Thursday, May 9, 2013

What to work when there's too little time

It's useful to think sometimes about how much total time you have for training in a typical week and the optimal ways to break down that time into different types of training. For example, imagine someone with about 5 hours a week total to devote to training. They might do a single 45 minute session of steady state cardio (I promise to blog more about this someday, and explain why this might actually be useful, a position I used to dispute). They might do two 30 minute sessions of strength/ plyometric training. They might do 3 minutes of dynamic stretching, five days a week.  Then they might spend 3 one hour periods doing skills training (or, probably better, spend 45 minutes on skill training four times a week, or 30 minutes 6 times a week!) Maybe one of those skill sessions (or parts of all of them, perhaps the final 5-10 minutes) could be used for high intensity interval training.

Looking at this hypothetical person, we can pretty quickly figure out percentages of time spent on each of these activities. For example, they spend 15% of their training time doing steady state cardio, 5% on stretching, 20% on strength work, etc. (In case you're wondering, I think that's actually a pretty good breakdown for most people, though I can't promise it would be optimal for everyone).

Now suppose that same person had to - for whatever reason - cut down their training time. Perhaps to just an hour a week - perhaps even down to half an hour, or 10 minutes. How should their training choices change?

With an example as extreme as 10 minutes it's obvious that we'd have to completely redesign things, but when the differences are smaller - going down to 4 hours or up to 8 or 10 - I think there's an inclination to try to maintain the same proportions.  And that's probably wrong.

First, let's get one thing out of the way: if you think you only have 10 minutes per week to exercise you're probably wrong. There are lots of strategies for sneaking more time for exercise out of your day - putting a chinup bar in your house, brushing your teeth in horse stance, and so forth. But let's put that aside and assume that you've already pursued those strategies and you're only left with 10 minutes a week.

My recommendation? Stop doing karate.

That might seem strange for a karate blog, but bear with me. Being good at karate is wonderful, but your first responsibility is to yourself as a human being, not as a karateka. As you age, being able to throw a nice middle punch is great, but not nearly as important as being able to stand up after a fall, pick up your groceries, play with your grandkids, and have a cardiovascular system strong enough to keep going even if it experiences a shock - a good scare, an orgasm, whatever. Your middle punch won't help you if you're dead (this is not true if you're a bouncer or a corrections officer, but if that's your line of work you have no business training just 10 minutes a week!)

10 minutes per week is barely enough to maintain a moderate level of fitness (I'm assuming here that your life is otherwise fairly sedentary; if it's not, then we have another story). And let's face it - it's not enough time to get very good at karate.

So what should one do in 10 minutes a week? The training that gives us the biggest bang for the buck - if we want to keep ourselves out of the hospital and out of the ground - is heavy strength training. I'd say go for 3 sets of 5 of some kind of heavy deadlift.  You can do them one legged or two, use any variation you'd like - in fact, I'd say probably do them 'wrong', lower your hips a lot at the bottom, almost as if you're squatting (get your ass close to your heels when you grip the bar). It will reduce the weight you pull but really increase the range of motion in your hips. You'll get plenty of grip work (don't want to starve to death because you can't open the mayonnaise jar), lots of core stabilization, posterior chain strengthening, and build up all the muscles supporting your spine. Plus, you'll be working the biggest muscles in the body (hips, legs, lats), which will give you the maximal metabolic effect (more muscle = higher metabolism = less fat, fewer problems with glucose regulation, etc. etc. etc.) And, last but not least, you'll get some nice bone density outcomes. You're never going to get osteoperosis with a 300 lb deadlift. Just can't happen.

Don't like deadlifts? Try kettlebell swings. Not the same, but lots of crossover benefits. Have a little extra time? Try this conditioning trick: stand on a soft-ish surface, maybe a yoga mat or a wrestling mat or even an old futon. Fall to the ground - break it as well as you can. Then stand back up. Alternate falling to your left and to your right. Repeat for 2 minutes. You want to live long and be healthy? Be strong and learn how to fall without getting hurt. Don't think it matters? Visit a local nursing home and walk around for 15 minutes. Then come back and we'll talk.

I'd say you probably shouldn't spend any time on actual karate unless you have more than an hour a week to train. That is, your first hour of exercise (I don't mean the first hour on Sunday, I mean the first hour we're counting) should be dedicated strength training. Keep your muscle and bones healthy. If you have 2 hours a week, still spend 1 hour of it strength training, but add in dynamic stretching and skill training sessions for the second hour. And, if you have it, the third. And even if you have 10 hours a week to train, the amount of dedicated strength training you should need to do is probably never going to get above 2 hours, and maybe less than that - do very hard things, do them quickly, get it done. As you have more time to train you can spend proportionally more time working on skills. The nervous system doesn't adapt the way muscles and bones do - it benefits from lots and lots of practice, while muscles just get worn down from too much hard strength work.

Strength training and conditioning should't represent a fixed percentage of your exercise time; instead, you should prioritize them above everything else, but only do the amount that you need to get their benefits (bone density, resistance to injury, looking good naked, healthy metabolic function), and spend the bulk of the time you have beyond that on skills and a little cardio (to be discussed more in the future!)


  1. Excellent advice Joe, as always. I can testify that when I've been unable to get to anything else, I've followed a simple conditioning plan focusing on the large muscle groups with basic exercises. During these times the only "karate" I did was in my kitchen ("kitchen training"). You know what? When I got back to training at the dojo proper I was better at everything - kihon, kata... even kumite. I had increased strength and I had kept mentally sharp through the kitchen training. So I can vouch for your advice 100%

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