Sunday, January 30, 2011

Reasons NOT to go Paleo

Check out this week's Paleo rodeo; some good stuff in there, as usual, from all over the paleo blogging world.

I'm continuing the Great Leucine Experiment.  Some thoughts:

  1. The leucine tastes much better if it's dissolved in at least 12 oz. of warm water.
  2. It still tastes pretty bad.  It also smells bad.  
  3. I think it's working, but I've been less than perfect diet-wise, so it's hard to tell.  I'm also handicapped by my libraphobia.  Since I can't get on a scale it's hard to discern small fluctuations in bodyfat, especially when you add in the problem of my salt intake varying so widely (I don't watch my sodium intake very much).  If I eat a few ounces of prosciutto on occasion I'm pretty sure I'm going to retain water the next day, so that's going to disguise any visual evidence of fat loss.  Overall, it's hard to tell what's working and what isn't when you have an experimental population of 1.
I went shopping the other day (not my favorite activity) and realized that there are many good reasons not to start or continue a paleo diet.  Here are a few:
  • You may receive unusual attention from the opposite sex.  This can be very disconcerting as well as being hard on your existing relationships (perhaps your marriage).  Let's face it, hotness is a curse (so I hear).
  • You will likely need to buy new clothes.  I am in the midst of replacing all my size 38 pants with size 32's. I also need a new suit and some new shirts.  Thank goodness my shoes still fit.  This is time consuming, expensive, and bad for the environment (throwing away old clothes and getting new ones).  Sorry, environment!
  • Many clothes off the rack will fit you poorly, if at all.  You may find the waists of regular (even loose fit) pants are too loose while the butt and thighs are tight.  Buy a belt!  Sorry, fashion!
  • Some people will hate you for effortlessly losing weight - you're sabotaging their ability to excuse their own obesity.  Some will hate you overtly, others will subvert you by encouraging moderation (have just one donut!) or splurges (have some cake, it's your birthday - surely one piece of cake won't hurt!)
  • As you age, your continued interest in physical activity will put you further and further out of touch with your peers.  Your old friends will gradually spend more and more time sitting in place and, eventually, in wheelchairs, while you pursue kickboxing, rock climbing, Zumba, and other high intensity activities.  This can be very alienating.  Sorry, friendship!
  • Your continued mental vitality will make you acutely aware of how many stupid people there are in the world, preventing you from enjoying the relative bliss of a long, slow slide into dementia.  Sorry, peace of mind!
  • You may find yourself annoyed and angry when you read articles by registered dieticians recommending that people feed their kids "heart healthy whole grains" instead of, say, bacon.  Knowledge is a difficult burden to bear.
  • With your newfound energy you may find yourself doing more cleaning, home repair, and organizing, instead of living in a disintegrating craphole.  This is great as long as you enjoy cleaning, home repair, and organizing - which I don't.  
  • Your doctor will try to convince you to eat more grains and vegetable oil despite the fact that your blood panels show you're in better health, by far, than (s)he is.
I could go on, but I won't.

Stick to your guns!  Eating right is difficult, but it offers serious rewards.  Try a strict paleo diet for 30 days and see how you feel.  See if that feeling is worth more to you than the joys of having toast with breakfast.  It's your body; your call.

Friday, January 28, 2011

More on "Whipping" techniques

I am growing more and more convinced that the "whipping" model of punching technique I wrote about earlier this month is a dead end.  Read this blog post and watch the videos to see a very clear description of whipping technique.  I'm pretty sure it's a bad idea (no disrespect to anybody intended).

Briefly, in a whipping punch you rotate the hips first, relax the torso, and let a "waveform" pass through the relaxed torso, relaxed shoulder, and into the fist.  This may or may not be what some refer to as "staged activation."  It feels very powerful, and if you scout around on YouTube you can find some advanced karateka utilizing the technique.  Look for the hips to pre-load (pull back before launching the technique, then start the technique by rotating before the hand moves) and look for the shoulders and hips to move separately (even if only by a small amount) and, most telling, look for the hip to be stopped or even pulling back when impact is made.

Look at this from a fairly simplistic physics viewpoint - is there any conceivable mechanism by which having your hip pulling back at the point of impact could actually make your strike harder?  Remember, you're trying to hit your opponent.  When you snap a wet towel the "pullback" doesn't make the tip of the towel hit someone harder - it makes the noise louder because a greater force is put into the towel.  That's very satisfying, but it's not going to make for good technique.

Why does this "whipping" motion feel so powerful (because, in my opinion, it really does, which is part of why people fall for it)?  Well, think about where the feeling of strong technique comes from, especially when you strike air.  You're not feeling the impact of your fist - it's not even hitting anything.  If you hit a bag or striking pad, you still don't feel the impact - the person holding the pad might, but if you feel the impact it's only in the nerves in your fist, not from the rest of your body.  The sensations you get in your shoulder, core, hips, etc. are feedback from receptors in your own muscles, tendons, and ligaments that are reporting to your brain about forces generated in those areas.

When you "whip" a technique - when you pull the hip back while the technique is at full speed - and especially when you relax your core - you're going to get a tremendous amount of force through your body.  Basically, you're adding the momentum of the hip pulling back to the momentum of the fist traveling forward and stopping all that momentum in a very short time. That's going to require a lot of force!

Imagine Superman has to stop an out of control train by pulling on a chain or rope that's tied to the back of the train.  In one instance he braces himself, standing still, and when the slack in the chain is gone he'll feel a huge jolt and stop the train.  Now imagine that Superman decides to stop the train by running in the opposite direction very fast.  He grabs the chain and runs or flies in the opposite direction.  Once the slack is gone he'll feel another tremendous jolt as he stops the train.  Which "jolt" will feel more powerful to Superman?  I'm sure the one where he's traveling backward - he'll have to stop the train and himself.  Does that mean the train was going any faster?  No, of course not.

By pulling your hip back, or stopping it before the "impact" (before you stop the punch), you increase the subjective feeling of force because you're making your body pull harder to stop the punch.  You're making a bigger "jerk" travel through your body.  Does that mean your fist was traveling faster or harder (or in any way which would cause more damage to your opponent)?  No.  In fact, it was probably moving slower towards the opponent - because the hip wasn't driving it forwards anymore.

If your hip is stopping at the same time as your fist, roughly, the "jerk" you feel might be less even if the punch is stronger (going forward at a greater speed).  You're not snapping the towel - you're not adding the momentum of a backwards moving hip to the momentum of your punch moving forwards.  You'll feel less force at the impact and deliver more force to your target.

Watch this video of Tommy Carruthers, a JKD instructor:

It's not the easiest thing to see, but he's snapping the hips through his strikes at the point of impact, not before.  And he's fast.  That's good movement.

In addition, by keeping the torso tight instead of relaxing and twisting to create a waveform you're preventing rotation of the spine.  That's good from a health perspective - making a waveform actually requires relaxing the core and twisting the spine at the same time, which is pretty much what I'd tell someone to do if they were intentionally trying to injure their own back.  The whipping or waveform motion puts extra stress on your body while intentionally making your body less prepared to withstand that force while reducing the impact delivered to the target while slowing down the technique.  I can't see the good in it.

How do we train to strike properly?  Practice punching my moving the fist first, then snapping the hips through at the point where the fist should be making contact with the target (when the arm is about 85% extended, give or take).  Keep the torso very tight (your "core") and lock down the shoulder (tense the lats) at impact.  The timing isn't easy, and it's not as satisfying as using a giant pre-load, whipping the hips around, torquing the torso, then snapping the hips back at contact.  The latter feels wonderful and powerful, but all you're doing is pulling force out of your target and into the connective tissues of your own body.


Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Do as I say...

Not as I do.  Sometimes.

