Thursday, December 23, 2010

Happy Holiday! Training while Traveling

I don't know how much I'll be posting over the next week and a half due to some holiday traveling.  I wish you all a happy holiday, if a holiday you happen to celebrate is coming up soon!

Don't forsake training just because you're traveling.  There's lots you can do in short bursts of time without equipment:
  • Get your dynamic stretching in.
  • Do pistol and one handed pushup ladders - do 1 for each arm or leg, then 1 for the other, then 2 for each limb, then 3, then 4... until you can't do anymore.  Then start again with 1.  Do 3 or 4 rounds of the whole thing.
  • Shadowbox for 20 second rounds. 
  • Get into as wide a horse stance as you can and isometrically tense your adductor muscles (squeeze the ground between your feet).  Relax and sink into a deeper stretch, then repeat.  
  • Jump as high as you can.  Land (important!).  Repeat.
  • Practice spinning kicks until you fall over.
  • Do 10 burpees.
  • Try clapping push-ups.
If you can find a pull-up bar, or monkey bars in a playground, do some chinups or pullups.

Don't even try to get in 20 or 30 minute workouts - try to get 1-2 minutes total, but do it as often as you can.  Every time you go to the bathroom knock out a few pistols.  Now if you can get to an open space, a gym, and have some real time, by all means do a full workout, but if you're with friends and/or family and it's not going to happen do something.  You may not improve your strength or conditioning, but you'll prevent yourself from losing ground, and you'll help shift any excess calories you're taking in from fat into muscle.  A total of 20 minutes of work spread over a week can actually make a big difference in how much you lose over your vacation.

Above all, enjoy!  Having a social life is one of those markers that correlates really well with longevity and health.  Hanging out with people you care about is probably more important for your well being than any workout you could do.

Just don't let them con you into eating gluten!  You can hang out with your friends without eating like them.  Drink more tequila instead.

In case I don't post anything in the next week, Happy New Year!


Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Before and During Photos

May 2009
December 2010

I promised before and after shots by Christmas - a promise I am now regretting, I assure you - but I'm a man of my word, so here they are.

I'm nowhere close to where I want to be, so I refuse to call these before and after photos, but I'm okay with before and during.  I'm in the midst of my transformation, it's not over. I hope!

The before shot is from May 2009, and you're going to have to take my word for the fact that I probably looked mostly the same in March 2010.  Basically, in May 2009 I decided to photograph myself every day, and hopefully lean out and have a very nice photographic display of the process day by day.  Well, that was a great idea but it didn't work out.  I don't even remember what happened, but I kept eating crap and stopped photographing myself.  I have about a week's worth of pictures and then nada.

So the changes in these pictures mostly happened between May 2010 (when I gave up gluten for good) and December 2010.  I've had some obstacles - injuries, sugar addiction, kids, and various other issues, nothing much more than anybody else out there who's trying to lose weight.

How'd I do it?  Paleo diet.  Intermittent fasting (I eat 1 big meal a day, at dinnertime, and that's mostly it).  Strength training twice a week, 25 minute each.  Karate 3 times a week, either class or training on my own at Bally's.

If you think I look pretty good, or at least a lot better than I used to, then thanks!  If you find yourself unimpressed, then I understand, but let me plead my case:

  1. I turn 40 in 3 weeks.
  2. I've been fat my whole life - this before picture isn't a guy who just let himself go suddenly, it's a guy who's been chubby and fighting it for 25+ years.  It's a lot easier to lose fat and gain muscle the first time you diet and start an exercise program than it is after 25 years of trying and failing to get lean.
  3. I didn't use any of the tricks that can enhance an "after" picture.  No Photoshop, no tan, no shaving (obviously), no special effort to dehydrate.  In fact, I haven't worked out in several days - I hurt my ribs and haven't been able to train (though I doubt it would have made any difference).
  4. I'm not a model.  I'm not trying to convince you that I'm worthy of the cover of Men's Fitness, just provide evidence that a certain style of training and eating can give decent results to a busy, regular, older guy without a lot of genetic advantages without taking up a huge amount of time or money.
I think that's the major point - #4 - that my physique is proof that you can make progress without doing a crazy amount of training.  My diet may be strange, but it isn't particularly hard to follow - I'm not hungry all the time or anything, I'm not doing 2 hrs. of cardio a day, I don't take any weird drugs.  These results, and better, are attainable by regular people.

Probably 75% of the reason for me to post these pictures is that I said I would, which has helped motivate me to stick to my diet the past few months.  In that spirit I'm going to try to repeat this post every month or so with fresh pictures.  Hopefully I can make some progress.  Maybe this summer I'll get a tan, so you won't be blinded by the glare off my chest.

Please comment if you wish.  I'd ask you to be kind, or gentle, but I think when you post pics like these online you have to be ready to be eviscerated , so consider me braced.  


Technique Training Misfires

New rodeo is out; check it out.  Lots of fun stuff.

I think we got the Pro MMA Radio link fixed.  Go over to the banner on the right and click on it to listen to the show while you read my post!  It's my absolute favorite source for MMA information, both entertaining and informative.

I was reading a book the other day (Bone Crossed by Patricia Briggs).  It's an urban fantasy novel, not a martial arts based book.  The main character happens to train in karate (again, not a major theme of the book) and is taking a class.  The instructor has the class warm up, spar, and finish up by doing 300 side kicks out of horse stance - per leg.  300.  The character (the book is a first person narrative) thinks that for the better, more focused students, the 300th kick looks just like the first one, but that she's too tired to manage that.

You know what it means if you can do 300 kicks in a row and have the 300th kick look like first one?  It menas your kicks suck.  Sorry to break it to you, but it's true.

