so all the people who've known me as a fat person (which I've been, my whole life) will say, "huh, Joe finally stuck to a diet."  These are all stupid reasons to go on a diet, as far as I'm concerned.  But they're working.

There's more.  I last ate grains on the day the finale of Lost aired.  You remember Lost, right?  Airplane crash, weird island, annoying characters?  Ended last May?  That was the last time I ate pizza.  Or bread.  Or a brownie.  Or a chocolate chip cookie (I ate them all during that finale).  Here's the thing: on June 1, saying I last ate grains on May 25th wasn't very cool.  Or impressive.  Now, however, it's getting to be.  And I know if I can hold out for, say, two more years, then it will be awesome.  "I haven't eaten grains since Lost was on the air."  "What?  Oh, you mean Lost that old TV show?  That ended years ago, dude!"  If I eat a slice of bread tomorrow, I will forever lose the ability to make that claim (unless I just start lying, and that seems like a bad plan.)  Stupid, right?  Well, again, it's kind of working for me.

My cousin Rachel started a blog about her weight loss journey.  Result?  She's thin now, for the first time in as long as I can remember.  There are, in fact, a ton of weight loss blogs where people post pictures of themselves regularly.  It makes them publicly accountable for the crap they shovel into their mouths - you can eat a half gallon of ice cream, but you'll be posting a picture of your fat behind on the internet for all your friends to see the next day.  Stupid?  Maybe, but it works.

I like watching martial arts related TV shows, reading fiction about martial arts, and watching cartoons about martial arts.  Why do cartoons sometimes motivate me to get out and train?  I have no idea.  Stupid?  Probably.  Does it work?  Sometimes it does.

Have an ex (girlfriend or boyfriend) you want to show up by running into them looking fabulous?  Have a superhero you want to be like?  Are you in denial about your age?  These are all things that can get you into the gym.  Would we be better human beings if we weren't susceptible to such base emotions?  Well, maybe.  But if we can harness those feelings for a good cause, and make no mistake fitness is a good and worthy goal, then what's the problem?

So don't try to force yourself to derive motivation from only clean, sensible places.  Put a picture of Bruce Lee up on your wall.  Watch Dragonball Z.  Read old Eric Lustbader novels.  Sign up to go to your high school reunion.  Put pictures of yourself in a bathing suit up on Facebook every Saturday, no matter what.
Sign up for a tournament in 4 months.  Buy expensive or nice clothes that are too small for you.  Bet a friend $500 that you can lose 20 lbs. of fat in 6 months - but pick a friend who will take the money if you fail.

Will all or any of these tricks work for you?  Probably not all.  But if lifting up your shirt and seeing abs gives you a little boost and makes it easier to say no to the chocolate cake they're passing around at work, then make sure to lift that shirt up every day!  Check yourself out in the bathroom mirror.  It's okay - it's not like vanity's a sin or anything, right? 

Just don't sleep with your secretary and blame me for ruining your marriage.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Karate Punch vs. Boxing Punch

This post is about one of those technical things that I realized a little while ago but isn't spoken about a whole lot.  I'm not sure if that's because it's incredibly obvious to everybody but me, or if it's spoken about a lot in areas I haven't looked, or if it's kind of esoteric.  Regardless, I'll post about it.  If this is absurdly obvious to everybody just post in comments how much of your time I've wasted.

Boxers, along with certain martial arts (systema comes to mind), have a very different method for throwing punches than karate does.  Look particularly at the shoulder.  A boxer is trained to raise the shoulder while punching - hunching the shoulder up towards the ear - to protect the jawline while punching.  You can see this taught on instructional DVD's, in books, and you can watch it in action in boxing matches.  The elbow is also lifted (this depends on the punch) - it points to the side or even slightly up (the way your arm turns when you're using a screwdriver to take out a screw - elbow pointed up slightly, shoulder rising) instead of down.

The traditional karate punch, on the other hand, is executed with the shoulder packed down (the lat tensed to keep the shoulder down in its socket), the elbow pointing down or mostly down, not up.  If you want to see this beautifully demonstrated, check out an iconic picture of Mas Oyama punching out a candle flame - his shoulders are pinned down, the chin tucked.  It's the way your arm would rotate to drive in a screw.

