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!