Saturday, December 3, 2016

Creating a Caloric Deficit through Training

Your training sessions (and your overall training plan) should always have a purpose. For example, a training session might be for skill acquisition (getting better at a skill), hypertrophy (building muscle), strength development, endurance development, and so on. The more advanced you are, the more nuanced your purposes need to be (an advanced trainer might have sessions devoted specifically to power endurance; a beginner probably doesn't need to make such fine distinctions).

Having said that, a particular training session can serve several purposes at once. You can build skill while building endurance. The problem is, sadly, that the more purposes you have for a training session, the less effective it will be at any of them, especially as you become more advanced (beginners can get away with anything; if you could respond as a beginner for your entire training life you'd be a world champion with ease). Very careful planning and programming can help, of course, but there's an upper limit to how many qualities you can improve at once.

So if you want to get strong, and lean, and build muscle, and develop skills (say, in martial arts), you can do all of those simultaneously as you start to train, but the more advanced you become the harder it will be to advance all those qualities unless you rotate your goals (focus on one or two goals in each training session, instead of trying to hit them all every time you step into the gym or the dojo).

Now one potential purpose for a training session is to burn calories. Every workout will burn calories of course, whether it's your goal or not! Movement burns calories. But many people will not have that as a goal - if you're already lean, or just not interesting in losing fat, you might not care about how many calories you're burning in your workouts.

So who should have burning calories as a training goal? Mostly people who need to lose some bodyfat. For everyone else, you have two ways of looking at it: if you're underweight, you might need to minimize calorie burning so you can gain weight (assuming you have a hard time eating enough calories); if you're at the right body composition for you, then you might just ignore this topic altogether. Good for you; and by the way, I hate you. Nothing personal.

I'm sure there are ways to train that minimize calorie burn. I have never, for one second, thought about any of them. Because I am fat and could not imagine caring less. Read someone else's blog if you're worried about burning too many calories.

Here are the guidelines for us regular people who need to burn some extra energy:

1. Normal people can't exercise their way past a bad diet. Now we've all read stories about how much Michael Phelps or some other Olympic athlete can eat and still stay lean. Repeat after me: you are not an Olympic athlete (unless you are, in which case, welcome to Karate Conditioning!) You aren't training 6, 7, or 8 hours a day, every day. 

Normal people (meaning, people who are not professional athletes; people who have jobs or kids or whatever) can't exercise enough to make up for a bad diet. It is so much easier to consume energy than it is to burn it. I can easily eat a pint of ice cream or 4 donuts in a sitting, but "burning off" the 1000-2000 calories that food represents takes hours of hard exercise.

If your diet is pretty good (you're consuming an amount of calories close to your maintenance needs, or a bit less), then exercise can help create fat loss IFF you don't then go ahead and 'make up' for the calories you burned by eating more. And research shows over and over again that people who exercise and don't pay attention to diet don't end up losing weight, they just end up eating more.

So IF you are training in the hope of losing weight, you simply can't ignore diet and hope to be successful. You CAN use exercise as a supplement to careful control of your caloric intake to 'add up' to a caloric deficit.

2. Calories burned during the workout is pretty much intensity X time. Roughly speaking, how many calories you burn in a workout roughly depends on two things: how hard you work and for how long. A max squat or bench press (lifting as much weight as you can handle for a single rep) just isn't going to burn very many calories no matter how strong you are - yes, you'll burn more calories benching 500 lbs. for a single rep than you would benching 250 lbs. for a single rep, but you'd burn way, way more calories benching 250 lbs. for 10 reps. Doing a single 100 m sprint won't lean you out. However, things get more complicated when you repeat maximal efforts - benching 500 lbs for a single, repeated 10 times, will burn more calories than 250 lbs. benched 10 times in a single set and might burn more than twice as many.

3. Calories burned during the workout is only half the picture. If you read #2 above, you might think that the key to sustainable fat loss would be to do long medium intensity work. That is, go to the gym, hop on the elliptical or treadmill, and get your heartrate up to about 155 or 160 or however high you can stand it and keep that pegged for as long as you can. And that is, in fact, probably the best way to burn the highest number of calories in any single workout (you can try this for yourself - use some machine that measures calories burned, and do interval training, where you put in maximal efforts for 20 or 30 seconds, then rest, then repeat. Try it again another day where you hit a medium heart rate but sustain it for the full time. You'll see that you end up burning more energy with the sustained workout than with the intervals).

Now I'm not saying that approach absolutely won't work. But it isn't the best way to get results. If you try to lose fat by heading into the gym, hopping on the elliptical, and jacking your heart rate up to 165 for 50 minutes, then repeating 4-5 times per week, you will definitely burn calories. But you probably won't be maximizing your overall fat burning.

Why not? Two reasons. First, that kind of medium intensity, long duration work will push you way into a sympathetic state. It's a lot of stress for your body, and unless you're very resilient that will lower insulin sensitivity, increase inflammation, and generally have a lot of effects that will prevent you from achieving your physiological goals.

Second, while that workload is kind of a grind, it isn't intense enough to force your body to make energetically expensive adaptations. You won't build new muscle, or at least not much, from that (at least not as well as you would from higher intensity, shorter workouts). Which leads us into #4...

4. Maximize post-exercise caloric burn with highly varied, highly intense workouts. The thing about low or medium intensity workouts is that you adapt to them really quickly. And that's fine, except for this: adaption requires energy. If you do the kind of workout that traumatizes your body, makes you sore, damages muscle tissue, etc., then your body will have to expend energy to repair that damage and to supercompensate for it. In other words, not only will very intense workouts build muscle, which leads to a higher basal metabolic rate and contributes to fat burning, but the very act of repairing and building muscle takes energy

If you're relatively new to exercise, you might get that kind of muscle damage/ repair going with just about anything. But if you're in relatively good shape, you're going to have to work hard to prompt those kind of adaptations. And moderate intensity, long duration exercise isn't going to cut it.

You're going to have to work at the kind of intensity that you simply can't maintain for 45 minutes. We're talking HIIT, hypertrophy workouts, something more intense than a treadmill at 10 degrees elevation and 3.5 mph.

And, to really promote adaptions, you can't just do the same thing every time, over and over again. You have to frequently switch exercises, rep schemes, and loads, to continually force your body to adapt. Think about how sore you get from an exercise you've done every week for 3 months vs. the exercise you've never tried before - which one do you think is stimulating more energy cost in repair and growth?

5. You can only handle a limited amount of varied, highly intense workouts. Ha! You read #4 and you're thinking, 'great, I can do super hard 20 minute workouts all the time and I'll get super lean and jacked.' That can work, for some people, of course. If you have a metabolic and hormonal profile that lets you recover from those workouts quickly, and repeat them often, then this might be enough for you (this usually applies to young, healthy people, especially males). But for many of us, the recovery is slow (meaning, we can't do those workouts more than 2 or maybe 3 times a week without getting wrecked), and the stress is too much (meaning, those workouts shove us so far into the sympathetic side that we end up with high inflammation, poor sleep, and a host of other ill effects). So your personal mileage may vary in trying to get lean on HIIT alone.

6. If you've 'maxed out' your load of high intensity training, you can probably manage to add some low intensity along with it. Let's assume that you're doing 2 or so really intense workouts every week. You might want to do a third, but you start to feel stressed and burned out from that much really hard work (maybe you're older, have a hard job, are in less than perfect health, have kids, whatever). But two workouts a week, even if they're relatively intense, aren't going to burn a ton of calories. Where can you go from there?

If you added long, medium intensity workouts (160 heart rate on a treadmill), you'd probably just recover even less from your 'hard' workouts, add to your stress, and end up miserable. Yes, those workouts would burn plenty of calories, but they might mess you up in all those other ways.

BUT if you instead do more training in the lower intensity ranges, say below 130 beats per minute for aerobic benefits, or even lower, say leisurely strolls around the neighborhood with your dog, you can create a larger energy deficit without suffering too many of the problems associated with being over stressed.

TAKEHOME MESSAGE: To create a larger energy deficit, do very high intensity training a few times a week - two or three. Vary the exercises, pace, and so forth, so that you are constantly adapting to the varying stresses. Then fill in the rest of the time with low or very low intensity work, the kind that doesn't even leave you out of breath, to burn extra calories.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Intensity is the Key to Conditioning

I've been experimenting a lot lately with lower intensity training, as I've written about here and here, among other places.

Now intensity can mean many different things in different contexts - like percentage of one rep max when lifting weights, for example. From a conditioning perspective I mean something more like heart rate. I think of low intensity as any activity that keeps my heart rate lower than 140 or so beats per minute, or averages around that but never goes much higher. Jogging, not sprinting. If you do intervals in that zone, they have to be short with decent amounts of rest in between - maybe bursts of activity lasting no more than 5-10 seconds.

There was a time when I thought such work was useless - that was a big trend in fitness towards the early part of this century. There was a sort of general overreaction to the old paradigm, which placed a lot of importance on doing lots of low intensity training. Just as the proponents of doing lots of low intensity work were wrong, I was wrong to say it was useless.

