You Don’t Know How to Fix Yourself

Recently, a coach friend of mine for whom I have a lot of respect promoted an article about IT Band syndrome. This is an injury that I know is quite common amongst runners and I am pretty sure I have flirted with it myself in the past. At first I was excited to have another resource in my kit in order to provide quality training to anybody who I teach. However, instead of providing me with useful information I could pass along to clients or friends, this article nearly caused my head to explode with white-hot anger and frustration. The author is highly qualified and has a long list of capital letters behind his name, but he is providing information that is straight up harmful It is articles like this that ensure we remain forever injured and forever mediocre in our athletic pursuits.

First, I want to address what the article does well. Pages 1 & 2 give a great breakdown of the anatomy and function of the IT band. Even the most lay of laymen can understand and learn from these well-written sections. On Page 3 however, the article falls apart and falls apart fast. It is here that the author gives away the fact that they are part of the old wives club by committing an extremely pervasive and detrimental error: “the quadriceps muscles (those in front of the thigh that extend the knee) and the hamstring muscles located in the back of the thigh that flex the knee.”

 

If you think the quads are responsible for extension and the hamstrings are for flexion, you are an idiot.

 

NO. NO NO NO NO. This is the most common and most damaging misconception of the lower limbs. Everybody from the “bro-fessor” gym rat to the “highly-qualified” medical community seems to believe that the legs are simply a bigger version of your arms. Biceps flex the elbow and triceps extend it, therefore the leg muscles must do the same to the knee, right? NO. Seriously, NO. Why in all of mother natures green goodness would the muscles in the back of a human’s leg be so damn big if its only purpose was to flex the knee? Bringing my heel to my ass does not require all that junk in the trunk. For some reason, nobody seems to understand that the musculature on both sides – front and back – of the legs is active in extending the knee. Sure, the hamstrings and all those other posterior muscles do indeed flex the knee, but they MUST be active in extending the knee as well. You are actually contracting both the quadriceps and the hamstrings when going from the squat position to standing. Relegating the hamstrings and the rest of the backside system to only flexion leads to a long, sad, painful road to mediocrity and misunderstanding. I could turn this article solely into a discussion on the knee, but we’ll save that for a future post. For now, if you don’t believe me, go pick up Mark Rippetoe’s book Starting Strength (Vol. III).

NOTE: I do not know Mr Rippetoe personally nor do I have any stake in his book or other fitness activities. I talk about his book a lot simply because it is the best damn book on strength and musculature that has ever been written.

So yeah, Page 3 of 10 and my head is already about to unscrew from my body because I am so damn angry about the damage this article is doing to us all. Moving on, the author can’t even get the unhelpful RICE adage correct on page 4. We are all familiar with Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation approach to injury treatment, but the only really useful part of that is Compression and the author completely leaves it out. WTF. Better yet, he replaces it with pills. RIPE? Well, the author doesn’t bring up Elevation either, so RIP? Exceedingly appropriate since the author seems bound and determined to kill your muscles.

Pain pills are bad. Generally speaking, “anti-inflammatory” sounds like a good thing to most people as inflammation is a result of injury and reducing inflammation should then mean a reduction in injury intensity. I simply don’t get this logic. Inflammation is blood rushing to the site of an injury. Blood flow is critical to recovery. Why on earth would you want to cut down this blood flow? Anti-inflammatories work by constricting blood vessels thereby reducing blood flow thereby reducing inflammation WHICH ALSO reduces the flow of necessary fuel and nutrients to heal and reduces the out flow of waste products from the healing process. That second part doesn’t sound so great to me. Worse yet, pain pills can do some serious damage to other parts of your body, especially your digestive system – a critical piece of the nutrient delivery puzzle. How can you heal when you reduce your ability to take in nutrients AND deliver them to the site that needs them most? I’m wiling to bet this author (and probably you as well, dear reader) has never thought this through. I want to address the rest of the problems inherent to RICE another day, but for now I feel it is my duty as a human being to spread this wisdom as far and as quickly as possible: Pain pills are bad.

 

Over-medicated

 

On page 5, the author recommends cross training in a sport that doesn’t aggravate an injury as a way to stay active despite IT Band syndrome. This I support. Unfortunately, this advice is tainted by more crap about RICE and by blaming running as an “aggressive activity.” What the hell does “aggressive” mean? I picture a runner with a scowl that is trying to stamp to death a long line of ants really quickly. Running is a great way to maintain muscle and joint health when done correctly…maybe this author had better reevaluate their running form before accusing the sport of a misdemeanor offense.

 

KILL ‘EM ALL

 

Next up, the author recommends physical therapy as a way to overcome IT Band syndrome (after plugging pain pills again, of course). Again, on face I agree with this advice. However, if a physical therapist recommends the voodoo that this author advises, such as orthotics, stretches, and phonophoresis and iontophoresis (look these up, they sounds scary as hell) before finally recommending corticosteroid injections, punch that PT in the face and walk out of their office with your middle finger held high. Don’t even get me on surgically sticking an arthroscope into the leg or surgically altering the size of the IT Band. The surgical option in nearly any therapy is not indicative of the wonders of medical science, it is indicative of the laziness in pursuing effective physical therapy. Proper PT requires life style changes and long-term, or better yet permanent, dedication to authentic movement patterns. This is not easy and doesn’t fit with modern instant gratification techniques, but it is the only path that leads to actual improvements in quality of life and health.

 

Needles don’t belong there.

 

How is this clown show not over yet? Next, under the heading “Next Steps” and “Prevention,” the author states an admirable goal: “to return to the level of activity enjoyed prior to the injury.” Again, I would agree if it were not tainted with talk of “footwear options…orthotics…stretching.” More voodoo. I agree that an athlete needs to analyze the root cause of their injury, but slapping one of these modern bandages on the problem will only prevent the system from becoming even weaker and being ever more prone to future injury. Creating this special universe in which we need to exist in order to conduct physical activity is bullshit. Nature gave us what we need, we just need to stop living and exercising in a bubble. My goal is not to return to the level of activity before the injury. My goal is to reach a higher level of quality in activity that will lead to a higher level of health in the athlete’s future.

Everything in this article on IT Band syndrome amounts to what I would consider mainstream “knowledge.” I put knowledge in quotes because it is simply stuff that everybody knows, but it shouldn’t qualify as actual knowledge in the way that we have knowledge on factual information. We learn much of these old wives’ tales and voodoo techniques in grade school and carry them into adulthood. Our modern education system also teaches this same stuff, thereby ensuring the next generation is there to keep the inertia going. To make matters worse, there is a massive fitness industry that “publishes” these “facts” in magazines and the government also advocates this same information. Given this onslaught, it is easy to see how extreme inertia builds up behind these ideas and we somehow all “know” that the knee is a bigger elbow, pills and surgery fix problems, and orthotics and stretching prevent problems.

This was a demonstration of just a little bit of critical thinking against one article. Basically nothing written by this author passes the smell test despite his impressive list of qualifications (MD, FACEP, FAAEM). The whole purpose of movematt is to call out articles like this that actually damage us, but to also provide the tools necessary to think through ALL awful advice. I will keep it coming, but for now, think twice about what you “know” of the function of the knee. Think twice before you pop a pain pill or consider medical options for injuries. Think twice about what a PT recommends to you. And finally, think twice about your post-injury goals.

Zennis

 

If you’ve read any of my previous posts, and let’s be honest, there aren’t many of you, you’ll recall a post about a 10-K.  In a nutshell, I compared life planning to a government mandated corporate fiduciary responsibility and transparency document for investors. In retrospect, that analogy may have targeted a niche audience that we in the “business world” would call, too small to break-even.  However, despite that, the intention and call for personal exploration that underwrote it make it worth revisiting, if only for me.

In it I talk about revisiting what’s important to you, since as the cliché says, “time is short”.  There is only so much time available to accomplish what it is you want.  That is, until Ray Kurzweil solves the whole mortality problem through the Singularity or some other mechanism – possibly involving mole rats… but I digress.

360_singularity

I made a list of important things that came up for me.  One of them was to be ranked by the USTA (the United States Tennis Association).  I didn’t have the (tennis) balls to actually pick a ranking to shoot for – i.e. #1 seemed to ambitious/arrogant and #100 would seem like I’m not really committed/invested.  Actually, my sports reel highlight ambition is much less grandiose.  I just want to play in a tournament that actually determines my play RATING.  In tennis, skill levels are defined by ratings from 1.5 = total beginner (baseball-tennis memories anyone?) to 7.0 = world-class player.  At my best, I can play at a 4.5 level which is better than your average bear…. playing tennis.

bear

When I was younger and more obnoxious (hard for some to believe I know) I used to think that I enjoyed tennis because I was “good” or that I was “competitive” and I would win more often than not – which somehow proved how worthwhile I was as an athlete and as a person.  The fact that I didn’t bother to train consistently however, also proved just how committed I was to any of those things.