Why the difference in mechanics?  I think we can trace it back to the kinetics of a punch according to the two disciplines.  In boxing the image is of a thrown punch - the first/ forearm unit is hurled at the opponent.  At impact the damage is done by the fast moving fist - not by the torso or hips.  The hips twist at the beginning of the punch, to give it more initial velocity, not at the finish, to drive it through the opponent.  The punch is launched.  In karate, on the other hand, the punch is driven through the target.  At impact, the elbow, shoulder, and core tighten dramatically, dirrecting the rotational energy from the torso into (and through) the target.  The fist/forearm complex isn't a launched missile - it's the tip of a spear. 

If you doubt that the karate mechanics make a stronger connection between the fist and the hips, it's easy to test.  Stand up with a partner.  Hold your hand out in a fist like an extended punch.  Have your partner push back against your fist.  First try it with your shoulder up by your ear and your elbow pointed slightly upwards.  Next, repeat, but this time pack the shoulder down and keep your elbow pointed down.  I can guarantee your arm will collapse under much less pressure with the shoulder raised and elbow up.

How did this difference occur historically?  I'm not sure, but part of the motivation behind the karate mechanics is the history of training for punches on a makiwara, instead of a heavy bag.  The makiwara is like a spring - you hit it, and it bends and springs back.  If you hit it hard but don't sustain the pressure after the impact the makiwara will knock you backwards.  A heavy bag, on the other hand, just absorbs impact.  It won't spring back at you (it might swing away and swing back, but people don't hold their fist against the bag long enough for that to knock them on their butts).  If you need that kind of sustained force following your punch you'll never get it with boxing mechanics.  If all you're concerned about is the impact, then that's another story.

Which set of mechanics is better?  That's a question I wrestle with.  Figuring out which leads to harder hits isn't straightforward.  The physics are beyond me - too many variables I can't quite figure out.  Looking for hard hitters doesn't help.  Many of the hardest hitters in sports (Fedor Emelianenko, anyboy?) use boxing mechanics - but that might be a result of glove use or just the fact that most sport fighters study boxing, and they would hit even harder using karate mechanics.  Karate mechanics seem safer for the shoulder joint (which is strongest when packed, instead of raised).  Bruce Lee used karate mechanics for his punching. 

Take home point:  you should at the very least be aware of the fact that there are at least two competing views of how to punch properly.  If you're reading books on technique or studying fighters, you can't always apply their advice to what you're doing.  If you try to punch both ways simultaneously the result won't be pretty.  If you can't decide, go with whatever your style teaches.  I train the karate style - I suspect it's better, but I can't work out enough of the math to be certain.

To do the "karate mechanics" punch, tense the lat so your shoulder stays down - imagine you're trying to keep your shoulderblades (scapulae) in your back pocket.  I like to imagine squeezing the punch out of my armpit.  Your hips don't twist at the start, to launch the punch, they twist during and at the end of the punch, to transmit the kinetic energy of the torso into the target.  If your hips twist at the start then by the time the punch lands your torso isn't moving anymore - which means the energy is lost.

Caveat:  I call the packed shoulder - elbow down - body as one unit - method the "karate method" - I don't mean to say that all karate styles must punch that way or that it's more authentic.  It's simply the method taught in the karate styles I'm familar with.  If your style teaches the other style, I have no problem with that.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Committment in the Face of Ignorance

This will be a recurring theme in this blog: there's a lot I don't know.

Now, to be fair to myself, I know a lot more than I used to, which is good - I'm making progress.  To be fairer even yet, there's a lot that nobody knows, no matter what they may think or say.  For example, suppose you want to get in the best possible condition for sparring as quickly as possible.  Which methodology is best?  Well, we do know interval training is going to be better than, say, long slow distance (like jogging several miles).  But... which type of interval exactly?  Which exercise?  What kind of rest periods?  We're all pretty sure that those answers will depend on your current fitness level (if you're woefully out of shape your needs probably won't exactly match those of an elite athlete) but if anybody tells you they're certain you need to do tabatas (20 s work/ 10s rest, repeated 8X) and nothing else will work as well - they're lying.  They don't know that for you, 18 s work/ 12 s rest repeated 10X might not be just a little better, or worse. 