The thing is that low intensity training (again, keeping heart rate at or below 140 beats per minute, more or less) does result in some adaptations that are useful. You'll increase your cardiac stroke volume, which will increase the rate of recovery from training, and make you more fit for daily life (activities like light hiking, climbing stairs, etc.). That will probably help you recover faster in between workouts, which will ultimately lead to an increase in how much training volume you can withstand. all of these are good results, and important to martial artists.

The problem/concern/thing to keep in mind is that low intensity training really doesn't do much to improve your ability to do high intensity exercise.

To put it a little more technically, work done that doesn't involve the lactic energy system won't result in improvements in the lactic energy system. And low intensity work isn't very lactic.

This all came to a head for me the other week. I've been doing, as I said, mostly alactic and aerobic work - work that kept my heart rate in the lower range. When I did strength training, which was more intense, I was doing very short sets (although a lot of them), which again doesn't really tap the lactic energy systems, even though it's been doing interesting things for hypertrophy.

That's been my training modality for probably six or eight months.

Then I joined a gym.

First, a personal trainer put me through a short but fairly intense workout - short circuits with weights, sled pushing, that kind of stuff.

Now I'm fairly strong - I've been doing strength training - but my body's ability to handle those longer sets is completely gone. I'm strong enough to push the sled hard, but I'm not able to handle the lactic acid buildup from doing so.

Then I started doing kata for the first time in a year.

Now kata, unlike the microsets I've been experimenting with, are definitely long enough to put some serious demands on that lactic energy system. Kata in my style take roughly 45 s to a couple of minutes, rarely less than that, certainly not 5-10 seconds.

And. They. Kicked. My. Ass.

What's the take home?

Aerobic endurance training, by itself, will NOT get you in shape for more intense activities. I've said this before (but sometimes it seems I need a reminder).

If you want to get in shape for sparring or kata practice some (or most, but not all) of your endurance training has to be at an intensity at least as high (preferably higher) than your sparring or kata practice.

And by intensity I mean the heart rate that results from the training.

HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) is probably the best way to do this. I've written up HIIT protocols before on this blog, I'll add some more soon.

Low intensity training like the SVT I described before is good for you, will make you healthier, help you recover between workouts better, and improve your quality of life, but it will NOT get you in shape for serious work. My aerobic fitness is higher than it's been in a long time, but my ability to handle lactic work is shot.

The good news is that lactic conditioning comes fairly quickly. If you're in decent aerobic shape, a few weeks/months of HIIT will make you significantly better at high intensity training. It's hard work, and very unpleasant, but the results come quickly (unlike strength training, where it takes years to make real progress).

So wish me luck as I pull out the old dumbells and start up my Tabata -style One Arm Dumbell Power Snatch workouts again.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

What I've been listening to (Podcasts)

I'm a big fan of podcasts, to listen to during steady state cardio, while driving, and sometimes while working (I work from a desk and have relatively little verbal interaction with anybody while working, so the podcasts are rarely interrupting, say, a phone call or a conversation).

There are podcasts on every topic under the sun, but I mostly listen to podcasts related to martial arts or fitness/nutrition.

I tend to think of podcasts I like in two different ways. First, how much information do you get - and by information I mean the kind of stuff you might learn from a textbook or training manual. Second is how entertaining or motivational it is - how funny are the hosts, how interesting are the stories involved.

There's nothing wrong with a podcast that aims to be primarily entertaining, just as there's nothing wrong with one that can be dry but contains lost of information.

Also keep in mind that these vary in what kind of content they include. Iron Radio is really for strength athletes - it's about getting big and strong. If you're not interested in that, it won't be for you.

I'm going to include all my regulars, with ratings based on both parameters and a little writeup.

One other note: All of these podcasts are free. Some have ads. Some have patreon support enabled, which allows you to easily make regular contributions to the shows, but you don't have to do so (I personally give them money whenever I can).

Martial Arts:

Entertainment Value: High
Information Content: High

Hosts Connor Ruebusch and Patrick Wyman analyze fights, mostly discussing MMA with a few forays into boxing and even fewer into kickboxing. All the analysis is geared exclusively to combat sports, so if all you care about is self defense/streetfighting this isn't the place for you.

Both hosts are personable and fun, so they engage in some entertaining banter and occasionally disagree, making this an easy and fun listen. But it's the quality of the analysis where this show really shines. The hosts consistently analyze fight sports from a position of understanding the styles of various fighters - outfighters, pressure fighters, counterpunchers, etc., complete with a lot of discussion of how fighters of each style can make adjustments to match up better against their opponents.

Fights Gone By (Jack Slack)
Entertainment Value: Medium/Low
Information Content: Very High

Jack Slack is by far the best and most interesting combat analyst in the game today. Like Heavy Hands, focuses mostly on combat sports, but he will dip his toe into analysis of other topics, like history of combat techniques and even karate style sparring analysis (that's more in his writings than in his podcast). You should definitely be reading his articles for Fightland.

He podcasts by himself, and has a rather dry tone, but the content is absolute gold and very, very technical. They're available on YouTube, but there isn't a ton of visual content, so don't sweat it too much if you can only listen.

Entertainment Value: Medium
Information Content: Medium

Steven Wright, a high level MMA striking coach, podcasts about his first love, kickboxing (both Muay Thai and European style). It's usually just him, though he occasionally has an interview scheduled.

I put the information content as medium because the show isn't very technical - you're not going to learn how to be a better kickboxer from listening to it. It's (by design) really just coverage of the sport, and Steven excels at covering each week's important bouts, their ramifications, and so forth. For what it's trying to do it is great, but if you don't care about the sport of kickboxing give this one a pass.

Entertainment Value: Low
Information Content: High

Iain Abernathy's podcasts come across like a guy reading a blog post he's written. He seems like a lovely fellow, but it isn't sparkling entertainment.

What he does deliver is, unlike the previous three podcasts, is information related to traditional karate practice. He focuses a lot on bunkai (applications taken from kata), self defense, some historical analysis of karate, and some philosophical posts about karate. Very informative if you're interested in that stuff, even if you don't agree with everything he says.

Honorable Mention:
Applied Karate (Des Paroz)
Entertainment Value: High
Information Content: High

Des hasn't put out a new episode in almost 5 years, but you should listen to the first 14 episodes if you have a chance. Des interviewed some really high ranking, important karateka (and me, though that apprently killed the enterprise entirely.) Super valuable for the history contained there, and great to listen to if you care about the history side of martial arts.

General Fitness/Nutrition:

The Fitcast (Kevin Larrabee)
Entertainment Value: Very High
Information Content: Medium

This was one of the first podcasts I listened to, so it holds a warm place in my heart. It's been running for 10 years, but the quality has really gone up dramatically in the  last 2. I don't recommend going back before episode 300 (it's up to 412 as I write this).

The show is free, though patreon supporters get early access. Kevin interviews leading professionals in the strength and fitness industry. The discussion tend to be more about his guests' personal history and experiences in the industry, and less technical, with occasional exceptions. He does get deep into motivational/self help topics on occasion, so if you like that you'll love the show.

Entertainment Value: High
Information Content: Medium

I love this show more than I can say. It's more about strength athletes (powerlifting, strongman, bodybuilding, weightlifting), so the information tends to be more specific to that group. Three out of the four regular hosts are just exceptional people - if I had to get stuck on a desert island with a group of people they might be my top choices.

A lot of the 'information' is actually the opposite - rather than delving into complex periodization programs or the latest in edgy supplement/nutrition notions, these guys emphasize the basics; lift heavy but intelligently, eat big, get strong. A lot of it is very motivational, and moreso, the guys are just so much fun. It's like being a fly on the wall of a locker room full of dudes who just finished a high level strength competition.

Entertainment Value: Medium
Information Content: Very High (sometimes maybe too high)

Robbie Bourke, my personal hero, loves training and nutrition and it shows. He interviews high level strength coaches and physicians in the field of human performance. His show is super technical, and it's a place where you'd go to get the nitty gritty details on why a specific kind of endurance test might be suboptimal for a particular population of athletes but not another one.

This is mostly stuff applicable to high level athletes in a field sport, but there real nuggets in there good for anybody who trains. Every episode is super interesting, although this is more on the "like someone reading a textbook out loud" end of the spectrum (but not that bad).

Entertainment Value: Medium
Information Content: High

A recent addition to my list, this podcast is mostly about (wait for it...) nutrition, but covers other issues in strength training as well.  Less about personal stories and more about technical issues related to nutrition for health and for performance. Also hits on combat sports topics like nutrition for weight cutting, if you like that sort of thing.

Entertainment Value: High
Information Content: Medium/Low

A little more over the top entertainment wise (the hosts joke around a lot - out of this list, this is the podcast where you're most likely to hear screaming and threats of physical violence) that sometimes hits on some serious topics.

I'm sure there are other great podcasts out there, but I can recommend these to start with. I wish I had more on the list that had to do with tradtional martial arts.

Please share to comments if you have an podcasts to recommend!

