Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Who, me? Stressed?

First of all, I apologize to anyone who subscribes in a reader and got this post without content - I was trying out a new keyboard and published by accident.  I didn't even realize it until this morning.

If you're a new reader who heard my interview on The Applied Karate Podcast, then welcome!  I recommend searching the archives for anything you found of interest, or posting questions to the comments.  I'll happily respond to any questions people have (though I won't always know the answers, obviously).  If you're a reader of this blog and not a listener of the Applied Karate Podcast, I recommend you check it out.

I've had a hectic few months.  I started a new career (software developer) and moved (to Brooklyn, New York), but with my kids still back in Maryland I've been doing a lot of travelling back and forth.  My training has suffered badly and my blogging has suffered even more!

A couple of quick notes: in times of stress (especially time stress) many of us turn to comfort foods that we know aren't good for us, often saying things like, "a little candy may not be good for me long term, but it will give me the energy to get through this very stressful day, and that's what I need right now."  I can't claim to be immune to this impulse by any stretch, but it's worth avoiding.  If you're really just having a very tough day that's one thing, but if your life is very busy and you need to get things done day in and day out you'll have a lot more energy and strength overall if you keep to a stricter diet.  By stricter I mean "cleaner" - plenty of high quality meat and veggies, no grains, plenty of clean starches (white rice, sweet potatoes) - I DO NOT mean low calorie.  High stress periods of life are not necessarily the times when you want to try to cut a lot of weight (sometimes they are, but adding stressors to yourself can be counterproductive when you're already under duress).

I have some more thoughts about stressful periods of life:

  • If  you think you don't have time to train you're wrong.  Many of us get sort of trapped into the idea of "a workout" as a big block of time for exercise.  You might not have an hour to set aside for exercise, but very few of us have jobs where we really can't get up every hour or so and knock out some exercise.  Put a chinup bar in a doorway and do a couple of chinups every time you go through it.  Stand up from your desk and throw a few punches.  If you work in a cubicle, kiai loudly, it will make everybody appreciate your efforts.  Brush your teeth in kiba dachi.  Practice your posture - pack your neck and shoulders, and tighten your abs, while standing around - you can do this on the train ride to work, waiting for a meeting, wherever.  I can't promise the same results as if you added in dedicated workouts but it will help.
  • Try not to skimp on sleep.  It's tempting to "make" extra time by cutting short on sleep - look, if you have to, then you have to, but the value of quality sleep for health is very large.  Your long term health will suffer.  Those hours you gain aren't free.
  • If you need downtime, then take it.  People can't do grueling work all day, day after day, without a break - they lose efficiency.  The trick is to take a real break, do something that makes you happy, don't feel guilty about it, and don't think of it as "wasting" time.  If you love videogames, play them - but don't just play computer solitaire because you're too wiped out to get your work done and kill hours doing something you don't actually enjoy.
The more you say, "screw it, I'm having a tough time, I don't have the energy to eat right or train" the harder it's going to be for you to get back on track when things lighten up.  Don't get down on yourself for taking it a little easier, but don't cut yourself too much slack either.

Please listen to the Podcast.  I'll try to get the final article on periodization up soon, I promise!  And I'm thinking about another round of before-and-after photos... though I haven't made much progress this year, sadly.


Saturday, November 19, 2011

Periodization Made Simple Part II: Periodizing Intensity

In Part I of this series I discussed one of the major types of periodization, periodizing by physical attribute.  Basically, this means rotating your training to focus on one major physical quality at a time - building muscle, getting stronger, getting faster, or gaining endurance.  You do this by designing workouts that focus on one of those qualities, and either rotating the workouts one after the other or focus on just one type of workout for a block of time - from 3-8 weeks - then switching to another "type."

Periodizing Intensity:  This is a very different idea than periodizing attributes (though they can work together).  To periodize intensity means to vary how hard you're working at whatever you're doing.  Remember, any type of workout - strength, speed, hypertrophy, or energy system - can be very hard, or very taxing, on your body, or comparatively less taxing.  People just can't charge full speed ahead week in and week out forever without crashing and burning.  To prevent this we build planned de-loads or rests into our training.

There are a few different ways to handle this, and I'll go over the most common.

When do we periodize intensity? 

This is a great question.  There are roughly two ways to handle this.  The first is to do planned deloading periods.  That means that you, or your coach, or whoever, figures out ahead of time that you're going to go full blast for, say, 8 weeks, then do a 1 week deload.  (There's nothing special about 8 weeks, it's just an example number - fill in your own block of  time).  This is especially handy when you're working towards a competition or a meet.  I've written before (read this and this) that you should prepare for a promotion or a competition by resting in the days immediately preceding the "event."

The downside to this style is that if you're just training - if you're not heading towards any specific goal date, like a contest, but just trying to generally improve - you still need rest occasionally but it's really hard to say with confidence, "oh, I'll work this hard, and I'll definitely need a rest after 6 weeks - not 5 or 7, but definitely 6."  If you try that, and you don't have a team of physiologists planning things out for you, you run a real risk of going too long without a break or getting rest you don't need.

So what's the alternative?  Many people advocate resting or de-loading when you physically need it.  That sounds kind of obvious - rest when you need to rest!  But how do you know when you need to rest (as opposed to just being lazy)?

If you've been training for a long time you might be a very good judge of your body's status - you might be able to accurately "feel" whether you're ready for a hard training session or need to back off.  That's great!  But if you want a more scientific measurement, or if you don't have that level of physical awareness yet, you can go with a couple of other choices.

One common method is to measure your waking heart rate.  Get a heart rate monitor or use the finger + stopwatch method and measure your heart rate when you first wake up - ideally before you get out of bed.  After a few days you should get a pretty good idea of what's normal for you.  If one day you're feeling tired and your waking heart rate is higher than normal, that's the day to rest.

A better (probably) method is to measure heart rate variability.  If you're worn out your heart rate variability (how much it goes up and down in response to normal getting up and moving around type of activity) will decrease, and that's the time to rest and recover (high heart rate variability = good).  I know of no easy way to measure this without some kind of sophisticated equipment - please post to comments if you do!

If you're kind of in the middle, body-awareness wise, and aren't sure if you're being lazy or genuinely need rest, I like to go to the gym and do the warmup before re-evaluating.  If I warm up and still feel like crap I'll de-load.  If I'm just not in the mood and don't really need the rest I'll usually find that I'm good to go once I finish my warmup.

How do we periodize intensity?  So you've decided that it's time for a de-load.  There are roughly two ways to back off on intensity.  The first, and probably simplest, is to rest.  And by rest I just mean skip workouts or reduce their frequency - take a few days or a week off.

There are two downsides to resting this way.  The first is that you lose momentum.  I don't know about you, but I find it easier to get to the gym or dojo if I'm going regularly - once I take some time off I find it hard to get back.  If that doesn't apply to you, that's great, you can judge that for yourself.  The second downside is that you might recover faster doing something than doing nothing.  That means you're probably better off with what they call active recovery.

Active recovery means some version of doing relatively easy workouts.  You can do the same workout you're resting from, and back off on the weight used (back off a lot, not just 5-10 lbs) but do the same style of workout.  If you were working on speed, do some relaxed speed work - don't go all-out.  Run hard, but don't sprint, and don't do a lot of volume.  If you were working on strength, drop the weight and just "go through the motions."  It can be hard to restrain yourself, especially if you're feeling okay and are doing a planned de-load before a competition, but do it anyway!

The trick with active recovery is to move enough to get blood pumping through the muscles - delivering nutrients and clearing away waste products - without doing any additional damage.  In other words, don't make new inroads into your recovery system!  That means no brand new exercises, lots of full range of motion movement, and nothing so vigorous that you feel like throwing up after the set.

How do we put it all together?  I'm going to give you the cheapest possible answer:  wait for my next post.  I'll describe a periodization schedule that's manageable for the amateur martial artist!

One tough thing about periodization is that in the traditional martial arts we tend to have a go-hard-all-the-time mentality.  It feels like wimping out to take time off.  Additionally, it's really hard to take it easy in the dojo, in a class.  When your instructor tells you to do 25 pushups, few of us have the gumption to say, "actually, I'm only going to do 10 because this is a de-load week for me."  I don't have an easy answer to this problem, other than to say that if you need a de-load, cut back on classes if you can (this would be a great time to volunteer to teach, which is usually less physically demanding), and really cut back on your outside-the-dojo training.

If you're teaching classes you might consider the idea of scheduling de-loads into your class structure.  Have an easy set of classes every few weeks where you cut back on the conditioning type stuff.  That may or may not meet the needs of your students.  You don't have to waste the week - focus on skill work, really focus on technical details, etc.

Remember, it's not laziness, it's strategy!  You can periodize on purpose or you can be forced into it through injuries and illness.  There's nothing heroic about working yourself into the ground.


Periodization Made Simple: Part I: Periodizing physical qualities

We all know people who train consistently - maybe too consistently - by doing the same thing in the gym every workout, time after time.  They might take a break for a holiday or vacation or because of injury, but they generally repeat the same type of workout - the same exercises (generally), similar rep schemes, similar number of sets, and similar tempo, month in and month out.  If they're smart they'll constantly strive to add weight, or reps, to their workout, or switch up the exercises once in a while.  You can certainly make progress with this style of training, but it's usually slow and boring and often leads to staleness and/or injury.

High level athletes realized a long time ago that if they wanted to peak for an event - say, the Olympics, or even a season of their sport - they couldn't train the same way all the time.  They'd do general conditioning for part of the year, then more specific training, and finally sport specific training for the last couple of months leading up to their event.  It didn't take long for them to realize that over the long term they'd make better gains by "mixing up" their training this way than if they did similar types of training every week over the year.