A really great kick is very fast, very sharp, and very snappy.  Why?  Because kicks are meant to damage your opponent.  A slow kick, even if your weight is behind it, might push your opponent away (which might be your intent sometimes), but won't do as much damage as a faster kick, even if the faster kick has less weight behind it.  Think of this analogy - would you rather be hit by a train going 1 mph or a baseball going 100 mph?  The train has more momentum and more kinetic energy, but I think we all know all the train would do is knock you back a step, while the baseball might kill you.  The greater the difference in speeds at collision the greater the energy transfer will be.

So you want your kicks to be snappy.  That means you want to use fast twitch muscle fibers, and a lot of them.  Fast twitch fibers are the ones that produce the most force in the shortest time.  They're also quick to fatigue. 

If you can do 300 kicks at the same pace you're not using most of your fast twitch fibers to do the first kick.  If you were, they'd be exhausted early in the session and your kicks would be slowing down considerably.  So to maintain a near constant pace you have to either have trained your legs to be mostly slow twitch fiber or you are only utilizing a small percentage of the fibers for any one kick, giving the majority of fibers time to recover as you cycle through them. 

Which means that your kicks suck.  Or at least they suck compared to what you would be capable of if you trained properly.

If you train to throw 300 straight kicks your body will adapt - it will change your leg fibers to slow twitch fibers and your nervous system will "learn" not to use too much muscle at once or move too fast.  You'll get good at doing long sessions of kicking.  But your first kick won't get faster or stronger - it will get slower and weaker because your body is learning to conserve energy.

How do we get kicks (or any technique) that don't suck?  When you practice anything practice it at absolute maximum speed and power.  Then stop before you get too tired.  Convince your body that it needs to be quicker and stronger, not last longer.  Do 10 kicks per leg, or 20, taking nice deep breaths and resting as much as you want between kicks or legs.  Ideally, throw a few kicks per leg, over a few different kicks, all at full power, and repeat this several times each day.  Never, or rarely, kick when tired or slow. 

How do you get in shape, then, if your kicking (and punching) sessions are too brief to challenge your cardiovascular capacity?  I'm glad you asked.  By all means do some high intensity interval training, but do it at the end of your workout and use non-karate movements.  Do burpees, power snatches, sprints, squat thrusts, or swings for your conditioning.  That way you'll develop mitochondrial capacity in your leg muscles and the heart and lung adaptions you need without messing up your skills.

I practice kicks and punches daily in my office, throwing 4-12 punches and 8-20 kicks at a time (which probably takes a minute or less).  A couple of times a week I head to the gym and do a bunch of kata (which I can't do in my office) and finish the workout with burpees.  That's how you stay fast (or, for me, relatively fast - I'm still slow, just faster than I used to be) and keep in shape enough that you don't fade during long classes, sparring sessions, or promotions.


Thursday, December 16, 2010

Moderation, the 80-20 rule, and a painful analogy

Sitting on the fence gets you a sharp wooden stake unpleasantly inserted into your rectum.

There are many voices for moderation in diet. I can't tell you how often I've heard and read statements like, "there are no bad foods, only foods we eat too much of," or, "everything in moderation is the key to health," or, "just eat a balanced diet." I was proselytizing the paleo diet to some people I know just a couple of weeks ago over dinner (which I don't recommend, as it both makes you an asshole and rarely makes any difference to the people you're arguing with, but sometimes I can't help it) when one of the people at the table piped up with "just don't overdo anything." Don't get me wrong - the speaker is a great guy - but it's not good advice. And it's not limited to lay people. Dr. Cordain's book made a big point out of recommending we eat strictly Paleo 90% of the time. Mark Sisson argues for paleo eating 80% of the time. Everywhere we turn we hear messages promoting moderation.

Well, mine is not one of those voices. Whenever I hear someone advocate eating a moderate amount of grain (just one piece of pie; just a couple of cookies on your birthday) I compare it to someone smoking just one vial of crack, getting stabbed just once or twice in the heart, or taking just one steel-toed boot to the crotch.

Why do I react so strongly? Let me be clear - wheat has an opiate-like effect on the brain. I'm perfectly willing to admit that this may vary in intensity across individuals, but I am absolutely convinced that it works on me. You can argue with me all day about gluten and how well we have or haven't adapated to it, but the bottom line for me is that wheat is a drug. I never feel better than I do after eating a bunch of cookies or bread or pizza (and no, it's not the carbs or sugar, because I can eat an equivalently large amount of ice cream or french fries or chocolate without anything like the same effect). I feel so good that I instantly want more of it, and I end up eating waaay too much. Yes, enough that I needed to put 3 'a's in waaay.

There is no moderation for me with wheat any more than there is moderation for alcoholics and beer or compulsive gamblers and bets. Eating wheat in small amounts or sticking to a wheat free diet 80% or 90% or any % other than 100% of the time simply doesn't happen. Can I eat rice that way? Actually, yes. Ditto for potatoes. But not wheat.

Am I saying that wheat is similarly problematic for you? Not exactly - I have no idea. Maybe you're not sensitive to carbs, but are prone to alcoholism. Maybe there are no items to which you are prone to addiction. If so, great for you.  But I bet that more people, at least Americans, have near compulsive relationships with food than not.

So if you're like me in some way - addiction prone to something or other - don't listen to the voices urging moderation. Go zero tolerance on that problem. Go 80's action movie on it.  Declare war.  Decide for yourself to never, ever, as long as you live, ever again eat wheat, or sugar, or drink alcohol, or look at kiddie porn... whatever gives you trouble (I hope it's not kiddie porn).  Do it. If anyone tells you that it's okay to have just one slice of toast or one sip of beer, kick them in the nether regions with all your might. Or politely decline. It's up to you.

Why do so many authority figures (everyone from doctors to diet book authors to online bloggers) keep advising moderation? Mostly it's a complete lack of balls - balls they don't have or that they don't think you have. They tell you to stick to a diet mostly because they don't think you'd be willing to go 100%. They think you, the reader, would shy away from any recommendation to give up wheat forever, without exception, and instead follow the advice of some more moderate author. They're not willing to tell you the truth - that you probably need to be just as vigilant about grains or sugar as an alcoholic has to be about booze. They're not willing to challenge you. I am (largely because I'm not selling anything, and so have relatively little at stake).