What I didn’t consciously realize was why I still wanted a USTA rating in the first place -not until I hit my first tennis ball in 2 years recently.  I had the opportunity to hit with a teaching pro – a talented woman who had made her mark in the southern tennis region of the US back in her day.  She has been teaching for over 40 years and her level of experience and patience is admirable.  Add to this, the fact that she recently had her spine fused to overcome a nasty and painful back condition and her dedication and perseverance become borderline inspirational and heroic.  But it comes down to this – she just loves tennis.  She loves playing it.  She loves teaching it.  She loves being on the court in almost any capacity.  And standing on the court with her, I realized why I love it too.

I don’t and probably never will have her level of skill and experience. I don’t think I will ever derive the joy she gets from teaching, but there is one thing I do get – the joy and wonder of hitting the perfect ball.

One of the “advantages” of not playing regularly for a few years is that the technology of the game changes.   One such change came in the form of a new robot that this pro had purchased recently for training students – the ball machine.

I’ve used ball machines off and on through my adult life, but this one was top of the line.  It was a giant, green box and held at least 100 balls.  It launched projectiles at almost any speed, with wicked spin.  Basically it is the pinnacle of relentless punishment and training futility that one experiences hitting against a wall.  But at least this torturer had a “safe word”.  And it was “remote”.   With a press of a button from across the net I was feeding myself topspin forehands, sliced backhands and overheads.  And when my stamina gave out and I was gasping for air and blood, a button press gave me the reprieve I needed.  It was glorious.

robot-playing-tennis-17827407

Most of my shots were ugly and in poor form.  My fitness, already wanting, was also ill suited for the hot/humidity of Florida’s gulf coast.  In short, anyone with a discerning eye could see that I had a ton of work ahead of me if I was going to get into any sort of competitive shape.  But amidst all the mishits and horrible foot placement/body positions were a few moments of perfection.  At unexpected moments, my mind would quiet from all the cacophony of self-doubt and expectations.  In this cathartic, brief silence my mind and body aligned in concert to a single purpose – chaotic motion coming together in a quantum moment of being Present and resulting in the most satisfying THWACK and subsequent ball action.  In those moments, hitting a ball was almost effortless – it seemed like cheating.

It was like the feeling that is described by Zen masters, where there is nothing else but the Now and Life is about being Present every moment.  THIS is why I love to play tennis and ultimately will be rated.  Because being Present is so hard in general that when you experience it, you want more of it.  For some people, this experience may be in martial arts.  For others, it may not be in sport at all, but maybe in programming, where you have a particularly ingenious solution to an intractable problem.  Life just WORKS in that moment – and then it’s gone.  And while some may spend their lives in 坐禅attaining this, I’ve chosen tennis among other methods.  What I’ve realized is that being Present doesn’t just happen – it takes practice – work.  But it’s work worth doing and ultimately/ironically it is the people who take pleasure in the thing itself and not the result who find the greatest success.  Roger Federer embodies this way of being.

fed.bh

Who knows, maybe I will be ranked someday, but it won’t really matter because I’ll just being enjoying/seeking every moment of Presentness I get while playing.  I wonder what else on my list Being Present will transform for me.  I’ll be sure to report back to the 3 of you when I find out.

Hey, at least this one wasn’t about your 1040 tax return – that’s NEXT week!

meditate

 

Pain, in 6 Easy Steps

Ok, so I already described the situation. To recap, I’m in Costa Rica near a beach and I’ve been wanting to get back in shape for a while, so I started a new exercise program.

Because moderation is an obvious sign of weakness and/or mental health depending on who you ask, I decided to go for 2 intense workouts a day (though that has turned into 3… we’ll get to that later).

Movematt wrote me a rambling workout plan suggestion that I go through the motions of saving a baby using a weight of some sort, but I’m in a new small town and I’d rather not be the crazy guy low crawling on the beach with the swaddled rock. Of course I’d swaddle it; I’m not an animal.

I decided instead to go a slightly more traditional route. In 3 months I plan to write about how this workout changed or improved. Critiques are welcome in the comments. So here it is – workout #1:

1)      Jog: I head to the beach and run in the sand to the end where it turns into a rocky cliff; this is about a mile or so out. So far so good.

2)      Sprint: I sprint on the sand the whole way back in intervals. About halfway back my legs feel like linguini and the sand feels like quicksand. Still, I keep it up and make it back to the starting point where I usually collapse for a few seconds which makes me feel ten times worse. Also this is a concern.

3)      Swim: Because I can’t tolerate gravity anymore, I take off my Vibrams, stash them by a log or a dead dog or something and wade into the ocean. Pretty good waves lately so I make my way through those to the deeper water. Once there, I tread for a bit, still trying to catch my breath, then I make my way out to the sailboat flotilla about 200 yards offshore. I use a combination of doggy paddle, breast stroke, and freestyle and I think about Shark Week the whole way. Once I get there I swim back. When I get out of the water, I realize that gravity still sucks.

That’s the end of workout #1. It starts around 7:45 or 8AM. I spend the next few hours recovering. Then around 3 or 4PM, I go out for workout #2.

1)      Pullups: There is a ledge near my door that belongs to the deck of an upstairs tenant. I jump up to it and do 3 or 4 sets of 5 pullups. Considering that I can do many more pullups on a bar, this annoys me. Also my hands hurt and this also annoys me. I also occasionally get caught by the upstairs neighbor who must think that I am secretly peeping on him very briefly 15 to 20 times a day.

2)      Pushup… things: I don’t know what these are called or if they are a thing, but I like them. Movematt just wrote about them actually and I’m convinced he stole the idea from me. What I do is fall forward from a standing position catching myself on my hands in pushup position, then from there I throw myself back up into a standing position without moving my feet. 3 sets of 10. I like pushups so this is my favorite exercise of the day. My hurt hands don’t make it easier though.

3)      Sprint: More sprinting! I found a small hill and I sprint up it 5 times, jogging back to the starting point each time. Some days are better than others, but the overall feeling is of wanting to die. This being closer to the hottest part of the tropical day, I don’t stop sweating until a bit past sundown.

Seemingly unrelated story: though an acquaintance, I met this guy at a bar about a week ago and we got started talking about martial arts. He trained Wing Chun and boxing, and I’ve trained Brazilian Jujitsu, Karate and some Aikido. He drunkenly exchanged numbers with me to train together, but then unexpectedly actually called and wants to train… like every day. So after my 2nd workout, I often get a summons to the beach.

At the beach he and I take turns drilling techniques then trying to punch each other in the face (with boxing gloves), then I show him some simple takedowns and BJJ techniques and we drill those. It last about an hour.

This has all been going on about a week now. I’m getting over my soreness, but am still pretty wiped out all the time. Looking forward to improving as the months go by and seeing how it works.

It’s my rest day, but I just got a text from martial arts guy… I guess I could stand to get punched in the face a few times on my day off.

I Love Push-Ups and So Should You. Part I

Remember how I love pull-ups? As it turns out, I also love to do push-ups. As with the pull-up, I would evaluate my ability as (well) above average and I’m willing to bet that you are pretty miserable at them. I’m going to follow the same general format as the pull-ups post, so let’s start with a definition of the standard push-up and then build a foundation. In addition to this foundation, I intend to question conventional wisdom surrounding the push-up.


Push-ups

NOTE: As with the pull-ups, this upper body strength work is NOT exclusively for men. EVERYBODY can benefit from being stronger. I have had several spectacular successes in the past training men AND women to be much stronger than they ever thought they could be. Again, I want to emphasize that becoming stronger does not lead to a “bulky” physique for women. Cupcakes do that.

On to the definition of the “standard push-up.” Put your hands on the floor, shoulder width apart, fingers pointing forward. Position your feet close together and get up into a plank with a flat back. This is the “up” position. Bend at the elbows and lower your chest to the ground (keep your back flat!). Some standards would like to see the elbows bend at least 90 degrees, but I think this is kind of hard to be honest about unless you have a spotter. I prefer to go low enough that my chest and chin brush the ground – that way I know for a fact that I have broken 90 degrees at the elbow. This is the “down” position. Simply alternate between up and down and you’re doing push-ups. Most all of us have experienced this at least a little bit in a PE class or something somewhere along the line.

That is the standard push-up. Going back to my previous assumption that you probably are not very good at push-ups, let’s dial it back a bit. The simplest way to accommodate a lack of strength here is to put the knees on the ground. There is nothing wrong with doing it this way; we all have to start somewhere. In fact, there is a great deal of honor and integrity involved when a person recognizes their weakness and insists on fixing them at the most basic level. Do not “add strength to dysfunction.” Learn to do it right, right now.

classic-push-up_push-up-variations

If what I have talked about so far is a significant challenge for you, stop here. Work on these basics until you get it right, then please come back and continue to advance. A solid foundation is absolutely essential to continuation training. I would say that being able to rep out 10 solid push-ups with a flat back and without significant shakiness is a bare minimum to continue.

If you can knock out more than 10 standard push-ups in a row, who cares? Seriously. The ability to do 100 push-ups in a minute has a certain cool factor, but ultimately lacks utility. There was a point in my life when I cared about being able to do such high reps, but that cool factor immediately fizzled when I simply asked “Why?” It is a useless skill. Let’s play a mental exercise: What is the push function of the human physique for? Does being able to move one’s body from the ground to slightly above the ground a whole bunch of times apply?