Periodization is a term that means changing aspects of your workout in a planned way in order to maximize long term progress.  Reading the literature on periodization can be kind of daunting to a beginner - articles about periodization are often filled with technical vocabulary that you really don't have to know in order to use the principles.

So I'll make it simple.  I'm not going to define a million different terms for you (partially because I can't remember the difference between conjugate and concurrent periodization), just cover the basic concepts so you can use periodization to improve your training (and you should!).

There are 2 general kinds of periodization:  Periodizing physical qualities and periodizing intensity.

You can periodize your training to focus on different attributes or periodize your intensity.  Or you can (and should) do both!  I'll address the first type here (for no particular reason), and the second type in the next post.

Periodizing Attributes:  What this means is that you emphasize different physical attributes in different training sessions.  For example, you might do hypertrophy (hypertrophy means muscle growth) workouts (8-12 reps per set, 3-5 sets per exercise, moderate or slow rep pace, moderate rest between sets, extra calories after the workout), speed/ power workouts (plyometrics, very fast movements, ballistic exercises like kettlebell swings or olympic lifts, sprints, 3-5 reps per set, 2-3 sets per movement, lots of rest between sets), strength workouts (4-6 reps per set, lots of weight, moderate rep speed, 3-6 sets per movement, lots of rest between sets), and conditioning workouts (energy system training) (circuit training with moderate weights, little to no rest between sets, lots of sets).  None of these workouts are easier or harder, by nature, than the others, they just each target a different type of adaptation.

You could work these into your program in various ways.  You could do 3-8 weeks of one type of workout (say, a session of hypertrophy), followed by another "block" of 3-8 weeks focusing on another (say, strength workouts).  The potential downside is that you could lose too much in one area while focusing on another - you might lose all the speed you gained during your speed "block" during the other blocks, since you might go 16-24 weeks without training for a particular quality.

You could try to avoid that by mixing and matching in various ways.  For example, you could do a little bit of hypertrophy, a little speed work, and a lot of strength work for 8 weeks, then a little hypertrophy, a little strength, and a lot of speed work for the next set of 8 weeks, and so forth.  Think of it as having two minors and a major in each block - you'd do enough in each minor area to maintain your ability and you'd make progress in the major area.

Yet another style of periodization (you can see why there's so much terminology around this subject - each method of periodizing has its own name and associated jargon) would be to alternate workouts over the week but focus on each quality equally.  For example, suppose you work out three times per week.  Do one session of hypertrophy work, one session of speed/power work, and one session of strength work.  That way you make consistent progress in all areas.

Which system is best?  I think a lot depends on what you're training for.  If you're an Olympic athlete who has to "peak" at a certain time of year you need a very different system than regular people - and you probably have a professional coach to help you plan that all out.  If you're just like me - someone who wants to keep improving, but has no specific targets - then I'd say try the last system.  This is also a situation where we're splitting hairs - a professional athlete, who is in a situation where a 2% improvement could mean the difference between winning and losing, has to be much more meticulous in their choices than a weekend warrior.  For us amateurs a simpler system that is easier to comply with is probably more useful than something that could serve as a Ph.D. thesis in exercise physiology.

The "attributes" in question can also vary.  Bodybuilders alternate periods of time when they "bulk up" (add bodyweight - usually a combination of fat and muscle), then "lean out" (lose bodyweight, again usually a combination of fat and muscle, but they're hoping to gain more muscle than fat, then lose more fat than muscle, and come out ahead).  And you can focus on different attributes for different areas of your body - you could combine strength for the lower body with speed in the upper, and vice versa.

I'll give my recommendations on how to periodize your training - assuming you're a karateka with an actual life - with specific examples and a training plan - after I cover periodizing intensity.


Tuesday, November 15, 2011

What's the deal with Strength Curves and Nautilus machines anyway?

I'm starting a new job in a couple of days and moving to Brooklyn right after Thanksgiving.  I'll try to keep up the blogging, but I can't really make any promises because I'm going to be super busy!  In the meantime, here's a short article on strength curves:

I just watched a promotional lecture about an exercise machine that's being made available for home use in a little while, the ARX Fit Omni.  I'm not endorsing the machine or suggesting you buy it - I don't even know how much it costs - but I thought it was based on some interesting principles, like the Nautilus system developed by Arthur Jones, and I figured it was worth some discussion.

The ARX and Nautilus equipment are based on making the most efficient use of the strength curve.  If talk of curves and math give you anxiety attacks, relax, I'll make this relatively simple!

The strength curve just means that in any particular movement you're going to be able to exert more force in certain parts of the movement than in others - because of the way your body is designed, the direction of gravity relative to the direction of the motion, and whether you're lowering or raising the weight.

This is easier to understand with an example.  Take the barbell curl.  You pick up a barbell in your hands, with your arms hanging straight down, the the bar is against the tops of your thighs, your body pretty much straight.  Keeping your body still and your elbows in the same spot you lift the bar up to your chest, then lower it.  All that's happening is that your elbows bend.

Okay, now what's the deal with a strength curve?  Look at that movement.  Will that movement feel equally hard at every point along the path?  No, it won't.  At the bottom of the move you're almost swinging the bar forwards - you're not really fighting gravity.  At the top, the same thing happens.  It's the middle - when your elbows are bent at a right angle - where the movement is the hardest.  The other thing is that you're always stronger eccentrically than concentrically.  In other words, you can safely lower more weight than you can lift.  

What's the big deal, you ask?  Well, the big deal is that if you do barbell curls you're never going to maximally stress yourself at all points along the movement going up and down.  If you use enough weight to make the first few inches difficult, you'll never get the bar past the midpoint.  If you use enough weight to make the lowering really stressful you'll never be able to lift the bar.  In effect, you're wasting a large part of the motion, and you're never going to maximize your strength anywhere but in the part of the path where the resistance is actually right for you.

Traditionally you would get around this by performing multiple exercises that each stressed you in a different spot or a different part of the range.  You might do incline curls to work the lower part of the move.  You  might do negatives - where someone helps you lift the bar, then you lower it on your own, to work the eccentric portion of the movement more optimally.

Ideally, we'd like to have a magic bar.  Imagine a bar that was heavier at the bottom, then got lighter - not too much lighter, just lighter enough that you could curl it through the midpoint - then got heavier towards the top.  then it would get a lot heavier as you lowered it, again being not as heavy through the midpoint but heaviest towards the bottom, while lowering it.  And the magic bar would know by exactly what amount it should get lighter or heavier for each individual user.

That's what Arthur Jones tried to do with his Nautilus machines.  He used a cam - a funny shaped axle, basically - that would change the radius from the axle to the chain depending on where in the movement you were.  The details aren't important, but instead of a machine where it took X pounds of force to move the bar, it would take more than X to move it through some angles and less than X to move it through others,  more or less matching the places where you were naturally stronger or weaker.

There were (and are) problems with Nautilus equipment.  If you had longer or shorter limbs than average the strength curve might still not match your own.  And it didn't automatically get heavier for the lowering portion - though they were often made so it was really easy to do negatives on your own.

The ARX Fit Omni has a machine that varies the resistance on a belt depending on instructions given to it by a computer.  I don't know how it matches your strength curve - if it "learns" how much force you can exert or uses mathematical modelling - I'm not suggesting that it does or does not work.  It does seem very interesting.  It promises an exercise that would maximally stress you through every degree of a range of motion - not be really hard at some sticking point and relatively easy elsewhere.

If it works the workouts it induces would be very efficient and promise good hypertrophy and strength building in a very short period of time.  I have a feeling it's going to be too expensive for most of us to have around the house, but that's just a guess.  If you get to play around with one let me know how it works!


Sunday, October 30, 2011

Adding Value to Your Dojo part I: Martial Arts as a Social Activity

There are a lot of ways to think about your martial art - is it a form of physical culture, a means of learning self defense, a cultural/ historical preservation activity, etc.  None of these are wrong, and in many ways they aren't exclusive - you can train to get in shape AND to preserve a part of history that you find valuable, for example.  The way you think of your art will, however, shape your training in many ways (if you train to preserve a cultural artifact you're less likely to incorporate techniques from other arts, for example), as well as shaping your marketing (sales pitch) and the way you may structure activities around your dojo.

I've already written about how I think we can benefit from regarding our training from a physical culture perspective (and I stand by what I wrote there).  I have another perspective to share today.

I tend to do the bulk of my training alone.  I go to class when I can, which is often just once a week, but I'll practice kata and kihon or do my conditioning by myself several other times a week (by the way, this is probably a bad idea for any beginner, but I've got many years of supervised training under my belt).  There are advantages to this approach.  I have less travel time.  I can train whenever I want - I'm never late for class!  I can focus on the skills I need most and on the exercises that work best for me.

There are also some pretty obvious disadvantages.  You can't do partner drills by yourself.  It's very difficult to work on many key skills without a partner - you can get clean technique, but how do you develop your timing?  It's even harder in grappling arts, I'm sure - how do you even practice throws, holds, and locks without another body to toss around?

I think that many people will also suffer from a motivation gap.  I'm not that way personally, but for many people it's easier to show up to a class and train because someone is telling you to train, rather than trying to force yourself to practice alone in an empty room when you could just go have a beer instead and nobody would be any the wiser.

Let's put aside these considerations for now - these points all have to do with the fact that training with other people can be better for your karate.  They're valid points, but there is another set of advantages to training with a group that have nothing to do with improving your skill:

The thing is, humans are social animals.  We evolved to travel in groups and there are serious biological implications to that fact.  There is a substantial body of medical literature showing that human health is enhanced by having strong social connections - friends, family, whatever.  We can argue over some of the fine points - do internet friendships count or not (I suspect they do) - but the bottom line is, very clearly, that people are healthier and happier when they have a deep social environment.