Friday, September 2, 2016

The Importance of External Measurements

People who give fitness or fat loss advice often tell their readers and clients not to pay too much attention to the scale when assessing their progress. This is good advice. Sometimes your exercise/diet program is building muscle, so even though your scale weight either doesn't change or perhaps even goes up, your body composition is improving dramatically.

Then again, sometimes your scale weight stays the same or goes up because your weight management program is failing, your cheat weekends are overwhelming your metabolism, and your exercise is not, in fact, burning 1,000 calories an hour.

The advice to not use the scale is usually followed up with one or two alternatives. One is to gauge your progress by the mirror. This might work for some people, but not for me, and I suspect, not for most. It's too easy to let your mind play tricks on you with the mirror. You're comparing an image, the way you look at the moment, with your memory of what you looked like weeks or months before, and trying to compare them. If you have actually gained some muscle it can be even harder to make a good comparison. Adding a couple of  pounds to your shoulders can really make it look like you lost a bunch from your waist, even if you, in fact, didn't.

I'm sure there are some people who are objective enough to judge themselves just on their appearance, but a better metric is something more objective: seeing how your clothes fit. If the waist of your pants is tighter, you've moving in the wrong direction, even if the chest and arms are also tighter.

Another popular claim people make is that some lifestyle change gives them "tons of energy." My question is always, "how do you know?" If you think some new habit is increasing your energy levels, make sure by tracking some metric. Maybe look at how many naps you need during the week, or how often you hit the snooze button, or how many workouts you skip (or don't skip) because you're just too tired. If those numbers change, you're onto something. If they don't, then you might just be fooling yourself.

I'm not bringing this topic up at random. I let myself slide quite a bit in body composition over the last year or so, eating out at restaurants two or three times a week instead of once, joining the kids for a special ice cream treat every week instead of every month, and generally not doing enough exercise to overcome my very sedentary job.

It took a trip to the doctor and a bodyfat analysis (plus some blood tests that came back saying "you should already be dead") to wake me up.

And, in retrospect, my clothes don't fit as well as they used to. I'd gotten into the habit of not wearing certain pants, and looking back I think it's because they're a bit tight. It was a gradual change, and items do phase in and out of my wardrobe regularly, but I was avoiding certain clothes probably in part because they made me think I was doing better weight-wise than I really am.

I suspect that the same kind of problem creeps in with many martial artists. I don't mean that they're having problems with weight management necessarily, but of gauging their progress in their skills. I suspect that many of us reach periods of stagnation with our movement quality, where we might go months or years learning new forms or techniques but not really getting better at how well we do the basics.

The solution?

There's no single answer, but I really think (and I've mentioned this before) that every martial arts school should have a video camera - not necessarily the highest quality - and some kind of setup where they standardize the position (the camera goes here, you stand there, that sort of thing). And every practitioner should videotape themselves doing a couple of kata - maybe always a very basic one, then one or two more advanced - perhaps every 6 months.

I've been saying this for years and haven't done it. Next year I'm going to definitely invest in a camera and start keeping a library of records of my movement.

You should too, and let me know how it goes.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Worried Well, Subclinical Sickness, and your Right to Seek Health

[This isn't a post about psychiatry, but I'm going to start there... please bear with me.]

I'm not a psychiatrist, but I dated one for a year and a half, so I'm highly qualified to talk about all things having to do with psychiatry.

Psychiatry is especially interesting to me because psychiatry has a long tradition of acknowledging that its field is hard to define. What constitutes a psychological illness, exactly? The question was considered difficult enough that the American Psychiatric Association publishes a book (the DSM) to list the "Mental Disorders," and disorders are added and removed from the list with each revision (homosexuality being a particularly famous example of something listed as a disorder in earlier revisions, then removed).

While there is plenty of controversy around the DSM, I'm sure there are also plenty of core disorders that we can all agree 'count' as mental disorders, mental conditions that make a person an immediate danger to themselves or to others. But there are equally lots of mental conditions that we'd mostly agree are on the opposite end of the spectrum. Suppose someone is feeling anxious because of a difficult job situation, and has some trouble sleeping. It would be strange to call that a mental disorder, or to say that person is ill. Yet I also think we'd agree that it would be nice if that person could get some help.

Luckily, the psychiatric community has a term (which I love) for people who might want some 'help' with their mental condition, yet don't qualify as actually having a full blown mental disorder - they're called the "Worried Well."

What I love about this term is that it expands the scope of practice of practitioners in the psychiatric community to those who might not have diagnosable mental disorders. It says, "you don't have to be REALLY sick in order for us to try to help you."

I don't mean to suggest that this notion is altruistic. Obviously, psychiatrists and psychologists don't want to restrict themselves to patients who fit in to some category in the DSM-V, they need to make money. But it's still a valuable notion, that nearly anybody experiencing psychological suffering, even if it's not DSM-V worthy, can legitimately seek and possibly receive help.

For a variety of reasons, some historical and many economical, many (not all) non-psychiatric physicians are less likely to acknowledge, treat, or research concerns that don't meet the criteria for an actual diagnosis. I like the term subclinical to refer to these things.

What do I mean by subclinical?

Suppose someone feels tired and worn out all the time, but not to the point where that person can't hold down a job or fulfill their responsibilities. What's a typical doctor going to do about it? Probably run a bunch of tests to rule out things like cancer, anemia, and a host of other disorders that count as an actual diagnosis that can be checked off on a electronic medical record or submitted to a billing company. What if those tests come back negative? I'm sure many decent doctors would make some generic recommendations, like telling that person to sleep better or improve their diet, but generally speaking there won't be any aggressive pursuit of any remedy.

Have a lower libido then you had as a teenager? Your physician might test your hormone levels, but if they come back within the normal reference range you're probably out of luck. You might get a casual recommendation to try some herb, but rarely more than that. If you're older and have minor aches and pains many physicians will just shrug and tell you to make the best of it.

I'm not blaming physicians. They need to put something on the bill they send to the insurance company to explain why they treated you, and "feeling meh" is not a box you can check (I looked).

There's a trickle down effect from this. Since physicians aren't really in the business of treating issues that don't qualify as an actual disorder, they're not really interested in doing or reading any research on the topic. And, to be honest, it's probably a lot harder to research "causes of feeling not too great," simply because feeling not to great is very hard to measure and quantify.

Things are improving in some ways. I know there are tons of great doctors who try to help any way they can. Doctors who specialize in functional medicine often seem to address these subclinical concerns more seriously. I'm sure that in other scenarios where you are willing to pay out of pocket for treatment you can get a physician to take these things seriously. But in my experience there isn't a very broad middle ground between the physicians who will treat what your insurance will cover and the very expensive ones who will do whatever you ask for because you're paying through the nose for it. And even if you find the physicians who will help you with your subclinical issues, they don't have the same body of research to fall back on that they do for diagnosable disorders.

But without the guidance of a physician and the medical establishment, most lay people end up turning to the internet, or their personal trainer, or the salesperson at GNC, or their hairdresser, or whoever, to find 'solutions' to what ails them. And sometimes that information turns out to be helpful, and sometimes, not so much.

At this point, if you're still reading, even if you agree with what I've said, you might be wondering what the point of the article is. Well, there actually are several.

1. Keep in mind that medical research is aimed at the clinical, not the subclinical, in what it measures and how it evaluates results. So research that aims to determine whether gluten (see what I did there?) affects health can't, and won't really try to, evaluate subclinical effects. If you see some article headline claiming that, "Gluten Consumption Doesn't Impact Health!" they don't really mean that gluten doesn't make people feel slightly worse, because they didn't look at that. They only looked at whether gluten led to an increase in something diagnosable. The gluten they were feeding their subjects might have  made them all feel a little bit more meh (or blah if you want another adjective), but the researchers weren't asking that question.

2. You have a right to seek help for your subclinical symptoms. Ask your doctor about them, you might be pleasantly surprised. But even if your doctor won't help, try things on your own, like dietary changes, exercising more, more or less fiber, whatever (don't be stupid, don't try just ANYTHING), because you have a right to try to feel good. Just because some ailment or issue doesn't warrant major medical intervention doesn't mean that it's not real or that it's not meaningful.

3. If you can find a doctor willing to prescribe meds off label or seriously investigate your issues, try to do that. It might cost you something out of pocket; you have to decide for yourself how comfortable you are with that, and how much money you've got. [Note: there is room for a debate about how this sort of treatment ought to be paid for, in a perfect world, but I'm not interested in having that argument here.]

4. Other people might dismiss your concerns. I can't tell you how often people have suggested that 'avoiding gluten only makes sense if you have celiac disease.' We don't have a culture that emphasizes taking care of ourselves (for example, we don't value getting enough sleep, and we admire people who seem to function well on very little sleep, even though sleep is a key factor in maintaining good health). This is especially true of aging related issues. Many, many people will look askance at someone who wants to maintain their physical fitness into their later years. I'm not telling you to argue with those people, but stick to your course. If you want to improve your quality of life, do it. You don't have to have an actual disease to want to improve your health. And the fact that others approach their declining health and fitness with a fatalistic attitude doesn't mean you need to.