Many people won't admit this.  They either believe that they have all the answers or that some guru or set of gurus has all the answers.  Keep an eye out for this tendency - you'll hear things like "this has worked for me for years," or, "this is the traditional way to do things," or, "it was good enough for X, so it's good enough for us."  There are advantages to this attitude.  Certainty is very comforting.  I sometimes wish I could believe that I knew it all - I'd probably be happier, if not more fit.  But I'll assume that, as a reader of this blog, you aren't inclined to that kind of stick your head in the sand blindness, that you recognize how much you don't know.

There are two basic existential responses to recognizing how much or how little you know.  The first is to stop acting until we feel we do know something.  In other words, sit on your behind until you've figured out the perfect training system.  After all, if you don't know exactly what works, why should you do anything?  This is often called paralysis by analysis.  The error made here is in the comparison.  The person in this example does nothing because he doesn't know which training protocol is best among various protocols.  The real question he should ask is, "do we know if any of those protocols are better than doing nothing at all?"  And the answer to that, of course, is yes - even bad training is usually better than no training.  Jogging isn't a great workout, but it will do more for your sparring than watching Jersey Shore reruns. 

People make similar errors in diet.  They can't decide if they should go paleo or vegan - so they eat McDonald's Happy Meals every day.  Know what?  Eating whole, unprocessed foods - even vegan foods - is better than Happy Meals.  Don't let your search for the perfect diet prevent you from making small, positive changes.

The second, and in my mind more rational, response to recognizing how limited our knowledge is, would be to act on the best of what we have while keeping an open mind.  This is kind of tricky.  Why?  Because you have to both commit wholeheartedly to a training or eating plan while being constantly willing to ditch it in light of new information. 

How do we manage to do this?  You have to walk the fine line between two notions:  how much better what you're doing is than what you used to do (or than nothing), and remembering that a better plan or new information may be just around any corner. 

Hey, if success was easy everyone would have it.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Seasonal Variations in training

I forgot to mention one important way to mix up your training in the last blog post: make your training seasonal.  What do I mean?  Well, depending on where you live and your personal health situation, you should spend some part of your training life outdoors.  This can be your backyard, a playground or park, the beach, or any open field.  I do less of this than I should, both because I'm lazy and because I have some pretty serious allergies that make exercise on a grassy field pretty hazardous.  But do as I say, not as I do!

During whatever season you can exercise outside (probably summer if you live in Buffalo, NY but winter if you live in Ft. Myers, FL) work sprints, kettlebell juggling, and general outdoor training into your routine.  Throw your kettlebell into your car and hit the playground - preferably one with those cool new wave monkey bar setups with parallel bars and chinup bars and so forth.  You can get a fantastic workout with just those - there are a couple of groups out of New York that put up great videos on YouTube with bodyweight workouts done on playgrounds (I can't remember the name...  sorry).  Do some sprint workouts - keep your distance to under 100 yard, maybe even under 50.  You'll get a nice variety in your training, some stress relief from being in the great outdoors, and a little boost of Vitamin D while you're at it.

Some people use the seasons to periodize the overall goals of their training and nutrition as well.  Suppose you have a long term goal of adding more muscle mass - not just a few pounds, but a substantial amount of lean bodyweight.  You can try to stay very lean while adding that muscle, but many (if not most) people find it hard to add any appreciable muscle without adding a little bit of fat along with it.  In other words, you have to go through cycles - add weight (hopefully mostly, but not all, muscle), then lean out (hopefully losing mostly, but probably not only, fat).  Over time your lean body mass should spiral upwards while your bodyfat should stay relatively low, at least on average.

When should you do this?  I don't know if there's any overriding physiological reason to do this, but a popular method is to "bulk up" over the winter months and then "lean out" in the spring.  Why?  Well, it's so you'll look good with your shirt off.  Not exactly rocket science, but unless you're completely immune to the effects of vanity you'll enjoy being lean during swimsuit season, adn being happy with yourself is motivation.  Then bulk up over the winter, when everything is covered up anyway.  You'd modify your training as well as your diet - perhaps doing more heavy, barbell oriented lifting during the bulking phase and more endurance training and GPP (general physical preparedness) work while leaning out.