You can get friends from a lot of places, but one very interesting social bond is created by shared physical suffering.  Anyone who's ever been through a football camp or a hard promotion test can tell you this.  In my dojo we often hug or pat each other on the back after tough sparring matches.  This is why corporations spend tons of money to take their executives rock climbing or white water rafting and call it "team building."  It really does build a sense of togetherness and bonding among people.

The people in your dojo a) share your interests; b) spend time with you regularly; c) share bonding experiences regularly.  They're also unlikely to be total douchebags, at least in a good school, because if you have good seniors the douchebags get their asses kicked hard enough that they either straighten up their act or quit before getting very high in rank (usually).

My point?  You should be (and probably already are) friends with your senpai and kohai.  You should hang out with them outside of class.  You should invite them to your Christmas party.  You should share birthdays.  You should be Facebook friends.  You should hang around before or after class and catch up with them.

Furthermore, being friends with your classmates is a key benefit of your training.  You might justify watching a football game with your buddies or poker night by saying that you need time with your friends - the same is true, perhaps even more so, about training.  If you're thinking about spending money on a martial arts retreat or attending a seminar or having a social function, and you're waffling, don't think of it in terms of just how much karate you'll learn - think of the benefits of that activity as a social occasion.  Karate can help fulfill your fundamental human need for interaction!

If you can (this will depend on the culture at your school), organize and participate in social activities outside of class with your peers.  Do a martial arts movie night, have parties, go for drinks after class, whatever.  And don't resist these activities because they might have limited direct benefit for your karate - that's not the point.  The point is to enhance your health and happiness by deepening positive social connections.

If you run a school, encourage your students to socialize outside of class.  Get them to do movie nights (or organize them yourself).  Be available to grab drinks or snacks after class, at least some of the time.  Put up a board in your entrance area for people to advertise get-togethers.  You might be teaching self defense, but you're also creating a social network for your students.

Want to convince someone to start training?  Yes, they'll learn to defend themselves, and yes, they'll get in better shape.  But they might also make a whole bunch of new friends, and that has an added value all its own - not just int he obvious ways, but enhancing health and longevity.

If you think you can be fit and healthy and a loner... you're probably wrong.  You can get a social life by going out drinking and partying multiple times per week, but you're probably going to last longer if you hang out with your dojo mates instead!


Monday, October 24, 2011

Pain and Fear Reactivity - why you can't do splits and shouldn't squat on a Swiss ball

Regular readers of this blog may remember that I was in a significant car accident this past July.  The greatest loss was my beloved Civic (total loss), but I also suffered mild injuries to my sternum and shoulder (mild meaning they hurt like hell but I didn't actually require any medical attention).  What made this a good story was that my test for sandan (3rd degree black belt) was scheduled for 3 days after the accident, and I really had no choice but to go through the test.

I learned a lot from this experience - I learned the value of ibuprofen, I learned how much harder it could be to get out of bed than it normally is, and I learned never to post anything about injuries on Facebook unless you're willing to be barraged by commenters insisting you see a physician (what am I, a 6 year old girl?  See a doctor just because I'm hurt?)  But the most interesting thing was what happened to my punching.

You see, the worst pain I felt was in the muscles along my right shoulderblade.  Every morning my right arm would be useless.  A few minutes of arm circles and general warming up would give me most of the function back, but I still had pain through some movements.  Nothing serious, mind you, but definitely pain.

So here's the funny part.  Pushing didn't really hurt - I wasn't setting any world records, but I could do pushups pretty much normally.  Despite that, I couldn't really punch with any force (not that my punches are normally anything fantastic).  Punching didn't hurt, I just couldn't muster up any snap with that arm.  Remember, the muscles used in pushing the punch out - my legs, my core, the pushing muscles in the arm and shoulder - were all fine, yet I couldn't snap out my punches.  The damaged muscles should only have really hurt at the end of the punch - absorbing the energy near lockout - yet I couldn't throw a punch hard enough to make that happen.

What was going on?  I'm going to steal a term from Scott Sonnon (and I'm probably using it wrong, so please forgive me for butchering the poor guy's theories) and call it fear reactivity.  To put it simply, my body was shutting down or interfering with uninjured tissues (the muscles used to throw a punch) to protect the injured tissues (the ones that would have been hurt by the force of a full speed punch).

This is worth restating:  in many cases your body (i.e. nervous system) will prevent you from hurting yourself.  That means when you try to move through a position that either causes pain, due to existing damage or a structural deficiency, or where you are weak, because the muscles are undertrained in that range of motion, you will have a reduction in activation by your nervous system, resulting in weakness, or a tightening of muscles to prevent you from entering that position.

Another place we see similar things happen is in the hip adductors (groin muscles).  If your adductors are weak when your hips are widely abducted (legs far apart), as they are in most people (because really, who the hell trains their hips when their legs are far apart?) the muscles will tighten when you try to stretch them.  That's why you probably can't get into a split.  Strengthen the muscles in that range of motion and you'll see quick gains in flexibility - not because any tissues are longer, but because they're not tightening up to protect themselves.

There are 3 different ways understanding this principal should impact your training:

  1. You might make quick gains in strength (how much force you can actually produce) by doing some mobility work, especially if you're relatively new to training.  Move all your limbs through a full and pain free range of motion, and do it often - move slowly, then quicker.  This will convince your body (I really mean your nervous system) that those ranges of motion don't hurt, which can release or unlock any restrictions that are inhibiting your performance right now (this is a part of the Z-Health system).
  2. Make sure you are strong in the ranges of motion you need to use in your martial art (or daily life).  If you like to kick people in the head (while they're still standing), then your hip muscles have to be strong when one leg is way high in the air, or your body will reduce the force it can exert while that leg is high.  If you train your hips with, say, squats and swings only - movements where your knees are fairly close together the entire time- then you can't expect to be strong when they're not close together.
  3. If you're trying to get stronger you have to convince your body that it's safe to generate a lot of force. That means STOP SQUATTING ON AN UNSTABLE SURFACE!!!  Moving on a bosu ball, swiss ball, etc. - any kind of unstable surface - tells your brain that it's not safe to push hard.  If you don't believe me, try to do a max squat while wearing roller skates.  If you're rehabbing an injury or working on your balance or trying to activate stabilizer muscles then unstable surfaces are great.  If you're trying to get stronger, then the instability will cause an inhibition of the prime movers - the muscles that generate the bulk of the force you're trying to produce - and the exercises will be less efficient.
In the end I passed my promotion and it only took another month and a half for my shoulder to heal pretty much completely.  Next time I have a promotion (if there is a next time) I'm going to stay home for 2 weeks before the test!


Monday, October 17, 2011

What I Listen To

I had an extremely odd and interesting experience recently.  Des Paroz, who produces the Applied Karate Show Podcast, interviewed me for an episode that should be released any day now.

First of all, please don't hold it against Des or his show that he interviewed me - he normally has very interesting guests and he's a super great guy, and the show is almost always really, really interesting.  I think he needed a show to lower expectations - so many of his shows have been so good and so informative that he probably felt a little anxiety over having to always top himself.  Now he can relax, knowing that almost any interview done in the future is bound to beat this one!

I'm sure I said a ton of stupid things, but you might find the show entertaining regardless.  I'll post the link when it's out.

I listen to a lot of podcasts.  I have a long-ish commute to work and I tend to do a significant amount of long distance driving, and I'm not much of a music person.  I'd rather listen to a lecture on the subtle effects of varying degrees of insulin resistance across different tissue types on metabolic disorders than a bunch of songs (I know, I'm weird).  So here's a rough idea of what I listen to, and by association, what I think you should be listening to also:

Best martial arts related podcasts:

Applied Karate Show:  Des interviews people from all over the karate world.  Very un-sensationalized, informative interviews with some greats (and some not so greats!) High in both knowledge and entertainment value.

Martial Secrets:  Kris Wilder and Lawrence Kane talk martial arts, security, and tell funny stories about things that happen at the dojo.  High on entertainment and medium on knowledge value.

Karate Cafe:  Just a couple of regular guys talking about martial arts.  Medium on information, medium-high on entertainment.

Pro MMA Radio:  Larry Pepe does an awesome covering MMA like a journalist, not a drunken fanboy.  Thoughtful analysis of the fights, the future of the sport, and great interviews with the fighters, managers, and executives.  It's the kind of high quality journalism we take for granted in more established sports.

Best nutrition podcasts:

Paleo Solution Podcast:  From Robb Wolf, author of The Paleo Solution (a book I highly recommend as an introduction to the whole paleo diet concept), weekly answers user questions about what to eat, how to train, and how his thinking has evolved over the years.  Very high in both knowledge and entertainment value.

The Healthy Skeptic (now Chris Kresser):  Kresser is a very smart guy who talks about nutrition, primarily.  Comes from a paleo-ish corner of the spectrum.  High on information, only medium in entertainment - he's a bit dry as a speaker.

Body Rx Show:  Dr. Scott Connelly (inventor of MetRx), in a show produced by Carl Lenore of Superhuman Radio, weekly discusses issues related to gaining muscle, losing fat, and proper nutrition for long term health.  Very high in knowledge and quite low on entertainment - Connelly is as dry a speaker as you'll ever hear, and the guests tend to stick to that tone, but there's a lot of in-depth information.  Shows will often go into specific metabolic and hormonal pathways, which is more depth than most sources like this.

Best strength and conditioning podcasts:

Strength Coach Podcast: Interviews with top strength coaches, mostly from around the US, including weekly Q&A's with Mike Boyle.  Anthony Renna, the host, is a great interviewer, and the show scores highly on knowledge and not bad on entertainment value.

Iron Radio Podcast:  A bodybuilder, a powerlifter, and a strength athlete sit around and talk about lifting heavy things and interview other people who lift heavy things.  Absolutely wonderful way to get insight into the mindset of fairly high level athletes and what they are willing/required to do to get strong.  Medium high on knowledge and high on entertainment.