Now there are a few places where moderation actually does make sense. There is no reason to think that anybody gets any benefit from even the smallest amount of grain. But what about alcohol? I'm willing to concede that, for non-alcoholics, moderate amounts of alcohol might be beneficial where larger doses are not. Caloric excess is another example - occasionally overindulging in food is probably good for your body (as is occasionally underindulging). I'll buy moderation in sun exposure as well.

But when you know a food is bad for you, rethink moderation. Look back over your personal history and ask yourself whether giving in to the urge to eat cookies or cake or whatever made it easier or harder to resist at the next meal, or the next day, or the next week. There's a popular psychological model that makes us think that needs or cravings are like steam in a kettle - that you have to "let them out" (i.e. indulge them) every so often, and if you don't the "pressure" will build and build and become unbearable. Does that really match your experience? I know it doesn't match mine. I've been wheat free for over 6 months and diet soda free for 3 months and the hardest periods of time with both were immediately going cold turkey - not months later, after some imaginary build up of pressure.  It's easier for me now than it was (though it's still not easy, and any day now I might fall off the wagon).

For the sake of your own long term health, give up on the idea that moderation is a virtue and embrace the cold, harsh reality of a zero tolerance approach to dietary infidelity.  Cheat on your diet the way you'd cheat on your spouse - the right amount of cheating is no cheating (at least, the way I hope you'd think of cheating on your spouse).  Say no to moderation and say no to getting moderate, average results from your diet and exercise programs.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Metabolism Myth(s)

There are a couple of myths - in separate categories - that I see promulgated in the fitness community and popular consciousness related to metabolism.  I thought it worthwhile to take a moment to clear them up.

Without getting overly technical, what we mean by "metabolism" is the calories burned by your body at rest - otherwise called Basal Metabolic Rate or Resting Metabolic Rate.  These things may not be exactly the same but they're close enough for our purposes. 

Basically, even if you sit on the couch and watch TV all day, your body burns bunches of calories just keeping your heart and lungs going, your body temperature normal, and maintaining itself.  This sounds like a great thing, right?  Calories burned means they're not being stored as fat.  So everybody and their mom wants a super high metabolism, which means your body is like a little furnace burning energy, and you can eat tons of food without getting chubby.

There are two general myths regarding metabolism:

1.  Eating food X or doing Y will elevate your metabolic rate.  This isn't always wrong, but it is usually wrong or overstated.  Stimulants (caffeine, green tea extract, and so on) might elevate your metabolism but only a little bit and only for a little while (you get used to them quickly).  Otherwise all coffee drinkers would be thin, and we can see that's not true.  Eating multiple meals a day won't work either - you get an energy burning effect from food (called TEF), but it's proportional to meal size, so splitting your bigger meals into smaller, more frequent meals will do all of jack for your caloric burn.

Vigorous exercise will elevate your metabolism as your body repairs itself, but it's not an enormous increase.  Would burning an extra 50 or 100 calories be nice?  Sure, but that's what, half a Twinkie's worth of calories?  It's not exactly a licence to eat junk food.

There are supplements that will significantly elevate your metabolic rate, but they tend to have serious side effects - thyroid hormone among them.  I am far from an expert on the use of pharmaceutical substances to aid fat loss, but they're out there and your nearest pro bodybuilder is probably using them.

Here's the bigger myth:

2.  Raising your metabolic rate is unequivocally good.  This isn't so much something people say as what they imply.  Marketing campaigns for various products will often tout how good they are for your "metabolism."  Diets do the same thing.  A particularly egregious exampe is the High Everything Diet (I won't provide a link because it's crap, but feel free to google it).  The HED advocates say that by eating a certain way - lots of starch, protein, and fat but no juice or artificial sweeteners - you can elevate your metabolism and eat tons of food while losing bodyfat.

Here's my question:  even if they're right (and I don't think they are), would that be a good thing?  Do you want your cells churning away, burning tons of energy more than you need, sucking calories away from your system?

Think about a car engine.  What happens when two identical engines ar run at different rates - one faster than the other?  Outside of a pretty narrow range you can count on the higher-revving engine blowing up quicker than the other one.  Trust me, Formula One engineers don't turn the revs up when they think their engine might be on its last legs.  All those processes in the cell that burn energy - what else do they do?  They result in some damage to the cell, even if it's a small amount, as they oxidize all those lovely fats and carbs to generate ATP.  I'm sure there are few short term consequences to this, but over the course of a lifetime of wear and tear, do you want your cells working hard or gently when you're at rest?

If you want to be healthy and intact for a long time a slow metabolism might be advantageous.  Calorie restriction, the one way we know of to increase a mammal's lifespan, certainly doesn't make the cells rev faster or at a higher temperature.  It makes the animals run cooler and slower. 

I certainly wouldn't argue that slowing your metabolism more is always better, either.  Being cold and lethargic all the time, whether it extends life or not, is not a fun way to live. 

Take home message:  if you're lean, or in the area of lean, and relatively healthy (have a decent amount of energy, etc.) then speeding up your "metabolism" may not be a good thing.  Be wary of diets, exercise plans, and supplements that claim to do so - they probably don't work, and if they do work they might be limiting your longevity.  Conversely, if someone criticizes your healthful lifestyle on the grounds that it might slow your metabolism, just smile, nod, and walk away.  You can have the best revenge - outliving your enemies.


Saturday, December 11, 2010

HIT vs. SST: What's the deal and what's at stake?

New Rodeo is up - go there and check out the latest and greatest in the world of paleo blogging!

Today I'm going to explain to you one of the biggest controversies in contemporary strength and conditioning theory and give you my take on it.  There's a practical take home message, too, and if you only care about that, scroll down...  way down...

