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.