Special mention:

Superhuman Radio:  This show is wonderful - 2 hours of Carl Lenore talking to everyone he can find about every obscure and cutting edge topic in nutrition, training, drug therapy, personal improvement, and anti-aging. Lots of ads and he's a little supplement happy, but overall quite entertaining and lots of good information.  The only downside is that he puts out on the order of 9 hours a week of shows, so it's hard to keep up, but it's hard to argue with someone who wants to supply you with a surplus of free information.

I probably left something out, but that's life.  I listen to a couple of other shows, but these are the best of the bunch.  You can learn something from each of them.  Enjoy.


Monday, October 10, 2011

An Open Letter to Chubby People

If you are chubby, or fat, (and you are if you're a guy above 15% body fat or a woman above 23% body fat or you have a muffin top or no visible muscle definition) and are someone I care about (and I care about everybody unless you work for Al Qaeda, Fox News, or the FDA) then this letter is for you:

Dear Friend (or whatever you are to me - family member, senpai, acquaintance, random blog reader) who happens to be overfat:
I hope you are able to love yourself despite your weight and/or body composition.
I hope you value yourself for the wonderful person you are, and for the unique and awesome contributions you make to the world that have nothing to do with your physique.
I hope you feel lovable, and sexy, at least to the extent that you want to be.
I hope you never confuse your value as a person with the number of boxes in your sixpack.
I hope that you never look at a model or athlete and feel bad that you don't look more like them.
I hope that you never avoid situations - like wearing a bathing suit in public or talking to someone you're interested in or dancing at a party- because you're ashamed of how you look.
I hope that you never starve yourself to look better for a special event like a wedding or a reunion.
I hope you never have surgery, take medication, make yourself throw up, or go on a liquid diet to lose "weight" and shed unwanted pounds.
I hope you're never ashamed of the joy you take from eating.
I hope you never blame yourself for the weight you've put on over the years.
I hope you never feel bad about who you are.
I hope you never suffer any ill health effects from the excess fat you're carrying around.
I hope you're happy, and that you remain happy for the rest of your life whether or not you lose any weight.
I also hope you learn to eat in a way that makes you leaner and healthier.
I also hope you figure out what makes you eat too much and gain the strength to stay away from it.
I also hope you find a better source for dietary information than Dr. Oz or Oprah.
I also hope you develop a healthier attitude towards both food and exercise.
I also hope you maintain the belief that even if your body fat isn't your fault it is still under your control.
I also hope you learn to celebrate wonderful events without indulging in empty calories.
I also hope you find the joy in being thin and fit and having a six pack.
I also hope you see that while being lean and healthy doesn't make you a better human being, it does improve your energy, your sense of well being, and probably your longevity and basic human capacity (ability to move furniture, carry luggage, stuff like that).
I also hope that you develop advanced fitness goals and work every day to achieve them, such as doing chinups, running a marathon, or kicking a certain somebody's ass in the dojo.
Sincerely and Osu,

There was a picture and associated story going around my Facebook friends a few days ago that prompted this letter.  It was about some gym that had a sign up encouraging people to lose weight by saying, "do you want to be a mermaid or a whale this summer?"  In the story one of the gym members went on about how it's better to be a whale because they have friends, are real, get to have sex, etc.  It's a cute story, and I understand, I think, where it comes from - it's the same root idea that has people telling plump teenage girls that it's okay to be plump - because you don't want them starving themselves or doing self-destructive things because of low self esteem.

A lot of my female friends "liked" and shared the post, and there were a lot of "that's the spirit!" comments attached to it.  And I, being a contrarian, couldn't get into the spirit of it.

You see, I DON'T want fat people to feel bad about themselves.  But I DO want them to feel motivated to change.  If someone is told over and over again that it's okay to be fat, that it's normal, or average, or not their fault, or even in some way BETTER than being thin, then why would they put in the effort and will to lean out and stay away from the delicious foods that got them that way?

I have a daughter.  I hope she always feels great about who she is.  I also hope she wakes up one day and decides to start exercising and eating better, because if she doesn't then she'll end up on a pizza and chocolate diet as an adult and never leave the couch - that's her tendency (which I can recognize because she gets it from me).  I was motivated to change by a deep sense of insecurity - I felt bad about the way I looked my entire life.  Is it possible to work to make those changes if you don't feel bad about it?  I'm not really sure...  I hope she can be motivated to put down the pizza and get onto a treadmill, or into a weight room, without any shred of negative feelings... but I'm not sure that's really possible.

I think that there has to be a middle ground.  Self hatred is never good or productive.  Being too self-satisfied is probably also bad for people.  Chubby people shouldn't hate themselves, but they shouldn't be too happy with their body fat either.

So if you know any fat people, don't torture them or tease them or pick on them or work to make them feel bad.  But don't keep telling them that they're perfect just the way they are either.  Find a middle ground - find a way to tell them that you love them so much that you want them to be healthier.  Show them that you value them so much that you don't feel the need to eat pizza and ice cream when you're together in order to have a good time, that you want them feeling so good physically that they can share more stuff with you, like hikes or long sparring sessions on the beach... or whatever.

Hopefully you'll do a better job of explaining this than I have!


Thursday, October 6, 2011

Preventing Injury: Muscle Imbalance

When I first quit training karate, in 1994, a big reason was persistent pain in my hips, on the outside edge.  It fell right into the range of not-debilitating-enough-to-keep-me-from-doing-normal-life stuff but painful-enough-to-interfere-with-training.  I actually went to a sports medicine clinic to get checked out, but their help got me exactly nowhere.

A decade of inactivity calmed down the pain, but I have to admit I was kind of nervous about getting back into training - would the injury recur, would I be able to continue, would I be limited in my kicking, etc.

Luckily, one of the first resources I tapped into for information when I got back into training was Thomas Kurz. One fundamental practice of his flexibility routine is strengthening the hip adductors (your groin muscles - the muscles that pull your legs towards each other) in order to improve their flexibility (muscles that are weak in a particular position will tighten up, so if your adductors are weak while lengthened they'll tighten, while if they're strong in that position they won't, and you'll have greater range of motion).

I was doing Kurz's exercises in order to be able to kick higher, but a side effect was that my hips felt better than they had in years.  Over the past five years I've made very gradual increases in my own range of motion (I tend to get lazy about the workouts, and I took another year off recently) and I'm not sure I'll ever do a full split, but my kicks are higher than they ever were before and my hip pain hasn't even flickered back.

What's the connection?  I can't prove anything, but think about your hip for a minute.  It's a ball and socket joint.  The head of your femur fits into your hip like a baseball bat fitting into a cup.  The socket is lined with cartilage - if it was all bone, then moving would involve two bones rubbing against one another, and that's not comfortable for anybody.

Now what happens to that ball and socket joint when you have muscles pulling on those bones?  Imagine someone with very strong abductors (the muscles that pull your legs apart, on the outside of your hip) and very weak adductors (which describes me 20 years ago).  Now think of your femur.  It's going to have a very strong force pulling it to the outside of the hip socket - away from your groin - and a relatively weak force pulling it back in towards the midline of your body.

What's going to happen?  Your femur is going to be pinched against the outside of the hip socket and grind against the soft tissue there.  Think that's comfortable?  Think again.  What's going to happen to that cartilage and stuff over the long term, with that bone jammed up against the outside edge of the socket all the time?

Luckily, the solution is fairly simple - strengthen your adductors.  The straddle to stand will work, although there are plenty of other options (sumo deadlifts, for example).  Strong adductors will make your footwork quicker, give you better dynamic flexibility (which means higher kicks), all while situating your femur correctly in your hip socket so you don't get hip pain.  Add direct adductor work to your routine about twice a week and you'll see some rapid improvements.  I'm currently doing 3-4 sets of 3-5 reps of straddle to stands on Valslides, once or twice a week.

Where else do we see similar situations?  Anywhere we have a ball and socket joint.  How about the shoulder?

There are important differences between the shoulder and the hip - namely a much shallower socket.  But to keep either one healthy balanced strength development is fundamental.  To keep our shoulders healthy we have to pay special attention to balancing our strength across the joint - just the way we have to balance our adductor and abductor strength to keep our hips healthy.

With the shoulder, the muscles that push forward (pecs, front delts) and up (traps) tend to be very strong in karateka, while the muscles that pull down (lats) and back (rhomboids, lower traps, lats) are relatively weak.  Basically, we spend a lot more training time pushing (punching, pushups) than pulling.

If you want your shoulders to stay pain free you have to balance all that pushing strength with a ton of pulling.  Do chinups or pullups, rows (you can start with dumbell or barbell rows and work up to rowing yourself from straps you hang from your chinup bar).  A nice little exercise I like is a dip hold - with your arms down at your sides, grab two handles - maybe the arms of a sturdy chair - and lift your feet off the ground.  It looks like you've just finished doing a dip, but instead of going down and coming back up you just hold yourself in place, supporting your body with your arms.  This trains all the muscles that hold the shoulders down in their sockets.  Make sure you keep your shoulders packed while doing this!

Balancing the muscles in your body will not only improve your physique, it will improve your performance, make you more durable, and keep you in the dojo and out of the hospital.

So add in some adductor work, pullups, and rows to your strength training routine - don't ignore those movements just because they don't directly make you hit harder!


Saturday, September 24, 2011

A False History of the Shaolin Animal Forms, or The Importance of Visualization

The old master ran calloused fingers through his long, wispy white beard and tried to hide his frustration with the young man who was, sadly, his top student.

"Like this, master?"  The boy, who had been sent to the monastery by his family more because he was a bit dim-witted than out of any real religious inclination, didn't try to hide the pride in his voice as he demonstrated the hand techniques he'd been taught.

The old master shook his head.  The boy's movements were pitiful.  "No, no, that's not it at all."

"Then how, master?"  The boy's voice betrayed the emotional wound he was suffering.