The Exercises:

To explain the controversy I'm going to compare the training effects of two similar but different exercises, the deadlift and the power clean.   Why?  Because both work the glutes, my favorite muscle.

To do the deadlift you approach a loaded bar that's resting on the floor.  Walk up to the bar, squat down, reach down and grab the bar in both hands.  Then stand up, lifting the bar as you do.  At the end of the movement you are standing upright with the bar in both hands, your arms straight down, the bar about even with the tops of your thighs.

The deadlift is typically a slow, steady type of movement.  A heavy deadlift can take up to 10 seconds to complete.  The glutes are the primary mover, but the quads, hamstrings, spinal erectors, lats, biceps, and grip are all also heavily involved.  To get good at the deadlift you have to get good at generating a high peak force in your glutes - you don't have to get there quickly, but you have to wind up pulling really hard and for a sustained period of time.  So your glutes get stronger - add tissue (muscle protein) - and your nervous system gets better at recruiting the glutes and contracting them in coordination with all those other muscle groups I mentioned, all for a fairly sustained period of time.  I don't think many strength coaches would disagree with anything I put here, but if you do please post to comments.

The power clean starts in a similar fashion.  You approach a bar resting on the floor, squat down, and grab it.  You start to lift it, looking for a few inches like somebody deadlifting.  But once the bar gets to about mid-shin height you have to explosively accelerate the bar - really snapping the hips into full extension, as if you were jumping off the ground - and give it enough momentum that it basically flies up to chest height.  You hold on, but your arms aren't really pulling up once that "jump" happens.  At chest height you catch the bar, with your elbows under the bar and the bar resting at your collarbones.

Obviously, nobody can power clean with the same weight they can deadlift.  You use a lighter weight but lift it much faster - a power clean, whether successful or not, doesn't take a full second.  Like the deadlift the primary mover is the glutes, with assistance from all the same other muscles.  Unlike the deadlift you aren't generating a high, sustained force - you're very quickly generating a very large force.  That's the big difference - in the deadlift you ramp up to a very large, sustained force, in the power clean you very quickly go from nothing to a very short, intense burst of force.

I think it's clear that the neurological adaptations induced by the two exercises are different.  Grinding out a slow, max force movement is different that very quickly exerting a burst of force.  In both cases mostly similar muscles are trained through a mostly similar range of motion, however.

The controversy:

Now we get to the controversy.  Everyone would agree that the best way to improve your deadlift is to deadlift and the best way to improve your power clean is to practice power cleans.  But what if you want to improve, say, your punching power?  Suppose you're already practicing your punch.  Punching power comes in part from extending the hip - would adding deadlifts to your routine be equally useful in improving your punch as would adding in the power clean?  Remember, in a punch you're doing a rapid snap of the hip, not a slow, grinding extension.  So on the face of it the power clean certainly seems more similar.

One camp, the HIT (High Intensity Training) crowd notable among them (Body by Science, superslow training, those guys), would say that the deadlift is the better choice.  Being slower and less technical the deadlift is safer (a steady high force is safer than a sudden burst of very high force).  Since both work the glutes you'd get muscular development from either exercise.  The HIT advocates would then point to a bunch of studies that show that neurological adaptions are specific to a movement - that is, learning to fire your glutes fast doing a power clean wouldn't translate at all to firing them fast doing a punch.  So since either exercise develops the muscles, and neither one will help with the neurological ability to use that muscle while punching, you're better off doing the safer exercise in the weight room and count on punching practice in the dojo to push the neurological adaptations you're looking for (the ability to very rapidly contract the glutes).

The other camp, the Sports Specific Training camp or the Functional Training group, might say that the research the HIT Jedi's pointed to wasn't well done or clear enough.  They'd say that even though the power clean isn't exactly the same movement as a punch, training in a movement pattern - like forcefully and very quickly extending the hip - will definitely have carryover to any other movement that incorporates that pattern.  So doing power cleans makes you better at forcefully and quickly extending the hip whenever you need to do it - they'll make you a better jumper, give you a quicker first step, and make you better at punching.

The SST group would say that the most important part of punching better is to practice punching (the HIT crowd would agree).  They'd also say that if you want to support that practice you can do other movements - like the power clean - that make you better at doing parts of the punch as long as they're done in the right range of motion and the right speed (explosive, not grinding).  They'd tell you to also do anti-rotational core work - to help you learn to keep your core stiff during the rotation of punching.  They might also point to some research studies - honestly I have no idea, nor do I care, because most studies done in this field are so poor that they give us no good information.

You should know me well enough by now to suspect that I have a position on this issue.  And you're right, I do.  I used to be in the HIT camp on this, but I've changed.  Why?  The kettlebell swing.

Like the power clean, the kettlebell swing includes a very fast, forceful contraction of the glutes, a lot like what the glutes do when you punch (Pavel Tsatsouline has famously said that the swing is as close as you can get to throwing a punch in the weight room).  When I started doing swings - when I started really focusing on my glutes, on the hip snap into full extension that you need to drive the kettlebell up - my punch almost instantly improved.  I could feel my hip driving the punch much more clearly than I had before.

Was that just because I'd strengthened the glute muscle?  Maybe.  But I doubt it.  I had a very strong subjective experience of an enhanced mental connection to the glute - I could feel it work more easily and control it more easily.  I could also fire it more easily.  I am convinced that there was significant neurological carryover between the swing and the punch.  Despite the research that says I'm wrong.

There are other arguments involved.  The HIT advocate can't be right that neurological adaptations are perfectly specific - that there is no carryover between one movement and another.  Take an experienced martial artist - one who has been punching and striking for years - and teach them a strike with a part of the hand they've never used in their art - knifehand, koken, palm, whatever.  How long will it take them to master it?  As long as a beginner doing it for the first time?  I doubt it.  The master's nervous system already has most of the biomechanics down - movement at the hip and torso is probably almost the same as what they've been doing - and the change from one movement to another won't negate that mastery.