Many of us function suboptimally our entire lives, and we ALL lose functionality as we age. Not all, but many of those conditions can be treated, some by readily available lifestyle choices, some with prescription medications. If you're not operating at a level that makes you happy, change something! Your situation might not be fixable, but I bet you can feel better if you make the right choices.

And if you're looking for a good place to start when making those lifestyle changes, consider taking up a martial art!

Friday, July 15, 2016

Why We Binge Eat (maybe)

I've been chubby my entire life. I once dated a fairly slim woman whose mother was equally slim. One day, while talking about pie, she (the mother) wondered why anybody ever overeats pie - she asked, "why don't you just have a single piece of pie, then stop?" She legitimately didn't understand. Don't worry, I resisted the urge to punch her. It was hard.

Not everyone who trains in martial arts needs to lose bodyfat, and not everyone who needs to lose bodyfat has a problem with binge eating, but I suspect that a significant number of us belong to both groups. I personally have had problems with binge eating for my entire life. I'm the type of person who usually consumes fewer than 3,000 kcal/day, but I can easily scarf down 2,000 + kcal in a single sitting and still find myself tearing through the refrigerator looking for more food. I've eaten half gallons of ice cream in a single sitting. So I've thought about this topic quite a bit.

There are a few odd things about binge eating.

  • Most binge eaters do NOT binge every time they eat, but only on certain occasions. So it's not as simple as saying that for certain people food is "addictive" or that they can't control their food intake.
  • Binge eaters will repeatedly binge despite the unpleasant immediate (upset stomachache) and long term (unwanted weight gain) side effects.
  • Binge eaters will often eat long past the point of enjoying the eating experience - the food no longer tastes or feels good to eat.
  • Food does not seem to have the kind of chemical impact that might explain this behavior, the way illicit drugs or alcohol do - we don't see the kind of dopamine spike from donuts that we get from snorting cocaine, and eating doesn't in itself impair judgment (making us more likely to continue eating) the way psychoactive chemicals (like alcohol) do.
So why does this happen? It seems counterintuitive that people would engage in this sort of behavior, yet many of us do. Over and over again.

I've always had a few hypotheses about binges (these are not original to me). First, binges were the result of out of control blood sugar - if our blood sugar got too high ("spiked") and insulin levels rose too high, the excess insulin would drive blood sugar down too low, triggering a binge. In other words, low blood sugar triggers a binge. Another hypothesis was that if we dieted too long or denied our favorite foods for too long a kind of psychological pressure would build up, resulting in an inevitable binge, like a volcano erupting. Third, binges were the result of some nutritional deficiency, the body's way of desperately trying to acquire some micronutrient that wasn't present in the diet.

I was listing to my new favorite podcast, Sigma Nutrition, and in episode 23 the host interviewed a man named Marc David who works in the field of nutritional psychology. I highly recommend listening to the entire show, but at one point Mr. David suggested a cause for binges that really resonated with me.

Please remember the important distinction between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems - the sympathetic is activated during fight or flight situations, when you are stressed or anxious. The parasympathetic is activated when  you're relaxed and feeling safe and secure. The sympathetic directs blood away from the gut and into the limbs (so you can run or fight), the parasympathetic directs blood back to the gut (so you can digest your meal) and lowers blood pressure and overall stress.

Now obviously a big meal puts an unusual stimulus on the body - not the kind of stimulus that would make us need to run or fight, but a stimulus that forces the body away from the sympathetic system and towards the parasympathetic. In other words, really overeating signals your systems that you need more blood in your gut, not less, to digest that meal. And that can only happen when the sympathetic system is depressed and the parasympathetic system is activated.

In other words, overeating leads to an immediate, short term activation of the parasympathetic nervous system, which makes you relaxed, calm, and feeling safe and secure.

Now, if you're a binge eater, think to times when you binge eat. I'm going to bet you anything that most binges are triggered by stressful situations, times when you're unconsciously seeking to relax and de-stress, times when life has pushed you into the anxious, jittery end of the parasympathetic-sympathetic axis. 

In other words, for at least some binge eaters some of the time, binge eating might not be the result of a craving for food. It is, instead, the result of a craving for deep relaxation.

Why does it matter why we binge eat?

The approach we take to avoid binge eating has a lot to do with what we believe causes our binges in the first place. If you think that your binges are the result of out of control hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), you're going to try to avoid binges by altering your diet to keep your blood sugar normalized (which isn't a bad thing in itself). However, if your binges is really caused by stress, the blood sugar regulation might not help, and then you're both demoralized and failing to control your binges.

If you think your binges are caused by micronutrient deficiency, you might attempt to stave them off by eating a nutrient rich diet, or carefully going over food logs to find the 'thing' you're missing. Again, this would be doomed to fail. And if you're convinced that binges are caused by some psychological pressure from food deprivation, you might schedule 'cheat' meals (or cheat days! cheat weeks!) in a vain attempt to alleviate that pressure in a somewhat controlled way.

And this, I think, is why so many binge eaters fail to control the binges. 

However, if Mr. David's suggestion is correct, and binges are the result of a search for parasympathetic stimulation, what could we do to address that?

Maybe the way to stave off an oncoming binge is to do something deeply relaxing. Take a walk in the woods. A bubble bath. Meditate for 20 minutes. Watch a comedy show. Whatever you do to de-stress.

This is, of course, easier said than done. Please don't punch me for suggesting that you can overlook that pint of Ben & Jerry's in the freezer by meditating. But it can't hurt to try, can it? 

One 'trick' I use is to promise myself the thing I'm craving... but only after some intervention. I'm not denying myself the ice cream, I'm promising it to myself, but only after the walk, or the meditation. Then, once the intervention is over, re-evaluate and you might be okay breaking that promise and skipping the binge.

Take home point: being aware of your position along the parasympathetic - sympathetic axis may help you alter hard to control behaviors, like binge eating, more efficiently.

And if all else fails, please remember that your binge has not ended the world. Get right back on the healthy eating horse and waste as little time in self recrimination as possible.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

2 Exercises To Improve Your Competition Kata

I was at a tournament this weekend (Go En, a tournament/ promotion/ seminar week in celebration of the 40th anniversary of the founding of my style, Seido Karate, by Kaicho Nakamura), which isn't something I've done before.

It was a very big tournament, so I got to see a lot of people doing kata competition, with really varying levels of skill. What was interesting was that it seemed as if the better half was separated from the bottom half of competitors by a couple of very specific characteristics which could be addressed (at least in part) through a strength training program.

In other words, I saw some things that might not help the third place person beat the first place person, but that could probably help most of the competitors who finished near the bottom see some quick improvements that might move them towards the middle of the heap.

Owning the Level Change

What does that mean?

The first trait that put certain competitors towards the top (or bottom) of the competition was owning the level change. Karate doesn't have the same kind of super low, deep stances that you'll see in certain kung fu styles (at least not in very many places), but there are still distinct level changes. Your hips should drop noticeably between a fudo dachi and a kiba dachi, or between fudo dachi and kokutsu dachi (standing position to horse stance or back stance), for example.

In my experience very, very few people have problems getting the proper depth in stances because of a lack of flexibility. Almost everyone (barring those with some kind of structural injury) can get into a proper back stance or front stance - the problem is holding that depth, which puts a lot of strain on the quads and hip extensors, or moving in the stance while maintaining a low elevation, which also requires a lot of leg and hip strength.

If you think you're too inflexible to hit a deep stance, try laying in bed, maybe on your back or side, and pull your legs into the right position. If you feel tightness doing that, you may have a flexibility issue. But I bet the real obstacle is muscular pain.

Owning the level change is not just about getting into deep positions, but about descending into them quickly and (apparently) effortlessly, and then popping up (when appropriate) dynamically. In other words, you have to be able to drop down quickly, stay level where you ought to (no bouncing up while shifting stances), then pop up easily and quickly when switching into a higher stance.

How do we own the level change?

Developing the strength you need to get deep, stay deep, and move while staying deep can be done with traditional weightlifting exercises. You could deadlift or squat with a barbell and it would certainly be helpful.

However, a standard barbell squat might not be the best tool for this job for a couple of reasons. First, it requires safety equipment (a rack) and space and a bar and plates that aren't cheap and that take up a lot of space (none of which is a problem if you use a gym, of course). Second, the barbell squat trains your legs together - both work at the same time. When you get into a deep stance other than kiba dachi, most of your weight is often on one leg or the other, not both (zenkutsu dachi, kokutsu dachi make obvious examples). And when one leg has to work without the other to support you additional muscles are called into play to stabilize the hips and keep them level - hip adductors and abductors and rotators that just aren't challenged (sufficiently) in the traditional squat.

So how can we work these muscles?

If you have access to a gym, you can do rear foot elevated split squats with a barbell (or a trap bar). Basically, you start by either putting a bar on your back or holding dumbells or finding some other way to load yourself. Then you stand in front of a bench. Keeping one foot on the floor, lift the other foot and put it on the bench behind you. Then squat down and (hopefully) up. Most of the load will be carried by the front foot.