The old master, who had once been the most feared fighter in the province, winced at the old pain that flared through his hip as he walked over to his student.  For a mad moment he held up a fist as if to demonstrate the technique himself, but the toll taken on his body by dozens of injuries and one longstanding and regretful case of syphilis prevented him from doing more than pointing and talking.

 "You must move faster, more... suddenly.  Aah, if only we had a way to view moving pictures taken by people from far away and distributed over some worldwide information carrying system!"

"Master?"  The boy, whose imagination was as limited as his intellect, did not understand.

"No, wait a minute.  How about this...  move like a snake.  You've seen a rattlesnake strike at a rabbit, haven't you?"

The boy swallowed, remembering a time when he'd witnessed just such an event.  He recalled the instant where the snake had exploded from perfect stillness to blinding speed.

"Strike... like the snake?"

"Yes!"  The master almost shouted the answer, and had to stop while his fit of coughing subsided.  "Strike like the snake.  Now, do it again!"

All my personal martial arts experience has been in Japanese systems, so I always find it a little goofy to watch a movie or video where someone is training in an animal system (I'm not saying those arts aren't actually good or effective, just that they look odd).  Why on earth would a human want to move like a praying mantis, or a jackrabbit, or whatever other kind of animal shaolin monks were supposedly imitating?

However (and there's usually a "however" in there when I get an idea) there is something to be said for using some kind of visual model of movement in your training.

Think back to the first time you observed anyone doing martial arts - this is assuming you didn't grow up around martial artists.  Maybe it was a movie you watched, a street demonstration, something like that.  If you were old enough to really think about it, what came into your mind?  I remember what I thought - I was thinking "I had no idea people could move like that."  The moves I saw (in kung fu movies, in my case) were outside what I had thought people could do.  I had never even imagined that someone could throw a sidekick head high, or whip their legs around at those speeds, or have so much calm and command in a fight.

This had two distinct results.  First, it inspired me to train (in my case to sign up for karate lessons at my school), which has led to a lifelong love affair with martial arts, one that I've discussed before.  But there was a distinct and separate thing going on - when I trained, I had an idea of how I wanted to move that guided my training.

In this context it's easy to imagine martial artists being inspired or guided by animal models.  When a snake bites someone the movement is so sudden and explosive.  Now keep that image in your head and throw a punch (move away from your computer screen first).  Work to get your hand to move the way that the snake head moves.  It's easy, I think, to imagine someone actually studying animals and trying to replicate those movement qualities while training.

Now I grew up in Brooklyn, and I've seen a lot more movies than I have seen wild animals.  If I want to visualize quality movement I'm not going to try to think of a snake or a bear, and the kind of martial arts you'd get from mimicking houseflies or cockroaches have never appealed to me.  Instead, I try to visualize Bruce Lee throwing a kick, or Tony Jaa doing a flying knee, or BJ Penn sidestepping an attack (the lightweight BJ Penn, not the fat one), or GSP jabbing (I'm like the only guy who was thoroughly impressed by his fight against Koscheck).

You think your footwork is good?  Watch Dominick Cruz in a fight.  Think you hit hard?  Catch a re-run of a Shane Carwin match.  Think your kata are sharp?  Watch Black Belt (Kura Obi - the movie) or a good kata competition (be careful with that!)

Then, when you train, keep that image in mind.  Try to punch like Dan Henderson.  Close and withdraw like Frankie Edgar.  Pick whatever image/ model works for you. If you care about being effective in actual combat you're going to need to pick an image - an archetype - that fits your body.  If you're 5'2" and 100 lbs. soaking wet and you want to fight like Andre the Giant you're not going to do well.  If you're 6'2" and 280 lbs. and you want aerial skills like Tony Jaa start saving up for your knee replacements.

There is a two movement combination that appears in a number of kata in my system - turn 90 degree, do an inside middle block with the lead hand, then a reverse punch.  I gave this movement almost no thought, and I thought I was doing it just fine.  Then, a couple of months ago, I saw a particularly talented junior do a kata which contained that move, and his speed was astonishing.

Since then I've been working to do this combination more explosively, and while my performance still isn't great, it's much better than it was before.  It's as if I was limited by my own imagination - I didn't even realize the move could be done better.  Now that I know it can, I can work to improve and close the gap between my technique and really good stuff.

When you train, visualize how you want your feet to work, how you want your hands to work.  Push your body until it comes closer to those models, whether they are human, animal, or CGI!


Friday, September 2, 2011

Strength Vs. Speed?

There is a persistent myth among many people, perhaps especially among martial artists, that strength is somehow the converse of speed; that getting stronger makes one slower, and that gains in strength are necessarily accompanied by losses of speed.  There is a similar myth among some strength coaches that strength gains are necessary and sufficient for gains in speed - that the best way to get faster is to become stronger.  Both positions contain nuggets of truth and nuggets of falsehood, and if we want to maximize our capacity for speed we have to understand the ins and outs of the relationship between strength training and the acquisition of speed.

Both myths are based on some observations that are truthful,commonplace, and prima facie contradictory:
  • The strongest people alive are not the fastest people.  Elite level powerlifters are not particularly quick.
  • Untrained people who take up powerlifting or strength training often get much quicker very quickly.
  • The most visibly strong people - the most muscular people - are often not fast at all.  The stereotype of the lumbering bodybuilder is often based in truth.
  • When training a team the members who gain the most strength usually gain the most speed.
  • Very quick people are often not successful when they try to lift heavy weights.
  • It's simple physics - the stronger you are, the more force you can exert, which means you can have greater acceleration.  Hence you're faster!
How can we make sense of all this?  Does strength training make people "musclebound" and slow them down?

The answers are, "yes," and "no."  In no particular order.

We see two different kinds of errors made, depending on which myth the person works on.  Sometimes we see a karateka grinding out heavy strength workouts three times a week, for an hour or more each time, over many years, constantly pursuing another twenty pounds on his squat, deadlift, or bench.  He might practice routines found in muscle magazines - sets of 8-10 reps, done to exhaustion, with lots of isolation movements to target specific muscles.  He slows down as time goes on, but attributes that to the aging process, not his own training.  He probably thickens over time, not fighting the slight spread around the midsection because he tells himself that the numbers growing on the scale are, after all, mostly muscle.

The aging lifter's counterpart is thin and undermuscled, often female, a karateka whose most intense movement is a pushup, which she'll do in large numbers.  She does a lot of core work, and if she lifts at all, she uses small dumbells and lots of unstable surfaces - balancing on a swiss ball or hanging from straps or doing something else to make exercises harder without actually doing anything that really requires maximal force production.

Neither of these methods will maximize your martial arts potential.  To be as good a karateka as you can be you want to be strong yet supple; capable of generating large forces in very quick bursts, with an iron core that can withstand very high forces over relatively short periods of time.  You don't want to be able to run a marathon - or at least, you don't want to train for that, because doing so will sacrifice your power.  You want to be solidly built but not too bulky, because at a certain point extra muscle just means extra inertia and you'll lose the ability to move quickly.

So... how do we train for that?  How do we make our bodies generate more force without getting bulky or slowing down?

  1. Once you've learned how to do a movement (when you first learn a movement you have to learn how to do it with good form - that should only take a handful of sessions, and during that time you can afford to do plenty of repetitions) aim to keep most sets in the power range: an intensity where you would fail within 5-7 reps.  That doesn't mean you always train to failure - it just means you mostly do movements where you would fail if you did 6 or 7 reps.  You can do sets of 3 with that same weight, just don't start doing regular pushups and think you're strength training when you can do 25 pushups without stopping.
  2. Train mostly compound, multijoint movements and only do a few movements per workout.  Try to cover your whole body with just 5 or 6 exercises (one arm pushups, chinup, bodyweight row, kettlebell swing, and one legged squat will work your entire body, for example - there are lots of other combinations).
  3. Strength train twice a week, no more.
  4. Always alternate speed training with your strength training.  Don't bench press on Monday, then bench again on Thursday unless you've practiced moving as fast as you can on either Tuesday or Wednesday (or both).  You need to transfer that extra force into faster punches.
  5. Lift fast at least some of the time.  Bench pressing, or one arm pushups, are fine exercises, but most people don't do them explosively.  Alternate exercises like those with clapping pushups or medicine ball throws - something hard (requiring a lot of force) but which results in your limbs moving at a high speed.  A maximum effort bench press may produce a lot of force but your hands aren't going to be moving very quickly.  Throwing an 8 lb. medicine ball as far as you can requires both force and handspeed and needs to be a bigger part of your training routine.
Strength training will not slow you down:  Incorrect strength training will.  You will meet people who trained poorly and got slow because of it - don't let that experience sour you to the benefits of proper training.

There is something you learn - a neurological ability - that you can only learn by exerting maximum force.  Nothing will add snap to your punches as much as 6 or 8 weeks of weight training for someone who has never lifted before - that newfound ability to muster force at the beginning of a punch can be remarkable.  But building up to a 400 lb. bench press won't make you continually faster - at some point the grinding strength increases become counterproductive.

Exactly where does continued strength training become useless or, worse, counterproductive?  I wish I knew the exact answer to that.  Someone with a 100 lb. deadlift will be faster and more explosive if they can get up to a 200 lb. deadlift.  You won't get the same benefit going from a 300 lb. deadlift to a 400 lb. deadlift.  Nobody knows exactly where that cutoff is.

I suspect that stabilizing at one dedicated grinding strength workout - doing movements like the deadlift, bench press, or their equivalents - every week or three workouts every two weeks will give you the most bang for your buck.  For your first year or two of strength training do it twice a week, then taper off the volume.  If you start losing strength, add in some cycles (6 or 8 weeks) of twice a week training again, until you find a comfortable threshold of volume for yourself.  And the entire time you must continually work on speed.