A HIT advocate would have you do slow, deliberate, safer movements in the gym to develop your muscles, then be explosive only when practicing your specific skill.  A Functional Training advocate would have you do explosive movements in the gym so you get better at moving explosively.

Take home message:

If you're in very poor shape you probably are better off doing slow, deliberate movements.  But once you get 12 or 24 weeks or a year of strength training under your belt you should focus on movements that make you move the way you want to move while fighting - explosive, with a very rapid development of force.  Don't overdo them, as there is an injury risk when you train with speed, but your karate will improve from sports specific training.

If you have no performance goals (aren't a martial artist) and are just working out for health, sticking to high tension (high weight) but more methodical movements (deadlifting vs. powerlifting) might be better for you.  You'll be able to more safely train, which is good, while keeping your fast twitch muscle fibers going, which you need so you'll be able to get out of your chair when you're 80.  And getting out of our chairs at 80 (and doing other physical stuff at 80, 90, and 100+)  is pretty much the ultimate goal.


Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Why so obsessed with fat loss?

I write (and think) a lot about fat loss.  Considering the fact that this is a blog aimed at providing sports specific training information to martial artists, you might argue that I write too much about fat loss, and you'd have a good case.  Why do I do it?

From a martial arts perspective I think that fat loss is important for many, though not all, practicing martial artists.  Very few people are as lean as they should be, at least not among the people I know.  Look, if you happen to practice in a dojo where everybody around you is quite lean, then that's great, but it doesn't match my experience.  If you're not very lean then the quickest, easiest, and healthiest way to increase your strength to weight ratio - which determines how fast you can move, which has something to do with martial arts ability - is to lose some of that fat.  Getting stronger is good, too, but it's a time consuming and difficult process.  Getting leaner is also good for health, appearance, mood, longevity, and so forth, so you get added benefits.

From a personal perspective I am slightly obsessed with fat loss because I'm a fat guy who comes from a family of fat people.  Not everyone in my family is fat, but most of us are (luckily I don't think they read this blog).  I've been fat for as long as I can remember, other than a brief period after sleepaway camp where I didn't eat for three weeks (don't worry, I promptly regained all the weight I'd lost in time for school to start).  I've struggled to not be fat for something like 25 years - that's not a typo.  And I'm a pretty smart guy, and I have at least an average amount of discipline, yet I've managed to work hard using the best information I could find towards a goal for two and a half decades without reaching it.  And it's not like I've been trying to make workable cold fusion or explain why people like Sarah Palin - I've been trying to do something that a large chunk of the world population finds effortless.

What's the problem?  Honestly I think a large part of it is that there is so much bad information out there driven by a combination of pharmaceutical money, coprorate agriculture, ignorance, bad science, a paternalistic medical industry, and inertia.  The things most people are told and believe about fat control are wrong.  "Whole grains are good for your heart."  "Saturated fat is bad for you."  "Cut your red meat and fat intake if you want to get thin and healthy."

Here's the weird, and serious, part:  those things we believe (the things that are wrong) are killing us

Being fat is not healthy.  Eating grains is not healthy.  Eating a lot of fructose is not healthy.  Yet go to your doctor and tell him your fasting blood glucose is 125 - see what kind of diet you're told to go on.  See how you're told to manage your condition.  Or go to your doctor with a triglyceride level of 350.  See what they tell you.

90% of the time your doctor will give you advice that will kill you.  Why?  They don't know any better - remember the forces of pharmaceutical money, ignorance, bad science, the paternalistic medical industry, and inertia.

My father was a very smart guy.  Ph.D. in analytical chemistry.  Great artist.  Died at 58 of a heart attack.  Why?  He listened to his doctors (so maybe he wasn't as smart as he could have been, but we all have blind spots).  I'll never forget him telling me about how his doctor had him stop weight training because it would enlarge his heart.  Or convincing him to avoid fat and go on a grain based high carb diet to control his Type II diabetes (which still makes no sense to me).  They were different doctors, too. 

Doctors didn't tie my dad down and shove food down his throat, but they did give him advice that hastened the end.  So maybe I'm a little more willing than most people to ignore what a doctor says and use scientific research or common sense or even (gasp!) a blog to figure out what to do, how to eat, and how to train.  And frankly, if I can get even a couple of readers of this blog to change their behaviors even a little, and buy some of you a few extra years of health, then, well, I'll have done for you what I certainly didn't do for my father.  And honestly, if I could train a thousand people to be black belts or K-1 championts it wouldn't be nearly as valuable (though it would be cool) as helping one person be part of their family for a few extra months (or longer).

Now you might be thinking something like, "I'm reading this guy's stuff and it makes sense but my doctor tells me to avoid saturated fat and this schmuck is just an internet guru so to whom should I listen?"  If so, I applaud your avoiding a dangling participle (by not thinking, "...who should I listen to?").  And I suggest you do two things:
  1. Read Gary Taubes' book "Good Calories, Bad Calories."  It contains an exhuastive (and exhausting) account of the history of the conventional wisdon on diet - it traces back all the recommendations that your doctor is relaying to you, why they were taught that, who made them, what science was done, etc.  Just as a history of modern nutrition the book is a gold mine.  Depressing, but a gold mine.
  2. If you're not convinced by Taubes, do the Robb Wolf 30 day test.  Eat paleo for 30 days and see how you feel.  It's hard to argue with data points like that.
Right now I'm leaner than I've been in 32 years.  I'm a week or two away from posting my before and after picks.  I'm healthier and better conditioned than I've ever been.  And hopefully I'm on my way to living long enough to celebrate my 59th birthday.

I hope you can too.


Tuesday, December 7, 2010

SLIDE your way to a healthy, lean body

There is a tremendous amount of bad information available regarding healthy fat loss.  Part of the problem is that people study weight loss and confuse it with fat loss (losing muscle will help you lose weight, but it isn't good for health, for performance, or for appearance), part is that the medical community doesn't trust the public to understand complex recommendations (which is why you keep seeing studies that recommend you reduce total fat intake when their data just shows that you need to reduce trans fat intake), and part is simple ignorance.

