Thursday, May 21, 2015

Dadbods and six packs

As I write these there are two funny things going on, one personal and one societal. Personally, after 3 years away from martial arts training and a moderate but significant accumulation of bodyfat,  I'm back in training and leaning out, to the point where I think I'm as lean as I've ever been, or at least close to it. And societally, the new 'big thing' is the dadbod, which is, as far as I can tell, just a catchphrase for people suddenly marveling at the fact that a chubby Leonardo DiCaprio can convince models to have sex with him despite being, well, chubby.

So as I get ever closer to my personal goal of having a visible six pack, women all over are publicly declaring their preference for men with some flab around their middles.

I'm not looking for sympathy here, my desire for a six pack has everything to do with my own vanity and very little to do with what most women find attractive. I do think that this whole 'dadbod' thing is worth of some unpacking and examination, because when I read what people are writing about it I find that most of it is somewhat misguided.

1. You never needed a six pack to find people who want to have sex with you. It took me decades to figure this out (I can be pretty stupid), but while I'm sure some women only sleep with men who have shredded abs, this is not true for the majority of women, and it's not even especially true of attractive women. There are plenty of women who prefer men with some extra bodyfat, and even more who don't particularly mind it. I think it's probably more difficult to find women who prefer men who are morbidly obese, but even those are out there. And for women, the converse is just as true: there are men who prefer women in any imaginable shape & size, and there are even more men who at least don't mind an extra few pounds.

2. A six pack, or shredded abs, isn't about health. Large amounts of excess bodyfat is unhealthy. There's tons of research showing that morbid obesity leads to all sorts of health problems. But there's really no research showing any health benefit to that last 10 or 20 pounds of fat that separate the shredded from the lean-but-not-exactly-shredded, and lots of anecdotal stories of people messing themselves up trying to bridge that gap. If you're naturally lean, great, enjoy it. If you're not, starving yourself to get those last few pounds or doing tons of cardio to get there is a vanity project, not an enhancement to your health. The stress of long term calorie deprivation or very high volumes of moderate intensity exercise can definitely have a negative impact on health.

3. Many people associate having a six pack with being an jerk. I've come across a bunch of comments written by women proclaiming their preference for the dadbod. I am somewhat skeptical - I mean, if they had a chubby boyfriend who started working out and got really lean and muscular, would they really be disappointed with that? But even if I'm wrong, and dadbod really is their aesthetic preference, many of them were saying that right along with comments like, "fit guys are so self absorbed, only talk about their diets and workouts, and make other people feel bad about their less than perfect bodies." My conclusion: many people associate being ripped with being a jerk. I strongly suspect that the real appeal of the dadbod is, in most cases, due to the underlying belief that a less fit guy is less likely to be a jerk.

Look, obviously there's nothing about having shredded abs that actually chemically turns you into a jerk. But there's also no doubt that many people with shredded abs actually are jerks (just because lots of people are jerks generally speaking), and when you add that stereotype to confirmation bias, many people wind up believing that all lean guys are jerks.

So, if you want to have a six pack, and are able to manage it healthfully, and it makes you happier, that's fantastic. But don't be a jerk. Here's a quick guide to being less of a jerk (and, fyi, I am guilty of all these things, and can be a jerk, so this is very much a case of do what I say and not what I do):

  • Talk about things other than your workouts and nutrition. Almost nobody cares.
  • Eat out with your friends. Practice self control when you eat out, but don't socially isolate yourself just because you're fit.
  • Don't body shame other people. It won't make them more likely to work out and get healthy, it will just make them think you're a jerk.
  • Every hour of every day, repeat this to yourself: "Just because my diet/workout plan/supplementation regime worked for me does NOT mean it will work for anybody else, let alone everybody else."
  • Talk about things other than your workouts and nutrition. Almost nobody cares. (This one was worth repeating, and it's true even if you do Crossfit).
4. Your bodyfat percentage does not define your moral value - either way. It is quite obvious that both sides of the anti-fat-shaming/ anti-obesity argument ascribe moral value to either being normal (eating pizza and wings, not being too dogmatic about gym attendance) or super-healthful (eating clean all the time, exercising a lot), depending on where they stand. Both sides are wrong.

To the fit snobs: not everyone is at a place in their life where they want to or even can live a very healthful lifestyle. There is more to life than being shredded - socializing is just as important as exercise to personal health. And people go through periods of time (sometimes long periods!) where other things do and should take priority - like taking care of kids, dealing with difficult work or family situations, or dealing with personal issues. So stop judging.