I seem to fairly regularly include in this blog descriptions of how I do things - how I eat, how I train, etc.  The intent isn't just to entertain people - when I say "I do X" I usually mean to say "I do X and so should you and here's why..."  Sometimes I write what I do as evidence that it's is doable - I'll write about how I eat or train to show you guys that a middle aged, untalented guy with little in the way of willpower, two young children and a full time job can make pretty good progress by acting according to the right set of plans.  Then I'm really answering somebody saying that they can't get in shape, get lean, or get better at karate.  Today I'm going to write about some things that I do because they're wrong - I shouldn't be doing them.  Because, much as I wish it were otherwise, I'm not perfect!

So here are a few areas where I'm doing the wrong thing and I know it (there are many other mistakes that I'm making and don't know about, but I can't write about them... just think about it).

  • I don't eat nearly enough vegetables.  My diet is pretty good, most of the time, but I don't like veggies very much and I don't eat them enough.  You should eat like me, more or less, but with a ton more vegetables included (both in quantity and in variety).
  • I don't do enough soft tissue work.  I never get massages and I rarely use the foam roller at home.  I've been working my hips and legs with a self-massaging device (kind of like a stone sphere set into a handle so you can roll it over your muscles), but I don't do it enough.
  • I eat plenty of grass fed beef but not nearly enough organ meat or bone (obviously you don't eat bone, but you can make broth by boiling bones in water and get a lot of good nutrients that way).  No excuse but laziness.  If I could get a ground beef that was part liver/organ/kidney and part regular meat in 1 lb. packs I'd buy it, but I haven't found such a product (if you know of one please let me know).
  • I don't do enough static stretching at night.  I don't do any before working out - which is good - but I think I'd benefit from another 20 minutes a night of stretching.  I'm just too lazy.
  • I don't meditate enough.  For stress relief and improving one's concentration we should all meditate every day - at least for a while.  I don't.  No excuse.
  • I don't hit stuff enough.  That's changing now that I have a Body Action System in my house.  Punching and kicking air is good but you shouldn't do it exclusively.
  • I don't practice sanchin or tensho enough (should be every day).  Like I said, I'm lazy.
  • I don't sleep enough.  That's probably not entirely my fault - I get a little insomnia and I'm trying to fix it, and if I slept the whole time I was in bed every night it would be enough.  So it's not like I'm up all night partying.  But, end result, not enough sleep.
  • I don't work out outside enough.  Partly because I'm lazy, and it's winter, and partly because I'm allergic to grass and trees (the outside, I've noticed, is full of grass and trees).  
I'm sure there are others I couldn't think of (I"m not saying this list is the sum total of all my flaws by any stretch).  What's the point of this list?  Well, first of all, you should get that when I describe my lifestyle I'm not bragging, I'm quite aware that I fall very far short of what I ought to be doing.  I'm just doing better than I was doing, say, a year ago, and better than most people my age who don't pay attention to these things.

Keeping a list like this is also a key to making progress.  As time goes on I try to work on these things - not all of them at once, but in small groups.  This list was a lot longer a year ago.  I identified things I could fix and changed them.  I'm still doing that.

You, my reader, should write out a list like this (of your mistakes, not of mine).  Then pick a few of the items and start working to improve them.  Like my "I don't hit stuff enough."  I saw that on my list, asked for a BAS for my birthday, and now I hit it almost daily.  Every once in a while I need to re-do the list and pick new things to work on.  I'm about due now, actually!

Don't expect to eliminate the list completely, at least not in a short period of time.  Expect to add things to the list as often as you take them off, as you learn about new things you should be doing for your health and performance.  Stay on the path to perfection, don't worry about reaching perfection.


How to Kick Higher

I realize that head kicks have questionable self defense application.  There are some obvious disadvantages to throwing one leg high up into the air during a street fight; whether or not head kicks can ever be useful in live combat is a question better left to more experienced people (I haven't been in a streetfight in, well, ever!)  Regardless of their utility, high kicks are cool.  And fun.  And impressive at parties.  And good for sparring (people often don't defend against them, and if you throw a couple they'll often hold their hands higher, opening up their torsos for kicks and punches - fun!)

Few of us can kick high as well as we'd like.  I would like to offer a few tips.  This is not an exhaustive list by any stretch (no pun intended), but it may help you out.

  1. Prioritize your dynamic flexibility.  Many people focus on stretching by sitting on the floor or in a near -split and holding the position; this is nice but shouldn't be your main focus.  Instead, stretch by swinging your leg and quickly moving it in and out of its farthest range of motion.  Do mae keage and yoko keage (leg swings to the front and side) in sets of 10 or so for each leg.  If you're going to do static stretching, don't do it pre-workout.  Do it at night, with cold muscles.  Holding stretches weakens the muscles - stretching them cold will do more to lengthen the tissues.
  2. Get stronger abduction (spreading your legs apart with force).  Try simple exercises like slowly kicking, as high as you can, while wearing ankle weights or with bands hooked onto your feet.  Do NOT do full speed kicks with heavy weights - that's asking for trouble in various ways.  You need strong hip abductors, and they need to be strong when your legs are spread far apart, a position most of us aren't in very often.
  3. Get stronger adduction (pulling spread legs together with force).  This is good both for moving around and to increase the limits of  your flexibility.  Basically, weak adductors will contract when they're stretched (it's a protective reflex).  To avoid this mechanism you need your adductors to be strong when at the ends of their range of motion.  How?  Get into a deep horse stance - really, really deep, as close to a split as you can manage - and squeeze the ground.  Hold, squeezing as hard as you can, for 30 seconds. Or stand on Valslides or the handles of a suspension trainer, lower into a split, then pull yourself back up with your adductors alone. 
  4. If you have anterior hip pain (pain on the outside of your hips):  try stretching your piriformis.  Sit up straight. Put your right ankle over your left knee (like half a lotus position).  Gently press down on the right knee so you feel a stretch on the outside/ back of your right hip.  Why does this help?  If that muscle is tight it pulls the femur against the outer edge of the hip socket, limiting your mobility.  Loosen it and... voila.
  5. Kick with a slight anterior pelvic tilt.  That means if you throw a side kick or roundhouse kick, tilt the top of your pelvis forward a bit, as if you were sticking your ass out at somebody.  This will help align the femur and hip joint so bones don't hit each other as your leg moves high and to the side.
  6. Practice high kicks often.  This one is obvious.  Whenever you get a chance, try to have one leg up high in the air.  Hold a chair for balance of you need to.  You need to convince your nervous system that having a leg way up high, close to the limit of your hip mobility, is not dangerous.
For me, the anterior hip pain is a real issue - it's the limiting factor in my ability to get close to a split.  Stretching out the muscles on the back/ outside of the hip, to allow my femur to re-center in the socket, has been a big help in getting my kicks higher.  

If you have other good tips, put them in comments, please!


Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Great Leucine Experiment

I've managed to stay at pretty much the same level of leanness, maybe adding a touch of muscle, over the holiday season.  That's pretty good - in the past month I've had a Christmas/ New Year's vacation, my 40th birthday (with a corresponding party), and a trip to Florida to visit my in-laws.  As you can imagine, my diet has been pretty far from perfect and my training has been spotty.

Now I'm home for the foreseeable future, and I want to lean out fairly quickly.  I am going to a 3-day karate training weekend in July (with a lot of higher-ups from my style, probably including my first teacher) and I need to be able to perform well, which means lots of hard training this spring.  I'd like to be able to increase my caloric intake for that, but I don't want to do that until I'm as lean as I'd like to be.

My plan is simple.  To lean out I'm going to cut back on alcohol (I was having some gluten free beer, wine, or margaritas 3-4 times a week this past month, which is a lot for me and a lot of empty calories!), cut back on sugar (I tend to overdo the sugar, in the form of chocolate mostly, when I'm not careful), and limit my fruit intake, especially dried fruit (it's just too easy to ingest a ton of calories and a ton of fructose with dried fruit).  I don't plan to do anything in particular training-wise to lose fat, as my regular routine should take care of it.  I'll probably also try to occasionally cycle my carbs - reducing my carb intake for a day or a few days at a time.  If that negatively impacts my training I'll likely stop doing it.  These are all good things to do for anybody, even lean people, but I'm going to be more careful about them.