There are two major wings of the fitness industry.  One (the more popular one) tells people to hop onto a treadmill for long periods of time or go out for a long jog if you want to lose fat.  Go to any commercial gym in the country and I bet you'll find long rows of treadmills, bikes, and elliptical riders with chubby people slogging away for 30+ minutes at a time trying to "burn off" the holiday cheesecake they ate the night before.  Another wing tells you to never, ever do long slow distance training (LSD), but to instead train using only high intensity intervals of some kind - sprints, Tabatas, barbell complexes, crossfit; some version of high intensity metabolic conditioning.

Neither approach is entirely wrong or entirely right.  You can see the problems with LSD pretty easily - just go to the gym and see how fast the bodies change on the people using the cardio machines.  They're often the same month after month, and in some instances get worse-looking.  Chronic long-duration cardio increases cortisol levels, breaks down muscle, increases fat retention, and has a whole host of health consequences.  The high intensity side is less troubling, but it can easily be overdone.  Too much metabolic conditioning can easily lead to overtraining and injury, and it's hard to get your workouts in when you're hurt.

What's the right way?  They're both righ.  Sort of.  Here's the key:  the interventions you need to make to lose fat in a healthy way have to be done in a specific order - there's a hierarchy of fat loss methods.  I don't just mean that the top methods are better - I mean that if you take any methods from the middle of the list or skip any, you might see some results for a little while but they won't be nearly as good as if you go in order.  In other words, step 1 is necessary for fat loss; doing steps 1 and 2 is better yet, but step 2 alone just won't work.  Same idea as we go on down the list - doing any steps while skipping the ones before it will seriously compromise your results.  Now to the list (remember, it's a numbered list because the order is important!):

1.  Reduce your food intake.  This may seem like a no-brainer, but if you're fat you have to reduce your food intake to lose weight.  Now there are some outlying exceptions to this - sometimes people who diet for long periods of time need to do a re-feed to get their metabolism working properly, but in almost all cases you're fat because you've been eating too much. 

This isn't as simple as cutting calories, but it's close.  Calories are a bad measure of food/ energy intake for a few reasons - fiber is counted wrong, absorption isn't taken into account, etc.  If you're eating the same types of foods then you have to cut calories.  If you're radically changing the composition of your diet then things get more complicated but the bottom line doesn't change - reduce intake. 

What about food quality?  Food quality is important for health and for compliance reasons - it's much easier to stick to a low calorie, high quality diet (meat, fat, veggies) than a low calorie, low quality diet (Twinkies).    It's also healtheir.  But it's not actually necessary for short term fat loss - that nutrition professor who lost weight on the Twinkie diet showed that (not recommended for long term weight management).  I strongly advocate eating better but more than that you have to eat less if your goal is fat loss.

What about just exercising more?  Well, this typically doesn't work.  Most people will just eat a little more - they'll be hungrier - if their activity level increases.  It's much easier to eat an extra few hundred calories than to "work off" a few hundred in the gym.  If you can manage to exactly control how much you eat - weighing and measuring your food - then you might lose weight without actually redudcing food intake, but it's going to feel exactly like a diet.  If you free-feed (as in, eat what you want without weighing and measuring and stopping yourself at pre-determined points) you're going to eat more food the more work you do and you won't lose fat, or not much fat (again, there are outliers who can get away with this, just like there are people who smoke and drink and live to be 100, but do you want to count on being one of them?)

2.  Strength train.  Why?  Simple - if you follow #1 you're going to burn body mass.  If you strength train you have a fighting chance of keeping whatever muscle you already have.  If you don't then your body is too likely to burn muscle for energy instead of fat, which is bad for a whole bunch of reasons.

First, muscle burns calories, so losing muscle lowers your energy requirements and forces you to keep reducing your food intake in a bad spiral into weakness and feeling crappy.  Muscle also looks good - almost nobody has "too much muscle" from an aesthetic perspective (those who think they do are usually just fat) unless they're high level competitive bodybuilders or strength athletes who are taking enough exogenous androgens to put 5 teenagers through puberty.  Muscle is also the only thing standing between you and decrepitude - go into any nursing home and find someone confined to a wheelchair with big, muscular legs (there's a cause and effect issue here, but studies have shown that when elderly people do strength training and gain leg muscle they often throw away their canes and walkers).

Your strength training should take 20-30 minutes (after warmup) and be done 2-3 times per week.

3.  Do some High Intensity Intervals.  Sprints, Tabatas, kettlebell sets, burpees, whatever.  There are two reasons for this:  First, HIIT will stimulate your metabolism and hel you burn calories - you might work out for 10 minutes but get an afterburn effect where your body burns extra calories for the next 36 hours.  Second, you need to raise the ceiling of your cardiovascular capacity for health reasons.  You want your heart and lungs capable of supporting bursts of really hard work without exploding so you can survive to enjoy your fat loss.  Seriously - when do people get heart attacks?  It's not usually from watching tv for hours on end - they die when they do something relatively strenuous (remember, taking a crap can be strenuous if you're sedentary enough).  The better adapted you are to really, really hard efforts the less likely you are to die doing one. 

The other side of the high intensity coin is that more is not always better.  HIIT is a serious stress on the body - doing too much of it can raise cortisol and mess up your health just as much as doing too much LSD.  So keep the sessions brief, intense, and relatively infrequent.

Your HIIT sessions should be done 1-3 times per week for 5-15 minutes at a time.

4.  Slow Low Intensity Distance Exercise (SLIDE).  Now we get to the title of this post!  Okay, SLIDE type exercise - think a long walk, a casual bike ride across town, even walking on a treadmill while reading or watching TV - has gotten a bad rap.  On it's own it won't help you lose fat.  It won't get you in shape.  It won't improve bone density.  It won't build muscle.  If you do it with a little too much intensity - if you go from a walk to a slow jog - it will tear down muscle, increase cortisol, and wear down your joints and immune system.  All in all, bad!

