Friday, September 15, 2017

Longevity: Superhumans vs. CRONies

There are, broadly speaking, two very different paradigms, or approaches, to longevity.  Or, you could say, approaches to longevity can be split into one of two different general camps. I'm going to roughly lay out both of them, but please remember, both camps represent a set of philosophies - not every researcher or doctor or longevity enthusiast who supports either side is saying exactly the same thing; there's variation within each group both on exactly what people are supposed to be doing and the reasoning or explanations about why they should be doing it.

CRON: Caloric Restriction, Optimal Nutrition

The first, in the sense of being more popular and better known in the popular media, is CRON, or Caloric Restriction/Optimal Nutrition. People who follow CRON are sometimes called CRONies,

The CRON paradigm is, at its most basic, that humans can achieve greater longevity by restricting caloric intake below what is considered maintenance levels. The CRON approach is almost always constant - that is, CRONies will find their basic caloric needs, then restrict themselves to some number of calories between 15% and 40% LESS than that number, forever. They believe that doing so will increase their maximum lifespan, and presumably their average lifespan (in other words, CRONies tend to think that consuming so few calories, forever, will help them live longer, at least longer than the average person and possibly longer than even very long lived 'normal' people).

In the earlier days CRON was really CR - focusing on Caloric Restriction - but nowadays most proponents of this lifestyle are careful to emphasize optimizing nutrition. After all, if you eat many fewer calories than you need each day, that means you have to eat less food overall, so you have to be extra careful that the food you DO eat has a high nutritional value, so you don't introduce nutritional deficiencies that might increase chance of disease or degeneration, counteracting the benefits of plain CR.

Reasons to think that CRON does, in fact, work:

The CRON plan is based on some very solid science. In a large variety of lab animals, like worms and mice, controlled studies have shown that chronic CR (caloric restriction that lasts the animal's entire adult life) extends average and maximum lifespan. I don't mean to shortchange the importance of this evidence by making this list so few words - it's exceedingly relevant that in many living things, CRON (or, more specifically, CR) increases lifespan.

The general idea is that CRON extends lifespan using one or more mechanisms that can be loosely grouped like this:

  1. Prevent the damage that seems to cause aging by slowing the metabolism and slowing activity, which should slow the production, for example, of reactive oxygen species or free radicals.
  2. Prevent or slow the processes that might contribute to cancer formation by reducing the signalling that activates them (for example, high protein activates mTor pathway, which might increase cancer growth; to prevent that, eat relatively little protein). In other words, prevent growth and growth promoting mechanisms.
  3. Engage the body's catabolic 'cleanup' mechanisms (like autophagy) that remove old cells and damaged proteins by mimicking a famine state.

Reasons to Doubt that CRON works:


  • CRON isn't really proven in humans, or even well studied in primates, because longevity studies in long lived animals is really, really time consuming. Just think - it would take 100 years to do a really good CRON study, and that means you'd have to find a test population willing to half starve themselves for 100 years. This same criticism goes for every other longevity program, of course.
  • CR is hard to do. It's physically very demanding (try staying on a strict diet for the rest of your life - if it were easy, we wouldn't have an obesity epidemic in the first world). You get cold, irritable, thin, listless, and so forth. A common joke about CRON is that it may not work, but it certainly seems to, because the suffering makes it feel like you're living longer. So the chances of finding people who can stick to CRON in the numbers you'd need for a valid study are really small.
  • Nobody knows exactly why CRON works in smaller animals. One popular study stated 400 hypotheses about why CRON works. The truth is that the key to CRON's success might be in any one or any combination of those 400 hypotheses. Maybe it's reduced oxidative stress from reduced basal metabolic rate. Or increase in autophagy. Or an increase in protein recycling caused by chronically limited protein intake. Or a huge slowdown in mTOR activation. The fact that we don't know why CRON works in animals makes it very hard to study why it might or might not work in humans - if we knew it was mTOR deactivation, we might measure that in a shorter term study. But we don't.
  • CRON seems quite antithetical to many quality of life markers that people who want to age well are concerned about. A big reason many aged people have poor quality of life is related to sarcopenia (reduced muscle mass). Chronically restricting calories is not a good way to preserve, let alone increase, muscle mass as one ages, in two ways. First, reducing calories encourages the body to burn muscle tissue directly. Second, reducing calories reduces activity levels, and it is activity which causes the body to retain and increase muscle mass. Living longer, but being either too weak to get out of a chair or at least finding it hard to do so, might not be a very high quality of life.
Basically, CRON is all about reducing calories, increasing catabolism (breakdown of tissues), reducing metabolic rate, slowing biological processes that might contribute to aging, all in an attempt to increase the deleterious effects of time on the body. It's not eas


Is there another option?

The Superhuman Paradigm

I take the name of this paradigm from Carl Lenore, host of a radio program called Superhuman Radio. Carl is the person from whom I took the core ideas of what I'm calling the Superhuman Longevity Paradigm, but I'm not saying he's the first or only person to propose them, only that he's my personal source for the idea. Also, I find Carl's politics abhorrent, to the point where I think if we met we'd end up punching each other, so please don't think that I'm in Carl's corner generally. But I find his stance on longevity very interesting, and very different from CRON.

Roughly speaking, the Superhuman Paradigm is sort of opposite to the CRON paradigm.

The Superhuman Paradigm is focused on quality of life, not quantity. It's less about avoiding death by old age and more about avoiding the deleterious effects of aging. It's about increasing physical capacity and restoring youthful abilities more than about slowing the deterioration of those abilities.

In the Superhuman Paradigm, it's great to live a long time, but the real goal is putting off for as long as possible the point where you are infirm, in a wheelchair, stuck in a nursing home. The Superhuman Paradigm isn't opposed to a long lifespan, but it's more interested in being physically vigorous and able for as long as possible. I should say that people invested in this paradigm usually believe that this lifestyle will ALSO increase lifespan, but that isn't the sole driving factor.

How does the Superhuman Paradigm work?

The Superhuman Paradigm is focused on building those physical qualities that usually deteriorate with aging. For examples: strength, muscle mass, bone density, power output, maximum heart rate, sex hormone levels, and glucose tolerance. How are those qualities increased? With increasing emphasis on the activities that we already know will improve those things. In other words, do the same things (roughly) that powerlifters or bodybuilders or Olympic weightlifters (or even crossfit athletes) do, but continue to do them as much as possible as aging continues (unlike traditional athletes, who transitioned from those activities to gentler training as they aged).

The Superhuman practitioners focus on lifting relatively heavy weights, often explosively. They eat a surplus of nutrients, especially protein, though careful not to increase bodyfat levels too much. They might engage in supplemental nutrition or medical interventions, like hormone replacement therapy, but the goal is to get closer to a young person's profile.

While the CRONie is eating 1500 kCal/day, the Superhuman is doubling that, spread across 6 meals, and banging out an hour of walking in the morning and a heavy deadlift session in the afternoon. While the CRONie is trying to minimize activity (with no choice, because you can't work out heavy in a high caloric deficit), the Superhuman is struggling to reach personal records in the heavy lifts.

Reasons to think Superhuman Plan does work:

There is indirect evidence to suggest that the Superhuman lifestyle will increase health and lifespan (but also indirect evidence that it won't). We know weight training increases bone density. We know that increased bone density is preventative for major breaks (like fractured hips). And we know that breaking a hip does bad things for your lifespan. But there isn't a lot of (or any) real data on the health or expected lifespans of 60 year olds who can deadlift 450 lbs.

Reasons to think the Superhuman Plan won't work:

Heavy weight training might not be sustainable for many decades, because of the wear and tear on the joints. There are certainly many people who have lifted heavy well into advanced age, but not entire populations of such people, so those who have done so might be genetic anomalies.

Of greater concern, the Superhuman plan is highly pro-anabolic - that is, you're doing many of the things that increase anabolic signalling in the body (like activating mTor and increasing IGF-1) both through diet (high protein and moderate to high carbohydrate), hormones (activities that increase anabolic hormones, and possible hormone supplementation), and exercise. And there is some indication that increasing anabolism might increase the rate of cancer formation or cancer growth or both. 

It is also unclear what the relationship is between some pro-anabolic signals and endothelial health. We know that people who abuse anabolic steroids (rasing androgenic levels in the body to superphysiological levels) increase their risk factors for some kinds of heart disease. Does that mean that stimulating anabolic hormones for decades, but keeping them in ranges that are normal for younger people, could have a similar effect? We aren't sure.

But Joe, what should I do? Which Paradigm is better?

It's probably obvious, but my heart lies with the Superhumans, not the CRONies. Living longer as a lethargic, weak, fragile person is not my idea of a goal worth pursuing. I am much more afraid of life as an invalid in a nursing home than I am of death.

However, and this is a fairly big 'however,' cancer is not fun, and dying young but leaving a jacked, muscular corpse is not my idea of a goal worth pursuing either.

Ideally, we could find some way to combine the benefits of both approaches. But this isn't a simple case of following both protocols - it's not as if one group was saying, "get enough sleep!" and the other group was saying, "take resveratrol supplements!" Then you could conceivably do both. But you can't reduce calories to 25% below maintenance and still lift heavy - it's just not physically possible.

A Shining Hope: The Sidekick Longevity Plan (intermittent fasting, maybe?)

The best hope we have for some lifestyle that could combine the benefits of CRON with Superhuman living is some kind of intermittent or periodic fasting.

What's the idea here?

Ideally, you could spend periods of time eating in a caloric surplus. You'd have loads of energy, and extra fuel in your system to support building lean muscle tissue and increasing bone density. You'd be strong, dense, and have a high physical capacity.