Let’s explore that push function. Why do we have it? Why would we want to improve it? As I have alluded to, there is little to no utility to being able to go from the down position to the up position over and over again. Why would you ever do that besides testing your ability to do that? Therefore, training to get better at standard push-ups only makes one better at push-ups. It becomes a self-licking ice cream cone. One with inherently limited use. So now what?

The push function of human strength has several uses:

–       To propel the body from one position to another

–       To arrest a face-forward fall

–       To throw an object

–       To punch

Arguably, there could be some use to lots of repetition when it comes to punching, but doing lots of push-ups trains the body for maximum efficiency. Punching needs power, not just efficiency. In fact, all four functions I mention require a great deal of power. Given how all real-world applications for the push function fall into the four abovementioned categories, and all four require power to be useful, let’s focus on power.

Starting with propulsion, you will never need to propel yourself arms length from the ground 100 times in a minute. So let’s just forget that standard opinion of push-ups as something to do over and over again in a short period of time. Can you push yourself from one precarious position to another? Probably not. Even the guy that can do triple digit push-ups will have trouble going from the prone position to standing or from a prone position in one spot to the prone position in another. Imagine having to reach across a ravine or something feet first, and then having to shove the rest of your body across to catch up. This will require a one-shot, powerful effort.

This same power harnessed in propulsion will be used to help you arrest a fall. Simply imagine running in compromised terrain and tripping. As you fall to the ground face first, you need to be able to put your arms out in front of you and slow your fall enough to not get a bloody nose. Again, efficiency is not the key to this maneuver, out right power is. If your arms are too weak to deal with your body weight falling at 9.8m/s/s, you’re going to have a bad time. You have to be able to channel all of your strength at one single moment and hopefully it is enough to preserve your beautiful mug.

1321_basketball-passingNext, consider the possibility that you will have to throw a large object. I’m not talking about throwing something overhand like a baseball, but let’s say a rock or a log of something of significant weight that will require a two-hand thrust from chest level – not unlike a pass in basketball. You may have to do something like this in order to get a heavy object across a gap, throw a large object off of yourself, or even throw an object offensively. Again, repetition is totally unnecessary and pure power will be more desirable.

Finally, punching. It is certainly possible that a confrontation that requires punching will require many punches, but again, unlike the standard, repeated push-up, each punch will require power and not just efficiency. If you are going to punch something, punch it like you mean it. I don’t know about you, but if I have decided that something is enough of a threat that I’m going to throw a fist, I want to disable it, not piss it off with quick, efficient thrusts. Punching is a whole different art in of itself that should be discussed elsewhere, but the point of the matter is that the standard push-up at high repetition simply does not apply.

Ok, enough rambling, let’s revisit the mental exercise from earlier. Why do we push?

outline700It’s not to do something useless like this.

This is a two-fold answer. First of all, we don’t push to get better at push-ups. Second, we do it do apply our strength and power to the four applications mentioned above. In either case, doing tons of the standard push-up – per typical misconceptions of how to train the human push function – simply has no utility. For now, dear reader, I want you to focus on gaining a strong foundation in the push-up. As I mentioned before, build that foundation and do a small amount with power and confidence. Once that foundation is built, we can move on to Part II and build some serious power.

Roving Packs of Dogs

On the ever growing list of threats to my health and safety, I now add roving packs of dogs. This is the first addition since dengue fever bearing mosquitoes, added about a week ago.

The backstory is this: inspired in part by Movematt, I decided that one of my goals during my time in Costa Rica is to become a physical specimen of a human being, able to jog up flights of stairs and rearrange living room furniture.

To that end I’ve started a twice a day workout schedule that includes a combination of running, swimming, sprinting (sand & hill), and pullup and pushup variants. 3 of those activities take place on the beach (running, sand sprinting, and swimming), which is conveniently located 2 blocks from my house. I drag myself out of bed every morning make my way down to the beach and begin my routine, and generally by the end, I feel pretty good in a terrible, gasping for air, utterly exhausted kind of way.

But today was different; today, towards the end of the jog segment of the run when I begin to transition to sprint intervals, I looked up to find that loping along besides and around me in a not-unthreatening manner were about 3 medium sized black dogs who looked like clones of each other, (a white 4th dog seemed to be a bit of an outcast and was also much less preoccupied with me). My 3 surprise running companions jogged easily alongside me darting in and out at my legs and dashing away when I turned to face them. You’ve probably seen this behavior in nature documentaries where large ungulates are being pursued by seemingly lazy wolves.

Now, the dogs were definitely in semi-play mode, but the thing about roving packs of dogs is that they play rough, and if you show any sign of weakness they will begin “playfully” biting your face off.

Thankfully, I’m not totally ignorant of dog psychology, so I realized that speeding up would probably be a bad idea. Contrary to what you see in movies and TV, outrunning dogs is one of those things that doesn’t happen in real life unless you have a very substantial head start and a safe end point. Instead I slowed down a bit, which helped to ease some of their obvious agitation at my quick movement, and began doing my best to exude alpha vibes. Alpha vibes is my term for a subtle shift in carriage that is meant to say 2 things: 1: “I am your superior,” and 2: “if you mess with me, it will go poorly for everyone involved.” I got a lot of practice with this growing up in New York.

The dogs were fairly incorrigible but, after a few minutes of my extra lazy jogging pace, they lost some interest in me and went back to dive tackling each other across the sand. My mind was still on my workout, and not wanting to lose my momentum at that critical moment I made the snap decision to begin my first sprint then.

70 heart pumping meters or so later, I looked up and angling in gleefully were the black dogs, slavering jaws wide, white teeth gleaming against the sand. One was right next to me and took a bounding nip at my left thigh…

Druid wolf pack chasing bull elk; Doug Smith; December 2007

Now, admittedly, this was my fault. Sprinting like that in plain view of these obviously aggressive dogs was just asking for trouble. Still, if I let roving packs of dogs dictate my workout, where does it stop? What if next time they want to borrow some money, or take my girlfriend to the movies? Where do I draw the line?

The leaping nip was an obvious test of my alpha-ness. If I let it slide the next step would be a full on bite and would likely be proceeded by my being dragged around the beach loudly lamenting my ongoing mauling.

Well, I don’t know about all that, but I definitely knew that I didn’t want strange dogs thinking it was cool to bite me. So I stopped cold and turned on the nippy dog and yelled “hey!” in my most forbidding voice, as if to say, “you just crossed the line, dog!” that got his attention and he backed off. I walked him down a few steps just to drive home my point and that seemed to get my point across. They almost instantly lost interest in me and sped off down the beach to harass some guy sitting in the surf.

At no point in time was I overly afraid of being attacked by these dogs. But I was worried that they would totally mess up my workout which would suck. If I had gone sprinting down the beach like a frightened deer, as wolf evolved predators, the dogs wouldn’t really have had a choice but to chase me and eventually try to take me down. It’s instinct (see video above). So I had to address the situation before it got out of hand.

All told, this should add an interesting element to future workouts, for better or for worse.

I also got chased by a French bulldog a bit further down the beach, but that was less worrisome.

French_Bulldog5

I Love Pull-ups and So Should You. Part I.

This is my second attempt to write about pull-ups; Katy Perry rudely interrupted my last attempt (a transgression for which I still have not forgiven her). Anyway, I have to start by admitting that I love pull-ups. Seriously. It is likely my most favorite training exercise. Well, the pull-up and all of its variations, to be more precise. I’m even pretty good at them. Unfortunately, I’m willing to bet that you’re not. In fact, most people are pretty miserable at pull-ups, let alone any sort of advanced maneuver beyond the basic dead-hang pull-up. I would like to do everything in my power to help every single person out there to become more pull-up capable. In fact, I believe that if I were able to get even half the world’s population executing a few pull-ups with confidence, I will have done more for world peace than Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton combined.

2013 Open workout descriptions with Julie FoucherNOTE: This blog post and all future pull-up related blog posts are NOT exclusively for men. Every bit of the following advice is just as applicable for women. Women tend to feel like the upper-body strength necessary to do pull-ups is out of their reach (hahaha…puns), but it is very much possible for a woman to pull-up as well as any guy. Also, pull-ups will not make women “bulky.” Cupcakes do that.

First of all, let’s define the pull-up. I’m sure there are varying professional opinions, but as far as I am concerned, a strict pull-up is done by putting hands supine (palms facing away from body) on an overhead object (usually a bar) and pulling the body up to the point where the chin is above the level of the hands. Most of us have done this, or at least tried, in some random gym class at some point in our lives. I intend to use this reference as a baseline to which we will build – and build from.