I'm also going to experiment with leucine.  This is an idea I had that is a shot in the dark - I'm not sure at all that it will work, but I figured I'd try.  The idea isn't really mine, it's based loosely on Martin Berkham's work, but isn't exactly what he recommends.  Let me explain.

Leucine is an amino acid, one of the branched chain amino acids (BCAA's).  BCAA's have been famous for a while now (maybe 15 or 20 years) for their ability to induce some muscle protein synthesis.  That is, if you eat a ton of protein that has a lot of BCAA's in it, or even BCAA's on their own, you get a big uptick in how much muscle protein your body manufactures compared to what you get from ingesting a similar amount of protein that is relatively poor in BCAA's or other amino acids on their own.  This happens because the BCAA's were seen to directly affect the mTOR pathway.  More recently research has shown that it's not the BCAA's as a whole that do this but really leucine (which, remember, is one of the BCAA's).

What's so great about muscle protein synthesis when you want to get leaner?  Well, two things.  First, the more muscle you build the more you'll have, probably.  Muscle burns calories, makes your workouts burn more calories, and, really, who wants to be lean and un-muscled?  I mean, what's the point of that?  Second, protein synthesis is itself energy intensive.  Building a pound of muscle burns a bunch of calories. So keeping mTOR active more of the day should help us lean out, as long as we can do so without ingesting a bunch of calories.

Remember that I only usually eat at night.  I eat a nice dinner around 5:30 or 6:00, usually after training, then a small snack (a handful of Brazil nuts and a little chocolate and fish oil) at 8:15 or so.  Other than that it's just water and some supplements and some fish oil in the morning.

If I want to keep mTOR active all day I could drink a whey protein shake (whey is very high in leucine) 3-4 times a day.  The downside of doing that is I'd be spiking my insulin all day, ingesting a bunch of extra calories, and possibly be doing more harm than good.  That's not even remotely intermittent fasting anymore.

My brilliant (not really) idea was to ingest leucine alone several times a day, during a time when I'd otherwise be fasting.  Hopefully that will activate mTOR, keep my body synthesizing protein, burning lots of extra calories, and adding muscle to my frame without adding a lot of calories to my system or spiking insulin very much (you can't really burn fat while your insulin is high, so having chronically elevated insulin levels is the #1 biggest no-no if you're trying to get lean).  5g of leucine (the amount shown in research studies to activate mTOR) is only 20 calories, so using it 2-4 times per day won't add too many calories to my overall intake, nor should it do a lot to insulin levels.

How do we ingest leucine by itself?  Now we're in the world of supplements.  I bought a tub of leucine powder for about $21 that should be around 100 servings - enough for 30-50 days of use, depending on how often I use it.  As experiments go, not too bad.  The plan was to take 5 g or so of leucine every morning, and then 1-2 more times during the day, to get the protein synthesis machine rolling.

Disaster struck.  Leucine mixed with water tastes like... I'm not sure what it tastes like, as I've never before put anything so disgusting in my mouth on purpose.  It's foul.  It doesn't mix well.  It's quite bitter - enough so that I alternate wanting to tear my tongue out with my hands with wishing I was dead so the taste would go away.  And it lingers on the tongue.

I tried mixing it with tea and sucralose.  The result was a horrible tea flavored sea of bitterness.  Then I tried mixing it with a LOT of water (12 oz. for 5g leucine) in a shaker bottle, holding my nose and just downing it.  Still pretty horrible, but I managed to keep it down.

Can I stick to it?  I'm not sure.  It tastes really bad.  I certainly wouldn't make a lifelong habit out of it.

There are BCAA preparations on the market that are high in leucine and contain flavorings to mask the taste.  If I can't keep downing this stuff I might try one of them.  They are, obviously, more expensive, and I don't want to ingest a lot of artificial coloring agents and sweeteners (sweet tasting things spike insulin).  I'll let you know how things go.

This whole experiment may turn out to be a bad idea for a few reasons.  The energy costs of the active mTOR pathway may turn out to be trivial.  Having mTOR active all day may counteract some of the benefits of fasting all day - I'm not sure my cells will do what I want them doing (engaging repair mechanisms, cleaning out garbage proteins from the cytoplasm) if protein synthesis is ramped up.  Like I said, this is a shot in the dark at a fat loss strategy.  On the bonus side, we're talking about a non-stimulant method of possibly increasing both calorie usage and muscle building, which would be pretty awesome for dieters.

I'll update this blog with results and observations as time allows.


Thursday, January 20, 2011

Promotion Thoughts

I've had a couple of posts about rank and promotions in karate rattling around my head.  A good friend of mine just earned her promotion (congrats Kathy!) and I thought I'd start writing a little about how I feel about tests.

I am a student of Seido Karate, and have been for quite a while.  I want to describe some things about promotions in my style.  I expect that promotions in other karate styles are very similar, at least in some respects, though feel free to correct me if I'm wrong.

First one caveat: everything I'm going to write is applicable to ranks from 10th kyu (white belt) through third or fourth dan.  There are other issues involved with the higher dan rankings, and to be honest I don't really know how they work - I'm a nidan (2nd degree), and I'm not privy to the details of higher ranks.  This is not unusual - in many styles I believe that higher dan rankings involve considerations such as a person's contribution to the style (who and how much they've taught, things they've done for the organization, etc.)

In my style there is a typical timeframe for promotions, though it does vary by circumstance (layoff from training, progress, etc.)  You aren't guaranteed a chance to promote - you come to class and work away, and every so often your instructor tells you it's time.  Kyu ranks are usually tested by their instructor while all dan grades are tested at our headquarters in New York.  I believe there are some other accommodations made for people who train in other countries (we have dojos all over the world), but don't hold me to that.

It is taboo to bring up your promotion with your instructor.  That is, you never go to your instructor and ask if it's time to be promoted or hint that it's time.  I'm pretty sure this is a very Japanese kind of thing.  There may be instructors who would be more comfortable with that question, but the general rule is to keep your mouth shut and keep training. 

For the most part promotions are kind of strange.  The failure rate is very low - when I went for nidan (2nd degree black belt) there were more than 30 of us from all over the country and everyone passed.  In a sense you pass when your instructor recommends you for promotion.  It isn't actually automatic, you could screw up enough to fail, but generally speaking unless something odd happens your chances of coming out of testing with a new rank are very high.  You've proven yourself by coming to class, learning, and growing as a karateka. 

The strange part is that one might think that, knowing you're almost guaranteed to pass, there would be very little pressure on the testee.  In fact, I find the opposite to be true.  If I was sent in when I chose to go and asked to perform against some objective standard then failing might be easier.  But when I go for promotion my instructor has put herself out on a limb and told the leaders of our style that I'm ready for the next rank.  If I go into testing and screw up - perform badly - it's tantamount to telling the world that she's wrong.  I'd be breaking her word, so to speak, reflecting badly on her as an instructor.  The pressure not to do that - to do your teacher proud, I guess you could say - is absolutely tremendous.  It's very much the way a kid feels when a parent shows them off - you're happy and proud, but if you screw it up you're embarrassing your parents.

The promotion itself is quite physically (and mentally) rigorous.  Not the most rigorous I've ever heard of - in our parent style, kyokushin, the promotions were far more brutal.  But unless you're a spectacular athlete the promotions are very hard, much harder than normal training.  What's the point of making a grading so hard when everyone (or almost everyone) will pass the test?  That's the interesting part.

By making the promotions both very difficult and relatively infrequent they are made into instances of mental training, or spiritual training.  The test - including the weeks or months of extra training you do leading up to them - pushes you close to your physical limits.  Enduring the test, and especially making a good showing of yourself during the test, is an accomplishment like climbing a mountain or running a marathon.  Forever after, during difficult times in life (and I don't just mean grueling training sessions), you have the ability to look back on that day and remember that you had what it took to make it through.