To the anti-fit snobs: there's nothing evil or selfish about wanting to be healthy or lean. If your friend wants to eat the celery and not the chicken wings when you go  out, how is that hurting you? If they are nagging you or being a jerk about it you have every right to be angry, but be angry at them FOR THAT behavior, not for being healthful or caring about their appearance.

There is moral value in how you treat other people. Not eating a brownie is not a sin. Being a jerk to someone who does eat a brownie might be. Eating a brownie is also not a sin, as long as the brownie eater isn't shoving it down the throat of some unwilling bystander.

[There is a tricky gray area with this last point. If you have a loved one who lives an unhealthy lifestyle and either suffers from some health complications or has a family history of it, there is a (I think) natural inclination to try to change that behavior. I'm not going to weigh in on this issue - it's complicated and outside the scope of this post. Let's just say that I'm trying to tell you not to nag your healthy friend who grabs the second slice of pizza, I'm not trying to tell you whether or not you should do something about a close relative eating a half gallon of ice cream the day they get home from cardiac bypass surgery.]

I really want a six pack. But I think I'm doing it for the right reasons - it's because I'm vain as shit, not because I think it will make women like me more or make me healthier or make me better at my job. Being leaner might help my martial arts performance, but to be honest the calorie deprivation might hurt my training just as much as the decreased body mass helps. If I ever manage to get shredded abs I'm pretty sure the only change in my life is I'll have a little smile on my face whenever my shirt comes off - and that nobody will care about that but me. And if you're not vain as shit, and don't care about your abdominal definition? Then don't pursue it! And please eat a chicken wing for me!

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Back to the Grindstone

I recently got back into regular training for the first time in 3 years. I've blogged before about my reasons for not training, and about what to do when you can't really train fully, but I've finally reached a point in my life where I can do some minimal training and actually go to classes once in a while.

If you're keeping track (and there is no reason you should be), I started training in Seido Karate in the fall of 1988 (probably September). It is now May of 2015. That makes about 26.5 years elapsed since I first started training.

In that 26.5 years I've taken off - and I'm not counting a week or two away, I mean blocks of time longer than a few months - at least 16 years (maybe as much as 18, I don't have dates for all of it).

So I've trained regularly for about 10 years, despite starting almost three decades ago.

Coming back to karate training after a break provides some massively inspirational moments and some massively depressing ones.

First of all, I always forget how wonderful the social aspect of karate training is. Seeing and reacquainting myself with old friends is a large part of what's great about returning.

There are, however, multiple traps you have to avoid if you want to enjoy returning to training after a long absence.

You have to avoid the trap of comparing yourself to those who stayed. If you dwell on how much better everybody else has gotten, and how much you've lost (or at least stagnated), then you won't enjoy the training. This is a constant battle for me. It's nice to see others succeed, but it's a little difficult to see people I used to teach who have progressed far beyond me.

You have to avoid the trap of comparing yourself to the you-who-would-have-been. I'm not particularly good at karate, talent wise, but I'd probably be a lot more skilled if I'd managed to train regularly for the last 26.5 years. If I compare where I am to where I might have been it's a little depressing.

The last trap is trying to do too much too soon. Going from couch surfing to six day a week training will wreck you, especially if you're older or not particularly athletic. Take days off and get back into training gradually - if you're doing things right you'll have the rest of your life to train, and a couple days off every week won't make any difference in three months or three years. There are tools now to help you manage your workload - like Heart Rate Variability tests - that I'll try to discuss in a future post.

The last point I wanted to make is a confirmation of things I've said before: the most important thing to maintain during times when you can't do much training is strength. I didn't do a ton of cardio or flexibility training in the last three years, but what I did was keep up my strength training. And now that I've been back at regular training for two months, my technique is very close to where it was before, and my endurance is catching up fast.

First of all, you can maintain strength levels without taking a lot of time. Keeping strength will not take multiple hours a week - you can do a lot to keep your strength with, say, two half hour workouts a week, which is within what most people can manage. Compare that to the time it takes to keep up peak endurance - much different.

Second of all, strength takes longer to come back. Building lost muscle tissue just takes a long time. Re-acquiring skills (nervous system adaptions) are much faster, and the adaptions needed to rebuild endurance are also fast.

So if you don't have time to train, at least keep up your strength work. When you do come back, expect to be less skilled than you were, and expect to be behind your former peers in skill. But even if you can't catch or pass those who started training with you, you can definitely be better - far better - than if you just spend the rest of your life riding that couch.

And if you have to spar with me, please take it easy on this old man who can't seem to manage a life that keeps him in the dojo.