But SLIDE can serve some important functions in a fat loss program if it's done right.  First of all note the number - this is intervention #4!  SLIDE can improve your fat loss program but ONLY if you are already doing steps 1-3.  SLIDE alone is useless for fat loss.  Second, your SLIDE must be low intensity!  Your hourlong evening walk is great for fat loss but if you turn it into a power walk where you're huffing and puffing and swinging dumbells while you do it for an extra burn you're going to make it harder to lose weight, not easier (because you'll be dumping cortisol into your system).

What are the benefits of SLIDE?  First, you'll burn extra calories, and mostly fat calories.  If you want to burn even more fat do it right after a higher intensity session - the high intensity work dumps fatty acids into your blood, the SLIDE will use them up.  That's not necessary, though - SLIDE done first thing in the morning or at night will work fine for burning up extra fat.  Not enough to overcome a bad diet or lack of strength training - but remember, we're already making sure we do steps 1-3, so that's not a problem!

SLIDE also has psychological and health benefits.  Most people feel good when then move a lot.  We're not adapted to spending all day sitting in an office, and our bodies perform better under a lot of low level stimulation.  This is a way to tell if you're going too hard - if your SLIDE sessions make you tired and wiped out your intensity is too high.  You should end your nice walk feeling energized and alive, not drained and ready for a shower.  You can double the benefits by talking a walk with someone.  There's a ton of research showing significant health benefits to having social interactions with other people, and I promise your marriage will improve if you take a long walk with your significant other every day (or, if your marriage sucks, it will deteriorate rapidly so you can get it over with and try again with somebody else).

Walks (with or without dogs), casual bike rides, throwing a frisbee around - any low intensity long duration activity can work as SLIDE.  You'll feel better, lose fat a bit quicker, and be happier.  Just remember the keys:
  • Prioritize steps 1-3 - if you're not doing those then SLIDE will be nice but won't get you lean.
  • Keep your intensity for your HIIT sessions - don't let your SLIDE "workouts" turn into real workouts. 
  • Incorporate more low intensity movement into your day wherever possible.  Fidget, park farther from work, take stairs instead of an elevator - none of these things will replace eating less, strength training, or high intensity cardio, but they will add benefits if you already do those other things.
So invite your spouse for a nice after-dinner walk tonight and if all goes well you'll get a little leaner, lower your cortisol, and you might even be rewarded with a bonus session of high intensity cardio afterwards!


Sunday, December 5, 2010

Supplements that WORK

There are several ways you can go about picking supplements to use.  Scientific research (either reading it yourself or reading the opinion of someone else who reads a lot of studies) is great, but there are a few problems.  Most studies use young, fit people as test subjects, and your results may not resemble theirs.  Most studies are also fairly short term, and the benefits of a supplement might wear off after a few weeks or months.  So if you plan to use a supplement for a long time you might be misled by the research.

Another common sense method is to take a supplement for some fixed period of time (say, 30 or 60 days) and see if it helps you.  You could use actual performance measures - how you do in training - or something more subjective, like how you feel.  The subjective measures are tricky because there's always the placebo effect to consider, but I'll be honest - if you use a bunch of different things and are always trying something new I think you can get past placebo effects.

A problem with the "I feel better" test is that many supplements have effects that you can't feel.  Take fish oil for one example.  If you have serious inflammation problems (joint pain, for example) fish oil may give you tangible benefits - you might feel better taking it.  But if you have a little insulin resistance and some subclinical inflammation - the type you can't feel but might be contributing to the development of plaque in your arteries - then the fish oil might be improving your health without you noticing it.  Imagine someone taking some supplement to improve bone health.  How do you know if it's working?  If in twenty or forty years you don't break a hip.  I can't think of any simple at home test to see if you're losing a minute fraction of bone density.

There are a handful of supplements that I am convinced work because I immediately feel their effects.  That doesn't mean that other supplements don't work - just that I'm positive these do work.  It's a short list:

  • Caffeine.  Stimulant.  People's responses do vary, but if you're not a caffeine user, drink 3 cups of coffee before doing something and see how you feel.  Lots of evidence makes it seem that you get used to caffeine, so eventually you're less stimulated by it and need the stuff just to get out of bed.  Best use for caffeine is occasional use when maximum effort is needed - maybe once every week or do take in 200 mg before a super intense training session, sparring session, or promotion.  If you use it every day the benefits will quickly taper off.
  • Ephedrine.  Stimulant and weight loss effects.  Banned by FDA (for totally crap reasons, but that's probably an argument for another day).  Oh, how I miss my sweet, sweet ephedrine...  Maybe I liked this stuff too much.
  • Magnesium citrate.  Either calms you down or stimulates you - weird, huh?  Depends on the person.  It might help you sleep, but it will definitely loosen your bowels.  DO NOT experiment with a large dose at first unless you want to spend the next day in the bathroom.  This may seem out of place in a martial arts blog, but having regular bowel movement is important to health and constipation does not improve your fighting skill.  I'm not a big fan of overdoing fiber - I think some is okay but large amounts may damage your colon - so an easy alternative is magnesium.  
  • Quercetin.  For allergies/ asthma.  I definitely feel better on quercetin than I did without it.  Not a cure, but an improvement.
  • Extra protein.  This one's a little more marginal, but a couple of times I've had some serious soreness (DOMS, or delayed onset muscle soreness), then pigged out on meat (try your local churrascaria), and wasn't sore the next day.  I know my usual healing time pretty well, and it was cut short by an overload of  protein and calories.  I've never tried overloading on protein day after day for a long time, and I don't think that's a good idea (your body will get better and better at burning protein for energy, and I don't think that's what you want), but occasional bursts may help your recovery.
Where's creatine, beta alanine, multivitamins, calcium, fish oil, and carnitine on this list?  Like I said, they might work - maybe even probably work - for most people, but I don't personally get any short term measurable benefit out of them.  With creatine that's unusual - most people see very short term weight gain and endurance improvements with the stuff, and I'm sure I'll experiment with it again in the future.  The two times I tried to use it I got nothing (many supplements work for only portions of the population - there are usually a minority of people who don't respond because of some biological peculiarity they have).