A very wise fitness guru named Gray Cook is famous for saying, “don’t add strength to dysfunction.” Simple yet brilliant advice. That being said, in order to build pull-ups, as with any other training, it is eminently important to develop a solid foundation. Since no kinetic activity is possible until the body comes into contact with a surface to work against, the grip would be the most elemental part of the foundation. This is usually where pull-up novices exhibit some serious weakness. There is hope however, as grip strength can improve dramatically pretty quickly. Grip strength comes from a combination of hand and forearm muscles, but if the whole body is hanging from the grip, there will be some action elsewhere in the kinetic chain as well, so let’s check out the whole thing.

ltexp_arm-or-hand-muscles_02While you are sitting here and reading this, squeeze your hand into a fist. You should feel and even see muscle contractions in your hand as well as your forearm. While these are the most obvious muscles to develop for grip strength, it is also important to analyze the biceps and shoulder muscles. At this point, I would recommend trying to take the biceps out of the equation as much as possible in order to save energy as tensing them won’t help you to stay in a hang and will only sap your overall strength. Don’t worry, we will still develop your guns soon enough. Try clenching your fist again, but keeping your upper arm relaxed. If you have never really trained for this before, it might be kind of tough. You are effectively training your brain to talk to your muscles – an exercise at least as important as training in any other sense. Work on this selective tension whenever you can, especially while reading www.FYMPlanet.com.

On to the shoulder. This is one complicated joint; there is a lot going on here with muscles, connective tissue, and bone. Let’s go from sitting and reading to actually hanging. If you grasp an overhead bar and contract nothing except for your gripping muscles, you are in a dead hang. The name should be pretty intuitive. Notice how your shoulder seems to elongate or separate – this is called “extension” of your shoulder joint. As long as this doesn’t cause pain (if it does, go see a doc), this is a good position to train for some grip strength. I would also recommend holding a hang with your shoulder fully engaged. That is to say, draw your shoulder joint back together and hold it. I like to call this hanging with an “active” or “contracted shoulder.” If this is difficult to visualize, try doing a dead-hang in front of a mirror while wearing a sleeveless shirt. You should be able to see your shoulder “separate” as you hang, and you should be able to see it come back together as you “activate” it. As with the lower arm strength mentioned above, dramatic strength increases will occur early on thanks to simply training your brain to work these muscles.

The rationale for training lower-arm strength in grip training should be obvious: your hand strength is what keeps you on the bar. If focusing on the shoulder muscles in hanging seems less obvious, simply do a pull-up motion (either on the bar or off) and pay attention to how many degrees of rotation through which your shoulder socket moves. Additionally, the pull-up is not the end-all of upper body pulling strength; there are more advanced and worthwhile exercises to come and they will require even greater shoulder rotation. Since the joint is so complex and is home to so much connective tissue, it is exceedingly important to develop it well in the very beginning.

deadhangAll of this considered, no matter what level you are on, it is time to train that grip with this hang. I consider myself intermediate to advanced in my pull-up capability and I still make sure to train hangs often. Try simply dead-hanging, try hanging with an active shoulder, and finally try hanging while transitioning between the two positions. For a novice, the transition may be difficult and may even lead to pain. If it hurts, stop and talk to a doc. Otherwise, vary the speed, the time of each hold and time between holds, and even vary between two-handed and one-handed hangs. As far as frequency, listen to your body. The untrained shoulder is easy to strain, so ease in to it and focus on quality. The trained shoulder is a very capable mechanism however.

In addition to training the grip from a hang, it is possible to greatly strengthen the grip by doing Olympic style lifts. Deadlifts, cleans, snatches, and so forth all involve using the grip to hold on to a weight while you move it around. Typically, at some point in training, the weight used in these lifts will be limited by grip strength, at which point your gripping muscles will have to develop to keep up. Combined with the hanging training mentioned above, QUALITY Olympic training can enhance grip strength tremendously.

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I emphasize QUALITY because Olympic training should never be approached without appropriate coaching. Improper training can lead to not only serious injury, but can ingrain improper form that can drastically affect every other aspect of physical training (refer to the abovementioned Gray Cook quote). Do not trust some hack Level 1 Crossfit “Instructor” or fall back on your or some “bro’s” high school football training, but rather find a serious coach (whom, yes, CAN be found in the Crossfit community) if you have no background on the subject. Starting Strength by Mark Rippetoe is absolutely mandatory reading before you EVER think about picking up an Olympic bar (or pick one up ever again for those of you that have been training poorly all these years). Don’t screw with this. Seriously.

The total impact of both training methods is much greater than the sum of its parts, so try and get both in. One common mistake will significantly reduce the gains made in the grip department, both in Olympic lifting and in hanging: Gloves. Understand this: Gloves suck. Do not use them, you pansy. Glove-like accessories, such as wrist straps, also suck. They gather hand sweat and bar filth, are difficult to clean and therefore can spread disease, not to mention inhibit grip strength improvement. The fact that things are easier to hold on to while you are wearing gloves should be an indicator that your training is suffering and not be seen as a relief (i.e. a crutch). My hands are my gloves, as yours should be.

After a few weeks of this hang training and hopefully some Olympic training, a solid foundation for pull-ups should be in place. Even if you go from never having accomplished a pull-up to knocking out sets of 50, never stop training your hang. Hanging is useful (you never know when you will need to hang from a tree, a window sill, or whatever for an extended period), it promotes hand strength in other applications (punching, handshakes, chopstick utilization, etc.) and it keeps your shoulders strong (don’t be that person with the labrum tear). In the next chapter, we will go from hanging to actually pulling up. In the meantime, go find somewhere to hangout.

Hahaha….puns.

Suffer No Mediocre Coffee

Recently I became aware of some serious deficiencies in my life regarding coffee. Not too long ago I was satisfied with my coffee consumption as I thought I was doing things the right way: get the dark roast and drink it black. This made sense to me as I personally prefer both my coffee and tea dark and bitter (just as I like my women, hey-oh!). My coffee usually came in one of two methods: Mr Coffee brand drip machine at home or the “Big Nasty,” the huge percolator at work. On rare occasion I’d buy coffee at Starbucks, in which case I was that jackass that refused to get on with their absurd size-naming conventions and just flatly demanded “large coffee, black.”

Little did I know, everything I was doing was wrong.

Well, not everything, but I’ll get to that. What I want to do right now is share the four-plus years I spent achieving coffee enlightenment in order to save as many people from mediocre coffee as possible. This is not to say I am about to provide home barista-level instructions, just high-quality, simple, and very enjoyable coffee. Water, tea, and coffee (and alcohol, but that’s for a different post) are really the only purely liquid drinks (smoothies and such are again for a different post) worth consuming, so it only makes FYMP sense to do it right.

Let’s just get straight into it. First of all, doing coffee right does not mean making it overly complicated. Big, expensive, shiny machines with knobs and gauges are completely unnecessary in the making of good coffee, so do not go out and invest in one of them. There are only three simple pieces of equipment necessary: A kettle, a grinder, and a French press. Not only are these items simple, they are all multi-purpose (as in beyond coffee), can all be acquired for less than $100 total for some pretty high-end versions, and take up maybe 0.1 square meters (about a square foot for those Imperial holdouts) of counter space.

  • The Kettle: I use a plug-in kettle that can boil water in a minute or two. These are super common throughout the world, but not so much in the USA. Many other cultures drink tea to an extent that a kettle like this is the only practical way to keep up, but even more locales need to boil their water every time simply for safety reasons. I live in China, so both.
  • The Grinder: Mine is an oblong shaped Krups grinder. I like the oblong shape because a circular grinder tends to take longer to complete the grind. The oblong versions kick the beans back towards the blades and get the job done very quickly. This is important because spinning the blade for too long can actually scorch the grounds and screw up the flavor. Besides coffee, a good grinder can be used on a variety of spices, herbs, and other things I’m sure.
  • The French Press: Sounds fancy, actually simple. It is nothing more than a vessel to mix the hot water and coffee, then filter the grounds from the coffee. Mine is so simple that I actually drink from it; I don’t even need an additional coffee mug (arguably the 4th and most versatile piece in this equation). I love my mug. A French press is super intuitive and easily available online or at any home store.

Now that the equipment is in place, here is the process. Again, the emphasis is on both quality and simplicity.

  • Set the water to boil
  • Put coffee beans in the grinder
  • Grind
  • Put the grounds in the French press
  • Pour the just-boiled water into the French press
  • Stir
  • Put the French press filter into the press and press the plunger down
  • Pour
  • Drink

That’s it. It all takes about 5 minutes and will create some amazing coffee. Adjustments in the amount of grounds, water temp, and steeping time can be made to suit, so experiment with it. It will be seriously difficult to go back to Starbucks after drinking such homemade goodness. And it is cheap. I drink about three to four cups of black coffee just about every morning, so basically a “venti” at Starbucks. If this costs $3, in 3-4 months I have made back my initial investment, plus a bag of nice beans. Not that I am really hurting for cash or anything, but I would rather responsibly spend my money (as in not give it away to a hulking multinational that does not need it) and I can invest my coffee expenditure into something worthwhile, no matter where I live. Even further, I can better control my own coffee waste, i.e. no paper to-go cups, coffee grounds are composted (notice the lack of a disposable filter in the above method?), and a much lower energy expenditure as compared to the huge powerful machines used at any coffee shop, let alone a chain joint.