Is this something you should do often?  I don't think so.  Our bodies aren't meant for regular eight hour training sessions.  It's not even healthy.  But sporadically - and we're really talking about once ever few years, or less - training that hard and long can provide a psychological boost that is hard to explain to people who have never done anything that difficult.

In some ways I think these promotions are more valuable for the marginally gifted karateka.  I imagine that a very physically talented person might have a relatively easy time of the test - all testees go through roughly the same stuff during the day, and since that group can include sixty year olds alongside teenagers, the pace isn't enough to really blast someone in great shape.  So I should feel lucky that I'm not physically talented, so my next promotion will give me a better chance to develop my spirit!

I have a promotion coming up this summer.  I'll write intermittently between now and then how I'm altering my training to make sure I'm ready - though to be honest I won't do things much differently than I have been the past year or so, just perhaps more of it.  I will change things over the last few weeks to peak for the test, and that I will describe in more detail.

In the meantime, train hard and let me know how promotions in your style differ from mine!


Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Is your punch a whip or a hammer?

I'm having a difficult time lately - trying to figure out some technical issues that I can't quite get, plus having my training curtailed by an annoying rib injury incurred while napping (yes, napping).  Apparently sleeping is the most dangerous part of my training regimen.

I was watching the video in this blog post - which I found very interesting - and was, and am, bothered by it.  Here's the problem:

There are two ways of thinking about punching that I'm conflicted about (there may be others as well, but they're outside my understanding).  The first is the whip model.  In this model a punch is like a cracking whip.  In a whip, the handle is waved first, and the energy is transferred through the whip - by the time the end "cracks," the handle isn't moving anymore.  In the whip model of punching the leg locks, driving the hip, which twists the torso, which stores the energy, then rotates, followed by an extension of the arm.  Basically, energy is channeled from the ground through to the fist like a whip - sequentially in time.  This may all happen very fast, but if we can imagine taking a very high quality video of the motion we'd see the leg, then hip, then torso, then arm moving in that order.  At the moment of contact the leg and hip are either stopped or already retracting - the hip may be moving back in the opposite direction (if you scout around on YouTube you'll see many karateka are retracting their hips by the time their strikes or blocks are in full extension, and I'm not just talking about beginners).  The second model I'll call the solid body model.  In this model the punch starts with the fist - the first thing to move is the fist leaving chamber.  The hip twists as the punch is close to full extension, so at the moment of contact the hip is driving forward.  The idea then is that the torso and arm are rigid enough to transmit the force of that rotating hip into the target.  I've had teachers in various situations recommend both methods of punching.  The question for me is: which method is better?

First let's get one thing out of the way:  I don't care which method is more traditional or accurate.  I only care about which method of punching delivers the most damage to an opponent.  Any argument along the lines of, "the old masters said to do it in way X" holds little water with me.

Charlie Wildish in the aforementioned video correctly points out that many sports utilize the whip model type of mechanics.  In golf and tennis the motion starts with the hip, then travels through the torso and out through the striking implement (club or racket).  Whip-like techniques also feel powerful - but I'm not convinced that the feeling of power necessarily correlates to the transfer of momentum to a target, which is the point of striking.  Why do I say this?  Because if your hip is retracting while the fist is still moving forward, you're going to get greater tension between your hips and hand.  The backward motion of the hip adds to the force you feel across your torso and shoulder.  So the strike will feel more powerful even if the hand and forearm aren't moving faster or delivering more energy to the target.

According to a baseball coach I was talking to, baseball players are taught to "snap" the hip and wrists simultaneously as the bat hits the ball, not before.  So that's an argument for the solid body model.  Also, the solid body model should result in quicker strikes with less choreographing.  There's just less to do before the strike actually lands.

My way of trying to answer this question is to use another thought experiment.  Let's imagine your fist/ forearm (the unit that actually makes contact with the target) weighed a lot - fifty or sixty pounds.  Your arm and shoulder muscles by themselves aren't going to get much speed on a fifty pound fist.  You'd have to load the hip and really torque your body just to get that fist moving.  A whipping motion might be slow, but it would give you a much more powerful impact.

Now suppose your fist and forearm were especially light - just a few ounces, or less.  No matter how fast you got them moving - no matter how effective your whipping motion was at really getting your fist moving fast - you wouldn't do much damage with a punch, because there just wouldn't be enough mass to deliver any damage.  Your only chance of hurting somebody would be to turn your body in, adding the momentum of your hip twist at the moment of impact, keeping the elbow and shoulder locked to transfer the energy.  Clearly the solid body model.

So the question is - which model is closer to your fist?  I suspect that the "whip" doesn't add enough speed to the punch for a fit, trained person to help, while twisting into the punch near the point of contact will increase the impact.  In other words, I think that the weight of your fist and forearm are closer to zero than to that of something so heavy that you have to load the hip to move it.

There's a lot of discussion of this issue on Dejan Djurdjevic's blog.  Start with this post for his take on this issue.

This is one of those topics where I'm not as confident in my answer.  Anybody else want to weigh in?


Saturday, January 8, 2011

Aesthetic Value of Karate

Check out The Paleo Rodeo this week!  I submitted an article again.  I get a substantial amount of traffic through the rodeo, so thanks to Diana Hsieh for organizing and maintaining it!

I also added a new photo to the blog - sort of a theme/ logo type of thing.  Didn't come out the way I wanted, but it gets the idea across.  I'll work on new pictures as time goes on.

Today's post is going to expose my pitifully weak vocabulary, for which I have no real excuse.  The saddest part of it is that I was a graduate level philosophy student (although it was a while ago), and I should really have a better handle on some of this terminology.  So bear with me, please, as I stumble through what I want to say.

I put a lot of time and energy into training for karate, and I think most people have a hard time understanding it.  It's not about self defense (for me) - I sincerely doubt I'll ever be in real fight ever again in my life (I could be wrong, but that's what I believe).  It's not to be in shape - I'd do that anyway, but I wouldn't spend the time on karate skills that I have to spend now.  It's not about competition or the desire to beat people up - sparring is fun and a great release but it's not a fundamental need for me. So what's the point?  Let me explain.

There's a feeling you get (for which there might be a real word, but I don't know it) when you see something beautiful.  Now this feeling is often mixed together with other feelings - when you see a beautiful woman you might also experience lust or envy or desire, when you look out onto the world from the top of a mountain you just climbed you might feel pride, when you look at most art you might feel whatever the artist wanted you to feel (anything from love to anger, I guess - I'm no expert on art).  But think about the feeling you might get from looking at a well designed piece of electronics, maybe, or a really nice coffee table - I doubt many people get much personal emotional impact from a coffee table to dilute the pure aesthetic experience.

I, and probably many other people, experience this aesthetic reaction while watching certain sports.  Not the feeling you get when your team wins, but the feeling you get from watching a well executed move or play - dare I say a beautiful move or play.  A great jump in figure skating, a stuck landing in gymnastics, even the stride of a great sprinter - all of these things are beautiful.  They elicit an aesthetic response as genuine as what you feel when looking at any great work of art, even though many art snobs would sniff at that idea.

Fight sports are no exception.  There are many who enjoy seeing blood or broken bones, or a crazy brawl, which can be exciting.  That's not what I'm talking about here.  There is a beauty in certain things in fights - watch Giorgio Petrosyan or Anderson Silva maneuver around the ring; watch Mike Zambidis dig a left hook into someone's liver, following up with a right leg kick; watch any technical fighter execute a particularly sweet combination; watch someone like Damian Maya lock a submission onto their opponent out of nowhere; watch George St. Pierre execute a takedown out of nowhere.  There's a beauty in movement executed with that kind of perfect timing and precision.  You don't see it in every fight - that's why some fights are called "ugly" and some wins are called "ugly wins."