Then you'd spend periods of time eating less or no food at all. You'd be temporarily depleted, which should kick in the body's repair mechanisms, the same mechanisms that get rid of damaged proteins and cells, that clears small cancers from the body, that restore insulin sensitivity, and so on.

Yes, you'd probably lose some muscle while fasting, and promote some undesirable growth while feasting, but if you could get the proportions right, you could build or maintain muscle while still minimizing the risks of cancer growth. Or, get them wrong, and promote cancer while losing lean body mass.

Is this remotely feasible?

There is actually plenty of evidence that short term fasts promote mechanisms that prevent muscle loss - in other words, a short fast probably doesn't carve up as much muscle as people think (a fast often seems to really destroy muscle, because even a short fast will deplete glycogen levels, making your muscles look significantly smaller, but it's not real muscle tissue that's been burned off - once you take in surplus carbs again those glycogen stores are replaced within hours).

So how does this work?

A fast can mean:
  • No food at all (but plain water is fine, and maybe water with some flavoring - nobody really favors limiting fluid intake altogether); or
  • Significantly reduced food intake (think 60-80% below maintenance); or
  • Normal energy intake but highly reduced protein and/or carbohydrate intake (reduce protein to reduce mTor activation and induce autophagy; reduce carbs to reverse problems related to insulin overproduction).
Done for:
  • 14-20 hours daily most days (so you fast from the end of, say, dinner on one day through the beginning of lunch the next) - this is usually 'no food at all'; or
  • 24-36 hours at a time, once or twice per week - this is usually 'no food at all' or significantly reduced food; or
  • A 3-5 day fast repeated at most once per month, either full fast (be careful!) or reduced protein or ketogenic; or
  • Periods of time spent in ketosis each year - ketogenic diets are high in fat, low to moderate in protein, and very, very low in carbs. You can follow this diet indefinitely, but there are good reasons to think that spending a couple of weeks or a month every year or so might have some benefits, while staying in ketosis long term might have drawbacks.
There are some other protocols, but you get the idea.

What's the best one?

Sadly, I don't really know. My strongest hunch is that mixing things up is best. Try to do 16-20 hour fasts a few days a week, a 24 hour fast every 2 weeks, and go very low protein for a week once a year. The damage you'll do with a strategy like that is pretty minimal (as long as you don't use these fasts as an excuse to overeat when they're over).

Hopefully, as time goes on we'll get more research showing specifically how different fasting methodologies can impact different health markers more specifically.

Now; why do I call this the Sidekick Plan? Answer: because I can't turn down a chance to make a bad pun. Crony + superhero = sidekick. I am sorry.

Implementing the Sidekick Longevity Plan:

A few caveats:
  • If you're under a lot of stress (if your sympathetic nervous system is highly activated) then fasting is going to potentially be such a big stressor that it's going to negatively impact your health. How can you tell? Well, if after starting some trial fasts you feel anxious or jittery or find that you're not getting good quality sleep, you might want to ease back on the fasting.
  • The idea that the Sidekick Longevity Plan will actually improve your lifespan or your health is not well supported by science. It's a good guess, based on lots of disparate pieces of data. The fact is, there is almost no good direct science on this, or almost any other, plan for increasing longevity. We're all just guessing (but they're educated guesses).
  • Monitor your lean body mass and overall body mass carefully. If you're losing muscle, then you're fasting too often or eating too little during non-fasting periods. The goal here is to maintain a lot of excess muscle so that as you age, any incidents that occur (accidents, illness, etc.) don't deteriorate your body to the point that you're incapacitated. The goal is to be able to get really sick, lose 30 lb. in the hospital, and still come out able to deadlift one and a half times your bodyweight.
  • If you're sick, acutely or chronically, start fasting only under a physician's care. Especially if you have some kind of metabolic illness.
  • Pregnant or nursing? Don't fast. It's possible that pregnant or nursing moms can fast safely under certain situations, but we aren't sure, and to be honest that research is NEVER going to get done. And the cost benefit ratio here is terrible. 
Now, if you've decided to try fasting, there are plenty of resources around (google intermittent fasting). There are many different plans - I've tried lots of them.

I recommend starting with a 16 or 20 hour fast. Have a solid dinner, finishing, let's say, at 8PM. Eat no food before bed. Skip breakfast the next day. Eat lunch around noon. Congratulations - that's a 16 hour fast. If you can eat a late lunch or skip lunch altogether, you can push that to 20 hours.

Keep an eye out for jittery feelings and poor sleep. If you're overstressing yourself you're probably not doing your body any good.

Plan your fasts to avoid being around your heavy workouts. For example, if you hit the weights hard on Tuesday and Friday morning, you should eat normally Monday and Wednesday dinner and Tuesday and Friday all day. If you want do do a 36 hour fast, do it Sunday, so you have Saturday to recover from Friday's workout and Monday to reload for Tuesday's. If you do a are doing some 20 hour fasts, do them Wednesday and Sunday. So don't hit the weights hard Tuesday morning, then come home and NOT eat. Your goal is to get whatever calories your do eat into muscle tissue - which means focusing your food intake into time periods just before and for a while after your workout.

Lastly, keep your eyes out on the research. shorter fasts (16-20 hours) seem useful for increasing insulin resistance and weight loss. Longer fasts, either total fasts or simply low-protein fasts, seem to be needed to get the cancer fighting benefits. But all of this is very speculative, at least for now.

On ANY calorie reduced plan - CRON or Sidekick - you should probably be extra careful to eat nutrient dense food. That is, focus on foods that have a lot of micronutrients (vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals) and the critical macronutrients (Omega 3s like DHA and EPA, high quality animal protein, monounsaturated fats, fiber). That's the 'ON' in CRON. When you're in a large caloric surplus, you're just eating a lot of food, even if the food is slightly lower in quality you're still likely to get the nutrients you want. The less you eat, the more particular you have to be about what you're eating.

NEVER RESTRICT WATER. "Drying out" can make you look leaner, but there are NO positive health effects to dehydration (that I'm aware of) and NO evidence that dehydration could complement any of the beneficial mechanisms of fasting. Fasting is very safe - unless you're a Type I diabetic taking exogenous insulin, skipping a few meals or a few days of meals will NOT kill you - but dehydration is NOT SAFE.

For the Martial Artists:

Obviously, CRON is a bad choice if you care at all about physical or athletic performance. Sustained caloric deficits do NOT work with hard training. 

But the Sidekick Lifestyle can work with martial arts. Plan your fasts to be on rest days, make sure you aren't losing muscle mass, and train during times when you're getting in plenty of fuel.

For the CRONies, Superhumans, and Sidekicks alike: EVERYONE DO THIS

The basic tenets of CRON and Superhuman and Sidekick lifestyles are at odds, but there are many factors that seem to contribute to extending lifespan that we should probably all be doing. For examples, in no particular order, of lifestyle tips that seem to coincide with long lifespan and with health:
  • Get enough sleep, primarily at night.
  • Get adequate sunlight exposure.
  • Do lots of socializing.
  • Reduce stress (yoga, meditation, whatever).

Summary

Nobody has great direct evidence supporting any particular plan for living a very, very long time. There are two approaches that represent a best guess, based on what works to increase longevity in animals and based on ways to improve health indicators that are indirectly related to lifespan. One is to restrict calories dramatically. The other is to increase calories, combined with heavy, tissue building exercise. A third approach that might provide benefits of each of these other plans is to alternate periods of caloric surplus and heavy training with periods of caloric deficit. I call this the Sidekick Plan, because I can't resist bad puns.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Artificial Sweeteners and You (a cautionary tale about science)

Read, or maybe skim, this article. It's long but really interesting.

I"ll give you the lowdown:

A very large meta-analysis was published about the impact of artificial sweeteners on bodyweight.

Early media attention was highly inflammatory, with headlines like, "Consuming food and drink containing artificial sweeteners could lead to weight gain and heighten risk of suffering from health issues including diabetes…"

Actually carefully reading the paper indicated not only that the paper did NOT show what that headline said it showed, but that, in fact, in most of the studies, those who consumed artificial sweeteners lost as much or more weight than those in control groups.

Additionally, some of the studies were looking at artificial sweeteners in ways that nobody cares about. For example, one study had test subjects taking stevia in a pill. Do you care if stevia pills will help you lose weight (well, you might if it worked). No! You (we) want to know if drinking sweetened beverages in place of sugar containing beverages will help us lose weight. We want to know if Diet Coke will kill us or not (well, I care about Pepsi Max, because that is my favorite soda in the world, but Diet Coke is the more famous example.)

You might be the sort of person who is bombarded with scare articles and facebook posts about how aspartame causes cancer and all sorts of other nonsense. Let me sum it all up for you.

If any artificial sweeteners were VERY BAD, the way smoking cigarettes, for example, is VERY BAD, we'd know. Tons of studies have been done, and rarely do they show much of any negative health impact for pretty much any artificial sweeteners on the market. Even saccharin was only dangerous when fed to mice in truly ridiculous doses (it was the equivalent of a human taking 1,000 packets a day of saccharin, which nobody was doing).

Is water better for you than Diet Coke? Common sense says: Probably yes! But how bad for you is Diet Coke ? Common sense says: Probably only a little bit, at most!

So you have to slip into the second order question: how much do you enjoy your diet soda? If consuming some diet soda is a cornerstone of your happiness, you're probably better off drinking some. If you can take it or leave it, you're better off leaving it.

I personally have tried to cut back on my diet soda consumption. But I'll tell you, when I'm having a difficult time in life and I'm slipping towards food-binging behavior, I'll often circumvent the binges by pounding back a liter of Pepsi Max.

Is drinking a liter of Pepsi Max good for me? Probably not. But is it better than eating an entire pizza by myself, or a pint of Ben & Jerries? Almost certainly yes.