Chances are pretty good that if you make coffee at home, you have grounds or even whole beans in the freezer right now. You may as well finish them off as you would normally, but after that it is time to step up your game, starting with the beans. First, let’s start with selection. The biggest thing that shattered my world when it came to bean selection was learning that “Dark Roast” is actually terrible. This whole time, I thought that dark roast meant stronger, more flavorful –and even manlier – beans. Nope. Dark roasting is simply the way that a bean seller masks the low-quality of a bad bean by cooking the ever-living bejeebus out of it. It kind of works like steak in that some cooking is necessary, but the more it is roasted, the harder it becomes to distinguish quality (and the less quality matters). Light roasts are actually best as lightly roasting beans is a signal from the bean grower/seller that the bean can stand alone in its flavor thanks to its quality, not because it was torched. I became suspicious while drinking coffee in Cambodia – most SE Asian coffees are of a super-light roast yet have a huge flavor range. This led to further research, through which I learned that our affinity for “Dark Roast” is basically a conspiracy of American coffee companies passing off crappy coffee as something delicious and desirable. Damn corporations.

After finally buying some good beans, now you have to store them. First of all, if you have coffee in the freezer, GET IT OUT OF THERE AND NEVER DO THAT AGAIN. Phew, ok. Anyway, coffee is flavored by the oil in the beans. Have you ever put olive oil in the refrigerator? It turns solid. Cold environments cause oils to turn solid. Science. While you may not be able to actually see the coffee bean oils congeal in the freezer, you are basically rendering them inert and thereby flavorless or dull by storing them in there. Room temperature is your best bet; freezing coffee for freshness is a myth. Next, you are going to need a suitable container. The bag that they come in is usually fine if you are confident you can seal it well, but with recent information about the nastiness of certain metal and plastic storage containers, I just stick with a sealable glass jar. These things have worked for hundreds of years, so why fix what is not broken. Simple. Finally, keep it out of the sunlight. Again, this is because of the sanctity of coffee bean oils and how they can break down and turn rancid when exposed to sunlight. This applies to your olive oil too, take it off the window sill and just put it in a darker corner or in a cabinet.

This entire change in coffee lifestyle can be done in one day, is more financially and environmentally responsible, is super simple and easy, and most importantly, leads to some damn fine coffee. Delicious.

I did mention however that I wasn’t doing everything wrong, so what was I doing right? Well, it comes down to one thing: always bet on black. Coffee is HEALTHY. I will never understand the universal belief that caffeine is simply a bad drug, should be avoided, and those that consume it are “addicts.” I don’t want to go too far down this rabbit hole, but as with just about everything consumable in nature, it is healthy IF CONSUMED IN MODERATION. Simple as that. Caffeine is the world’s most common and most studied drug, but is a drug nonetheless and can be overdone. Again, in moderation caffeine is GOOD. Too much is BAD. Beyond caffeine, coffee is rich with antioxidants and all that other goodness. So yeah, coffee is healthy, duh.

Anyway, off my caffeine pedestal and back to black: coffee is healthy when it is not used as a vehicle for the absurd amounts of sugar that most “coffee” drinkers consume. It might not seem like much, but even adding a single packet of sugar adds up. Single packet = 4g of sugar carbs. 1g sugar carb = 4 calories. Therefore, 1 packet = 16 calories. If I go back to my own coffee consumption at 1 packet/cup of coffee, that’s an additional 64 calories a day from sugar in my coffee. In not quite two months, that leads to enough additional calorie intake to constitute a pound of fat. That’s six to seven pounds a year. Granted real life rarely reflects this kind of math directly, it is still an indicator of how significant a seemingly negligible lifestyle variable can affect the body. Now check out Starbucks’ nutrition facts and you’ll see drinks that many people consume on a daily basis that beat my math by over a magnitude of ten. That’s nuts.

My point is that while I may not have been drinking as good of coffee as possible, I at least was not consuming the sugar equivalent of a 2-liter bottle of Coca-Cola each day. When termed as “2-litre bottle of Coca-Cola,” it sounds absurd, but that’s the math. Also, don’t forget that the rest of a person’s diet – especially an American’s – is already sugar-laden (with Coke!) so this is simply just a piece of the big fat puzzle. While there may be those additional antioxidant and caffeine benefits that Coke doesn’t have, that is still not a good excuse. Finally, don’t even think about “working it off.” Exercise plays a much smaller role in calorie burning than most people realize, so working off a sugar-heavy “coffee” is not really a thing, nor is “earning” one of these bad boys after a “solid workout.”

For some reason, it is just plain difficult for many people to accept just how bad coffee can be when turned into a sugar vehicle. Just drink it black. I understand that this may not suit many people’s tastes, but try it with good beans and the method described above. Maybe people just don’t like crappy coffee and actually do need to cover it up with dark roasts and pounds of sugar. That makes sense, but not getting fat or coming down with The ‘Beetus makes more sense. When coffee is made well and made with high-quality ingredients (something you should demand from EVERYTHING you consume), it can achieve a huge range of flavors that will suit just about anybody’s tastes. The worst thing anybody could do would be to make good coffee and then trash it with all of the extras. That would be like asking for a bottle of A-1 to help set off the flavor of a $35 steak at a professional chop-house. You may as well go back into the kitchen and slap the cook across the face (in the case of homemade coffee, you’d be the cook in this scenario…).

Just for fun, here is an interesting and super simple recipe for iced coffee at home:

  • ¾ cup ground coffee
  • 3 ½ cups cold water
  • Put the coffee in a large container. Add the water and stir well. Let sit for 10+ hours (overnight)
  • Credit goes to Thug Kitchen, you can find them on facebook

Enjoy your FYMP coffee!

Paleo is for Chumps

Seriously. Paleo is stupid, quit talking about it. Quit “being Paleo,” whatever the hell that means anyway; quite making “Paleo brownies” and quit getting sucked into the ever-stranger world of Paleo. Am I supposed to be capitalizing that word, “Paleo?” What’s the standard convention? You know what, I don’t even care. Paleo is not worth the extra effort to utilize the Shift key (except at the beginning of a sentence…not much I can do there).

For the uninitiated, here’s a quick rundown of what it means to be paleo. “Being paleo” can refer to people or food, the former of which is one who eats the latter. It is a recent craze in diet wherein a person limits their diet to the items that would have been most likely (read: perceived to have been most likely; more on that later) consumed by our Paleolithic forbearers. The reasoning behind this limit is that, in the past, humans thrived and did not suffer from many of our modern illnesses like heart disease and diabetes. There are some critics that like to cite abysmal life expectancy rates from earlier time periods as evidence that being “paleo” might not have been all it was cracked up to be. However, the paleo faithful are quick to point out how infant mortality rates and the lack of intensive care for acute injuries skew those life expectancy rates from long ago – a rebuttal with which I agree. There is plenty of solid paleontology research that shows that if a person made it through their teenage years and didn’t get mauled by a tiger or otherwise suffer a nasty case of nature attack, they were likely going to lead a long and healthy life. And have sick abs.

The idea of shedding industrial food from our diets in order to achieve better health is a great idea. An amazing idea in fact. Quite frankly, I do not understand why or even how there is a debate in regards to the negative impact of modern industrial food on our health. Jamming tons of unrecognizable chemicals and poor quality nourishment down our maws is a two-fold, guarantee for poor health through “tons” and “unrecognizable chemicals and poor quality nourishment.” So, trying to reverse the damage that we’ve done to our food since the industrial revolution is good and is what paleo dieting hopes to achieve.

A great goal. However, past that is where paleo starts to suck. And by suck, I mean to suck people into its universe of fads, expensive labels and detrimental elitism. In fact, the paleo diet was labeled as ” founded more on privilege than on logic” by Ferris Jabrd in Scientific American. Jabrd, like me and several other “rogue” analysts, see some pretty serious fundamental flaws that prevent paleo from achieving in reality the lofty promises that it makes. Likely the most critically bad aspect of paleo is the idea of Grok. Jabrd does an excellent job of dismantling Grok, so I’ll just summarize briefly as the paleo crowd has an overly particular and unrealistic of who Grok is and what he ate. Basically, the idea of coming up with a “paleo diet” is absurd because there is no such singular diet:

Paleolithic diets around the world as much as their environments as can be plainly seen in the infographic above. However, paleo dieters seem to have a never ending list of ideas as to what rules apply to paleo. Obviously there are certain universalities, for example, despite all my research I still have yet to find an even pre-industrial, let alone Paleolithic society that had Froot Loops on the menu. But oh how the arguments over which nuts or beans or yoghurt or whateverthehell they’re debating that day get intense. In fact, let me share my favorite paleo story:

In February 2013, I was lucky enough to train with Vic Verdier on a MovNat retreat in Thailand for a week. It was awesome and I’ll be sure to put my review up soon, but for now, let’s focus on the food. Vic promised us three copious paleo meals a day and he wasn’t kidding, the food was great. I was intrigued since I had never given any serious effort to paleo yet I had heard good things. On morning two I believe, after I had finished a huge salad, about a dozen over-easy eggs and probably half my body weight in bacon, I figured I’d top it off with a bowl of fruit with yoghurt. And then it got real. When I returned to the table with my bowl, a pretty intense inquisition began over whether or not I was breaking a paleo rule of some sort. I mostly kept quiet and simply admitted to the fact that I had no idea what I was doing.

After a few days, I had learned quite a bit about paleo and I came to a conclusion: Who gives a shit.