By the way, I'm not a big fan of the serious bulking phases that some people advocate, where they eat everything under the sun and put on huge amounts of weight.  It's one thing if you're looking to move up a weight class as a powerlifter or compete in strongman events, but as a martial artist you should never gain a really large amount of weight in a short time.  It's not healthy and it's not conducive to your art. 

Take home message: change things up in your training every six to eight weeks, and take advantage of whatever is available to you when you do it, which means that at some times of year the whole world can be your gym!

Monday, October 11, 2010

6 Week Cure for Stagnation

Progressive resistance is a fantastic idea.  It basically says that in order to get stronger just add a little weight to the bar each time you're in the gym.  Add some weight, lift it, and your body adapts to the newer strength requirement by getting stronger.  Fantastic!  Keep adding a pound or two to the bar at each and every workout and everyone can have a 1,000 lb. bench press in, at most, 20 years.

We all know that as important as progressive resistance is, it just doesn't go on forever.  You can't simply continually progress, at least not without some kind of artifiical enhancement.  Instead, most trainees find that this system works great for a limited time - depending on the person - and then they stall.

Dan John said in his book that any program will work for about 6 weeks and no program will work for much longer than that.  I don't think either Dan or I have any convincing scientific evidence to support that 6 week timeframe, but it seems about right.  You should assume that the gains from your strength training program will fall off after 6 weeks or so and plan to overcome that.  How?  By changing your program.

What should you change?  I'd suggest varying your exercises, equipment used, rep ranges, and volume every 6 weeks or so.  If you'd rather go 8 weeks, fine, if you'd rather change after 5, go ahead, but give yourself enough time to get something out of a program before you mix it up.  Don't abandon an exercise after just a week or two - you won't give yourself time to learn it well enough to get stronger from it.

Try a 6 week bodyweight only routine.  Or kettlebell only.  Do 6 weeks of heavy barbell training (squats, deadlifts).  Do 6 weeks of low reps and lots of sets, then higher reps and fewer sets.  Try some explosive movements.  Switch from double leg moves to single leg moves.

There are good reasons to switch things around other than just avoiding stagnation.  No single exercise selection or rep scheme or loading scheme addresses every aspect of fitness or strength.  If you only do single leg exercises you're never loading your spine with much weight.  If you only do double leg exercises you're not hitting the lateral hip stabilizers... ever.  Every exercise will tax your muscles in a different way.  Over the long haul, you want to be as well rounded as possible, just so you can prevent injuries.  The same idea goes for the damage done by movements.  If a particular movement wears on your joints in a particular way, if you do it every workout for year after year the cumulative trauma will cause an injury.  Giving the joints a chance to recover by swapping out the exercise every so often will give your body a chance to heal.

Don't forget that there are also psychological benefits to changing your routine.  New routines are fun - designing them, picking exercises, and so forth.

One caveat:  Try to hit the major movements with every routine.  Unless you're battling an injury, always include some kind of squat or squatting movement, some upper body push and upper body pull, and some core stability training.  That still leaves you with lots of choices to make about how you'll hit all those aspects of training!

Friday, October 1, 2010

An Ode to Anterior Pelvic Tilt

Look at sprinters, lean and mean,
None need belts to hold up their jeans;

Contrast with the sight of a plumber's crack,
Surely an unpleasant view from the back;

I say, tilt your pelvis to the back,
But won't that put the spine out of whack?

Never fear, your spine's meant to curve,
From the side it wiggles and swerves;

Use your glutes, not your quads, they're your biggest muscles,
I tell the truth, this is no hustle!

So tilt your pelvis, stretch those glutes,
You'll quicken your movement, sabaki, and shoots!

First, I apologize for the poem. 