In karate we can see the same kind of beautiful movement.  We see the same beautiful strikes, and a lot of beautiful, focused movement in kata.  I think that's why some people feel so strongly about kata as the basis for karate - you see more beauty in kata, more easily, than in two man drills or sparring (there are other arguments, of course, I just think this is part of the emotional basis for the position).

Now aesthetic appreciation is a matter of taste.  That is, I might find a particular coffee table (or woman, or painting, or vista) beautiful while you may look at that same object and shrug and wonder what the big deal is.  That's not because you're wrong (or I'm wrong), any more than I'm wrong because I don't like broccoli - it's a matter of taste.  You can't argue with me about broccoli any more than I could convince a broccoli lover that it tastes bad.  There is no underlying justification to matters of taste that we can argue about - no arguments we can make.  You either appreciate the aesthetic value in something or you don't.  We might even say that aesthetic value is relative (I wouldn't say the same about ethical values, but that's another story).

If you watch a great kata or a fantastic K-1 MAX match and just shrug your shoulders then maybe this isn't the art for you.  Maybe you should do Zumba or be a grappler or do tricks on a skateboard.  I just don't think someone can stick with karate for the long term without loving it, and loving it means (I think) appreciating its beauty - not just wanting to be able to defend yourself, not just wanting to be in shape.

I could be wrong, of course - maybe there are people out there who train for a lifetime without finding karate beautiful, or who learn to love it after years of training.  But all karateka should remember that they are chasing a thing of beauty, ultimately.  And those of you who wonder why the heck we put on white pj's three times a week and build ugly calluses on our knuckles, remember that we see karate the way you might see great ballet or powerful music or the Mona Lisa - as something beautiful, something worth pursuing, a value in itself.  And you can't really argue with any of that.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Grouping Variables: Scientific Fallacy of the week

First, please read this post about a study on stroke risk.

I read this the other day and got to thinking (I know, dangerous).  There are a lot of ways in which scientific research has steered us wrong over the last 50 years or so that share a very specific commonality that I haven't addressed much before.  In all of them some variable was used and compared to some outcome - positive, like protein synthesis, or negative, like heart attack raate.  In all of them the variable measured failed us because it wasn't specific enough.  Let me explain with what we used to call in my field a thought experiment:

Suppose, for example, that red (and only red) M&M's contained some toxic chemical that caused liver cancer after prolonged exposure, and that nobody knew this.  Suppose some intrepid and well meaning researcher was concerned about liver cancer and spent a lifetime examining epidemiological records (perhaps by studying data collected about the diets and health over a long period of time for a large group of nurses, or doctors, or teachers) to search for possible risk factors for liver cancer.  At some point this researcher might either notice or suspect that chocolate eating was linked to liver cancer - maybe he has some theory to explain this, maybe not.  So he compares the statistics surrounding chocolate eating to liver cancer rates - what do you think he'll find?

Keep in mind that in my imaginary example red (and only red) M&M's contain some unknown substance that causes liver cancer at a moderate rate (that is, not everyone who eats them gets liver cancer, but some do).  I think it's clear our researcher will find a nice correlation of some kind between chocolate eating and liver cancer - people who eat lots of chocolate will get more liver cancer, all else being accounted for, than those who eat none.  Why?  Because people who eat no chocolate certainly aren't eating any red M&M's, while some of those who eat lots and lots of chocolate eat some of that chocolate in the form of red M&M's.  The chocolate eaters are more likely to be exposed to our imaginary toxin.

What would happen if this guy did some real science?  Suppose he took two groups of people and had one group eat more chocolate on purpose than the other, while otherwise keeping all the variables the same.  Some of the chocolate eaters would probably choose M&M's, at least some of the time, and would also eat the red ones.  Some might eat only organic dark chocolate.  The M&M eaters would get cancer at a higher rate, but if the study only compares chocolate eaters to non-chocolate eaters then the rate of liver cancer in the chocolate-eaters would be higher - but ONLY becasue the red M&M eaters would get more liver cancer.  By not specifying the type or source of chocolate you wouldn't be able to tell that from reading the study.

You can imagine what would happen next - this guy would be on the cover of Time magazine telling everybody to stop eating chocolate, the chocolate industry would go into a nosedive, health conscious people would stop eating chocolate.  People might get sicker on average - because they'd be missing out on the health benefits of good chocolate (dark chocolate) in a mistaken attempt to avoid liver cancer, not knowing that they should just be avoiding red M&M's.  It might be decades before doctors were willing to look at new, more sophisticated studies and realize that the problem isn't chocolate in general and recommend that people eat chocolate again, just not the red M&M type of chocolate.

What in real life has run a course like this?  Take fat for a great example.  Good science shows that saturated fat is bad for your heart - if by saturated fat you mean saturated and trans fats grouped together.  Why?  Because some of the people who eat more [saturated and trans fat together] are going to eat a lot of trans fats - and they are bad for you in various ways.  So if you study them together you might blame both saturated and trans fats for causing heart disease when in reality all of the damage is coming from just the trans fats.  This has really happened, in this country, over the past 40 or so years.

Another example?  Carbs.  You can look at high carb diets and show that they lead to insulin resistance.  Then you find groups that eat lots of carbs and don't get insulin resistance!  Why not?  Because it's not carbs, it's fructose.  Carb eaters in general get more fructose than non-carb eaters - but you can eat carbs from non-fructose sources (think starch, like sweet potatoes) and not develop insulin resistance (I'm slightly oversimplfying this, but the truth is close).  Carbs get a bad rap because some carbs cause health problems.  Then health conscious people avoid all carbs, when some might be better off getting some starch every day as long as they get it from non-fructose containing non-grain sources.

Want more examples?  Branched chain amino acids.  It was discovered something like 20 years ago that some proteins cause a boost in muscle protein synthesis.  So people ate tons of those proteins.  Then it was determined that it's not the protein as a whole that's signalling the protein synthesis, it was the branched chain amino acids (BCAA's) that were doing it.  Then people could take the BCAA's alone and possibly skip the whole proteins.  Recently it was discovered that it wasn't the BCAA's - it was the leucine, which is one of the BCAA's, that was doing all the signalling work.  Now those whole proteins and BCAA powders did contain lots of leucine, so the science on them wasn't wrong, it just wasn't specific enough.  The dangers of these misunderstandings aren't significant, this didn't cause widespread health damage, it's just another example.

Want more?  The study I linked to at the top of the page is a good one, and we've seen various versions of this recently.  Processed red meat is like the red M&M of the meat world.  If you measure total meat consumption against health risks for different stuff you're going to see a correlation - because some (or many) of the people eating a lot of meat are getting it processed.  The harm done by the processed meat will make the meat-eating group on average sicker than those who eat no meat - even though the individuals who happen to eat just fresh meat are just fine!  This study actually took sensitive enough data to recognize that, although the idiots writing the conclusions and the bigger idiots writing the news article about the study didn't care enough to include that.

Want more?  Omega-3 fats.  DHA and EPA are omega-3 fatty acids that are super important to your health - you need a good amount of them, and a good ratio of those fats to omega-6's, to keep systemic inflammation under control.  So lots of people go out and eat lots of omega-3 fats.  But not all omega-3 fats are DHA and EPA or are even turned into DHA and EPA in your body in significant amounts.  So people who hear that omega-3's are good for them, then go out and guzzle flax seed oil (which contains omega-3 fats, just not the kind that humans can easily turn into useful forms), they aren't doing themselves any good at all and might be doing lots of harm.  All because they weren't specific enough.

I'm sure there are other cases like this, I just can't think of any right now.  Post to comments if you have others.

Take home message: science is hard and specificity is important.  Pay close attention to the fine print in these studies, especially before you go around changing your eating habits for the worse. 

(Please note that the red M&M thing was just a way to explain my point - I have no reason to think that M&M's of any color are especially harmful.)