All that effort and stress just to eat healthy? I feel like that is kind of defeating the purpose. It’s really difficult to counter the argument that there is no such thing as a specific “paleo diet” and selecting or even combining multiple paleo diets from generations gone by is a fool’s errand. First, we have to way to conclusively know everything about any ancient diet, we can only know bits and pieces. Second, to simply write off any dietary habits or measures between today and the Paleolithic era is also to simply write off the amazing capability of the human body to adapt. We are undoubtedly the most adaptable creature on the planet. Seriously, I think only the cockroaches could compare…though I have to wonder what that parallel draws…

Again, here is another argument that is nothing new to the paleo faithful: genetic changes in some Northern European people have allowed them to process dairy well into adulthood as opposed to losing it in young childhood like most of the rest of the world. I’m sure the pro-paleo community has plenty of evidence and arguments to deal with this silver bullet, but the take away is ultimately that things are more complicated than most would like to believe – is lactose intolerance not possibly the most well-studied subject in the science of human digestion and we only just know figured out the whole Northern European thing? We have a long way to go.

It would be too easy (and too typical) to assume the paleo argument to be complete at this point as the paleo community has one last and very important contribution. Usually at this point, paleo’s finishing move is to implore that people simply remove as much industrial food and other non-paleo items from the diet as possible and then slowly reintroduce the natural items and see how it impacts the individual body. Basically, ditch the HFCS and legumes, but bring the legumes back if you want – under the auspices of close examination of its effects, if any. This, again, is a good thing. Paleo does have good things, but it is still for chumps.

This last positive aspect, the analysis part, is great but “being paleo” in order to accomplish that analysis becomes a contradiction and sets up the modern paleo dieter for some serious heartache and chump status. One thing that can be agreed upon in regards to paleo is that it is a label. No matter how you define it or how nebulous it ultimately is, it is still a label. By “being paleo,” an individual has in turn labeled themselves and acquiesced to these labels. By having a label, an individual has an instruction manual which gives them the excuse to excise critical thinking – kind of an important detail if you are going to do any sort of serious analysis.

Furthermore, how is Grok supposed to analyze what he eats according to the final paleo guideline above if there are so many rules in contemporary paleo-dom? With cookbooks, websites, coaches and whatever else is out there, there will always be a sense of guilt and/or lack of satisfaction for the hardcore paleo folks as there will never be anything they can do to actually fully pull off paleo. Better yet, all of those cookbooks, websites, coaches and whatever else all cost money. It’s ironic that the very same people that would immediately agree that big box gyms are only interested in money and not health are individuals who simply do not think of paleo possibly following the same model. The combination of guilt and/or lack of satisfaction pairs really well with the business model as it creates a rabid customer base. Rabid. Seriously, I dare you to run into a CrossFit gym and shout “paleo sucks!” as loud as possible. You’d be better off throwing a chair.

At this point, I think my analysis of paleo has been pretty much 50/50. It has some pretty good points despite its built in mental baggage and I would even say that if I had to, gun to my head, pick a single diet that I had to follow the rest of my life, it would probably be paleo. However, it is poorly defined and ends up playing the role of ultimate excuse for people that aren’t ready to fully think about their diet because it goes way beyond guidelines and establishes hard rules – something it should not be allowed to do. This leads to the constant and intense (and annoying) debates frequently had by its adherents. My final verdict is that those who want to be this technically undefined thing, to be paleo, are way better off than the average American but it comes at a cost.

Why label yourself with the sheep? Especially when that label is going to bring you pedantic debates, mental stress, and an assured spot at the table of an industry business model focused on money. It would be unfair to offer all criticism and no solution, so stay tuned for how I think about food.

 

Sarutobi Parkour

What feels like a lifetime ago, I was a parkour instructor in Beijing, China. I was definitely the first foreigner to teach parkour there, but I may have been the first period. Back in 2009, when I started, there wasn’t anyone else teaching formal parkour classes, and there were only a few informal groups practicing around the city.

The classes were taught as martial arts classes with a strong focus on technique and real life practicality. That meant no flips, no showmanship – just how to get from one place to another as fast and efficiently as possible. The martial discipline made it easier to keep the kids in line in my younger classes, and the program (Sarutobi Parkour) fit well as the “flight” component for all the “fight” courses taught in the martial arts venues where I held classes.

I myself was never a freerunning daredevil, willing to scale tall buildings and risk life or limb jumping off of them in a single bound. Though those videos are often the most impressive and fun to watch on Youtube, I think parkour at its best is strictly utilitarian and minimalist; one of the benefits to this is that it is repeatable and teachable, like any martial art. Being a high level practitioner of parkour means you scale up the basic skills you’ve learned in practice to be effective in real life environments. It also means you can employ those skills effectively where it counts and when there are no second takes, not only for a highlight reel.

And on that note, here’s my highlight reel!

OK, so not technically a highlight reel. This video was meant more as a promotional piece to advertise for the class. It never made it out of pre-production (as you can see), but the friend of mine who produced it did a pretty awesome job of making it presentable in almost no time. Its main purpose was going to be to introduce students (and younger students’ parents) to what parkour was and to show some of the basic techniques taught in the classes.

After about 2 years of teaching parkour, several things happened that made me stop:

1)      I got bored of teaching.

2)      I hyperextended my toe doing a cat leap (it happened right before the first shot in the above video where I appear to be posing.. I’m really wondering how badly damaged my toe is and trying not to show how much agony I’m in.) It took about 2 years to fully heal.

3)      I decided I wanted to make some actual money.

Though I practice very little these days, I still love parkour. It embodies everything about fitness and working out that I am attracted to: functionality, fun, and total engagement. For people like me who find it almost impossible to sustain the long term motivation to go to the gym or run a few repetitive miles, parkour was a great way to keep active without feeling like I was working out.

It’s one of the best ways to get in shape that I know of and it’s also a great skill to have if you ever find yourself in a tight spot.

*For those of you who don’t know anything at all about Parkour, here’s an interview that explains a bit more about it.

The Badass Gardener

The gentleman you see here in this picture is crossing between a large ledge and the landing of a flight of stairs up to the second floor. Each floor in this building is a bit taller than standard height, so he is probably a solid 6 meters above the ground below. Every day he can be seen working outdoors, climbing heights to replace light bulbs, hanging out high windows to clean them, and pretty much anything else you’d expect a groundskeeper to do. He is considered exceptional by all of the students and staff in the building as he does all of these tasks casually, and because he is easily in his 70s or 80s.

It’s pathetic that he is considered so remarkable.

Don’t get me wrong, the guy is awesome. He’ll spend all afternoon bent over in the courtyard hand pruning the grass and still stand upright and cheerfully bust out a你好 (hello) to anybody passing by. It is – by definition – “backbreaking labor,” but he is completely unfazed. If I was to define fitness in terms of capability relative to one’s age, this man is the fittest dude I know. I hope that one day when I’m his age I have such high quality of life.

So, what’s with the pathetic part? He clearly deserves credit for his self-cultivated spryness. By nature of the word remarkable, it means that he is far and away the exception. It is pathetic that few people are like him; people of any age. When I walked by this scene of him returning from sweeping that ledge, a small crowd had gathered and were gasping and cringing as he walked across his little bridge. The facial expressions of his spectators ranged from horror to awe. His facial expression? The same casual yet jovial expression he wears all day long. I really think that if there was any way to somehow quantify the fear felt by his audience, it would vastly outweigh the amount of fear he has felt his entire, long life doing this type of stuff.

What was really obvious in his movement was that his lack of fear had a lot to do with the fact that he was supremely confident in his ability in the task at hand. He knew exactly how to move his body in a way that maintained his balance, even while carrying stuff, across the makeshift bridge. He also knew exactly how to move his body up onto that bridge and back down from the landing. He didn’t have to give it any thought, he just did it and he will undoubtedly do it or something like it again in the near future.

Does this make him exceptional? Unfortunately, yes. The vast majority of people lack that confidence; they lack the ability move their body in non-standard and potentially dangerous situations confidently enough to accomplish the task. Why do we lack that ability? Well, I already mentioned confidence, but the root of the issue is a lack of knowledge. Without the knowledge of movement, there is a lack of experience. A lack of experience translates into a lack of confidence which in turn becomes the lack of ability.

There is good news however. I know the gardener’s secret. He has spent his 70+ years on Earth constantly moving. He doesn’t take his body for granted, he uses it every single day. You will never catch him in the elevator and you’ll never catch him using gym equipment. He doesn’t have to practice crossing that particular bridge in order to confidently and competently deal with it, he simply has the complete toolbox of root skills that he can apply to any situation. Everybody that reacted to this picture with a gasp or a “wtf, old guy?” needs to seriously reevaluate their physical capability. He didn’t get to the point of such high capability at his advanced age by making it a goal to wow people, he just lived his life moving.

He has lived his life as a badass and we should all take a lesson.

Last Night Aikido Saved My Life

I’ve been training martial arts for most of my life. I’ve done karate, jujitsu, Brazilian jujitsu, aikido, and some tai chi chuan. Despite all that (or maybe because of it) I’ve only been in one real fight in my life.