This is a great exercise, but I think people tend to cheat on depth - they don't go deep enough, and more than just building strength, the kata competitor has to build strength in the lower positions that they might need for certain stances to look good. It's also a somewhat awkward movement if you don't have a spotter to help you get set up.

An alternative exercise that doesn't require any equipment is the pistol. With a pistol, you don't need weight. Instead, from a standing position, stick one leg out in front of you, in the air, keeping the knee straight. Then squat down until your butt cheek is touching your calf, then stand back up.

I like pistols, but I find them kind of hard on my knees, and very hard to learn. It takes a lot of mobility and skill to do them correctly. And honestly, if you can do any significant number of pistols, leg strength just isn't your issue in kata - you're already strong enough that it isn't thigh strength that's limiting your kata performance. So I tend not to make them my go to exercise.

So my recommendation is the skater squat (which does have other names):

To do:

  1. Stand in place, feet shoulder width apart.
  2. Lift one (let's say left) leg off the ground, picking your heel up so it's close to your buttock.
  3. Squat down until the left knee just barely touches the ground. Your upper body will be leaning forward, and you can hold onto something in front of you for balance (I use my kitchen counter). The left knee is still bent, so the left foot never touches the floor.
  4. Stand up, using just the strength of the right leg.
  5. Either repeat for several reps on the same leg or switch legs with each rep, depending how fit you are (more fit = more reps before switching).
  6. Once you get good at these, you can add weight (wear a weight vest or hold dumbells in your hands) and add a jump to the end, so you're driving up and jumping with just one leg.
Skater squats are significantly easier to do than pistols, aren't as taxing on your knees (your knee never really goes into maximum flexion), and will build plenty of strength in the range of motion you need to maintain and move in a nice, deep karate stance.

Core Stiffness

 The second physical trait that seemed to separate the not - as - good competitors from the upper tier competitors was core stiffness.

What is core stiffness?

Imagine two people: one has a steel rod for a spine, the other has a spine made out of a Slinky. Now imagine how they move - imagine what their upper bodies would do, for example, when they throw a hard kick, or rotate into a punch.

You don't want a lot of extraneous motion (i.e. flopping around) when you deliver your techniques. Nothing impresses more than a high, clean quick - except a high, clean kick with your upper body locked in tight as a rock.

How do we get core stiffness?

There is not, as far as I can see, a single best exercise for core stiffness. A few I like,. roughly in order of difficulty, are:

  1. Crunches and leg raises.
  2. Planks/pushups
  3. Single arm planks/ single arm pushups.
  4. Planks on an exercise ball, rotating your base (forearms) in circles as you do them.
  5. Ab wheel roll outs.

Kick Height

I've written about this before. I have some new thoughts on this topic, but I'll save them for another day. Let's just say that a clean, well executed kick at head height usually impresses more than the same kick to the stomach area (although, do the kata correctly before any other considerations).

In short, a few basic strength training exercises might be all you need to take a big leap forward in how good your kata look. If you have these weaknesses, shore them up and see how much that helps. Having said that, nothing you do with regards to strength training is going to replace actual kata practice, only enhance it somewhat.


Wednesday, June 1, 2016

The biggest key to success in Karate: Find your Fun

[This post meanders, for which I apologize in advance.]

For my style's 40th anniversary extravaganza (which is starting as I type this!) the participants are being divided into teams with meaningful names related to our art - Team Egoless, Team Empathy, Team Hope, you get the idea. We'll compete in a bunch of fun, not terribly serious events, a lot like color war in summer camp.

Given the name and theme of this blog you'd think I'd want to be placed on Team Fast Twitch Muscle Fiber or Team Burpee or Team Cardiac Output (I made those up), but to my delight I have been placed on Team Fun.

Now I've tended to be the kind of person who takes my martial arts training somewhat seriously. My primary goal was to be better and more skilled, not to have the most fun (or get promoted the fastest). When picking a school and evaluating my training I have not tended to look at the fun factor. I'm pro-tradition and anti-McDojo.

Part of the problem with "fun" in martial arts is that all too often people associate the word 'fun' with 'easy.' Sparring might be fun, but not as much fun as obstacle courses. Pushups are even less fun than sparring. Pushups on your knuckles on a concrete floor does not meet most definitions of the word 'fun.'

And there are teachers and schools where this apparent dichotomy is emphasized. I'm sure we are all aware of martial arts instructors (even if we only know them from movies) who make a point of being grim, humorless, and stern at all times.

On some level there is some merit to that line of thinking. If 'fun' means horseplay and lack of order, the class can be less productive. You don't want a 'fun' class where the students horse around all the time and never train.

But  you can work hard while cracking jokes (trust me, this is my standard state of being). You can make your obstacle courses challenging, you can make your hardest workouts enjoyable with a little personality and a little creativity.

Exactly what that means and how it pans out for someone training is probably going to be different for different people. I don't like sparring to the point of injury - it's not fun for me. Other people obviously get a lot of joy out of that kind of challenge. I don't mind a grim, hard nosed instructor, but other people find such people intimidating.

If you can find a martial art that is fun FOR YOU there are tremendous benefits. You start to look forward to class instead of dreading it. You train more when you don't have to. You're less stressed (meaning, more towards the parasympathetic nervous/hormonal state, which is good) about the training.

When you train not because it's fun but because you think of it as some sort of obligation, or even if you train to achieve some goal (getting a black belt, becoming skilled), life is just hard. I suspect that's part of the reason so many people who train for a belt/promotion end up quitting after they get the belt. If they haven't discovered the fun in the training itself, they don't have a good enough reason to continue.

If your training is fun (to you!) you will:

  1. Train more diligently;
  2. Train harder;
  3. Be much more likely to continue over your lifetime;
  4. Make better friends;
  5. Ultimately be more skilled, because of all of the above!
The key, and it isn't terribly difficult, is finding YOUR fun in your martial art. Like to drink a lot and socialize? Find a school with plenty of adults. Love the crossfit style workout where you almost puke at the end of each session? Find a school where that happens. Don't like that? Find another school. 

Wherever you train, a couple of tips to making it MORE fun for you (without undermining the school's philosophy or structure):
  1. Be better prepared. Being in good shape makes hard classes a lot more fun.
  2. Carefully track your progress. Try filming yourself periodically doing your kata, so you can see over time how much better you've gotten. Skill is fun!
  3. Don't be afraid to back out if it ISN'T fun. If your teacher starts emphasizing the kind of hard sparring that leaves you injured all the time, it might be a sign to find another place to train. If your teacher forbids all contact, and you really enjoy mixing it up a little, it might also be time to change things up. If you train someplace that just can't be fun for you, try to fix it (maybe just take a different class in the same school).
On some level, the question, "Should Martial Arts Training Be Fun?" seems ridiculous, like the studies that attempt to show reasons why we should be having more sex (isn't more sex enough of a reason?) But we do glorify hard, grueling training, and, perhaps especially in traditional martial arts, we tend to perceive 'real' 'authentic' training as grueling, difficult, and humorless. As if fun training is somehow inherently less effective, because we think that the effectiveness of a workout has to be proportional to how much suffering it entails.

Instead, workouts should be fun. Maybe grueling humorless training is fun to you - maybe not. But regardless, find a way to make martial arts fun for you, and you'll get far more out of your practice.

And if you see me at Go En please say hi!


Thursday, May 26, 2016

The Parasympathetic Life: a combined theory of everything that really matters

There is one particular principle that has helped me understand what's going on with my life and health more than any other, and that's the notion of the sympathetic-parasympathetic spectrum. This one organizing principle can help you understand everything you need to know about how to live a healthy life.

Your body is an amazingly complex system of interconnected processes, chemical, neurological, and mechanical, that can all shift in different directions. Thousands of hormones, nervous systems, and other biological happenings that can be turned up or down in an overwhelming array of combinations.

However, very few of these systems are really independent. You can get a rise in, for example, insulin, by tasting some sugar. But that rise in insulin will never come by itself. That insulin surge will affect many other systems in your body in many complex ways.

You could spend a lifetime trying to unpack all these connections, and that would be interesting, but you might not have time or energy or aptitude for doing so. Luckily, a lot of these systems are organized in some ways that are not terribly difficult to grasp.

Now of course everything in this post is going to be a simplification. But it's a useful simplification, and most of the time most of these systems behave more or less the way I'm going to describe. So while this way of thinking about your body won't capture every possible condition or disease state, it will provide a really great beginning to understanding how your body works.

Instead of trying to figure out the ins and outs of every single hormone and biomarker separately, we're going to put them in two rough categories: sympathetic and parasympathetic.

Put simply, the sympathetic system is the one that gets activated in fight-or-flight situations. When you're anxious, under stress, or under threat, a whole bunch of neurological and hormonal things happen to help you survive the immediate danger. They're all complex and unique flowers, but for the sake of this post we're going to lump them together.