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Our Paleo Religion

I've been a faithful listener of The Fitcast since around episode 20 or 30 (they're up to 200 now).  Not always the best content, the hosts are at least sincere, and often entertaining.  This past weekend I was finally listening to episode 200, which included a long interview with guest Alan Aragon.

Alan seems like a nice enough fellow and has some interesting things to say.  Sadly, a big part of his schtick lately has been about attacking the Paleo Diet on various forums.  I guess, if you're not the glute guy like Bret Contreras, or the functional guy like Mike Boyle, you've got to find some way of distinguishing yourself from the rest of the marketplace.

Alan's attack on Paleo seems to consist of two points: first, that there aren't any isocaloric studies (studies where all the groups eat the same number of calories) showing that the Paleo diet provides better results than other diets, and two, that the Paleo diet is "like a religion" to its adherents.

Let me tear both apart.

First, there are plenty of studies (well, several) like this one showing that people who eat freely on a Paleo diet type of plan do much better than people who eat freely on, say, a Mediterranean plan, or the standard american diet.  The reason these studies don't turn out to be isocaloric is that the free eating (meaning, they eat until satisfied) Paleo group ends up eating fewer calories - Paleolithic foods are satisfying and don't lead to powerful cravings.

A schmuck looks at this data and says, "gee, the better results are obviously just a result of the reduced caloric intake, proving that Paleo eating isn't in itself better for you."  Anyone with at least half a brain says, "gee, it's completely fucking amazing that eating a certain style of food allows people to easily cut their caloric intake without starving themselves, and thereby enjoy a huge host of health benefits.  It's like magic, only better!"  I happen to believe there are plenty of  mechanistic studies showing that gluten damages the gut lining, for example, indirectly showing that a gluten-free diet will be superior for health to an isocaloric gluten-containing diet, and that the benefits of eating Paleo aren't solely because of the reduced caloric intake, but even if I'm wrong - Paleo eaters spontaneously eat fewer calories.  That's the fucking (excuse my French) holy grail of health and weight loss in the Western world.  To get an isocaloric comparison you'd have to force feed the Paleo eaters like geese.  Who's going to pay for that?  Corporate agriculture?  The pharmaceutical companies?  I don't think so.  So Alan gets to sound very self important and research driven, a guy who only cares about the science, while misleading the public.  And if you notice he never says a word about gluten and gut health or dairy and autoimmunity - he just decries the lack of isocaloric studies.

The second attack is a little more ad hominem and a little more annoying (to me).  Alan compares Paleo to a religion.  Which seems okay at first, because religions are okay, right (except if you think they aren't, but most Americans aren't reflexively against religion).  So what's the big deal?

It's a simple and common fallacy that Alan endorses - because things share one quality, they must share other unrelated qualities.  Here's how it works:  Religions have many qualities.  One is that they are based on faith, not evidence.  People believe their version of God is the correct one because they believe it, not because of any scientific evidence to that effect.  It's called faith.  Another quality of religions is that many religious people endorse their religion with a very powerful fervor - the term "religious fanatic" comes to mind.  I don't need to come up with examples of  people killing and dying in the name of religion to make this point.  People do that sort of thing in the name of religion much more than, for example, in the name of their love of Star Trek or Justin Bieber, even though people feel very strongly about those two topics as well.

Alan (and Kevin, the poor misguided host of the show) shows that Paleo is "like religion" because of how zealously Paleo adherents advocate for their lifestyle.  I'll buy that.  Even I, paragon of rationality that I am, have been known to proselytize my diet to an  unpleasant degree.  It's hard not to when I see the people around me killing themselves with plant toxins.  So there is a similarity between the zeal of Paleo adherents and the zeal of many religious fanatics.  He then concludes (erroneously) that the two systems are also similar in a separate quality - their lack of actual evidence.  Unless you can show that the only acceptable evidence is isocaloric studies (which are never going to be done), and you completely ignore the abundant anthropological evidence and population studies for some reason, this analogy is completely false.  In fact, since double blind studies on diet are impossible, I would say that research studies in this area are all patently useless.  Then you either have to say that science on nutrition can't be done at all (and knowledge in this area is impossible to attain) or accept that other models of research have to be accepted.

The only acceptable way I can see to deal with Alan for viciously and callously attacking our dietary lifestyle is for all Paleo adherents to immediately decide to, upon meeting him, kill or maim him.  One of us is bound to succeed eventually.  Like a jihad, only in English.  Or maybe a good old fashioned crucifixion.  You don't see enough of those anymore.  No, I'm kidding.  Seriously, I'm kidding.

If I seem annoyed, it's because I am.  I get annoyed at the Alan Aragons of the world because they sound smart, but because they're too narrow minded and too protective of their reputations they can't admit they're wrong and address the research on plant anti-nutrients.  I don't care if Alan eats himself to an early death, but too many people, many of whom don't have time to really think about this seriously, might listen to him and continue on a path of self destruction.  I mean, I have friends who might have listened to his drivel.  I have fond feelings towards Kevin, the host of the Fitcast, because I've listened to him talk for several hundred hours, and I think he listens to Alan and Leigh Peele (another anti-Paleo Fitcast host) and others like them.  And they're steering him wrong.  The sad fact is that neither Alan nor Leigh are going to make names for themselves endorsing Paleo, not getting on the bandwagon this late, so they have to fight against it to seem unique.  I, on the other hand, am selling nothing, so if my advice seems derivative... that's okay.  All I care about is being right, not being original.

I am zealous about this diet because it works for me, and, I strongly suspect, would work for many other people, where other diets have failed us.  I care about some of those people.  People I care about have died because they didn't get a chance to discover this lifestyle before the years of neolithic eating rotted away their health.  If that makes me a zealot, then that is what I am, but don't dare tell me my beliefs aren't based on real science just because you're too lazy to look outside a very narrow window of research.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Helping Women Get Hotter, One Workout at a Time

That's going to be the new motto for my blog.  Or, you know, maybe not.  I'll seriously consider it, though.

The other day I wrote out my advice for what men can do in the gym to be more attractive.  I stand by what I wrote, but I also promised in that post to do the same thing for my female readers (of which there are at least two)...  So here it is.

In case you didn't read the previous post, let me reiterate a few things.  A lot of factors go into attractiveness that have nothing to do with physique.  A great smile, a good laugh, hygiene, personality, fashion sense, genetics, skin tone, and so on.  Some of these are universal (attract nearly all men) and some are very individual (like enjoying the infliction of pain - a big turn on for some, a turn off for others).  I'm not even saying that physique is the largest or most important part of attractiveness for any given individual - only that it plays some role (whether you approve of that fact or not) and can be affected positively or negatively by what you do in the gym and at the dinner table.

Let's get to some specifics:

Add some muscle.  Yes, I'm talking to you.  No, don't look over your shoulder and pretend I'm addressing the woman standing behind you.  You need more muscle.  I know what you might be thinking - "no, I'm already too bulky, I have too much muscle already."  You're wrong.  Okay, to be fair, there might be some woman reading this blog who already has an ideal amount of lean muscle mass, but most women who think they have too much muscle on, say, their legs, or their butts, have too little muscle and too much fat in those areas.  Sorry, but it's true.

Before you start arguing with me about this, I'm not a guy who worships female bodybuilders and I'm not a closeted homosexual who wants women to look like men.  I'm just a guy who has seen what women can look like after engaging in serious strength training - go over to and check out the top performing athletes.  They don't look masculine and they don't look like female bodybuilders.  They just look hot. 

How do you get to look like that?  Lift heavy weights - deadlifts, squats, olympic lifts like squats or snatches, pushups, rows, pullups, some core training, swings, whatever.  Do exercises that limit you to 5-8 reps before you have to give up.  Lift heavy, twice a week, and don't get on a scaleEver.  That's very important - you can't be afraid of gaining or maintaining weight while building muscle.  Judge your program based solely on how good you look and how your clothes fit - that's the only criterion you can use!  Focus on adding muscle to your shoulders, upper back, butt, and upper leg areas.  You don't need to do a lot of work on the arms, neck, traps, or calves - you can, but it shouldn't be your focus.  Build up your pecs, too - this will enhance the effects of cleavage, which generally isn't a bad thing!