Diet soda is slightly bad for you. If it were very bad, we'd have people dropping dead left and right of aspartame related illnesses (the stuff has been widely used for over 30 years). That just isn't happening. 

When confronted with things that are slightly bad, you have to make smart decisions - how much energy/ willpower/ suffering will it take to cut this thing out of your life? How much willpower/ mental energy do you have to spare?

And if you're interested in some careful analysis of published research, and a careful consideration of the methodology involved, read the article at the top of this post. It's very well done.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Strength Training 201: Dan John's 25 Rep Scheme

Suppose you are a person who wants to get stronger and build some muscle, but are not an elite level powerlifter, Olympic lifter, or even a professional athlete. Where should you start? What weights should you choose? What set and rep scheme? If you go look around, you can find thousands of pages about the best rep schemes and loading, each defended with a religious ferocity by its proponents. Where to start?

I got my answer from Dan John.

[First, a little bit about Dan John - skip to "The Workout" below if you don't care.

Dan John is a strength coach who has gotten quite famous off of seminars, his blog, and his books. It's a little hard to describe his appeal without making him seem simple (which he isn't), but really he has an uncanny knack for getting to the most important bits of whatever he's talking about and looking past the peripheral details. He's the ultimate 'big rocks' kind of guy, which is perfect for 90% of all trainees (basically, if you're an elite athlete, you're going to benefit from some more sophisticated programming, but almost none of us are elite athletes, and Dan John's programs are going to more than do the job.

He's also a hell of a nice guy - I've never met him, but I have listened to him talk for at least 20 hours on various podcasts, and I am a keen judge of character.]

The Workout:

In this blog post Dan John recommends a minimalist approach that is surprisingly easy to follow AND effective. If you don't want to read it, here's my summary:

  • Warm up.
  • For each exercise, pick a load and do 25 total reps (this number is not magical - if you really want to do 23 or 27 you can. But don't; do 25).
  • Each set should be hard but not burst a blood vessel hard.
  • If you do 25 reps in 2 sets, the weight is too light. If it takes you more than 6, the weight is too heavy. Next workout, respond accordingly (either use more weight or pick a harder version of the exercise).
  • If one workout it takes you more sets to get to 25 then the previous, you might need extra rest or to lighten the load a bit. Use your judgment.
That's kind of it.

The Exercises:

Which exercises should you pick? Dan didn't address it in that post, but there are some standard ways to pick your exercises. Basically, you're going to pick from a set of categories, and WHICH exercises you pick will depend on what you have access to, equipment-wise, and what you prefer.

Basically, there are 7 categories (different authors organize these differently, but this is the basic idea):

Vertical Push: You push a load above your head. Handstands, handstand pushups, dumbbell overhead presses, kettlebell overhead presses, Barbell military press, jerks, and so forth.

Horizontal Push: You push a load forward from your chest. Bench press, push up, one arm pushup, pushup with weighted vest, Dumbbell bench press, some kind of bench press machine.

Vertical Pull: Pull something overhead towards your body. Pullup, chinup, lat bar pulldown.

Horizontal Pull: Pull something in front of you towards your body. Rows, one arm rows, anything with the word 'row' in it.

Hinge: Lower body exercise where the focus is on movement at the hip, not the knee (the knees often do flex and extend, but they contribute less than in a squat). Deadlift, swing, hip thrust.

Squat: Different from the hinge because more of the work comes from the knees (though the hips do flex and extend). Squats, goblet squats, one legged squats, pistols, leg press... it's a long list.

Beach and accessory exercises: Curls, overhead tricep extensions, crunches. Anything you do to attract the opposite sex, or to hit some specific weakness (I use the hip adductor and abductor machines, but that's for kicking specifically).

Beach exercises are always optional. If you can, pick one exercise from each of the first 6 categories. If you are short on time, pick just one push, one pull, and one hinge/squat. Then, the next workout, switch (so if on Monday you did vertical push, on Thursday do horizontal push, and so on).

The Circuit:

There are roughly 2 ways to arrange the exercises. You can do all 25 reps of one exercise before moving on, or you can superset (or complex) the exercises. Suppose you're doing dumbbell presses, pushups, pullups, TRX rows, goblet squats, and kettlebell swings. You could do all the presses, then all the pushups, then all the pullups, and so on. OR you could alternate - either do some presses, then some pullups, then back to presses until both are done, then do the same with pushups and TRX rows, OR even circuit train - do a few reps of each exercise, back to back, then start again with the first one, until you hit 25 on them all.

The more you mix up the exercises, the greater the conditioning demand, the less the strength demand.

If you make a giant circuit out of this, you're going to be breathing very hard and getting very fatigued, and you won't be able to do as much strength work. So if you want some strength gains, and you want to get some conditioning, go right ahead. If you want mostly strength and hypertrophy, DON'T do that. Generally, if you can, do your strength work and conditioning separately, but if you just don't have time for more workouts, you can m ix them like this.

Weekly/Monthly Planning:

You should probably try to do this at least twice a week. Three times would be great, once a week is sort of iffy, depending on your training level. If you're squatting 400 lbs. for 25 reps, once a week is plenty. If you're swinging the pink kettlebell, you can go 3/week.

You can get as fancy as you want periodizing this routine, but we're trying to stay minimalist. Every 7th week or so, take a rest week - either use much lighter loads for the same workout, or don't do any weight training (don't do NO movement for a week, light exercise is better than complete rest for recovery). And no, there's nothing magic about every 7th week.

Once you've done this workout a few times, tune it to how you feel that day. If you're really energized, use higher weights. If you're really lagging, use lighter weights. Make sure your workouts are hard more often than not - if you're lagging most of the time, you need to address those issues, not just push light weights.


Friday, July 14, 2017

Poop Doping: Gut Bacteria: Resistant Starch, Full Fecal Transplants, and why "you're full of shit" isn't an insult

Fecal transplants for sports performance are in the news again (this was one of those topics that has been talked about as a future possibility, but not actually tested in the field, for a while). Google 'poop doping' and 'cycling' for links. In this case, an amateur competitive cyclist got a fecal transplant from a high level competitor. Afterwards, she saw her training improve, greatly improved her recovery, and saw general improvements in her health.

At the same time, you can find articles in places like gizmodo telling you that no, fecal transplants won't make you a better athlete, because the people who write for gizmodo don't understand the difference between absence of evidence and evidence of absence.

The theory: What's this all about? 

Your intestines are full of bacteria. That is why it's important to wash your hands after using the bathroom. Not just one strain of bacteria, either - everybody has a lot of different strains, in different proportions, living in their intestines. These bacteria help break down certain foods, produce chemicals that can get into your bloodstream and affect your health (butyric acid, branched chain amino acids. lots of others), and seem to impact your health in lots of other ways that are somewhat mysterious (impact insulin resistance, affect mood, influence the immune system, impact bodyfat levels, and so on).

Not all of these bacteria do the same thing. Some are better at digesting some fibers than others. Some do generally good things for you, some do generally bad things for you (things that detract from your health).

The most direct way to change your intestinal bacteria (also called your 'gut flora,' which sounds better) is two steps: 1) flush out your own, basically taking a bunch of magnesium citrate and cleaning out your bowels, and 2) re-colonizing with a different set of species (either different species altogether, or just different ratios of the same strains of bacteria). Where would you get a replacement colony (see what I did there? colon? colony?) From the gut of a healthy person. The process is exactly as disgusting as you think.

Do we know for sure this will work?

What parts of this plan are supported by science? Actually, quite a bit, but not all of it.

We know (as in, have extremely solid scientific evidence) that gut bacteria can massively influence various things in rats. Scientists have done fecal transplants on obese rats and they got leaner, among many other similar experiments.

We know that the gut bacteria in healthy/lean/athletically advanced people are not the same as in sick/obese/athletically disadvantaged people.

We know that, for example, being insulin sensitive will make you a better martial artists or cyclist or whatever, even if only a little bit.

What do the naysayers say?

Why wouldn't this work? Naysayers argue that, while healthy/fit people have different gut flora than sick/unfit people, this might be an effect, not a cause. Maybe elite cyclists have different gut bacteria because of the lifestyle that made them elite, and the bacteria changes are just a side effect.

They may be right, but there are a lot of studies done on humans where various protocols are used to change gut flora that lead to changes in health markers. None of them have been done on cycling performance, but it seems very reasonable to think that some change in immune function or insulin sensitivity would be likely to improve performance, even if only a little bit.

Naysayers also argue that the helpfulness of a particular colony of bacteria (the strains and proportions of each strain) might be very specific to an individual - maybe the gut bacteria that make Dave a great cyclist wouldn't work for Dennis, because of some peculiarity of either Dave's or Dennis' physiology.

There are potential complications and downsides to this sort of treatment. By definition, fecal matter isn't sterile. Importing someone else's bacteria into your body might make you sick - especially if your immune system isn't up to snuff.

What should I do?

Let's be clear: nobody really knows just how much any particular person might gain, if anything, from changing their gut bacteria.

And that's a big part of the problem.

It's a good bet, in my opinion, that swapping out your gut flora for those of, for example, a high level athlete, would be good for you. People who tend towards obesity, poor immune function, bad insulin resistance, and compromised digestion don't usually end up at the top of the athletic pyramid. There's a really good chance that your average Olympic athlete has an above averagely good gut biome.

But that's a pretty shaky foundation to build on. If you're sickly, generally feel like crap, and are a well below average performer in many physical areas, and other avenues of traditional medical intervention haven't worked for you, this might be something to explore. You don't have as much to lose. But if you're generally doing okay, getting a fecal transplant from the UFC Featherweight Champion (Max Holloway, can I have some of your poop?) is probably not warranted. We just don't know if everyone benefits from the same bacteria, how long the effect would last (how long before my super Max Holloway colon returns to my current biome, given my lifestyle and eating habits?), or what negative effects there might be.