The parasympathetic a system is the other side of the coin. It's the set of hormones and nervous impulses that are firing and elevated when you're relaxed and safe.

It's not a case of all one or all the other. Your adrenaline levels don't drop to zero when you're relaxed, for example. Think of these things as lying on a spectrum. At any given point in time you're either towards the parasympathetic (relaxed and happy) end OR towards the sympathetic (scared and anxious) end or somewhere in the middle. No single hormone or organ is going to give a complete picture of how sympathetic or parasympathetic you are, so we're going to be using some inexact language to describe this spectrum.

It's not a case where you're supposed to be always on one end of that spectrum or the other. It's normal and healthy to get sympathetic sometimes. But, and this is NOT an idea original to me, we evolved to spend most of our time on the parasympathetic end (chillin'), and dip into the sympathetic end only for brief (and probably intense) periods when we were in danger - for example, when being chased by a wild animal. The sympathetic state isn't exactly bad for you, but it's all about sacrificing long term well being for short term survival capacity. In fact, the only way to increase your overall capacity - to get stronger and more fit - is really to push yourself into sympathetic states for controlled periods of time.

The danger comes when we spend too much of our lives in a chronic sympathetic state. When you're stressed all the time there aren't enough chances for your body to recover and rebuild and heal, and that's bad in all sorts of ways.

Here's a second part of this principle that is really, really important: the way your body puts you towards sympathetic or parasympathetic is dumb. REALLY DUMB. As in not sensitive to context AT ALL.

What I mean is, your body tends to lump all the inputs and outputs of these systems together. So, for example, having high blood sugar (sympathetic response) is a GOOD response to suddenly seeing a hungry bear (a sympathetic stimulus), because you want a lot of glucose swarming around for you to use while running from the bear. But it's a TERRIBLE response to seeing your angry boss - there's nothing useful about that glucose in that situation unless you're inclined to get into a fistfight with your boss. And that extra sugar could be doing all kinds of damage, especially if your boss is always angry with you and your blood sugar is regularly elevated.

So if we want to maximize health and well being we have to manipulate our body's response. Simply put: your body, left on its own, is remarkable, but in many ways does not handle modern life very well.

In order to do that, we have to be aware of what makes us more sympathetic, what makes us more parasympathetic, and when we want them.

What pushes us towards the sympathetic state?

This is an incomplete list, but a lot of things can push us towards either end of the spectrum. I don't think any of these will be surprising, but there's something I find very interesting about putting the list together and looking at the whole thing.
  • Stress - anxiety about life, jobs, relationships, hardship, and also any kind of life change (good or bad), worrying about one's responsibilities.
  • Intense exercise (The more intense, and longer the duration, the deeper into sympathetic state it drives you).
  • Sleep deprivation (and possibly getting too much sleep).
  • Sleeping at the wrong time (sleep/wake cycles out of sync with the sun, like night shift workers).
  • Caloric deprivation (not eating enough) or nutritional deficiencies (not eating enough of something in particular).
  • Pain (for example, from some chronic injury, like a bad back).
  • Social isolation (no friends).
  • Infection/illness.
  • Excessive stimulant consumption (caffeine, crystal meth, etc.)
  • Certain kinds of music (think speed metal).

What pushes us towards the parasympathetic state?

  • Socializing.
  • Meditation.
  • Sufficient food/nutrient intake.
  • Low level physical activity - stretching, long slow walks, especially in nature.
  • Laughter.
  • Moderate intellectual stimulation.
  • Low to moderate alcohol consumption.
  • Sufficient rest.
  • Other kinds of music (whatever they play in elevators).
These are not complete lists, obviously, and the impact of each of these is probably going to vary from person to person. Some people turn into happy noodles after an hour of yoga, others just feel uncomfortable. You have to figure out for yourself which activities work best for pushing you in one direction or the other if you want to control your own parasympathetic state.

Why is it important to be more or less parasympathetic? Well....

What are the effects of being more sympathetic?

  • Higher heart rate.
  • Higher performance (run faster, jump higher).
  • Higher blood sugar; poor blood sugar regulation.
  • Compromised immunity (don't fight infections well).
  • Poor recovery from workouts.
  • Fat accumulation and systemic inflammation.
  • Better concentration.
  • Less creativity/ poor higher level thinking.
  • Poor digestion.
  • Stimulate adaptions (muscle growth, increases in endurance, etc.).
  • More regular heart beat (more like a metronome).

What are the effects of being more parasympathetic?

  • Lower heart rate.
  • Better recovery from workouts.
  • Improved blood sugar control and resistance to fat accumulation/ease of losing fat.
  • Improved digestion.
  • Reduced physical performance (not as strong, fast, explosive).
  • More creativity.
  • Better healing.
  • Adapt, assuming there has been a stimulus (see the section above).
  • Less regular heartbeat (less like a metronome).

Let me sum up:

It's good to be deeply parasympathetic, most of the time. It's good to be deeply sympathetic ONLY for brief periods of time - long enough to stimulate the adaptions that make you more fit. It's bad to be sympathetic all the time.

What does this have to do with fat loss?

Fat loss is one (not the only) example of an arena where the importance of understanding the sympathetic-parasympathetic axis is important.

First, think about the things that we 'know' contribute to fat loss. Lots of exercise, stimulant consumption, caloric deprivation, fasting. These things are not really controversial on their own.
Now look at which 'way' along the sympathetic spectrum those things push us. All towards the sympathetic side of the spectrum. Now look at the effects of being chronically sympathetic.

Funny, huh?

Most of the things that contribute to fat loss also tend to push us into a sympathetic state, which itself has many effects which prevent fat loss.

Read that again. Caloric deprivation and high intensity exercise will help you create a caloric deficit and burn fat, but also contribute to pushing you into a sympathetic state where inflammation goes up, insulin regulation gets worse, and fat loss is slowed.

Is the point that fat loss is impossible? Of course not. But if you're already on the sympathetic side of the spectrum, if you're already stressed, tired, drinking too much, socializing too little, and not managing personal stress, and you ADD fasting and high intensity interval training to the mix, you MIGHT not get the fat loss results you think you will. 

On the other hand, if you're young (relatively few responsibilities/stresses), healthy, with a rich social life, you're probably deep into the parasympathetic end of things. Then, if you want to get in shape, and you add Crossfit and intermittent fasting and low carb, you might end up getting great results. You might become a personal trainer, showing off your six pack abs, and whipping your forty year old clients to feel crappy about themselves for not being as successful as you are. The fact is, though, that they're probably not lazy or cheating on their diets - they might be stricter than you are. But their lives leave them less capacity to absorb stressors without tumbling into the sympathetic end of the physiological spectrum and destroying any chance they have of making progress.

Bottom line here: Sometimes more is less. If you're already stressed, you might have more success on your 'diet' by making sure you start getting more sleep and having a good laugh every day and meditating, instead of just doing more exercise and cutting out more calories.

Can we measure, with an actual number, how sympathetic we are?

Yes, we can.

You probably already have a pretty good idea where you are on the spectrum. If you want something to quantify it, use your heart rate variability (HRV). This isn't the same as saying your heart rate is high or low - HRV is a measure of how much the beats of your heart vary. The more sympathetic you are, the more regular (less variation) there will be in the time between your heart beats.

You can measure HRV in a number of ways. including BioForce and the S Health app on a Samsung phone.

What's important isn't so much having a good score as learning what makes your score get better (less stressed) or worse (more stressed) and learning how to change your lifestyle accordingly. Some people get driven way sympathetic by a little alcohol consumption; others don't.

Get a BioForce and start tracking your HRV. See what kinds of things make it go up and down. If you can, make adjustments so your score gets higher. You'll be healthier and fitter for it!

What's the real take home here?

There's a couple of key points lurking in this.

First, understanding where you stand on the sympathetic -parasympathetic spectrum might really help you understand why you're not recovering from workouts, getting sick, or losing weight the way you think you should be.

Second, understanding this spectrum might help you pick lifestyle changes that will help you achieve your goals but might not have seemed intuitive. When people aren't recovering from workouts, they might think to try to eat more protein or stretch more. They might not realize that going out with friends or meditating might do just as much to improve their ability to recover (by pushing them towards the parasympathetic).

Meditation just might do just as much for your physical abilities as another workout.

Aim for a parasympathetic life (punctuated by short, intense, sympathetic bursts). You'll be healthier, happier, and a better karateka.


Tuesday, May 17, 2016

SVT FAQ: common questions about aerobic base buildling

The title of this post is a lie; I haven't gotten any questions about SVT, but these are questions I think people might have after reading that post.

Is SVT enough to meet all my endurance training needs?

No! Sadly, low intensity work like SVT by itself won't make you fighting fit. It will contribute to a small degree to your fighting fitness (your ability to do higher intensity work) without wrecking you, and it will make you more fit for everyday life (push you into a more parasympathetic state). By itself it won't be enough to get you through a vigorous sparring session. For that you need to add in some high intensity work of some sort (like, for example, sparring session!).

How do I know if I need more SVT (if I need to build my 'aerobic base')?