Remember, one of the fastest human beings we've ever seen, in terms of fighting speed, Bruce Lee, was not coincidentally one of the earlier advocates of serious strength training for martial artists.

So get out of the dojo once in a while and swing a kettlebell around.  Or, perhaps better, load up a barbell and really tax yourself.  Your karate will thank you for it!


Friday, August 26, 2011

Exercise of the Week: Box Jump

The most important movement in which a karateka needs strength and power is the hip snap - the last few degrees of hip extension.  Think of what happens when you punch - the hip is driven forward by extension, and it's not from a deep squat or anything, it's right from a slightly flexed hip, the way you hold it in a casual stance, to full extension.  The same thing drives a front kick - the supporting leg snaps the hip forward, again extending the hip through a relatively short arc of motion.  Ditto for a side kick, except then it's the kicking leg that gets force from the hip snap.

My favorite way to develop this hip snap power is the kettlebell swing, about which I intend to write more at some point.  Lately I've been using box jumps to develop hip power as well.


  1. Stand upright in front of a box or platform.  It has to be sturdy - not something that's going to easily fall over.
  2. Quickly dip down, not into a full squat, but more into a quarter squat.  Think of a basketball player going for a rebound - they don't squat all the way down, just a quick flex of the hips.
  3. Jump up quickly.  Don't pause at the bottom - dip down, then jump up as rapidly as you can.
  4. Land on the box in a crouch position - knees up in your chest. 
The box should be high enough that you barely reach the top - you're not trying to jump up very high, then come down a long way and land on the box.  You're trying to just barely reach the box, and you should have to land in a deep squat position.  If you can land in an upright stance the box is too low.


Don't do a ton of reps.  Try 3-5 jumps each at 3 different heights.  The first 2 heights are warmups.

Use these at the beginning of the program, after your warmup, mobility training, and dynamic stretching.  DO NOT do these when you're tired, it's both counterproductive and dangerous.

Do these maybe twice a week at most.  Once a week might be better.


I like this exercise for a few reasons.
  • This really encourages you to generate maximum power.  Jumping higher is very compelling.
  • This movement is functional in the sense that you're training for and learning to jump onto high objects.  You might very well have to do that - in an emergency, when running from or after somebody, etc.  Jumping onto things is part of real life in the way that bench pressing just isn't (I mean, it's possible that a perfectly balanced cylindrical object could fall across your chest as you lie on your back, but I think it's more likely that you'll have to jump onto or over something at some point in your life).
  • The hip snap is followed by a very rapid hip flexion (the movement of quickly bringing your knees up to your chest so your feet clear the box).  I find that very little in my routine trains hip flexion, especially at speed, and nothing will improve your front kicks more than some improved hip flexion strength.  Box jumps give you twice the bang for your buck - and this is one way they improve on the kettlebell swing.
  • You can find plenty of videos online of people doing box jumps onto specially designed plyo boxes, but you can also use low walls and ledges or anyplace outside where there are elevation changes.  Kettlebells are expensive; walls are often freely available for our use. 
  • If you just jump high, or jump over something, then you have to land.  Landing can be hard on the joints, especially for us older folks.  The landing in a box jump is very soft - remember, you don't fall down onto the box, you just barely catch yourself on it at the top of your jump - and you're free to climb down rather than jumping down if your knees aren't up to a pounding.
  • The primary muscles working to fully extend the hip are the glutes.  And really, who doesn't want nicer glutes?  
I don't think you should totally ignore hip strength in a deep squat - you need to be strong through the entire range of motion of the hip, for safety reasons if nothing else.  But given how rarely you get into a deep squat in combat or sparring situations, you should focus more than half of your hip training to developing that fast snap.  Swings and box jumps are two of the best exercises I know of to do that!  Plus, being able to jump up onto high things is another cool party trick to pull out when people get tired of seeing you do one arm pushups.


Thursday, August 25, 2011

Still Fat?

I just finished reading Stephan Guyenet's post (and every associated comment) relaying some details about a disagreement he had with Gary Taubes at the Ancestral Health Symposium over, I believe, the cause of obesity.

Guyenet, who writes an excellent blog, has lately been endorsing a food reward theory of obesity.  I'll paraphrase: different foods have different reward value.  The reward value is, roughly speaking, some intersection of diversity (increasing variety increases reward value), taste (tastier food has higher reward value), fat and sugar (see taste) and ease of preparation.  People become obese because they eat high reward value food.  When they switch their diet to lower reward value food - almost regardless of the macronutrient ratio - they will lose weight.  When populations start eating higher reward value food they get fatter.  A potential cure for obesity is to eat blander food, with less variety, less seasonings, and cooked in an intentionally bland way.

Gary Taubes, in case you haven't heard of him, is a book author (Good Calories Bad Calories is an absolutely fantastic history of modern nutritional doctrine, even if you disagree with the dietary recommendations) and a journalist who endorses an excess carbohydrate theory of obesity.  To paraphrase, people get fat because they eat too many refined carbs and sugar, which causes disregulation of insulin, which leads their fat cells to accumulate fat.  A potential cure for obesity is to cut most or all carbohydrate, especially refined carbohydrates, sugars, and starch, from the diet.

The two got into a heated disagreement at some point during the AHS (I wasn't there, nor did I watch the video, so I'm going on what I've read in blogs).  I learned quite a bit from the debate, however - especially from the comments!  And I want to share my observations with you.
  1. There are different competing theories about nutrition and health (Paleo, low carb, high carb-low fat, vegan, vegetarian, ancestral, weight watchers).  Some are total crap.  Many (the better ones) have components that can explain away the evidence presented by the competitors (your vegan diet "works" because even though it doesn't include meat, at least it reduces the use of white flower; your low fat diet "works" because at least it restricts industrial seed oils along with the healthy saturated fats you demonize; your paleo diet "works" because even though you're still eating too much saturated fat at least you've increased your intake of fresh vegetables.)
  2. Each of the competing dietary philosophies are endorsed by plenty of people who saw drastic improvements in health - got leaner, felt better, etc. - when taking up that eating plan.
  3. Each of the competing dietary philosophies is derided by plenty of people who got fatter or sicker while taking up that diet plan over a range of time periods (some after years of compliance, some sooner). In some cases that may be a problem with implementation (some people go lacto-ovo-vegetarian by eating only pizza and beer; others concentrate on eggs from pastured chickens, dairy from grass fed cows, fresh vegetables, and no grains - they'll get very different results) or genetic or acquired differences in metabolism and tolerances of certain foods or food groups.  For every healthy, lean vegan you can find someone who got miserably sick on the diet for no obvious reason (not because they did it wrong) - and the same is true for paleo, low carb, low fat, etc.
  4. Strategies that work for whole populations (that is, you can find a group of people living on an island somewhere who eat that way and are healthy, lean, and long -lived) will not necessarily work for everybody.  Why not?  It could be that there are genetic differences that make the difference, lifestyle differences (that group that did well on diet X got lots of sunlight, you live in Alaska), or a metabolism damaged by a lifetime of Oreos and Coca Cola isn't the same as that of a hunter gatherer who's never tasted sugar.
  5. Whenever anybody figures out the thing that works for them - low carb, low fat, paleo, vegan, whatever - they seem incapable of accepting that it may not work for everybody.  Anybody who tells you they have the whole nutrition thing worked out is full of crap.   Look, cutting out gluten radically changed my health and, in fact, my life - that doesn't mean it will do the same for you.
So I've basically told you that you know even less than you thought you did - no matter what you're advising somebody to eat, you might be wrong - your advice might make them fat and sick, depending on the person.  And, perhaps worse, what you're eating might be wrong for you - in fact, you might be doing everything right, or so you think, and yet you're still fat.

What do you do?

1.  Start with the commonalities.

I've said this before, but there are, in fact, some commonalities among nearly all the diets that "work" for either health or fat loss:
  • Cut back on (at least) refined flour and sugar.  I can't find a legitimate diet that encourages white flour and sugar.
  • Drink enough fluid/ water (there's disagreement about how much you really need, but if you're thirsty and dry mouthed a lot you're definitely in trouble).  I don't believe that your fluid has to be from plain water, but you have to get at least some fluid in.
  • Whatever you eat, get the highest quality version of that food that you can manage: if you eat only beef, get grass fed beef.  Get eggs from pastured chickens.  For plants some need to be organic (generally, if there's an inedible skin or it grows underground, being organic is less important).
  • I am very sorry about this, but you're going to have to reduce your energy intake if you want to lose fat.  With some diets this is easier than others - I personally have a much easier time restricting calories when I avoid gluten - but you still have to, at the end of the day, consume less food if you want your body to burn fat.  But, and here's the real kick in the ass, if you reduce intake too much you'll stop fat loss.  Yes, the Flying Spaghetti Monster has a weird sense of humor.
2.  Give your current plan a chance.
  • Whatever you're doing - low carb, vegan, whatever - do it super strict for 30 days.  If you don't feel/ look better at that point, then it's time to move on.  When/ if you do move on, at least you'll know you gave it a real chance.
  • Stay away from fake foods that are aimed at your diet.  If you're gluten free, you shouldn't be eating anything that is advertised as gluten free.  Gluten free Bisquick is not real food - rice is real food, meat is real food, veggies are real, gluten free brownies are not.  Ditto for low fat, low carb, etc.  Invariably the processed products that are manufactured to meet some weird dietary requirement are substituting one evil for another.
3.  Maximize your chance of success by working on the non-dietary factors that are important.
  • Get plenty of the 3 S's for leanness:  sleep, sun, and sex.  (I should turn that into a book.)  Getting more of all 3 -but avoiding the excess of sleeping all day, burning, or acquiring an STD - will make you healthier and leaner.
  • Train hard but not too hard and enough but not too much.  Cortisol will keep the pounds packed on for most of us (not everyone responds the same to this).  Training too hard can make it just as hard to be lean as training too little.
  • Get in plenty of very low intensity movement.  Take long slow walks at night.  
  • Minimize the stress in your life.  Try meditating.
4.  If these strategies don't do the trick... MOVE ON!