Having said that, it is very, very possible that in a few more years researchers will understand these variables a lot better. There might even be better ways to change your gut biome (better probiotics!)

You can do some things to change your gut flora right now that aren't nearly as radical as a fecal transplant. To be honest, any change in your diet is going to affect your gut flora - consuming different amounts or different types of fiber will feed the different strains better or worse, changing the composition of your gut biome. BUT nobody, as far as I can tell (and I've looked), fully understands which fibers feed which bacteria to get which specific desired (or undesired) result. Will eating raw potato starch result in a beneficial shift in your gut biome? Maybe. But if you look at the work of the people suggesting that, there are holes in their evidence. Like, there's a jump from "this fiber feeds gut bacteria!" to "bacteria are good for you!" without a lot of specifics about "this fiber feeds these bacteria more than these other ones, and having more of these and fewer of those will make you healthier."

Without knowing all the specifics, we can do a sort of "good enough for now" workaround: look at healthy populations, groups of very healthy people, and see if there are any commonalities in their diet, because there's a good chance that they're feeding their gut bacteria in a way that contributes to a positive gut biome. What do we see? Lots of vegetable intake, not a lot of processed foods. In other words, good amounts of fiber from a variety of natural plant sources (sorry, not orange metamucil).

The takehome:

Your gut bacteria are super important. Some strains are better for you than others, and in different amounts. It's very unclear exactly how to make sure you are supporting the good bacteria and interfering with the bad ones. BUT you're probably safe eating lots of fiber, from a variety of whole food sources, because there are huge populations of people who eat like that who seem to have, at the very least, not-bad gut biomes.

ALSO this looks a LOT like an area where, it's not that we have good reason to think that fecal transplants won't work, but we have strong reasons to think that they should, but probably not enough evidence to justify running out and pumping ourselves full of someone else's shit. So instead of filing this away as "probable hoax," file it away under "promising idea, wait for more work to be done."

Osu.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Culture Vs. Technique: Dojo Qualities

I was listening to a podcast (Iron Radio) recently and the hosts were discussing the Westside Barbell Club.

Westside Barbell is a fascinating place because the people who train there have set an astounding number of powerlifting world records in the last couple of decades. And it's not as if they're recruiting top talent and paying them, either - there has been almost no money in powerlifting, basically ever, and none of these guys have gotten rich off of their ability to bench, squat, or deadlift.

Westside Barbell is famous for its head coach, Louie Simmons, and the method he uses to train the athletes there, which is usually just called the Westside Method. He teaches technique (a particular way to squat, bench, and deadlift), and prescribes a fairly specific method of training. The lifters at Westside tend to do similar exercises, periodized similar ways, with similar accessory lifts. And since there are so many strong, strong people training there, the atmosphere is supposed to be amazing. For competitive people, training alongside the strongest people in the world is quite stimulating. And they all get phenomenally strong.

The discussion on this particular episode centered on the reason why Westside lifters are so strong. And the question boils down this: is the success of the lifters at Westside due to Louie's system, to the culture or training atmosphere, or both?

There is never going to be a clear cut answer, of course - nobody is going to do a study and prove that the success of Louie's lifters is 62% the system and 38% the culture. Nevertheless, it's a really interesting thing to think about.

Westside lifters are the most successful powerlifters in the world. Does that prove that their system is the best? Well, I think it's strong evidence that the system is at least very good. But there might be some guy in some garage somewhere who offers better training and technical programs than you can get at Westside, but maybe in a laid back atmospher. And maybe that imaginary coach just doesn't inspire his athletes to work hard the way they are inspired at Westside, which is why his guys aren't setting world records right and left.

Dojos are the same.

I think of every dojo (or dojang or gym or whatever) as having 2 different qualities: competence of technical instruction and culture.

Technical instruction is how good the teachers (and sometimes the other students) are at giving the right coaching cues at the right time to improve your technique the most. This is somewhat complex, and sometimes it depends on the student - I've had instructors who were great at teaching beginners, and other who were not as good with beginners but were really good at making the small corrections that would help very advanced students make progress (there are also instructors who can do both of those things!)

Culture is a little harder to define, but it's basically a description of the atmosphere in the school. It's a combination of the sort of things the instructor says and does to motivate you, how physically demanding the classes are, and the way the other students respond to those cues.

Culture is not simply better or worse. Some people respond to certain kinds of dojo cultures better than others. I've seen schools that are hyper competitive and aggressive. They engage in a lot of belitting speech (insulting anyone who lags behind or quits), usually do a lot of hard, violent sparring, and generally show disdain for those who are less physically competent. I'm not saying that culture is inherently bad, in fact for some people that is highly motivating. Some people will do best in those surroundings. Others, however, will be deflated, and respond better to a less antagonistic culture.

As a student, you need to figure out two things: how much technical support you need and what culture suits you best. If you're a beginner, you definitely need a lot of technical help. If you've been training for 20 years, you probably need less. Depending on how extroverted or introverted you are you'll probably benefit more or less from a really enthusiastic culture.

Keep in mind that a good, motivating culture (whatever that means to you) does not mean that the instructor is technically good, and a bad culture does not mean that the technical instruction is bad. These are really separate things, and some groups have one or the other or both (or neither).

The bottom line is this: as a martial arts student you need to figure out what your needs are, and make sure your class is filling those needs. If you're highly self motivated, you might not care so much about the culture. If you're struggling to get through workouts, you might need more of a 'rah-rah' atmosphere.

If you're very lucky, you'll find a technically great group that also has a strong, spirited culture that motivates you and keeps you excited to train. That's the dream! Enjoy it.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Endurance made simple: High/Low Training

I've been very focused lately on endurance training (especially power-endurance and speed-endurance) for several reasons.

First, I've been extra focused on losing bodyfat, and the greater your endurance the greater a workload you can handle, and the greater workload you can handle the more calories you can burn.

Second, I find that, at least for me, one of the biggest impediments to sparring has been my fitness. When I'm tired, I get slow, and when I'm slow I'm not very good at fighting.

Third, I've been extra focused on my karate practice, and improving skills takes lots of repetitions done while fresh (practicing karate while fatigued is somewhere between less productive and outright counterproductive). If you want to get better at a movement, you have to practice it while fresh, and the better your endurance the more fresh repetitions you can get, and the better you'll be.

Anyway, just like strength training, endurance training is complicated and very individual. If you can afford to hire a really good conditioning coach, that would be better and more efficient than what you can implement yourself. However, even if you can't get expert help, there might be room to improve your system. A lot of training programs are less effective than they could be. People often think that any hard workout that causes suffering will improve endurance. I'm not going to pretend that you can get fit with NO suffering, but results aren't simply proportional to how hard you work.

I plan to write more in depth about energy systems and the best general kind of plans for gaining karate in ways that correlate to traditional martial arts practice, but there is a simplistic overview that I think will be helpful for most people: High/Low.

Let me explain.

Suppose you can do a certain activity for 30 minutes - sparring, kata practice, whatever. After 30 minutes, more or less, you get noticeably fatigued and can't perform well (or maybe you just collapse). And suppose that you'd like to be able to go for longer, or at least last longer while feeling fresh and energetic.

One way people will try to improve endurance for this activity is to just do more of it. So, if you can do 30 minutes of sparring, force yourself to go for 35 minutes, or do it several times a week, and hope to get better at it. Or, similarly, they will engage in a different activity that is just about as difficult (say, jogging at a pace that they can keep up for 30 minutes), and push that as hard as they can. And, often,

Now, don't get me wrong, this approach will work. It just won't work very well.

Why not? Well, a few reasons. Primarily, if you're already doing 30 minute sparring sessions, then adding another similar intensity workout to your week isn't really giving your body a new stimulus. And just extending the workout by 5 more minutes is all too likely to just get your body used to adding sloppy minutes to the end of your workout.

Instead, it's more efficient to force an adaption by adding two kinds of workouts:

1.  Do workouts that are harder and shorter (greater intensity, less duration) than the work you are training for. For example, add some High Intensity Interval Training (quick example: do 3 burpees every 30 seconds for 20 minutes). Make sure the work periods are much, much harder (more intense) than the activity you're training for, but much shorter.

2. Do workouts that are easier and longer (lower intensity, greater duration) than the work you are training for. For example, do 60 minutes of continuous aerobic exercise that keeps your heartrate under 140 beats per minute.

In my experience, you should do each of these workouts at least once a week, and maybe do your target activity once a week (more is ok; much less is probably not ok).

By presenting your body with different stresses (harder, longer) than what your'e already doing, you'll force new adaptations from your system. And those adaptations will help you with your target activity - there is no such thing as mitochondria that only work at specific intensities, you either have more or you don't. So those adaptations will carry over to your target activity.

Give it a try for 3-4 weeks and see how much it helps!

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Karate and Community (what your style is for, part 3)

I have two parallel thoughts that converge into one idea.

The first thought: if you read a lot of the modern discussion around 'diet' and health, most responsible advocates (doctors, bloggers, science journalists, trainers, fitness coaches, etc.) are promoting a multi-tiered approach to health. You should eat a good diet (I know, there's disagreement on what that means, but almost everyone agrees at least you should focus on not eating too much, eating fruits and vegetables,and limiting processed foods), sure, but also you should get plenty of sleep at the right times, get plenty of physical activity, and plenty of social interaction. ALL of these are important.

The second thought: in online forums I see a lot of discussion about choosing a martial arts style (or school), and which styles are best, and so on.

If you've been following this blog, you know there is one primary indicator for a 'good' martial art school - whether or not the teaching is going to hurt you. If the school teaches bad biomechanics (meaning, they have you execute techniques in such a way that they are likely to injure you) or emphasizes head contact or training methods that are very high risk, then it's a BAD school. Don't train there, especially if this is your hobby and not, say, a job requirement, or your profession (head contact is probably needed if you're training to be a professional fighter - but in that case you're not doing this for your health).