One last point on building muscle: don't take excessive amounts of exogeneous male hormones.  Meaning don't take a bunch of steroids to help you get muscley.  We can debate the ethics of anabolic steroids some other time, but they have a ton of side effects that make women less attractive, including but not limited to allowing some women to build up unattractive amounts of muscle.  That's why some women shy away from the heavy weights - they're afraid of looking like someone who lifts heavy and shoots up a gram of test a week.  If you keep away from the needles you won't get massive or ugly from weightlifting.

Get a flat stomach.    Lean out enough that your stomach is flat, possibly showing a little definition.  You don't want to get too lean - some guys like women ripped and vascular, but that's not the norm.  Plus, if you burn off too much subcutaneous fat you'll lose all the good fat - the stuff padding your chest and buttocks - and most men like a little padding in those areas.  How does one get a flat stomach?  Read the rest of this blog - I have lots of posts on diet.  Cut out grains, legumes, and dairy.  Cut back on alcohol (sorry).  Cut way back on sugar and slightly back on fruit.  Eat more meat, more fat, and more tubers.  Sleep more.  Have less stress.  Get off your birth controll pills (yes, they make you fat.  Sorry.)

Fix your posture.  If you have a rounded upper back (slouching shoulders), fix it!  Focus on heavy rowing movements in the gym.  Do a ton of thoracic mobility exercises - lie on the floor with a foam roller under your shoulderblades and let your body and head hang to the floor.  Do some soft tissue work (massage, foam rolling) on your chest and anterior deltoids (the fronts of your shoulders), then stretch them out a lot.  Many women - especially those with larger breasts - get pulled forward by their bodies and get adaptive shortening in the pecs and delts.  You need to lengthen those tissues or you won't be able to stand up straight.

If you're a woman with posterior pelvic tilt (your butt flattens out from the back), fix it!  Stretch your hip flexors and work your glutes.  If you have anterior pelvic tilt (your butt sticks out), well...  I don't want you to have any back pain, but a little anterior pelvic tilt is not the worst looking thing in the world. 

Move better.  You need to do something that involves athletic movement - crossfit, martial arts, dance, even yoga.  Moving well is sexy, and it requires three things: strength, mobility, and correct practice.  If you spend all day on the couch you'll move like someone who spends all day on the couch.  Practive moving with strength and with good posture.  Good karateka move very well - few things are sexier!

If this list seems very similar to the list I generated for the male readers, that's because it is.  Other than a couple of differences in where you want muscle added (to create a pleasing shape appropriate to your gender) and degree of leanness you want (generally leaner for men, less so but still lean for women), everybody should be chasing the same goals in the gym if their goal is to look better.  Women should lift like men.  They might generally use lighter weights, but they should use similar intensity - that is, if a given woman can only deadlift 180 lbs. while her husband can deadlift 500 lbs, when he uses 90% of his 1RM so should she - though 90% of her 1RM will only be 162 lbs, while his will be 450.  This will not result in women actually looking like men - only people with the hormonal profile of a man can get to look like a man, and women don't get that hormonal profile unless they inject it.  So... don't use steroid, ladies!

If this list seems very consistent with my general advice about training for performance, that's because it is.  There's a whole evolutionary reason why training to perform athletically also makes you look sexy, but I'm not going to go into it here (it's kind of obvious, I think).  So if you just want to get really, really good at karate, you should be glad that becoming more attractive is a very probable side effect of your training.

Remember - being attractive is about a lot more than just your physique, but I don't know squat about most of those other things.  I'm the last person on earth to give you fashion advice or tell you how to get a better sense of humor or put on makeup.  I do know a little about physical development, however, so give these things a try and see how it works out.

If you're successful, feel free to send me photographic evidence.  If I get enough of it I'll do a "friends of Karate Conditioning after photo" blog post or something.


Monday, January 3, 2011

How to Look Good (or, at least, you know... better)

Maybe you train and eat caring only about performance, but I'll bet you are at least a little (tiny?) bit concerned with how you look.  Even if you're so high-minded that you believe you shouldn't value anything as base as your appearance, keep in mind a few facts:
  • People like attractive people more.  Seriously, they've done studies (government funded!) on this.  So attractive people, all else being equal, will have more friends.  And a better social net is good for health (more studies showed this too!)  Ergo being attractive is good for your health.
  • Attractive people get more opportunities for sex.  More sex is good for your health... until it isn't.  So as long as you're not catching anything, being attractive is once again good for your health.
  • Being attractive can help you get a better job (yes, they've done studies on this, too) and open up all sorts of opportunities in life.
  • Looking good can help you avoid fights (How?  See the first point).  Fighting is bad for your health.  But it may be good for your martial arts skills, so let's call this one a wash.
Let's assume you're convinced, and right now you're thinking, "okay Joe, I'd like to be more attractive, how do I do that?"  Now there's a lot that goes into being attractive - good dental hygiene, good general hygiene, fashion sense, not making annoying noises, laughing only at the appropriate times, seeming sincere when people talk about themselves, plastic surgery, good genes, and plenty of others.  There's no point in talking about having good genes - either you do or you don't.  If you're not sure, e-mail a picture and I'll let you know.

Now I'm no expert on most of these things (I barely have the fashion sense to stop wearing jeans once they have a hole in the crotch), but I've studied aspects of fitness and how they relate to attractiveness quite a bit and I have a few things to share (feel free to disagree in comments if you think I'm off base with these:)

For Men:

Fix your posture.  Poor posture - especially a kyphotic spine (think hunchback) - is unattractive.  If you slouch, you need to fix it.  Start spending a half hour a day lying on your back, head back on the floor, with a foam roller or rolled up towel under your shoulders.  Strengthen your upper back muscles with some kind of row - like an inverted row on a TRX or even a one arm dumbell row.  Stretch your chest and anterior shoulders every chance you get.  Don't over do the pushing movements - especially the bench press.  Then rearrange your workspace so you don't have to slouch to work at your computer.  Posterior pelvic tilt is almost as unattractive.  Stretch your hip flexors and activate your glutes.

Get a flat stomach.  Notice I didn't write six pack.  The fact is that you want to be lean enough that with a shirt on your stomach looks flat, so that you don't have enough belly fat to affect your silhouette...  I hope that makes sense.  Getting lean enough to have a lot of detail etched into your abs is nice, and some find it attractive, but it's not nearly as much of a dealbreaker as you think.  Shoot for a firm belly with nothing jiggling and no rolls hanging out.  Getting really lean or vascular (showing a lot of veins) is not as cool as you think.

Add muscle to your glutes, upper back, shoulders... and a little on the arms - and that's it!  Men tend to think that women like bodybuilder physiques - thick pecs, round quads, etc.  There are exceptions, but women tend to like a slightly muscular physique without bulging pecs or balloon like thighs.  A thick mid-trap area, thick shoulders, medium sized arms, round and tight (and lean) glutes, a lean but not too muscular chest, and moderate neck size are more attractive to most women (and gay men, if you care) than a really buff physique. Think gymnast or Olympic diver, NOT offseason bodybuilder or football player.  Think v-shape, but not the v-shape of a pro bodybuilder with a huge chest and shoulders and a distended stomach, but broad shoulders tapering down to a trim waste and narrow hips.  Really big arms make you look like a cartoon.  Most women don't want to date a cartoon.

How do we achieve this look?  Handstand pushups or kettlebell presses, chinups, rows, some basic core work, and deep squats or swings will do a lot more for your physique than a bodybuilding routine out of Muscle & Fitness.