Next:  what is anterior pelvic tilt, you ask?  Okay, stand up.  Put your hands on your hip bones - just below and to the sides of your belly button.  Now kind of arch your lower back a little and try to stick your ass out.  It may help to turn your knees inward (to get the feeling).  That's anterior pelvic tilt.  Next, turn your knees out and tuck your ass under you.  If you're a guy it's the way you'd stand to pee in the woods - imagine you're trying to push your crotch forward ahead of you.  That's posterior pelvic tilt.  When your pelvis is sort of in the middle - tilted neither way - that's neutral

Now let's start off by being clear:  too much pelvic tilt in either direction isn't safe.  Extreme tilt puts the spine into a compromised position and I'm not recommending it.  Unfortunately, I can't give you specific parameters.  If you feel discomfort you've probably gone too far.  If you have lower back pain you've definitely gone too far - see a doctor or a physical therapist.

In karate the traditional advice is to adopt some posterior pelvic tilt.  Proper form for most stances includes "tucking" the pelvis under.  The usual explanation is that this straightens the spine or engages the anterior core (the core muscles in the front of your body).  I think this is a mistake. 

Look at some good athletes for a minute.  Sprinters, Olympic weightlifters, even the most athletic fighters in MMA (George St. Pierre and Anderson Silva come to mind) - the guys who are best at moving around the cage.  Now check out their hips (and I promise I mean this is the most non-sexually suggestive way possible).  What do you see?  They all tend towards anterior, not posterior, pelvic tilt.  Their glutes stick out.

As for the spine, your spine is supposed to curve.  This myth that you'll gain health or mechanical efficiency is based on the idea that your discs are flat, but two minutes spent with a model of a skeleton will show you that they're not.  The discs are slightly wedge shaped, which means that for them to maintain optimal alignment the spine has to be curved the right amount.

So if we assume that some pelvic tilt is safe, why should we encourage an anterior tilt?  What difference does the tilt it make?  To answer that we need to keep in mind that motion at the hips is governed by a whole bunch of muscles.  The glutes, hamstrings, quads, and a host of other muscles work in concert to move the hip.  Changing the angle of the pelvis will change the relative contribution of these muscles. 

You can feel this happening.  Find a staircase.  Climb the stairs two, three, or four at a time, depending how tall you are.  Try doing a flight or two with your pelvis tucked under into posterior tilt.  Feel where the strain focuses.  Then climb a flight or two with yoru pelves stucking back - anterior tilt.  You should feel the thighs (quads) working a lot more with posterior tilt and the glutes more with anterior tilt.  This is because anterior tilt slightly stretches the glutes, giving them a little extra purchase on the femur. 

Simply put, anterior pelvic tilt results in increased use of the glutes.  Why is that good?  The glutes are bigger, stronger, and safer as the engine of movement than the quads and hamstrings.  When the glutes contract the spine is protected and you move faster.

Want another simple experiment?  Move forward and backward in front leaning stance (zenkutsu dachi).  Take a few steps with each tilt - posterior, then anterior.  Do the movements quickly, like you're really trying to drive into somebody standing in front of you.  See which style gives you more speed.

There is another reason to maintain anterior pelvic tilt.  When kicking to the side and high (as in a roundhouse or side kick to the chest or head) you might, depending on your pelvic structure, limit your range of motion because the knobby thing that sticks out of the top of your femur hitting against the bones of the pelvis (I did NOT major in anatomy).  If you tilt the pelvis forward there is space for the head of the femur to slip behind the bone and you can kick higher.  It's easier to feel this or see it than to read about it.  Try to drop down into a full split with your pelvis tucked, then tilt it back and try again - you'll feel how the bones sit differently in the hips.

Want another experiment?  Get into a fighting stance.  Slightly tilt the pelvis to the anterior.  Move around.  If you don't feel any difference, try some glute activation exercises and do it again.

Another argument in favor of anterior pelvic tilt is this:  it's sexy.  How is that relevant, you ask?  Well, it might be sexy by accident, or it could be that millions of years of evolution drove  us to find sexy those traits that correlate with physical health and athleticism.  Basically, all else being equal, a more athletic mate has a better chance to bear healthy children and keep them safe and provided for.  So we'd be unlikely to find anterior pelvic tilt sexy if it didn't correlate with athletic ability.

To be honest, this is one of those recommendations that falls under the "not sure about and willing to be proven wrong" umbrella (along with intermittent fasting and explosive training, if you're keeping score).  I know it works for me - I can feel the difference in my movement when I maintain a slight anterior tilt. 

Try it out, next time you're sparring or doing forms.