But after that - assuming your style or school is not BAD in the way I outlined above - what's important? The training should be fun and seem effective to you or your goals, otherwise you're not likely to stick with it. But, and I think we talk about this less than we should, the school is a social construct.

Your senpai (and kohai) are people you're going to spend a LOT of time with over the years. Training together, talking in the locker room, very probably socializing before/ after class, especially around special events like promotions and tournaments. Your fellow students become your family. IF you train regularly, you're probably spending more time with them than with your own cousins.

So, how friendly are they? Do you LIKE spending time with the people from your school?

I've been involved with Seido Karate, on and off (I've taken long breaks from training, nobody's fault but my own), for over 28 years. I've spent weekends with these people, traveled with them, sweated alongside them. Because of Seido I have friends everywhere I go, and many of those friendships are incredibly meaningful to me. I literally can count on one hand (and have 3 or 4 fingers left over) the number of times I've met someone through my style, out of hundreds or thousands of people, and thought, "this person's a jerk. I'd rather not spend more time with them."

If you ask me "is Seido karate a good style?" I honestly can't answer fully, because it depends what you mean by 'good style'. If you mean, "Is training in Seido the best way to learn self defense?" then I don't know - maybe it is, but I honestly have never trained any other system. Maybe there's a better way to learn self defense, I can't say. If you mean, "Is training in Seido the best way to prepare for a professional MMA career?" then the answer is probably no, at least not by itself. If you mean, "Is training in Seido a mechanically sound way to get fit?" then the answer is yes, our training is not going to put you at an unnecessarily high risk of injury. But if you mean, "are the people in Seido karate the kind of people I'll want to be friends with for the rest of my life?" then I can answer without reservation that you couldn't do any better (not to say that other styles aren't also friendly and lovely).

The convergence: When you think of your martial arts practice as not just your physical fitness training but also as a substantial portion of your community, of your social environment, then you'll better understand its true value.

  • Not feeling motivated to train? Remember that you're not just getting in a workout, you're seeing your friends. 
  • Balking at the money spent to go to a training camp? Remember that it's not just about what technical knowledge you'll acquire, but how much fun you'll have... with your friends.
  • Considering quitting your school and training in your garage? Don't forget, it's not just about what progress you will or won't make, but whether you'll be doing it with your friends.
  • Finding yourself in a school that gives excellent instruction but where your peers are, let's just say, not to your taste? Maybe it's time to switch schools.
Summary: appreciate the friendships and community you develop through your martial arts practice, and don't train with assholes even if they know what they're doing.

Osu.




Friday, April 28, 2017

External Vs. Internal Cuing for Martial Arts

[Note: This post is not about internal and external martial arts, it's about two types of cuing during martial arts instruction.]

There are ideas and trends that make there way through the physical performance industry every so often, and what starts in either research laboratories or in high level training environments eventually trickles down to the general fitness population. Some turn out to be fads but some persist. At its core, the entire purpose of this blog is to report on those innovations as they might apply to traditional martial arts practice.

One popular 'innovation' that's been working its way around the performance training circuit lately is internal vs. external cuing. (I put innovation in scare quotes because nobody is claiming that these scientists have invented external cuing - the innovation is the careful distinction between the two types and the deliberate emphasis on one type over another.)

Cuing is just a general term for the kind of instructions you give someone to change their movement. Telling someone to keep their shoulder low when punching, reminding someone to straighten their back leg while in front leaning stance, even reminding someone to breathe.

None of this is new - I'm sure cuing is as old as training. Some recent research in neuroscience has focused on different types of cuing to try to determine which types, if any, are most effective. Step #1 is grouping cues into categories.

Internal cues are those that are directed towards the body. For example, suppose you want to get someone to jump higher. An internal cue might be, "forcefully extend your hips, knees, and ankles at the same time." Basically, any cue that references the parts of the body is internal.

External cues are those that are directed towards things outside the body. For the jumping example, "push the floor away" or "jump and reach towards this spot up on the wall."

Research has shown that, generally speaking, external cues are more effective than internal ones - that is, they result in greater improvements in performance. If you want a sprinter to drive their knees forward forcefully as they run, you're better off holding up some kind of shield and telling them to hit it as hard as they kind (an external cue), rather than telling them to drive the knee forward (an internal cue). Same desired result, different frame for the cue.

In addition to research results, a number of highly successful coaches have been reporting for a couple of years that they see better results with their high level athletes using external cues.

I highly doubt it's possible to teach martial arts without a LOT of internal cuing. I doubt it's possible to teach any highly technical, unnatural set of movements without a lot of internal cuing. It's fine to tell someone to jump higher by reaching for a high spot on the wall - jumping is a very natural motion, one for which most of us have a strong and efficient movement pattern. It's another thing to try to get someone to, for example, execute a spinning kick correctly without a lot of internal cues about body position and so forth.

However, where possible, with a little creativity a lot of training outcomes can be achieved with external cuing when you put effort into it.

For example, if a student isn't twisting their fist at the end of the punch, have them strike a target and tell them to try to spin the target as they hit it (instead of telling them to twist the fist). If a student is dropping their leg straight down after a front kick, have them practice kicking over a low (and soft) target so they have to retract properly or they'll trip over the obstacle (but don't tell them what to do other than saying that they need to clear the obstacle).

You'll give verbal instruction along with placing the items, but your words can focus on the outside - don't say, "retract the kick before putting the foot back down," just say, "kick over the target, then come back to your stance." If a student has a weak stance (for example, maybe they are standing in sanchin dachi with knees straight), push them a little bit from the front and see if they settle in a better stance when trying to resist the force (instead of just telling them to soften the knees). I suspect that some internal cuing will need to be added to reinforce all of these examples, but I also suspect that you can get pretty far on the external cues alone, or gradually switch over to using mostly external cues with intermediate and advanced students, saving the internal cues for beginners who really don't have even the most basic idea how to move their bodies.

I strongly suspect that better athletes need less internal cuing than worse athletes. One of the things that makes a 'good' athlete is a knack for solving spatial problems with their body. Good athletes are better at moving the right way. Bad athletes need more help.

In short, when teaching, try to use as much external cuing as you can, and use internal cuing as a last resort. Keep a notebook with cues that you like to use, and over time try to replace the internal cues with external ones whenever it's possible (it won't always be, but that's okay).

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Movie Review: Kickboxer: Vengeance

This 2016 action movie turned out to be more fun that I anticipated.

The plot... who am I kidding, the plot doesn't matter. The plot holes were big enough to drive a mid-sized car through, but not a tractor trailer. There were a few surprises (after one training montage the hero goes to test his new skills and gets his butt kicked) but nothing great. 1.5 out of 5.

The action sequences were good but not great. No stuntwork to speak of (Tony Jaa can rest easy as king of stunts in the post-Jackie Chan era), but the hand to hand combat was pretty okay. Semi-realistic (sometimes one guy could take out 5 attackers, but nobody was throwing energy blasts or flying, so right in the middle of the realism spectrum as far as movies go). 3 black belts out of 5.

The acting was surprisingly lovely. A lot of work done by actual fighters and WWE people. Dave Bautista made a refreshingly charismatic villain (with very few speaking lines, but I was expecting cringeworthy cartoonishness and didn't get it). Alan Moussi was just fine as the protagonist. Sara Malakul Lane was super hot as the love interest and nothing more than that (nor was anything more required). George St. Pierre was much better as an actor, and funnier, than you'd think. I really liked Cain Velasquez' turn as a nameless thug - he's very high on my list of guys not to get into a real fight against. Jean Claude Van Damme (yes!) was fabulous, with having grown into a kind of self aware self-mockery that I can't get enough of. Now he seems like a guy I'd like to have a beer with. Gina Carano was fine, but had no action sequences to speak of, and as an actress she neither detracts nor adds to the film. Overall, 3.5 Oscars out of 5.

The cheesecake factor was low to mild, but the beefcake factor was large - lots of shirtless guys with sub-10% bodyfat running around. Almost no gratuitous female nudity, another surprise for me, coming from a low budget B-grade martial arts movie (that's not a complaint, I actually prefer my B-action movies to be nudity free, but that's a discussion for another time.

Overall, this movie wasn't good, but it was a lot better than I thought it would be. Overall rating: 3.5 Bud Light Limes out of 5.


Friday, April 7, 2017

How to Treat Yourself

I don't really believe that treats or cheat meals or other breaks in a healthy diet plan are actually necessary - in fact, I think that most people do better sticking to a plan 100% than they do, say, indulging in less healthy choices on occasion. In other words, I don't think that the desire for treats or cheats is something that builds up, like pressure over boiling water. I think that the more treats and cheats you have, the more you'll want them, not less.

I suspect that if your primary goal is weight loss or improving your health, you're better off just sticking to a healthy eating plan all of the time and NOT giving yourself planned occasions to, say, eat a cheesecake, or whatever.

But if your primary goal is a happy life, then maybe some indulging is worth it. Again, it depends on a few things - how healthy are you? If you're very sick or very obese, the tradeoff of the occasional piece of cheesecake might not be worth it. If you're fairly lean and healthy, it's a lot harder to argue that any food should be absolutely forbidden, especially if you're personally capable of indulging in moderation.

So let's assume that you are either one of those people who can't bear the thought of never having a treat again OR you're close enough to your health and body composition goals that the occasional treat is worth it (just on a cost-benefit analysis).

The way to think about cheating, or treating, is to maximize the value to cost ratio of what you indulge in.

Let me give you an example.