Please post to comments if you've had short term tangible results from any common over the counter supplements or if you've tried one of these without effect.  Thanks!

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Bells, Bands, and Balls: Types of loading

Strength training all boils down to finding a way to convince your body to change the way it produces force.  Typically we're trying to increase the peak force (the maximum force you can develop), but we can also work on rate of force development (how long it takes to produce a large force from rest), force produced at specific speeds, and other minutiae.

How do we convince the body to generate more force, or to generate force faster?  Basically we need to make the body work near the limits of its force generating capacity.  In other words, to convince your body to be able to push harder (with more force) you have to push something in such a way that it's very, very hard (for you).  You can push lightly on something all day and you're not going to force much of an adaption.

How do you make a movement or position hard to do (require a lot of force)?  Sometimes the weight of your own body provides enough resistance.  Other times you need to load the movement or position (I'm just going to say movement from now on - the same basic ideas apply to holding a position).  How do we load movements?  There are various ways.

The most familiar way to load a movement is with weights of some kind.  There are various forms of weight - dumbells, barbells, kettlebells, medicine balls, etc.  Weights load movement in two distinct ways:
  1. Gravity pulls the weights downward, forcing you to exert a counteracting force upwards;
  2. The mass of the weights resists acceleration, forcing you to exert a force to get them moving or to change the direction of their movement.
A big issue with using weights is the fact that they often pick up a good deal of momentum.  Think of the bench press, for example.  You lower the bar and touch it to your chest.  At that point the bar is at rest.  You have to push up, hard, to accelerate the bar upwards while overcoming the force of gravity.  If it's a weight you can handle fairly easily, you'll get the the bar moving pretty quickly by the time your arms are halfway extended.  At that point you're not pushing as hard anymore - remember, you need the bar to stop when your arms are extended.  So during the last portion of the movement you are letting the bar deccelerate by pushing with less, or no, force.  The faster you lift the more you'll change the effective resistance - you'll spend more and more of the lift actually slowing the bar back down instead of pushing it as hard as you can.

This is why some people are find of throwing medicine balls.  They have the same basic properties as dumbells, but they're meant to be thrown.  You can do a bench press like movement where you throw the ball away at the top.  All that does is prevent you from having to slow the weight down as you finish the move - you really end up free to push hard and accelerate the ball through the whole range of motion.

Bands are just what they sound like - heavy duty rubber bands that can be used to load a moment or position.  You hold the band, or hold a handle attached to the band by a carabiner or something, and hook the other end of the band to something - maybe a specially designed something.  Then you pull.  Band provide a very different type of resistance for these reasons:
  1. Bands have very little mass, so they develop an inconsequential amount of momentum.  The resistance at all parts of the movement will have nothing to do with how fast you're moving.
  2. Bands exert greater force the greater the stretch.  Imagine someone bench pressing with two bands anchored to the floor instead of a bar - it will be relatively easy to start the motion, but the bands will really fight you as you get closer to lockout.  This may or may not be a good thing depending on where you want the resistance.
  3. Since bands have so little weight they don't automatically exert a downward force.  If the band is anchored behind or above you it won't exert any noticeable downward force at all (as opposed to weights, which are pulled down as long as you are working out close to the surface of the Earth).
Suppose you want to develop punching strength.  You could punch while holding bands that are anchored behind you or punch while holding light dumbells or throw a light medicine ball.

If you use bands they will "fight you" at extension - where your punch will land - much more than near the chamber.  This is probably bad - you probably won't ever be able to generate enough force near the end of a punch to make any difference in its speed - you want to be able to fire out of your chamber quickly. 

If you use dumbells they'll want to fly across the room - you'll have to exaggerate the stopping, or pulling back, motion at the end of the punchso you don't throw the dumbells through your TV or wall or whatever.

The medicine ball will resist moving out of your chamber (which is good) and won't make you pull back at the end of the punch (which is also good).  The downside to using a medicine ball is that you have to have something to throw it against - a wall, a rebounder, or just a big open space where it won't hit anything important - and you have to retrieve it after each rep, which might be impractical.

Okay, suppose you do decide to load a punch.  The problem with throwing punches while holding a dumbell, band, or medicine ball is that you're changing the movement.  Effectively, you're practicing a move that's very similar to a regular punch but not quite the same.  If the resistance is too large - the band too tight or the weight too heavy - you'll alter the motion so much that you might make yourself worse at punching.  In fact, you'll find plenty of coaches who will tell you that any loading will interfere with your skill at the movement.  You'll also find evidence that as long as the load is light (think 2-3 lb. dumbells or light bands) you'll see some real benefits.

I'm a big fan of loading techniques with light weights this way, and I'm in a minority.  I've seen research both in favor of and against that kind of training.  I will say that you want to use relatively light weights - a punch holding a 35 lb. dumbell doesn't even resemble a real punch anymore.  I will also say that you should use loaded technique practice in conjunction with unloaded practice.  That is, practice punching with weights or bands, then throw punches without any extra load.  In my experience I can sort of trick my body into throwing harder punches with the weights and then carry it over into naked practice.

I might do 10-20 punches while holding a dumbell, rest for a few seconds, then throw 10-20 punches without it.  Don't ever go weeks or months training while always holding weights - you'll lose your skill at performing the movements.  If you can find a 2-3 lb. medicine ball and a way to use it, do so - I haven't managed to find a way or place to do any quality medicine ball training myself.

Don't overuse this technique - it's fairly hard on your body.  And let me know if you do try it and what happens.  This falls into the category of "I think it works but the evidence is mixed and I might be wrong."