De-inflame yourself.  Think Brad Pitt in Fight Club.  Lean, angular, hard looking.  You don't want jowls, soft cheeks (soft skin is okay, pudgy cheeks are not), or much flesh that has give to it.  Some of that comes from just having too much fat, but I believe (and I'm going on sketchy evidence here, so it might be wrong) that a lot of it comes from inflammation.  How do we fight inflammation?  Add fish oil, vitamin  D3, cut out grains, cut out vegetable oils (bad omega - 6 fats are pro-inflammatory).  This will help you lose fat but you'll also lose some inflammation, drop some water weight, and get a sharper physique and face.

Move better.  If you move like an old person - because of restrictions (tightness), injuries, soreness, whatever, well, that's  unattractive.  Work on your soft tissues.  Use a foam roller or get some massages.  Build up the strength in your core and legs so you have the spare strength to move gracefully.  The good news is that the body control you learn from martial arts will help you move better - and sexier - as long as you don't have any interfering movement restrictions.  Reducing your systemic inflammation might also help quite a bit - your joints will probably feel better.

Now I have things to say to women too - studying attractive females is a hobby of mine - but I'll address women in a separate post.

Now let's put a caveat out there - certain physical traits make people generally more attractive.  You can always find weirdoes outliers who find almost any type of physique attractive.  Some women like their men a little softer, some a little leaner, some women prefer bodybuilder types, etc.  None of these are hard and fast rules.  But in general you're going to be better off with good posture, a flat stomach, muscle added to targeted areas, reduced inflammation, and graceful movement than without them.

I'm not claiming that these things are the most important keys to attractiveness either!  It may be that personality or grooming or whatever are usually more important.  But nothing you do in the gym is going to make you funnier or smarter, while there are exercises you can do to get a flatter stomach, and a flat stomach certainly isn't going to make you any uglier.

You might also wonder why the hell I'm writing about this.   The answer is... I'm not sure.  I just felt like sharing.  I've seen a lot of people train in ways that make them less attractive, thinking that they will be better off  (think about the bench press three times a week guys I'm sure you can find in your gym).  I'm certainly no expert on the full gamut of things that make men attractive, but I've studied enough bodybuilding and enough research on attraction over the years to know more about the physique end of things than a lot of people.

If you think I'm wrong in my recommendations by all means post to comments!

Guest Post: Kung Fu Panda - worst martial arts movie ever?

Here's a guest post from a very old friend of mine, Jonathan Rabinowitz, who was so overcome by the horror of Kung Fu Panda that he felt the need to pen this essay.  I enjoyed the movie myself, but it's hard to disagree with his point that viewed as a martial arts movie the film left a lot of room for improvement:

Kung Fu Panda, Worst Martial Arts Movie Ever

Speaking for myself, I always found consistency to be the greatest gift of martial arts. From studying Karate, I learned that doing the same thing every day led to great results. Even though it's been years since I tied on the obi, I still know this lesson, and I try to apply it often.

What's the lesson from Kung Fu Panda? “There is no secret ingredient [to success].” OK, fair enough, but that platitude is usually applied to situations with fairly overt ingredients, like consistency, or wattage, or grass-fed beef. In the movie, apparently there are no ingredients at all. Po the panda just one day starts responding to training and consequently kicks the villain's butt.

Maybe the screenwriters are confusing “beginner's mind” with the “no secret ingredient” trope. Beginner's Mind means that you approach the technique without preconceived notions, or with a blank slate, so that you stop repeating the mistakes that have stealthily populated your technique. You focus directly on the technique as if you were learning it for the first time. But this assumes that you already know how to throw a punch or kick or block and just need some going-back-to-basics in order to figure out how to avoid being sloppy with the technique. Po in the movie is completely incompetent at technique!

The story makes it seem as if each of us already has a Kung Fu master within, waiting to be let out. Po's inner Kung Fu master comes out when he's hungry, but there's no explanation of how he acquired the training to get that way. It just seems to be an innate property that he has when he's properly motivated (by food).

Taking the Kung Fu Panda approach to your own life would mean giving up everything in order to follow your dreams, then suddenly, without actually doing any work about it, being able to accomplish those dreams. True, identifying and pursuing your dreams are important steps in the process of self-development, but the consistency needed to develop competence at whatever your dream is—be it karate, kung fu, or barbering—is necessary to invest yourself in that dream. Think of yourself. If you achieved your dreams through divine intervention—if some god came down, touched you on your shoulder, and told you, “You're now a Top Chef”—would you really feel as if you had achieved your dream? The process is its own reward, and that's what Kung Fu Panda gets wrong.
 I still love the opening sequence - the part that turned out to be a dream.  I wish they'd made the whole movie like that.

Thank you  Jon for your insight!  More training info next time.


Sunday, January 2, 2011

The New Year's Resolution

I've been away from a real computer (vacation with a netbook, and I can't write on a netbook).  I had a great time, and I got to do what I said I'd do - I did one arm pushups at a party to impress women (didn't work, and I was pretty drunk, but that's what one arm pushups are for).  Yes, my wife was there.  Yes, I almost fell on my face, but that's mostly because of the alcohol.  I meant to write this post up before the New Year, which would have made more sense, but I didn't, so here it is, better late than never:

The New Year's Resolution (hereby NYR) is one of the more overused and mostly ridiculed methods of self-motivation.  In our culture we regard NYR's as being almost bound to fail - we assume that people will make a boatload of them, then forget all about them by February.  And for the most part they're right.

The basic problem people have with NYR's is that they don't conceptualize them properly.  A properly thought out NYR can be very powerful - it has a built in reinforcement that makes it stronger the longer you stick to it.  Here's how it works:

  1. Your NYR must be negative.  You have to give something up - grains, dairy, alcohol, porn, whatever.  Don't try namby pamby NYR's like "I'll work out at least 3X a week."  There is no single moment where you violate that one - the violation is spread out over a week.  A properly constructed NYR has to have very clear failure moments.  You'll see why.
  2. Your NYR must be absolute.  You must resolve to avoid something completely and forever - no "I'll only eat grains during my cheat meal one a week."  That kind of NYR is too easily adapted on the fly - the cheat meal becomes two cheat meals, then three the week of your birthday, and soon you've slid into noncompliance.
  3. Your NYR should be public.  Tell all your friends about it.  Tell your enemies too.  Even tell complete strangers.
So here's what you do:  
  1. Decide what your NYR is going to be (remember: negative, absolute, and public).  I suggest wheat, alcohol, artificial sweeteners, or diet soda as good starts.
  2. Tell everyone about it.  But you have to say it like this:  "I haven't had [item X] since 2010."
Be aware that this magical statement ("I haven't had [item X] since 2010") will sound a little dumb as you tell it to people right now, since you'll be bragging about a streak of 2 days.  However, as time goes on, your bragging rights will increase.  By June you'll be sounding pretty cool... or like an asshole with a modicum of willpower, which is almost as good.  By September all your friends will think you're hardcore.  By next January you'll be completely badass.

What's so great about this?  If you cheat at any time between now and eternity you lose all claim to being a badass that you'll have built up.  If you cheat next week... feh.  No big deal, I guess.  But if you can make it to February it becomes harder to break your NYR, not easier, because you'll be giving up a greater and greater claim to awesomeness.   As March rolls around it's even harder to cheat.  Sure, you can drink a Diet Coke in March, but then you'll have to start telling people "I haven't had diet soda since March," and who the hell cares about March?  Nowhere near as awesome as "I haven't had diet soda since the last decade."

Since I was too lazy to post this two days ago I will give you one time permission to start your NYR today and lie about it.  Cut out the wheat or Nutrasweet or whatever as of right now and tell people you started last year.  (Actually, be careful about this sort of lie, if you do it enough the whole thing loses motivational power).    But you have to start immediately - no reading this blog for the first time in April and fudging your start date.

Pick your poison and resolve to give it up, now and forever.  And tell everybody who cares what you're doing.  Scratch that - tell everybody who won't actually hit you because of how much they don't care what you're doing.  You might be though of as an ass, but you'll be a healthier and more fit ass.  And that's what matters.

Please post your NYR's to comments!