My kids come home from Halloween trick or treating every year with a sack full of cheap candy - things like Milky Way bars, Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, Hersheys chocolate - that sort of thing. Nothing wrong with any of it, and I'm okay with my kids indulging. However, they rarely want even half of their candy, so I'm left with a vast quantity of low cost chocolate that is mine for the taking. But I don't really like milk chocolate all that much - I mean it's fine, but it's not the sort of thing I personally crave when it's not in front of me. So I sometimes end up eating thousands of calories worth of crap that I didn't really want, except it was in front of me and available. I never really enjoy it all that much, and I feel like shit for days afterwards.

Compare that to another situation. I went to a wine bar with my lovely fiancee. She was hungry so we got a cured meat plate. It came with small pieces of mini toasted french bread. I made little stacks of cured meats and bread, which I ate with a flight of bold reds assembled by the wine store.

Guess which 'treat' I enjoyed more? And guess which one probably did more damage to my health?

That's the secret: Maximize how much your cheat or treat contributes to your happiness and minimize how much damage it does.

Here are some simple guidelines:

  1. Social over Non-Social. You will enjoy your indulgence more if it's shared - and you'll get the added benefit of being in a social situation and not having to say no to the treats being shared. 
  2. Quality over Quantity. Many people find that a really high quality food item is more satisfying. People don't usually binge eat on great chocolate - they eat entire bowls of M&M's. So when you can, treat yourself to the highest quality item you can afford, not the one that provides the most calories per dollar spent.
  3. Starches over Sugar. If you have a serious sweet tooth, eat sweets. But if you just need a treat and you are flexible, steer yourself towards, say, a tray of roasted sweet potatoes (crazy delicious) or even french fries over, for example, ice cream or a cheesecake. There is just nothing good about sugar.
  4. Nutrients over non-Nutrients. Pick the food items that have some nutritional value over those that don't. A ribeye is better than a bowl of Gummi Bears. 
A couple of more supporting ideas:
  1. If you KNOW you're going to indulge, do a hard hypertrophy workout beforehand. You might as well use those calories to heal up from a muscle fiber destroying, high volume, bodybuilding style workout. I can't promise that all the excess will go into your biceps, but some will.
  2. Once you decide to cheat or treat, DO NOT let yourself feel guilty about it. Savor it, then get back on the bandwagon of healthy eating.
Some people should stick to a healthy eating plan 100% of the time - those who are ill, athletes near their competition seasons, the very obese. Look, if you have to lose hundreds of lbs., just go without the crappy food for a while! But if you're closer to your targets, you might be happier indulging once in a while. Just make it count, savor it, and then get back to a sustainable, sensible diet.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Sparring Styles: a Training Paradigm

Have an idea I wanted to share about teaching beginners how to spar.

I've seen a few cases of younger students learning how to spar, and most of the time I see students paired up with someone of similar skill level, fully covered in foam and hard plastic shells, and told to spar. Some kids are naturally aggressive, and they tend to do better, until they use too much force, where someone will usually tell them to control themselves. Some kids never seem to really get the hang of what they should be doing (I was one of those for a long time), and I imagine many become discouraged and quit because of it.

So I have an idea of a systematic way to train students to free spar, based on a very simple notion of the different styles that someone can use in sparring.

There are a lot of different ways to categorize fighting styles. Boxing has several - the outfighter, the boxer puncher, the swarmer - and you can read a lot of analysis of fighting careers, arguing about which fighters use which styles predominantly (almost no really good fighters are all one thing, but most also tend to fall into one category or another).

Styles are often defined by a few things:

  • Preferred range. Does the fighter 'want' to, or try to, or work to, be far away from their opponent, close in, or at a middle distance?
  • Initiative. Does the fighter try to initiate exchanges, applying pressure by continuously attacking, or do they prefer to wait for their opponent to make a move, revealing openings that can be exploited?
  • Orientation. Does the fighter fight orthodox (left hand forward) or unorthodox (right hand forward)?
  • Psychological tendencies. Is the fighter a front runner? A front runner performs very well as long as he/she seems to be winning, but quickly falls apart if the fight starts to go bad. Some fighters are the opposite, and can't seem to really 'get going' until they've been hit, preferably hit hard and hurt.
  • Risk aversion. How willing is the fighter to take a chance in order to create an opportunity?

I"m sure there are other dimensions that I've missed, but I hope I've given a rough idea of how we can determine someone's style. It's a fun exercise to identify the styles of your favorite fighters, identify the styles you like most (if you follow fight sports), identify your own style, and establish the weaknesses and strengths of each style and each matchup (some styles are stronger than others in certain matchups, like rock paper scissors).

Here I want to focus solely on Initiative.

Every sparring exchange starts from a pretty much identical place. Two people are facing each other, in some kind of ready stance, at some distance where they aren't touching. Sometimes they're bouncing in place, or circling slowly, or standing relatively still, but they're at some distance and not exchanging.

Then someone moves. Sometimes this takes a while, other times it's quick. One person attacks/ moves in/ initiates an exchange, and the other person responds.

Stylistically, some people are more likely to move/attack first, and some are more likely to wait for their opponent. I'm sure there are some people who are exactly as likely to do either. For the sake of this post I'm going to make some quick definitions.

The pressure fighter is the person who wants to move first, to initiate an attack.
The counter fighter is the person who wants to wait, to let the other 'guy' move first, and act in response to that attack (i.e. to counter).

There are some gray areas here. Does a feint count as initiating an attack? I don't want to get too bogged down, so let's agree that these distinctions are not absolute, but more like guidelines to help us make order out of the chaos of free sparring.

Sometimes two pressure fighters meet each other. This tends to look like a brawl, as you have two fighters both trying to move forward and attack at the same time. Sometimes you have two counter fighters meet, and this can be tedious and slow, as each patiently waits for the other one to lead and make a crucial mistake.

Ideally, a pressure fighter fights a counter fighter. In that situation pressure fighter has to learn to attack responsibly, knowing that the counter fighter is ready to exploit any openings in his defense, while the counter fighter has lots of attacks on which they can practice their skills - the timing and techniques of countering an attack.

So what is my system of teaching?

First, I believe nobody should free fight until they have a decent handle on the basic techniques of their style. You don't want to still be concentrating on how to throw a punch while you're trying to throw it at a live opponent who is also trying to hit you back. How long should that take? I don't have an exact number, but I'd say between six months and two years, and I'm willing to make allowances for gifted or slow students. I'm not a fan of throwing white belts into free sparring.

While the students are learning the basic techniques (how to stand, how to kick, how to punch, how to move, how to block), they should be taught a basic understanding of these styles. They should have an idea of how the pressure fighter has to move so they aren't just charging in like wild boars, flailing their arms at the opponent.

When they start to spar, beginners should NEVER fight beginners. Instead, beginners should ALWAYS fight intermediate students. BUT the beginners should be taught to ONLY fight as pressure fighters. They should always lead, always move first, and try really hard to attack without getting hit hard in return. They will learn to recognize attacks, judge distance, and move within striking distance, all the skills that they'll need as a counter fighter.

The INTERMEDIATE students that are fighting the beginners should ALWAYS fight in a counter fighter style. Counter fighting is harder - you have to recognize the attacks coming and respond, which by nature takes extra cognitive processing over just attacking with what you want to attack with. But the intermediate students already have a better sense of timing, distance, and fight awareness, because they're not new anymore - they've been learning that stuff as a pressure fighter this whole time.

So an intermediate student has a block of time to learn basics without using them, along with learning the theory of combat as a theory. Then they have a block of time to learn to be a pressure fighter responsibly - to lead and attack without getting clobbered. Then they have a block of time to learn to be a counter fighter, to react to an opponent's mistakes. Once three blocks of time have gone by the student is advanced. And just to give some perspective, I'm imagining that these blocks are somewhere between six months and a year and a half - I'm not saying anyone should be stuck in one category for a decade. And if you think the blocks should be unequal in length I have no problem with that.

An ADVANCED student should be pretty competent at everything. The ADVANCED student can fill in as a pressure fighter if some intermediate student needs a partner or as a counter fighter if a beginner needs a partner. And the ADVANCED student is ready to face other advanced students, and in those situations they can use whatever style they're comfortable with.

I also think it would be useful if two advanced students spar, and both are definitive counter fighters, they should probably agree to take turns going against type. Two really disciplined counter fighters just watching each other is a waste of training time.

A few additional points:

  • Being a pressure fighter is not an excuse to brawl or fight without control. Even if you're attacking first you should use the appropriate amount of contact and defend yourself (keep your head moving, move laterally to avoid strikes, keep your hands in responsible positions for defense, etc.)
  • I am NOT saying that either style is inherently superior. I am saying that everyone should be reasonably good at both styles, even given that everyone will probably have a preference for one over the other.
  • In every free' sparring sessions where one partner is less than advanced both partners should recognize that they have a role to play. The beginner student should never spend an entire round backing up. The intermediate student should rarely jump in on the attack (exceptions can be made). In short, everyone should have a clear notion of what, generally speaking, they're supposed to be doing.
Whether you use the notion of styles to teach sparring or not, it is a useful system for analyzing your own sparring ability and planning strategies for use in your own free sparring practice.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Kata for Athletic Development

I was reading comments on an online martial arts forum the other day, and some people were discussing the usefulness of kata. One person remarked something like, "if your kata wouldn't work on the street then they're worthless."

This is an incorrect way of looking at kata, or at training in general. It's just as wrong headed as if someone said, "if your pushups wouldn't work in a street fight then they're not worth doing."

Of course nobody is going to drop down and start doing pushups during a fight (or at least, I can't think of any possible situation where that would be smart). But we don't do pushups to practice for a fight - we do pushups to develop attributes that would help in a fight.