Well, I guess it depends on your definition of a fight. I reflexively punched a younger kid in the face as a grade schooler over some perceived slight during a baseball game. As a freshman I was once given a bloody nose by a high school pal during a friendly bout of slap-boxing which didn’t feel very friendly. I’ve sparred a lot during my years of training martial arts, but that doesn’t really count.

No, I’ve only ever been in one real fight, where, as an adult man, another adult man actively attempted to do me harm. Well, actually, adult “men” would be more accurate, there were 4 or 5 of them. So I guess technically, I was jumped.

In that case, I’ve still never been in a fight; I’ve been jumped. Once.

It sucked, as you might expect, but it was also a great experience. If I’d ended up with my skull bashed in by a bottle I might not think so, but since I made it out none the worse for wear, it was a worthwhile learning experience.

Maybe I should just relate the story:

It was Valentine’s Day 2011 and I was out with my girlfriend at the time in the popular bar district in Beijing, China. Following a nice meal and some drinks, we ventured into a nearby yet infinitely seedier section of bar street to have a drink and dance, at her insistence.

We ended up in a bar called Butterfly, which was one of the many places on that particular street where dreams went to die. The entire area has since been walled over with concrete, which is for the best. In typical fashion, the bar was packed to the gills with rowdy expats and Chinese aficionados of the species. Rather than braving the dance floor immediately, to build our resolve we stood at the bar for a while chatting and having a drink (poured from a bottle within which was definitely NOT the alcohol advertised on the label).

Suddenly an arm pushed between us with deliberate malice. A hand reaches down into the stool that we were using as a hat rack, grabbed my hat, threw it aside, and a gruff voice said in Mandarin: “This is my chair.” I look up and there is a tallish, smirking mouth breather making “come at me bro” eyes at me.

My girlfriend immediately began gathering our things and pulling me towards the door, eager to avoid a confrontation. Somewhere beneath my instinctive male ire I found this interesting because her insistence implied that she thought that I might be inclined to chest puff and monkey dance with the guy. For the record, I don’t do that, partially out of maturity and a general disdain for posturing and showmanship, and partially due to cowardice and a general self-preserving desire not to be accidentally beaten to death.

Still, in front of my girlfriend I had to keep a little bit of face, and I WAS annoyed, so I give the guy my best smirk and “If-it wasn’t-for-my-girlfriend-I’d…” look and slowly followed her out of the bar. A helping hand guided me on my way as I turned to go.

Now, despite being a coward and general pacifist, I also have a rule that goes like this: don’t touch me. So I knocked Mr. Helpful’s hand off of my back, which was exactly the signal that his 3 or 4 friends were waiting for to attack.

What follows probably lasted for all of 10 seconds, but when I replay it it feels like 5 minutes. Long story short: I was separated from my girlfriend and attacked from all sides; I dodged a few poorly thrown haymakers and managed to grab a guy and commenced using him for Operation Human Shield. Thankfully the genius squad attacking me was using the tried and true “movie ninja” method of attacking one at a time, so I was able to keep them at bay, make my way to the door, and throw my trusty shield back at his friend before exiting the fine establishment with my girlfriend and beating a quick retreat to a waiting taxi.

Now, I’m a fairly small individual. I stay in good shape and am pretty athletic, but I’m not tall or large. And as my fighting experience outlined above (namely the lack thereof) might tell you, I’m definitely not a battle hardened tough guy.

Therefore I attribute my general success in the encounter to a combination of 3 things: the fact that it was well past drunk o’ clock which rendered my attackers’ already inept fighting skills useless; the fact that at the time I was training several martial arts regularly and thus had somewhat increased physical and situational awareness; and the fact that after the plan A of immediately dragging me to the ground for a head-kickfest failed, the plan B of actually slugging it out with me seemed less attractive.

I managed to make it out of the encounter entirely unscathed. My then-girlfriend also made it out fine. Thankfully the attention was all on getting to me. She stayed out of harm’s way pretty easily once they swarmed. Being from Korea where pugilism is anything but irregular she was also almost completely unfazed by the events of the evening.

I, on the other hand, had an adrenaline dump going that kept me up until the wee hours. During that contemplation time, some things about situations like the one that had just transpired were highlighted in my mind. One was that the vast majority of people in the world don’t know how to fight. Even in places where fighting is common, there are very few people who really learn to fight. The other was that most people, even assholes who want to participate in a good old fashioned jumping don’t really want to fight. Oh, they want to beat someone up alright, but they don’t want to actually risk anything for it… hence the underlying conceit behind jumping.

The last thing had to do with my martial arts studies. I’d been mostly studying Brazilian Jujitsu and Aikido at the time, and I could definitely feel the usefulness of my Aikido studies.  Especially in today’s MMA saturated world, lots of people denigrate Aikido as overly exaggerated and useless in practical application, but it was probably the only reason the situation ended up as well as it did. While staying entirely defensive also probably helped keep the situation from escalating, knowing how to move around multiple attackers, knowing how to keep an opponent off balance while maintaining my own, and knowing how to respond to the various angles presented helped keep me safe that night.

My petty desire to have cracked at least one of those clowns in the teeth not withstanding, I couldn’t have asked for a better first brawl.

Training for the apocalypse: Week 0

The Muscle-Up

So, for better or for worse (only time will tell) I have volunteered to be the guinea pig for my fellow FYMP master, Move Matt.

This will not be a tale of dramatic triumph over adversity or obesity – this isn’t The Biggest Loser.

No.  I’m a 30+ year old who has been a decent athlete all his life.  Fitness, for me, was rarely a stated goal and mostly a way of being.  I played fun sports like tennis and basketball, or had cool competitions (2 Tough Mudders, a tri-sprint, and a Big Sur marathon) to train for to keep me motivated.  Fitness just well, …HAPPENED.

In recent months, if not years, I’ve realized that without these goals, fitness has occurred more as a chore than as a side-effect of daily life. While I have many “excuses” like new responsibilities at work, two young kids, a wife, and a myriad of other reasons for not integrating fitness into my life – they all fall rather flat.  In short, my current fitness is not very FYMP.

What happens when I’m being chased by meth-enhanced criminals who have nothing but burying their brass knuckles into my chest and skull on their minds?  How fast am I going to be? How quickly and smoothly am I going to vault over/under obstacles?  Right now, there’s probably a 50/50 shot that I’m going to get away from the speedy zombies from the documentary “28 Days Later”.  I aim to get that percentage as close to 100% as possible.   Zombieland had it right.  For any post-apocalyptic scenario, a high-level of fitness/dexterity is crucial to my continued survival – something that is very personal to me and mine.

A key skill that will help mitigate my inevitable injuries attempting fymptastic parkour maneuvers is the Muscle-up.  Without this skill, I will be falling back down from walls after embarrassingly pinwheeling my legs and body while attempting to throw myself over an obstacle.

My current muscle up status is more WYMP than FYMP, I’m afraid.  I can do 8 pull-ups reverse grip. 6 pull-ups front grip.  It’s been long enough that I know this is going to hurt over the next couple of days.   That’s what my body gets for neglecting my survival skill-set for so long – suck it up body.

While my fitness may not be FYMP just yet, my mind always has been.  Move Matt – do your worst.

FYMP for life!

Working Out Sucks.

Working out sucks.  Stop doing it.  Seriously.

That might sound like some odd advice from the section of FYMP that professes to be the physical well-being side of the house, but those three words are essential to be able to understand every blog post that comes after this. In the cartoon above, Calvin is confused not only why adults don’t play, but also the definition of “play” offered by his father. Calvin’s father is also in turn confused, and clearly disappointed, by his own explanation. I think it would be more accurate to replace the word “exercise” with “working out” as it is more conventionally used for what Calvin’s dad is referring to and elicits a more specific visual. That being said, working out sucks.

I exercise anywhere from three to seven days a week depending on the circumstances and I agree, working out sucks. How does that make any sense? Have I just come to terms with the Sisyphean task that is working out in order to achieve a level of fitness or a physique that I want? Hell no. I don’t work out. I used to, but over the years I’ve been giving it up in favor of what Calvin would more readily recognize as play. The best part about removing “workouts” from exercise? Exercise becomes fun again.

Just as in my previous post about running in pants, you’re probably suffering from a classic case of “you’re doing it wrong.” I’m going to play the same assumptions game and make a few guesses about what your workouts look like. First, there is a seemingly endless list of specialized equipment, starting with clothes, shoes, accessories (those gloves match your purse?), not to mention the seemingly endless list of extra tools you can buy (think late night QVC-style TV) and finally the numerous racks, machines and ‘bells of all sorts that can only be found in a specialized place. That specialized place is the target of my second assumption: after dressing up in a workout outfit, you probably got in your car and drove to a gym (if you ran or biked there, good on you, but you’re still doing it wrong). Third, once inside this workout facility, you likely engaged in the standard workout structure: warm-up, stretch, workout, cool-down, stretch more, leave. This workout structure likely has a name. Some of us old folks probably remember the Sweating to the Oldies-style regimens and nowadays the kids buzz on about Zumba, CrossFit, HIIT, The 300 Workout, and so on. That’s a list I would hate to ever have to make comprehensive (speaking of Sisyphus…).