I'd love to tell you that paleo will work for everyone.  I have strong philosophical and scientific reasons to think that it will.  But... I've been wrong before.  And you can easily find a hundred vegans who are just as certain that staying away from delicious animal products will optimize your health, longevity, and fitness.  So, if you've been giving any dietary strategy a real commitment and it's not working, try something else!  Eat some carbs.  Have a salad.  Whatever.  Just stick to the basic framework:  eat less, cut back on sugar and white flour, and eat higher quality food.

It took me 25 years to find the formula that works for me, and I'm still tinkering with it.  I'm not saying it will take you as long, but:  a) the end result is worth it; and b) the alternative, giving up, is kind of horrible.


Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Karate as Physical Culture

[Side note: you may have noticed that I've added ads to the blog.  Through the ads it is possible I will make some money out of this.  I seriously doubt it will ever amount to much, but I kind of feel that if there's even a tiny amount of cash flow coming in (and I made a penny on the first day!)  I'll be more likely to post regularly.  If any of you dislike the ads or feel I should pull them, let me know and I'll reconsider.  If you want to support my blogging activities clicking through on the ads will generate cash for me.  Now on to the post...]

The sport/ lifestyle/ practice of bodybuilding has acquired a tarnished reputation in the last few decades, as it has become increasingly associated with unhealthy practices (extreme dieting, drug abuse) and a lack of functionality (professional athletes who look strong but can't climb a flight of stairs).  Interestingly, bodybuilding has its roots in something called physical culture, which had a very different philosophy.

The physical culture movement, which started in the 19th century, was a system of exercise, nutrition, and lifestyle that was designed to address three major areas of life - health/ longevity (I'll group these together in the interest of simplicity), performance, and appearance.  There were lots of physical culturists, many with competing theories about methods of advancing their goals (some of which were pretty weird, but a surprising number of these theories have been borne out by science in the last 100 years).

The promise of physical culture was appealing - exercise and eat right and you could be healthier, be able to do cool stuff (like gymnastics movements or lift heavy objects), and look good.  Strongmen (popular in circuses and the like at that time) were walking, breathing proponents of physical culture, and people all around the world wound up in gyms working out on all kinds of equipment to experience physical culture for themselves.  They would train in ways that would seem familiar to a modern gymgoer, but they'd also practice skills like gymnastics.

Early contests among physical culturists were interesting.  Physique shows (where you were judged based on how you looked) were often paired with weightlifting competitions.  The guys who trained at Muscle Beach might have been after big biceps, but they also practiced tumbling, gymnastics, and other "functional" sport movements.  The earliest "bodybuilders" were accomplished athletes - to them, the idea of looking strong without being strong was anathema.  You can see the remnants of this culture lasting all the way into the 70's - top bodybuilders of that time often put on shows of strength (think of Franco Columbu blowing up and bursting a hot water bottle) when they weren't onstage in their posing trunks.  That idea is pretty much gone - you're never going to see a guy walk off an Olympia stage and into a World's Strongest Man competition anymore.

Not surprisingly, the athletic endeavors most popular with this crowd were feats of strength (formal weightlifting, picking up oddly shaped objects, etc. - the kind of stuff you'd see in modern strongman competition), gymnastics, and tumbling.  These activities fit in with both the health aspect of physical culture (being muscular and lean are both good for health!) and the appearance.  If you can do a freestanding handstand pushup you're probably going to look pretty good!

The negative things that are associated with modern bodybuilding are only possible because of the way bodybuilding has separated appearance from performance.  If competitors were expected to be able to do heavy snatches, tumble onstage, or perform competitive feats of strength, they'd be a lot more careful about their drug use, would have less-cartoonish physiques, and stay a lot healthier at contest time (because when you're as badly depleted as these guys get for contests you can't do any kind of physical competition).

What I find appealing about the term physical culture are the aims embraced by the movement - looking good was important but not the only goal.  I am saddened that the term isn't in common use today.  People who want to look good, be healthy, AND be strong don't have an easy term to describe their interest - "bodybuilding" may have meant those things once, forty years ago, but it doesn't anymore.

Now, long term readers know that I have little to no interest in self defense - if I trained in karate to better be able to defend myself it would be a huge waste of time, given the likelihood that I'll ever be in a position to have to do that.  I mean, it would be like spending hours a day studying music in case I find myself trapped in a life or death version of American Idol.  I train karate because: a) I love it, irrationally; and b) it's my preferred method of physical culture.

Now, before the angry e-mails start, I'm fully aware that karate was not historically part of physical culture - I'm not claiming that 19th century Okinawan karateka trained to better their health or to improve the appearance of their physiques (maybe some did, to some extent, but I'm not arguing that point).  My point is twofold:
  1. Karate practice is well suited to acting as a method of physical culture.  By training all aspects of fitness - strength, flexibility, reaction time, endurance, coordination, and balance, karate is possibly the most complete form of training that exists;
  2. Karate practice can (and should) be marketed as a method of physical culture as well as a method of self defense, if for no other reason than that the number of people who want to look good, be healthy, and do cool stuff is much larger than the number who are seriously concerned about defending themselves from unarmed attackers.
In modern life, for most people, karate as physical culture makes much more sense than karate as self defense.  It's easier to justify the hours spend training, it's easier to answer challenges ("does that even work in the street?" becomes a less-relevant question if you're training primarily for health, appearance, and performance), and it seems less anachronistic.  Perhaps not everyone can appreciate that a solidly performed Seienchin kata is just as cool as a backflip, a muscle up, or a handstand, but I think a lot of people can.  

I'm not advocating that anybody change their karate training - don't stop doing self defense, don't stop thinking about self defense - I just think we should spend a little time thinking about our karate as a method of physical culture.  When we wonder about the expense of training, or choose a school to go in, or make decisions about how exactly we tailor our practices, our choices should be informed by the philosophy of physical culture.

I train karate for many of the same reasons guys at Muscle Beach in the 50's practiced gymnastics - and, I would argue, for the same reason Crossfit adherents practice jumping rope or doing handstands.  

And if we happen to learn how to fight along the way, that's a lovely added bonus.


Saturday, August 6, 2011

Exercise of the Week: Overhead Squat

I don't use this as a conditioning exercise, or really a strength exercise, but more a combined warmup/ mobility/ movement prep sort of thing.  I'll do maybe 2 sets of 10 reps with very little weight (unless you want to count my fat behind as weight) before doing my kata-centric workout.


  1. Walk up to a straight bar - could be anything from a bo to a broomstick to a loaded Olympic barbell - and set your feet at least shoulder width apart, toes pointing out slightly.
  2. Pick up the bar, hands pretty far apart - not shoulder width, they have to be farther out than that, and get it overhead, either by snatching it or just lifting it (it's kind of pointless to snatch a broomstick).
  3. Keeping the bar directly overhead perform a full squat (keep your lower back straight or even arched a little; make sure your knees travel over or outside your toes, not caving in).  I like to have a mirror to the sides to make sure I'm not letting the bar travel the the front or back.  From the side your arms should be pointing straight up the entire time.  If this feels like it's stretching or cramping your upper back, it's okay - you're loosening up your thoracic spine and activating lazy muscles in that region.
  4. Stand back up; repeat.  Your arms don't bend - the distance from the bar to your head doesn't vary at all - all the motion is at your hips and knees.


People do this with higher weights and more reps as a conditioning exercise, and I'm not opposed to that in theory, it's just not how I use the movement.

The squatting movement is super important for your hips - a deep squat is probably the most important movement pattern for any athlete.  Getting that full range of motion ready before your workout is a big deal for maintaining performance and hip health.  

Keeping the bar overhead as your butt moves backwards requires a decent amount of thoracic mobility.  Basically, your thoracic spine has to arch to keep the bar from traveling forwards and falling.  Good thoracic mobility is important for good shoulder and lumbar health.  Very few of us do enough thoracic mobility work in our karate workouts.

There's nothing magical about this exercise, but it's great for hitting three problem areas at once - hips, thoracic spine, and shoulders - and getting them all warmed up and prepped for the workout.  

Try doing these before your next workout.  The pinch in your upper back will tell you how badly you need to do more of them!


Paleo Bachelor: Bacon Fried Rice

If you're a foodie, if you like to cook recipes that have multiple steps and require actual skill, then this recipe probably isn't for you.  I only use recipes that are:

  • Easy to do (little to no skill required);
  • Utilize predominantly ingredients that keep a long time, so you don't have to be super prepared when you shop to buy fresh ingredients;
  • Soil an absolutely minimal number of pots/ utensils so cleanup is easy and quick;
  • Cook relatively quickly;
  • Taste at least decent;
  • Fit my modified paleo diet (I eat paleo sort of - I'll also eat some sugar, dairy, artificial sweeteners, and white rice, but I do try to minimize the seed oils and grains otherwise)
Today I cooked a recipe that fits this broad definition.  It's not paleo - there's no getting around the white rice - but if you're okay with that it's pretty paleo otherwise.

I owe my sister in law Amy a big debt for introducing me to the basics of this recipe.  Thanks, Amy!

Here are the ingredients and utensils (this serves 2, or maybe 1 if you're veeery hungry):

1 cup white rice (basmati works well, I'm sure aficionados would prefer specific strains);
3 eggs;
1 tbs. butter (you can substitute any other fat if you don't do dairy - coconut oil, lard, whatever);
2 small onions;
8 or so brussels sprouts (or any other veggie you like - thinly sliced carrots, spinach, cabbage, peas, broccoli, kale, collard greens, whatever);
1 lb. ground beef;
5 slices uncured bacon;
1/4 cup or so gluten free soy sauce (widely available at places like Whole Foods);
salt & seasonings;
1 nonstick pan or wok, large-ish;
1 medium pot/ saucepan with tightly fitting lid;
1 rubber spatula;
1 medium sized bowl;
1 chopping knife & cutting board;
1 spoon.