Kata, in my opinion, can be seen in the same light. While some kata or some parts of kata might contain movements that are useful in a fight exactly the way they are in the kata, that isn't the only criterion we should use to judge the effectiveness of kata.

I've said this before, but I think it bears repeating: when correctly done, kata practice is very useful for athletic development.

What I mean by 'athletic development' is the development of athletic qualities like strength, endurance, proper movement (using the scapula properly, hip mobility, thoractic mobility, breathing coordination, that sort of thing).

There is a lot of focus paid to kata by bloggers and guys working the seminar circuit to discuss the bunkai in kata. Bunkai are basically self defense applications for the movements in a kata - if you've ever trained traditional kata, you know that there are a LOT of movements that seem impractical or weird or useless, and there's a large group of very knowledgeable practitioners who try to unpack the practical uses for those movements - finding a way that those seemingly silly movements can be used in real combat situations.

Now I don't have anything negative to say about anybody who explores the practical applications of kata movements - that's fantastic work, even though I personally don't invest a lot of energy thinking about that.

But what I find interesting in kata is not the applications of certain movements to combat or self defense, but the application of those movements as exercises that develop athletic ability.

For examples:
  • Moving forward and turning in zenkutsu dachi (front stance), especially with turns of various degrees, is a lot like the lunge matrix exercises that athletes will use. You can look at taekyoku kata as a long sequence of modified lunges in varied directions.
  • Large circular overhead movements (think shuto mawashi uke) are great for mobilizing the thoracic spine, which will make all upper body movement more efficient and improve shoulder health.
  • The opening 9 moves of Seienchin, or moves 5-6 of Gekisai Sho, are great for posture and scapular control.
  • All kata, if paced properly and done vigorously, provide a form of High Intensity Interval Training.
I'm sure there are many other examples.

I first noticed this when training for my nidan promotion - I was doing a lot of kata practice (kata performance is a significant portion of our promotions), and I found that my movement during sparring was much better than it had been, and the only footwork/speed drills I was really doing was kata.

I'm not trying to claim that any kata were developed or modified specifically to improve athletic ability - I honestly have no idea if any historical figures had this in mind.

But, when you are thinking about your kata practice, and wondering why certain moves are present or what benefits you can gain from that training, it might be worth thinking at least a little bit about things like how performing those movements can improve your physical qualities, indirectly making you a better fighter, and not just how those movements are directly applicable to combat.




Dumbass Martial Arts? Maybe...

There's a facebook group called Dumbass Martial Arts (I won't link to it, though I'm sure you can find it if so inclined) that shares videos of martial arts things that are, to varying degrees, ridiculous.

Just to be clear, I have nothing against this in principle. Many martial artists deserve to be ridiculed - especially the ones who make unjustified claims about the self defense applications of their bullshit arts (you know who you are). And I understand the urge to laugh at the expense of those less knowledgeable than you are. It's fun to be in a club (traditional martial artists! Real martial artists!) that other people either don't know about or think they're in but aren't..

And you can imagine the kind of  videos they share - if you can't, go to Jack Slack's pages in Fightland and watch everything titled Wushu Watch. Fake techniques, partners that throw themselves around the room, all kinds of bullshit and craziness.

The other day there was a post in this group of a woman doing a kata in some kind of competition, with a #bullshit tag on the post.

I won't link to the video here, but the woman in question was doing a traditional kata but with a kind of XMA presentation. If you're not sure what that means, do some youtube searches around xma kata competition and see what you find. Her ibuki was a long, drawn out scream, many seconds in length. Her stances were so deep that they were obviously completely ineffective. When she kiai'ed it took minutes to end. Every kick was at least head high. It looked like kata designed to look cool to people who know nothing about martial arts.

In short, to a traditional stylist, it was somewhat painful to watch.

The comments were pretty much what you'd think - people were brutal. They said how awful she was, how she was disrespecting the art of karate, how the judges should have walked out, and so on and so on.

And, to be honest, I'm not a fan of the presentation either. It's not the way I practice karate, it's not how I want to practice karate. If I had to choose between watching that sort of kata and kata as practiced by an old school karate practitioner, with short, effective movements, realistic stances, and functional breathing, I'd prefer the latter.

However, I really dislike the level of disdain people showed this young lady.

There are two levels on which I'd defend her:
  1. She might not know better - she might have a teacher who has convinced her that what she is doing is either good traditional martial arts or effective martial arts in a self defense context, and she believed that instructor, in which case the fault is her instructor's, not hers; or
  2. She likes what she does, and while she knows that it  is neither traditional nor effective for self defense, it brings her joy.
I don't know the woman from the video, or what she thinks of her own performance. But when I watch it, I see something that isn't traditional karate, and doesn't seem very practical for self defense, but which:
  • clearly demonstrates a high level of athleticism;
  • clearly demonstrates a high degree of commitment - she clearly practiced that kata for many hours, with great focus and determination;
  • clearly contributes to her fitness and health - nobody can do kata in an XMA style and not be reasonably strong, flexible, and fit;
This reminds me of my thoughts when I first read a few articles about tricking. If you're not familiar, tricking is a practice where people work on high difficulty martial arts techniques, like jumping spinning kicks, cartwheel kicks, etc. - the kinds of pseudo-gymnastics moves that look cool but that represent only a tiny portion of traditional karate (largely because they're mostly useless in 'actual' fighting). At first I scoffed, but most guys who practice tricking don't think they're learning to defend themselves, nor do they think they're really learning traditional martial arts. They are fully aware that they're just mastering a set of skills that they think are cool, and who are we to argue with that?

I think we should ridicule or scoff at martial artists who do these XMA style or alternative (any style that doesn't seem effective) performances in two situations:
  1. If they themselves claim that what they're doing is highly effective for self defense (this puts their students in actual danger, which isn't cool);
  2. If what they're doing is orthopedically dangerous - explosive movements are inherently higher in risk, but there are correct and incorrect ways to do them, and if a particular practitioner is moving in a way that is exceptionally dangerous to practice then we should scorn them.
So for the folks over at Dumbass Martial Arts, in my humble opinion, you should lay off anyone doing kata in some crazy over the top style, UNLESS they're claiming that such a performance is better for self defense OR they're doing things that will obviously hurt them to practice. Otherwise, acknowledge that they're doing something they think is cool, even if you disagree, and either ignore them or try to enjoy their performance for what it is.

My two cents.

Osu.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Movie Recommendation - Eddie Strongman

If you have Netflix, I highly recommend Eddie Strongman, currently available on Netflix in the US. It follows a professional Strongman competitor, Eddie Hall, for a couple of years, covering his training, eating, home life, some contest results, injuries, and more about his general life and attitude.

Eddie is one of the top Strongman competitors in the world, which means he is probably one of the strongest human beings on the planet. He's also a very charismatic and lovely fellow, although his language is probably more NSFW than not.

Overall, the documentary is really engaging.

A few really interesting take home points:

  • Being an elite athlete is not about being healthy. Elite athleticism is generally speaking not good for you. The things you have to do to be the best in the world are not compatible with being a normal healthy human being. And Strongman competitors, for the most part, seem to understand that and be okay with it. They're all sacrificing their future health and fitness for a chance at glory, and there's nothing wrong with that in my opinion (although it's not a choice I would make).
  • If you want to be big and strong, eat a lot and lift heavy.
  • To achieve lofty goals you have to make sacrifices.
  • To achieve lofty goals you often have to orient every aspect of your life to achieving them.
I personally have no desire (or probably the ability) to be elite the way Eddie Hall is, but I find his lifestyle, attitude, and story kind of inspiring. I'm also a fan of strength sports.

Another interesting documentary on Netflix (you can tell I had a few spare hours this past weekend) was "The Hurt Business," which covered a year or so out of a the life of a few MMA fighters (Rashad Evans, Holly Holm, some less well known people). Also interesting, but not as compelling as Eddie Hall's story.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Why Correct Technique is Important (or is it?)

I've been involved in a couple of small debates about punching mechanics in karate - debating what the right way is to execute a punch. There are nuances to punching technique - do you move the hand or hip first, do you tense the body at impact or think of the fist/forearm as something you've thrown at the target, do you rotate at the waist or stiffen. Interestingly, people can hit very hard using many different combinations of these methods, though logically one of them must be best, at least for any given person and situation.

So here I am, self proclaimed internet guru (that title is meant to be tongue in cheek, and it means that I have no legitimate special expertise or knowledge in this area, yet I blog about it anyway), arguing with highly respected karateka from around the world about the best way to throw a punch. Why do I do this? What's at stake here?

I like to break these discussions down into two levels, in the sense that techniques can be bad in two importantly different ways:

1. A technique can be 'wrong' in the sense that executing it that way puts orthopedic or biomechanical stress on the body in a way that is likely to be injurious to a typical practitioner. These techniques may or may not 'work' on an opponent, but I don't care.

2. A technique can be 'wrong' in the sense that it is less effective than another method (slower, less powerful, less likely to prevent you from getting hit/ hurt) but doesn't meet the standards of #1.

For my favorite (and simultaneously most horrifying) example of #1, I once trained with a guy who got 'snap' into his punches and kicks by forcibly locking out at the end of the motion as hard as he could. In other words, the 'snap' was the thud of his own joints locking into full extension. That is bad. I don't care how hard he was hitting things (I have no idea if he was), that kind of technique will break your body down in undesirable ways, given enough time.

For examples of the second kind of 'worse', we have to hurt somebody's feelings. But you don't have to agree with me on particulars to agree with me on the general idea - take the sine wave body movement from tae kwon do. I think that's bad movement - slower and less powerful and less defensible than linear mechanics. But if you're a tkd practitioner and you think I'm wrong, then of course you think that linear (or maybe we should say planar) mechanics are 'worse' - either way, one of these systems of movement is worse than the other, but neither is particularly hard on your joints or connective tissue. One of them is definitely 'worse' in that second sense.