Joel Jameson recommends tracking your resting heart rate (RHR) to see how much SVT type training you need and can benefit from. Roughly speaking, take your heart rate while relaxed, preferably lying down, and totally calm. If you hit a number below 60 you're probably good. If you can get it lower, that's great (there's probably a minimum value that provides benefits - I don't know what that number is; I'd guess that if you get below 50 there's no value in trying to get it lower). 

If your RHR is over 70 you can definitely benefit from more SVT. More importantly, do whatever you can fit in, and once your RHR stops dropping, see how much you can back off while maintaining that lower number. 

How much SVT can I do per week?

Unlike higher intensity training you should be able to do SVT pretty often. When I do the interval style training (squat kicks and so forth) I get some delayed onset muscle soreness, enough that I can't do those sessions more than every other day, but I'll fit in sessions on the treadmill in between them. I've done 2 sessions per day (50+ minutes each) and not wrecked myself. I'd say that available time is a bigger obstacle than neurological limitations - much different than high intensity work, where (especially if you're older) you probably can't do Tabata style HIIT every day even if you have the time to do so without wrecking your nervous system and making yourself useless.

Can I fit SVT into a martial arts class?

I think you could. I imagine a scenario where everybody straps on a heart rate monitor for class just as casually as they would their gi or obi, then follows a customized program depending on their intensity goals for the session.

It would be relatively easy to structure a skills based class (where you're focusing on learning new patterns, sharpening techniques, maybe doing some low impact self defense work) to keep people's heart rates in the target zone. Maybe give each student the freedom to drop down and knock out a set of pushups or squats whenever their heart rate dips too low.

Having said that, I have never heard of a traditional martial arts class working like that. Maybe one day!

Will SVT get me shredded?


Look, you'll burn calories doing SVT. I suspect (not sure) that a lot of SVT will actually help certain people lose some bodyfat - specifically people who are overly stressed, inflamed from elevated systemic cortisol levels, and in need of something to relax them. It's the same principle as people losing bodyfat while on vacation or on a cruise despite eating more calories - the shift towards a parasympathetic state reduces inflammation and can help drop some pounds. 

But over the long term working at a heart rate of 120-140 is simply not going to burn as many calories as higher intensity workouts.

SVT does have the advantage of being easy to do for longer periods of time. I can't do high intensity work for an hour a day, but I can do SVT for that long. So you can get some extra fat burning in with SVT above your higher intensity work.

Who would benefit most from SVT?

I suspect I'm in the target group of people who get the most out of this type of training - I tend to be very sedentary, but when I work out at all, I work pretty hard (high intensity). As a result, I've always had a relatively high resting heart rate, even though I can push my max heart rate really high. I've always been the kind of person who is regularly tired and lower in energy but fairly capable of handling a hard martial arts class or a lot of high intensity sparring.

If you tend to do a lot of lower intensity sports type stuff - if you're the type who spends significant time each week casually riding a bike, playing some recreational sport, or taking the occasional easier martial arts class - you might already have a sufficiently developed stroke volume to the point where SVT just won't help you (it still probably won't hurt!)

Looking over my own life I almost never get my heart rate elevated but not too elevated. SVT seems to have really helped me. 

What are the disadvantages of doing SVT?

Well, that's the great part - there aren't many. Work in this intensity range just won't cut into your reserves all that much.

Now, if you only have a few hours a week for exercise, SVT might not give you the most bang for your buck. If your RHR is around 60 you'll probably get more out of working harder than out of doing SVT. But if your RHR is above 70 and you're tired all the time, try SVT and see if it helps.

I suspect it will.

Do you have any more fun acronyms to share?

I do! I have a weakness for acronyms. They're coming.

Haven't you said before that lower intensity training was useless?

Yes, I have! I was wrong.

This is a journey. I'm trying to figure out the smartest way to train for a traditional amateur martial artist . I don't know everything. I've made tons of mistakes. I might come back 6 months or a year from now and say that SVT is a bad (or just less than optimal) because I will have learned something new about some aspect of adaptions to training. But then I'll write another blog post and explain the process that got me there.

In conclusion...

If you have any questions, please ask. If you have any experiences to share, please do! But remember, the best workout is the one you'll do. If you try some style of training and hate it, try something different. Your best chance for long term progress is doing something you enjoy.


Thursday, May 12, 2016

SVT: Stroke Volume Training (endurance training basics)

I am not one to talk about training and diet plans as if they're going to revolutionize your life. A lot of adherents of various plans (paleo, HIIT, whatever) will claim that if you stick to their scheme, you'll feel better, have tons of energy, etc. If you look through my posts you're not going to see many of those claims, because, frankly, I've never really felt that any workout plans made my everyday energy levels increase or improved my at-rest well being.

Until now.

A short history of endurance training (please skip if you don't care about fitness history)

Not too long ago it was conventional wisdom that if one wanted to have great endurance (or 'cardio' in the bronacular) in most sports the thing to do was a lot of long, steady, low intensity exercise. Think of boxers going out for long steady jogs (aka road work) or field sport athletes taking endless laps around the field.

Then came poor Professor Tabata, author of some widely misunderstood and misinterpreted papers on high intensity interval training and the man who unwittingly lent his name to a workout protocol that has often been hailed as the be-all and end-all of endurance training.

Basically, Tabata showed that by working very, very hard (much harder than they could keep up for even a minute), cyclists could make the same improvements to VO2 Max by working 4 minutes a day (8 sets of 20 seconds of work, with 10 second breaks in between) as cyclists doing much more traditional training (30+ minutes at a time of lower intensity but constant work).

The fitness community jumped all over this notion. The idea that you could work harder, but shorter, seemed both like cheating and was hugely attractive to our "suffering brings results" gym culture. 'Tabata' intervals are hard. And they really do work, especially over a short period of time. The fact that the first burst of improvement tapered off after a couple of months, and that high intensity training was hugely stressful to the body, was largely ignored. In fact, in some ways the entire Crossfit industry became a system of increasing intensity at the cost of all else.

For a long while a lot of fitness enthusiasts and strength coaches thought that anybody other than an endurance athlete doing slow, steady cardio was hindering their athletic performance.

Then came the great Joel Jamieson (whose work I highly recommend). Joel, basing his training philosophy on studies imported from former Eastern Block countries, pointed out that many athletes do, in fact, need some steady state, low intensity training to maximize their cardiovascular endurance. Road work was back!

Theory (of an Aerobic Base)

I intend to, at some point, write at greater length about energy systems. I won't do that here.

Put simply, you have 3 energy systems, and of those, the aerobic system provides energy at the slowest rate but for the longest time. That is, you can get a lot more energy much more quickly out of the anaerobic alactic system, but it runs out in 10 seconds. You can get less, but still a ton of energy in a hurry out of your lactic system, but it runs out in a minute or so. Your aerobic system is slow (low power) but lasts much, much longer.

Which means that if your sport lasts only 10 seconds or less, you can work on just your anaerobic alactic energy system. But very few sports last only 10 seconds - even those that seem to often call for repeated bursts of 10 second outputs. American football is a great example - plays usually last 10 seconds or less, but over a game many players have to repeat that performance dozens or scores of times.

And how does the anaerobic alactic (or lactic) systems get recharged after a bout of exertion? That's right, aerobic energy!

Now a lot of different things go into developing your aerobic system fully, but one of them that is pretty important is cardiac output.

Cadiac output is simply how much blood your heart can pump through your body in any unit of time. Oxygen is carried through the blood; the more blood your heart can move, the more fit you'll be.

What determines your cardiac output? Well, without getting too math-ey you can think of it as two things: 1) how much blood your heart pumps with each beat, or stroke volume, times; 2) how fast your heart can beat. Get a heart that moves move blood with each beat, get greater output. Get a heart that beats faster, get greater output. So there are 2 limiting factors: Stroke Volume and Maximum Heart Rate.

So far that's fairly uncontroversial. The next part is a little more... theoretical, or at least less well documented in the literature. To increase your aerobic fitness you'd like to be able to, among some other things, increase both Stroke Volume and Maximum Heart Rate. That would maximize the ability of your body to deliver blood (and oxygen) to working tissues.

Maximum Heart Rate seems to be helped along by working at higher intensities. You're not gong to get a heart that can pump at 190 bpm for long periods of time by taking leisurely strolls on the beach.

What Jamieson and Soviet researchers assert (but which isn't treated as common knowledge in the Western medical community as far as I can find) is that Stroke Volume can be increased with training, but only when the training is done in a very narrow and specific range of heart rates.

Basically, the heart has to be stressed (forced to beat faster than it would while you, say, sit on the couch, or go for a leisurely walk), but if it beats too fast (like it does in high intensity training), then it doesn't fill fully and have a chance to stretch and increase its volume.

Put simply: to increase Stroke Volume, you have to work for a substantial period of time (more than 45 minutes) while keep your heart rate between 120 and 140 beats per minute. This is NOT what you get from High Intensity Interval Training - that protocol either keeps your heart rate above the top of that range for most of the time or brings it above, then drops it below, and so forth and so on.