  1. Start the rice (put rice, butter or 1 tbs oil, and 1.25 cups water into the saucepan, bring to a boil; lower heat so it simmers and cover for 20 minutes, when it's done let it sit for 10 minutes - once it's at a simmer you can do other stuff).  [Note:  you can absolutely use leftover rice for this, and I have it on good authority that this dish is even better when the rice is cooked the day before!]
  2. Cook the 3 eggs in the nonstick pan scrambled style, until they're dry.  Dump them into the bowl.
  3. Render the bacon - put over medium or low heat until the bacon is crispy and all the white stuff has melted off.
  4. While the bacon cooks slice your onions and other veggies into small, thin slices or chunks.
  5. Take the bacon out and dump it into the bowl with the eggs.  If you can, slice it into little bits when you get the chance.
  6. Dump the veggies into the pan with the bacon fat, turn up the heat to high, and cook them until the onions are browned.
  7. Dump the veggies into the bowl with the eggs and stuff.
  8. Throw the beef into the pan; cook until the meat is browned.  I like to add some salt, garlic powder, and whatever else to it.
  9. Dump the meat into the bowl.
  10. Dump the (hopefully finished) rice into the pan with the last of the fat.  
  11. Pour the soy sauce around the rice.  Stir the rice, fat, and soy sauce until it's nice and evenly colored a light brown.
  12. Dump everything from the bowl into the pan and  mix it all together.
  13. Dish it back into the bowl and eat.  That's what the spoon is for!
If it comes out too greasy for you, cut back on the bacon or the fat you added to the rice (but don't eliminate it altogether).  You can add more garlic, paprika, or cinnamon as you wish.

If this is too carby for you, you can always cut back on the rice and add more veggies.  I found the ratio in this to be pretty much ideal, personally.



Wednesday, August 3, 2011

What is a Black Belt?

[Disclaimer:  While I am a proud practitioner of Seido Karate, my views do not necessarily represent the views of that style or its leadership - this blog is about my personal opinions.]

I really dislike telling muggles (my term for people who don't practice martial arts) that I'm a black belt, or even that I practice karate.  It's not that I'm ashamed of it - I'm actually quite proud to be a karateka - it's that I find it hard to communicate what my practice or my rank actually means to somebody who doesn't do any martial arts.

How do I know people don't understand?  Because no matter how well meaning (and I honestly believe that these conversations all involve absolutely well-meaning people, and if you've said these things don't feel bad!) they are, people almost always make follow-up questions or comments that leave me shaking my head.  I bet you've heard the same kind of things:

"Oh, you have a 3rd degree black belt?  My niece does too - she's 11 years old and she studies tae kwon do!"

"Does that mean you could beat up (a second degree black belt, a boxer, anybody else, a UFC fighter, a motorcycle gang member)?"

"I guess I shouldn't get into a fight with you!"

"So, you're 3rd degree, and there are 10 degrees, so only 7 more until you're finished!"

"Does that mean you can (break bats with your shins, break slabs of ice, do jumping spinning kicks, break this object that we have lying around the office, do pushups on one fist)?"

"I bet you still can't beat a well place round from a Colt .45."

And so on.

I understand why people make these responses - they're trying to make conversation, they don't really know what martial arts are all about or why grownups would spend hours a week learning them, or they just don't know what else to say.  That's part of the reason why I'm writing this post - to clarify things a little.

So what does it mean when someone tells another person (someone outside the style I practice) that (s)he is a Xth degree black belt?

Implied Threat

Every once in a while people hear "I practice karate" or "I have a black belt" and hear it as an implied threat - as if someone said, "I could totally kick your ass."  Now when someone tells you that they could kick your ass it isn't just a statement of fact - it's not the same as me saying, "I can type faster than you can" - it's usually a veiled warning (depending on context, of course).  So sometimes people get defensive, thinking that the karateka is asserting dominance or threatening to use violence to resolve any conflicts.

In fact, however, more often than not a trained karateka will be less likely to start a fight with an untrained person.  We have nothing to gain from it, ego-wise - if I beat up an untrained coworker I won't have proven anything, because after 10 years of training if I couldn't whip the ass of a guy who hasn't thrown a punch since grammar school I'd be super pathetic.  Plus, we're less likely to freak out in violent situations - you throw a punch at me, it won't be a completely foreign experience, while if you throw a punch at someone who is completely untrained - or do anything else, even innocently, that might make them feel threatened - they're more likely to overreact.  Plus, we know that we're less likely to receive sympathy from judges and juries, simply because we are trained in martial arts.  So we have more to lose.

I'm sure you can find examples of martial artists who use their rank/ status as a means of bullying other people - but they're the exception, in my experience.  Bullies don't usually last too long in the dojo - there are too many tough people around who won't put up with that kind of attitude.

Cross-Style Comparison

A natural assumption people make is that a black belt is a black belt is a black belt, regardless of style.  They think that being an Xth degree black belt is like meeting some objective standard - like being an Olympic qualifier in swimming or something.

In fact different styles have widely varying requirements for promotion to black belt, and they change with different levels.  For example, it is typical for a shodan (1st degree black belt) to be granted to a student based on skill/ knowledge of the syllabus, but usually higher rankings (say, 5th degree and up, roughly speaking) take into account a person's contributions to the style - do they teach, how many high ranking people they've trained, etc. 

Additionally, the relative skill required differs greatly from style to style.  I trained as a kid in a style where it took 10 years of hard training, minimum, to achieve a black belt.  I saw my teacher do some kata the day after he got his first degree black belt and he was awesome.  His skill level was at least equal to most 3rd or 4th degree black belts in traditional styles. 

If you want to know how "good" or skilled someone is at martial arts a much better question than rank is how many years they've been training.  Of course, someone who puts in 10+ hours/ week of training for 5 years is probably going to be better than someone who trains 2 hours/week for 6 years, and someone with better teachers and classmates will advance more quickly, but you'll get a rough approximation.

Implied Fighting Ability

Other people hear "I practice karate" and think I mean to say that I could beat up either anyone who doesn't practice, or anyone of lower rank than me.  So they sometimes ask if I could beat up a particular person or type of person, to put me in the correct spot in some imagined global pecking order.  The answer is always "maybe," because the outcome of a fight depends on so many things.  I could lose a fistfight with my seven year old daughter if I get hit by a stray meteor before landing a punch.

Now, we can argue statistics, and my chances would be pretty good against most seven year old children, but if you ask how I'd do against your average 3rd degree black belt in tae kwon do, even if you narrowed it down to a particular school, the answer would have to be - how the hell should I know?  How many tae kwon do black belts do you think I've gotten into streetfights with, that I should have a solid grasp of my mathematical chances?  (In case you're not sure, the answer is zero.)

In fact it is very difficult to answer the question of "who would beat whom."  It depends on circumstances, rules (or lack of rules), relative condition (we all have good days and bad days), and luck.  The one thing I feel very comfortable saying is this: I'm better as a 3rd degree black belt than I was when I got my 1st degree.  If I could travel back in time, I'd have a very good chance of beating up my old self in a fight (though that seems like an awful waste of the ability to travel in time).  And I'd stand a better chance in a fight against anybody with my current skill level than I would have before - though that doesn't mean I'd have a good chance of beating up any particular person.

There is another aspect to this that we have to consider: age.  I'm 40.  50 years from now I'll still be at least a 3rd degree black belt - maybe higher.  Chances are that despite my best efforts I won't be much of a fighter at that point, despite my rank.  There is always, or almost always, a loss in overal ability due to the accumulated injuries and the effects of aging and training on fast twitch muscle fibers.

So what does a black belt mean?

The efforts of marketers and martial arts movie producers have resulted in a somewhat mystical and somewhat, in my opinion, misleading perception of what a black belt is.  Not every black belt is a paragon of virtue.  Not every black belt is ready to step into an action film or fight off a gang of thugs bare handed.  Not every black belt is even capable of feats that would impress an untrained observer.

Pretty much every black belt (depending on their style and school) is someone who has devoted a significant amount of time over several years doing difficult training to perfect their art.  They have met some arbitrary standard for promotion - one decided on by their instructors.  Tha'ts it. 

Does that mean that person deserves your respect?  Probably, at least a little bit.  I have respect for anybody who works hard to achieve a goal - I respect people who can play musical instruments.  My cousin Ed is a hell of a photographer, I respect him for that tremendously.  Does it mean you need to tread lightly around a black belt or worry about them beating you up?  Only if they're also an asshole - which is possible, but actually not that likely.  Violent people don't often last long in martial arts - bullies and hot tempered people don't do well when they have to regularly spend time in rooms filled with people skilled enough to kick the crap out of them.

If you meet someone who trains in karate you can ask them their rank, but if you want to make small talk try these questions instead:
For how long have you been training?
What style do you practice?  (You can follow up by asking where the style is from, etc., especially if you haven't heard of it.)
Do you train with weapons or only bare hands?
How often do you train?
How/why did you get started in your martial art?
Do you do anything outside the dojo to supplement your martial arts training?
Do you think I could learn it as well? (feigning interest in another person's hobbies is a great way to make friends!)

Treat your black belt wearing friends the same way you'd treat someone who has any weird but interesting hobby - an amateur painter, long distance runner, or whatever.  Try to avoid talking about violence and dominance issues.  We don't practice martial arts so others will fear us, we do it because we love it. 

And if you really want to understand what a black belt means, take up karate (or, if you must, some other style of traditional martial arts) and train hard for four or five years.  By then you'll probably understand!