When someone is using techniques that are bad in the first sense, that is they are likely to hurt you if you perform them, then there is no argument that there's a lot at stake in figuring out that the technique is bad, fixing the problem, and perhaps even leaving your instructor over it. If you're being taught to do things that are going to break down your body you need to find a new teacher. End of story. There is nothing good about being injured regularly.

A much more interesting question, however, is what you should do about the second type of 'worse.' What do you do if you think you're being taught a less - than - best (but still not injurious to you) way of doing something?

Here, again, I'm going to divide martial arts students into two groups. The first group is people who really need to use their skills in violent situations regularly. This might include prison guards, doormen, bodyguards, people whose jobs put them into fistfight situations at least some of the time. For this group, they need pretty effective techniques. In other words, even if they don't need the absolute best technique, they certainly can't afford to experiment too much or give too much away by trying things that might not work. For them it could literally be a matter of life or death (or at least injury vs. not injury).

But for the vast majority of martial arts practitioners, our art is purely impractical. Most of us will never get into a 'real' fistfight, ever. And most of us don't even spar in such a way that having less than optimal technique is likely to get us badly hurt. For most of us, doing technique the 'best' way is completely irrelevant in any practical sense. In fact, many of us train in such a way that we could easily go our whole lives doing something 'wrong' (in the second sense of wrong, as in less-than-most-effective) and never even know it.

I, personally, definitely fall into that last group. The debates I've been having are not between 'ways that will hurt you' and 'ways that are mechanically safe' - these debates are about which of 2 (or more) methods of executing a technique are best, while they're all 'good' enough to not cause the puncher injuries. So why do I bother, given that even if I train in a less - than - best way to punch or kick, it's almost definitely never going to affect my quality of life?

The simple answer is that I enjoy thinking about these things. I personally like to study different techniques, analyze their pros and cons, and engage in debate about which way of punching (or blocking or kicking or standing) is best. It's fun for me. I love to see a UFC fighter use a weird stance or show a weird way of punching, then analyze the advantages and disadvantages of that style. And I practice this - I'm currently obsessed with the notion of holding my lead hand low, near my waist, when sparring (someday I'll write an article about why I do this and what I like about it, but I'm still working on the details).

People train for different reasons. There are lots of people who like to train but have no real interest in thinking about training. Lots of people intensively study the history and background of their art; others simply don't. Lots of people care about self defense applications, others don't.

I'm not one to claim that EVERY practitioner of martial arts should spend time thinking about the best way to punch. If you're happy learning good punching technique from your instructor, and then diligently practicing that, that's great! Maybe your instructor is teaching the 'best' way. Even if she isn't, as long as the way you're learning isn't 'wrong' in the first sense (bad for the integrity of your bodily tissues), then have at it.

But if you're interested in discussing and debating best technique, if you get excited by the idea of doing mathematical analysis of how center of mass is affected by hand position in fighting stances, if you're that kind of student of the art, then by all means, participate! Challenge the conventional wisdom (respectfully and quietly, I mean - don't interrupt your teacher in the middle of class and suggest a better way to do something. That's just rude). Practice new things and see how they work out. Maybe you'll develop something great! And maybe you won't, but that's fine too. The joy is often in the journey.

Osu.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Ronda Rousey: Lessons in Loyalty

As I write this we're a few weeks away from Ronda Rousey's 48 second destruction at the hands of Amanda Nunes in her attempt to regain the UFC bantamweight title, a little over a year after losing that title to Holly Holm.

A few things are interesting about this sequence of events:
  • Rousey was an extremely dominant champion for quite a long time, to the point where most people watched her fights to see how quickly she'd finish her opponents, not whether or not she'd win.
  • Rousey trained under the same coach for the entirety of her MMA career.
  • Rousey, despite being a very good athlete and having years to do so, never really learned how to box (or at least never, either in open workouts or in actual matches, demonstrated that she had). She could punch well, but never seemed to learn to move her head, move laterally, or defend herself from strikes in any way.
  • It was well known that Rousey couldn't box - she got hit fairly often in the fights she had before Holm, and many analysts were pointing out her boxing deficiencies long before Holm exposed them.
  • Rousey's coach, Edmond Tarverdyan, is objectively awful. We can see this in a few ways: his corner advice during fights is meaningless and detrimental, in stark contrast to the corner advice we hear from more respected MMA coaches. None of the fighters working in his gym, and there are a few, have been successful other than Rousey, and Rousey's success was primarily due to her Judo skills, which she had developed elsewhere. We can also put at least some of the blame on Tarverdyan for Ronda's lack of progress in striking skills (again, she can punch well, it's the other skills involved that she still isn't executing at even an amateur boxer level).
So, a quick recap: Rousey is a former Olympic level judoka who started her MMA. Her judo skills were so good she became a dominant champion without ever developing a well rounded striking game. Even after being exposed for her lack of striking skills, she stayed with the same coach, not seeking out training elsewhere, a coach who not only couldn't develop her striking skills but was completely unable to advance the careers of the many talented athletes who had joined his gym.

None of the above is even remotely controversial. Literally nobody in the MMA community thinks Rousey is improving under Tarverdyan or that she has any chance to regain her title while she continues to train with him exclusively. So why does she stay with him?

There are two common narratives being offered to explain Rousey's behavior. 

The first 'explanation,' and by far the most common as far as I've seen, is that Rousey is too loyal for her own good. Tarverdyan is the coach who trained her from the time she was a nobody until she was on the cover of Sports Illustrated. She's embodying the virtue of 'dance with who you brought to the party.'

The other narrative, and the one I find much more believable (though I don't know Rousey personally, so this is all conjecture), I heard from Larry Pepe of Pro MMA Radio. His idea is that she's mentally fragile. We see lots of evidence for this - she's admitted to wanting to kill herself after losing a fight (!), she wasn't able to face media before the Nunes fight, she's been overly emotional and hostile towards opponents, she fights like a frontrunner (does well but only as long as she seems to be winning). She needs a coach who will coddle her emotionally, not being overly critical or harsh. Tarverdyan obviously works her hard (she was physically in shape for the Nunes fight), but they are very, very close emotionally, and he never seems to speak harshly to her. She won't leave because she can't handle the kind of criticism she'd get from a good MMA coach.

The first story, that Rousey is loyal to a fault, is obviously much more flattering. Loyalty is a virtue, after all; mental weakness is not.

But should we regard loyalty as a virtue in cases like these?

I am certain that Rousey should NOT remain loyal to her coach. His deficiencies put her in very real and serious physical danger - she was deliberately going into a cage and getting punched in the face by a very strong woman, sent in there by a coach who did not teach her to defend herself. With absolutely no hesitation I can say that her loyalty, if it was loyalty that made her stay, was misplaced. Not only that, but she HAD to have known how bad he was - there were dozens of professional combat analysts telling her that Tarverdyan is an awful coach, citing specific and numerous examples, and they were completely in consensus about it. Rousey's choice was a bad one, whether it was motivated by loyalty or by a fear of change.

But what about someone like me, and I imagine most of you readers? Those of us for whom martial arts is a hobby? for most of us, the consequences of having a less - than - great instructor are far less serious than for a professional fighter (I highly doubt I'll ever be in a 'real' fistfight ever in my life). A teacher who instructs in bad basic mechanics can put us at higher risk for orthopedic injuries, so that's an issue to think about.

Another major difference is that most of us aren't easily qualified to know if our instructors are less than great. Most of us train in a fairly narrow world - we don't test our abilities in violent conditions against the world's elite. 

If you've ever spent much time on YouTube maybe you've seen video footage of some epically bad martial artists. Do they know how bad they are? Do they realize how poor is the quality of the instruction they've received?

So here is the interesting question: suppose that you are an amateur martial artist, and you suspect that you could get better instruction from some other teacher or some other school. What's the right thing to do?

The traditional martial artist inside my heart wants to tell you to stick with your original teacher. Loyalty is important. The relationship between student and teacher is important.

But I'd hate for someone with an awful instructor to feel obligated to stay with them forever. That seems like a punishment.

Here are my thoughts:
  1. If your livelihood or personal safety depend on your martial arts skills, learn whatever you can from whoever you can. Loyalty inside the dojo doesn't matter when your life is on the line.
  2. If you and/or your classmates are getting injured at a rate you're not comfortable with (and you suspect that poor instruction is the culprit), go elsewhere. Loyalty is not as important as your orthopedic integrity.
  3. If you've been training for a short period of time, and you're making progress, stay where you are. If you're not a master after three months it isn't because your instructor is bad, it's because you've been training for just three months.
  4. If you're not making progress anymore, sit down with your instructor and see if you can work out together what's going wrong. Maybe you're not training often enough. Maybe your instructor has more to teach you but has been neglectful (it happens) and will help more now that you've made a point of it. If he/she gets angry at you and doesn't change anything, maybe it's time to move on.
  5. If you don't want to leave, but you'd like something more, learn on the side. Watch YouTube videos, go to seminars, ask questions on forums. You might even find something useful on this blog, or shared from my facebook page, every so often. Progress yourself. I pick up a good technical tip every few months from various sources outside my style (things that don't conflict with the way we do things in Seido).
  6. If you've been training for a long time, remember that your style is a social network, not just a place where you learn a set of skills. Maybe switching dojos would advance your technique slightly (and if it's more than slightly, then maybe you should switch). But it might not, and you'd be harming long lasting friendships that probably mean a lot to you.
I don't have solid, hard and fast answers to these issues. There are definitely cultural elements here that are strange and conflicting - I'm an American, with fairly typical American values and views (well, typical for an East Coast Jewish white guy) engaged in an activity bound in traditional Asian values. 

Osu.