We're not looking for an average between 120 and 140, we're looking to stay within 120 and 140 for extended periods of time.

Practice (of building your Stroke Volume)

What You'll Need

1. A Heart Rate Monitor. There is simply no way to do this right without constant monitoring. Ball parking your heart rate is simply not going to keep it in the range you need (which is really pretty narrow).

I highly, highly recommend something that gives you a continual readout of your heart rate, not the kind of setup where you can hold your finger(s) over a sensor or button for several seconds and get a reading. That's simply not efficient. I like this one very much, it's what I use and it certainly does the job without being too pricey, but there may be better ones available.

Total cost: $75.

2. A Timer of some sort. This is sort of optional - you could estimate the time, but I find this much easier to do if I have something that counts down intervals and either flashes or dings or something when it hits a predetermined time. I generally do this in front of a computer and use this free webpage as my timer.

Total cost: $0

3. [OPTIONAL} Resistance: some bands or very light dumbells. I like using 1 lb. dumbells for this workout (yes, I'm serious). As long as you can work hard enough to get your heart rate into the target zone you don't necessarily need equipment. You can get these at a store like Five Below, Amazon, or really any Target or sporting good store.

Total cost: $5.

What are the Options

The typical way to get your Stroke Volume work in (or, as it is typically called, building your aerobic base), is to do something of fairly constant intensity for a long time. Jogging is the classic example (though jogging only 'works' if you're reasonably fit - if you're out of shape, even an easy jog will jump your heart rate well over 140 and prevent it from being effective as Stroke Volume Training).

I will sometimes hop on a treadmill and walk at an incline for my SVT. You would have to wear a heart rate monitor and find the right speed/ incline combination to get the heart rate you want. DO NOT aim for 140; aim for 130, and try to keep it around the middle of the range. More is not better. Staying in the higher range will not make this more effective.

What I like to do instead, in my ever present desire to kill as many birds with one stone as possible, is to do a kind of interval training that keeps my heart rate in the target range. And since I'm working at a fairly low intensity, the work doesn't get too fatiguing (no burning in the muscles) and I can stay reasonably fresh throughout. That means I can practice actual kicks and punches instead of, say, burpees. The work just isn't hard enough to bring me to the point where the techniques start getting slow or sloppy. There's no 'burn' to ruin performance.

How To Do Interval SVT

1. Set your timer to count down 15 seconds and repeat.
2. Do a brief stretching/warmup routine.
3. Strap on your heart rate monitor.
4. Do your 'work set'. Once you've been working for at least 2 minutes (8 sets total) check your heart rate. If it's below 120, plan do a more intense work set next time. If it's above 140, plan do an easier work set next time.
5. Repeat for at least 50 minutes (for some reason 50 minutes 'works' for me - I get to shower after and still total under an hour of time, and 50 minutes works out to 200 reps, which resonates with me because I'm a very digital person. By all means do more if you want). Make small adjustments to your work set every 15 to 30 seconds to keep your heart rate between 120 and 140.

What's the Work Set?

Here's the tricky part: you need a few options to layer so you can get your heart rate up and down as needed. Do some sort of movement and some sort of technique or techniques. The work SHOULD NOT take up all 15 seconds of your interval. Your aim is to do some hard, snappy work, maybe 3-5 seconds worth, then have time to stand still, catch your breath, check your heart rate, and wait for the timer to go off again. Then repeat. 200 times. I watch Netflix while doing this.

I like to layer things like this:

1. Every rep I do some sort of squat kick. I usually do these very wide - I step out to the side in a very wide horse stance, then pop back up as explosively as I can and throw a kick (usually mae geri or mawashi geri) with the trailing leg. So I might step to the right, pop up and throw a left kick, then a single punch with the left hand. Next rep I step the other way and kick and punch with the other hand. If I'm feeling stiff I'll start with 4-12 'sets' of knee kicks, building up range as I go, instead of trying a max height roundhouse kick right away.

2. I find mawashi geri brings my heart rate up, mae geri brings it slightly down, so I'll mix in sets of one or the other if my heart rate is creeping up on 140 or down below 125.

3. I often need a little extra to get my heart rate up, so I'll add in a jab - cross punch combination after each kick. If my heart rate creeps up towards 140 I'll stop these, then add them back in as it drops.

4. I do all my punches with a 1 lb dumbbells in each hand. The use of weighted implements is controversial, and worth discussing in another post, but I believe it's good for my technique. Feel free to skip them. I DO NOT recommend going very heavy with the dumbbells for reasons I'll discuss another time.

5. I'll switch out hooks and uppercuts for the jab-cross as I feel like it, for added variety.

If a squat/front kick/punch gets your heart rate too high, skip the punch. If the squat/kick gets your heart rate too high, just step to the side and kick, or just squat, or alternate those two. If the squat/kick/punch/extra punches repeated every 15 seconds isn't enough to get your heart rate above 120, make sure you're really putting power and speed into every technique. If your'e really working as intensely as you can with each rep, you can try bringing the rest down (so repeat your work set every 10 or 12 seconds).

If you'd rather focus on forwards movement instead of lateral, do a forward/backward lunge instead of a sidestep as your movement base.

The important part is to learn, via constant feedback from your heart rate monitor, which combinations push your heart rate higher and which get them lower, and have a few options in mind with each round.

My Hypothesis

I have never had a workout seem to improve my overall well being as much as this one. I mean, I've been in decent shape, where I was able to spar without getting slow or tired, do lots of kata, etc., but this workout has me needing less sleep and feeling fresher when I'm NOT working out, and that's unusual for me.

My hypothesis is this: the SVT is actually improving the stroke volume of my heart, or at least improving the efficiency of my cardiovascular system in some way. That means that when I'm at rest, and my oxygen demands are fairly stable, my heart doesn't have to work as hard (beat as fast) to supply the blood I need.

Where before SVT every time my oxygen demands rose my heart rate had to go up quite a bit to fulfill them, now my heart rate doesn't have to rise as high. That means that all the hormonal and nervous systems that raise heart rate when its needed don't have to work as hard or excite my system as much. My sympathetic nervous system isn't firing as intensely to keep me alive. And that is effectively reducing my physiological stress.

My hypothesis might be wrong, of course. Regardless, I'm getting in some quality reps of my techniques, and I feel good during and after the workout. Unlike Tabata style HIIT this won't leave you feeling wrecked and shattered afterwards.

Please give this a try and let me know what you think in comments!


Sunday, May 1, 2016

Goin' to Go En

My style (Seido Karate) turns 40 this year(!), and they're throwing a huge event to celebrate. Huge as in 7 days of tournaments, workshops, demonstrations, and more than a little socializing as people from all over the world gather. [Quick reminder: I do not speak for the style; anything expressed in this blog is my opinion and not necessarily representative of the style in any way]

As is the pattern in my life I haven't been training much - I've been splitting my time between two states, and between the travel and the irregular schedule it's very hard to commit to taking any classes (let alone teaching!) If I know I can only make 2 classes in a two month session, plunking down $100 to register is a bitter pill to swallow. Also, I'm probably a little lazy.

Anyway, I was very reluctant to go to the celebration. There are expenses involved, both financial and temporal. Also, frankly, I'm somewhat embarrassed by my level of skill and knowledge at this point (after not practicing kata for almost a year I can barely remember the patterns - they'll come back more quickly than learning them the first time, but if you ran me through my nidan syllabus right now you'd think I had barely ever trained).

So I was at an impromptu meeting with local black belts and much of the talk was about Go En (the official name of the anniversary event). Ironically, the deadline for registering was the next day. And I realized that I was actually going to be in the right state to go, and that I have enough vacation time to take a couple of days off for the event and not jeopardize my ability to see my kids this summer.

I was still reluctant, then my good friend Sensei Scott said something very wise, something I've said myself (in different words) but that I apparently need to be reminded of periodically. I'm paraphrasing, but he basically said that events like these (also promotions, tournaments, demos) are how we stay enthusiastic for karate.

I'm sure it will be a blast, and I'm sure that any embarrassment I feel over forgetting something basic is going to be vastly overshadowed by the joy at seeing old (sometimes very old, I've been involved in Seido off and on since 1988) friends. And much like the last event I went to, a summer camp, I have a feeling I'll remember it more than fondly for years to come.

I could look at this event as a chance to take some classes, do some training, attend some workshops, and improve my karate. And I'm sure some of that will happen. But seeing people, and seeing historic events unfold, are far more valuable than any sparring tip I'm going to pick up in a workshop.

Two bottom lines here:

First, try to remember that karate is in large part a social endeavor. Those after-training bar crawls your dojo mates go through are part of karate, not extras. Those things will enhance your life (and health) just as much as getting fit or mastering a complex sequence of movements or learning to defend yourself. You can progress in skill by training in isolation, but you'll be missing out on a vital component of your training.

Second, if you're at Go En, look me up, say hi and pick an argument about something (or agree with me about something, surprise me!) I'll be the guy who looks like the photos I post occasionally in this blog.