But wait, there’s more! On to number four: chances are pretty good, especially if you’re of the male variety, there is some sort of supplement involved. That can include anything from pre-, intra-, and post-workout supplements, pills (or “tabs.” Ugh, stop saying “tabs.”), powders and anything in between. Raise your hand if you have some Breaking Bad-shit going on in your locker or kitchen; you’re not alone. Next up, many folks these days are finishing their workouts with logging. Lots and lots of logging. Who knows how people ever managed to do anything before smartphone apps, GPS, Nike chips in shoes, calorie in/calorie out websites, etc., etc., etc.  And don’t forget, Facebook. Raise your hand if you have ever created or witnessed a workout related post on Facebook; you too are not alone.

Did I leave anything out? There is indeed something missing from this party – fun. While not everything listed above is inherently bad, none of it sounds particularly enjoyable. Therein lies the greatest obstacle when it comes to establishing a fit lifestyle: you will naturally stray from things that are not enjoyable. The one piece of human anatomy that decides enjoyment level is the same critical piece of human anatomy that likely 99% of people who “workout” forget during exercise. THE BRAIN. This is critical so much that I’m going to go all caps-lock on it again. THE BRAIN. Now, I will readily admit that researching, memorizing, recording and analyzing all of the workout regimens, sets and supplements of many people who work out is nothing short of PhD candidate level academic rigor (I’ve been there), but that is absolutely not what I mean by leaving THE BRAIN out of the equation. Side note, in my head, every time I type THE BRAIN, I sound it out like I imagine an old-school zombie would.

So what do I mean by leaving THE BRAIN (ok, that was the last time, it’s been fun though) out of the workout? This is actually really complex in explanation, to the point that I intend to explain the brain’s function in different, specific aspects of exercise in many future posts. For now however, let’s simply take a broad look at how much the brain is involved in working out. The human body experienced thousands of years of survival and improvement in environments that were much less ideal than all of the artificial stuff that are found in workouts, as outlined above. The human brain evolved along with the body in those less than ideal environments. If countless and unsurprising psychological studies can effectively prove that nature (where our brains and bodies grew up over millennia) has many positive effects on our mental wellbeing, is it that much of a leap to think that “workouts” (effectively a 100% artificial activity, based on the above criteria) aren’t the best option? That maybe you’ve effectively removed the brain from the exercise equation? If we put our brain in a more natural environment there are marked increases in good feelings…maybe using our bodies to move naturally in that natural environment ought to make the brain happy as well.

Again, as I said, much more will come of this discussion, however let’s play another mental exercise. Start by checking out some nature. Go on a hike, do some trail running, climb (or attempt to climb) a tree. Anything. This is of course harder depending on where you live, but I defy you to come up with an airtight excuse for why you can’t even find a city park. Try moving in nature, without any specific and artificial assistance (some shoes and durable clothes may be a good idea…more on why in future posts) and just take note of how you feel afterward. Natural movement in a natural environment and then think about it. Leave comments below of your experience if you’re so inclined!

Running In Pants, Pt 2

When was the last time you ran?  I’m willing to bet that whether or not the answer is last night or last year or even last leap year, the circumstances were similar:  You were wearing running clothes, running shoes, and were at a running venue of your choosing.  Continuing with my assumptions, you were there to “train” and there was a warm-up and probably some stretching.  But there was one critical element missing:  Need.

Need?  What does that even mean?  I “need” to lose weight/get in shape/improve my cardio/prep for a race/etc etc etc.  Therefore, I “need” to run.  Yeah…that’s not how I would define “need.”  Even a Kenyan, running at an event of some sort, chasing a first, second or third place purse just to put food on the table still doesn’t “need” to run.  This is a classic case of “you’re doing it wrong.”

Fine, define “need” then.  Ok, here we go:  people need to run when they have to evade something trying to hurt or kill them, such as a predator or villain.  Or maybe a person needs to hurt or kill prey or even another person.  People also need to run when an environment has become dangerous, i.e. a volcanic flow or an earthquake has made it necessary to escape the current locale.  And hell, let’s just admit it, maybe people have to run just to get away from the damn police.  We’ve all been there, right?  Right?  ….ok, maybe only some of us have been there…

Either way, there is one commonality amongst all of the activities in the “need” category: there is little, if any, room for choice.  Interestingly enough, all of those needs are also scenarios that every other creature in the animal kingdom are faced with frequently (except for maybe the police scenario…I don’t think tigers have a police force, do they??).  Seriously, could you imagine if an animal had to meet the same criteria to run that modern humans do?  Put on special shoes and do special warm ups in a special place designed especially for such things?  Hunters would starve or hunted wouldn’t stand a chance.

When a lion knows there is prey nearby, it up and chases it down.  When a gazelle knows that said lion is out to eat it, it up and runs away.  No warm ups, no lacing of fancy shoes, no stepping out to the track.  Can you do that?  Probably not.  In fact, I’m going to guess that the idea of jumping out of your seat right now and sprinting down the block is a bit scary.  It really shouldn’t be though.

Let’s step back for a second.  I hope that you never have to run.  Be it out of survival or combat, we’ve worked hard for our modern world and should reasonably expect a degree of safety that makes such a thing obsolete.  However, there are two problems with that kind of thinking:  1. Shit happens.  2.  Your body is meant to be prepared for when shit happens.  This does not mean preparing for some abstract potentiality in an effort to survive a one-in-a-million possibility, but rather taking full advantage of your evolved self (more on this in upcoming posts).

Actual insight and recommendations on running will come in future blog posts, but in the meantime, treat this as a mental exercise.  Running shoes are a product of the 1970s, running programs from the 1980s and sweat-wicking material the 1990s.  Human beings needed to run tens of thousands of years before any of these inventions, so why is your running contingent on them?

 

Running In Pants

The Seawall of Kota Kinabalu

It’s 35 degree Celsius and 95% humidity in Malaysian Borneo.  I’m hungover and have a belly full of nothing but coffee.  I’m wearing long pants.  It’s time to run.

….

I’ve been desperately searching for some inspiration to kick start my first FYMP post and I think I finally found it.  I’m just going to get right into it:  four former coworkers of mine died in a military plane crash in Afghanistan a couple days ago.  While I was not personally close to these men, many of my close friends were.  It has also dredged up feelings held over from a plane crash a year ago, on which I did have close friends.

When I found out about the wreck, I was in the middle of planning a trip to Malaysian Borneo.  The tickets had been purchased, I was just doing the research to figure out what I was going to do there.  Needless to say, this planning was taken off the rails and was never really completed.  Fast forward a couple of days and I found myself getting shit-faced in a bar outside my hostel a few hours after landing in Kota Kinabalu.  This led to sleeping in (like, to 12:30 pm) the next day which led to feelings of depression for wasting my time here.  Overall bad.

Additionally, in an effort to justify my laziness, I busted out the computer in order “to write.”  Really that just turned into me surfing the internet under the guise of “research” for my first post.  I finally had to admit to myself that I was suffering from project saturation and going impotent in the face of it.  Deadlines are drawing near on a bunch of schoolwork and I have so much that I want to write about for FYMP that I was all thrust and no vector and getting nothing done as a result.  Further depressing.

I finally made a step in the right direction by putting the computer away and deciding to go for a walk.  Walking down the coast of the Sulu Sea, I spotted a Starbucks.  Yeah, a drip coffee is somehow the equivalent of US$3, but screw it, I want coffee.  With my hot coffee making me even sweatier than I already was walking around in this humid oven, I kept trundling down the seawall.  I started screwing around by balancing on the edge, jumping back and forth over the ditch, hoping a few rocks.  Nothing significant, but the additional movement along with the walk was helping me to get my mind off of stuff.

That’s when I suddenly recalled a technically inconclusive yet operantly encouraging study I read while doing “research” earlier in the day about brain activity during a walk through a city vice a park.  Basically, and spoiler alert, walking in nature is better for you.  Shocker.  This in turn led me to my self reminder:  Move, Matt.  I had also made promises to myself and others that I would MovNat the hell out of Borneo.  Next thing you know, the only thing I could think about was killing my coffee and finding a trash can.

I succeeded in killing the coffee, but couldn’t find a trash.  Of course I’m not going to litter, so screw it, I’m wearing adventure pants, I’ll just shove the trash in a pocket even if it is a bit wet with coffee.  That’s when I started going.  First it started as a slow jog down the actual wall of the seawall.  Then it grew in intensity and I found myself making a few leaps across some crags.  I kept reminding myself to keep my legs under me and not in front of me, especially since my Minimus and my socks were already wet (more on that in a future post).  That’s when I saw a sign for the wetlands preserve and decided to run there.

Long story short, I kept running.  Persistence style.  I had no idea where I was going and I let my goldfish attention span take over.  Up hills, down hills, ohheylookanotherpath, time to play a few minutes of pick up soccer with some locals, ohheylookstairs, and so on.  I was wearing my aforementioned “adventure pants” (long, cargo style) and a long-sleeved, button-down shirt.  But screw it, you don’t always get to choose when to run.

Finally, I made it back into Kota Kinabalu.  My feelings for my former coworkers and for all of the brave men and women who continue to do that job no less diminished, but a renewed appreciation for life gained.  The lesson I learned here is that no matter the specific circumstances, a little bit of movement can go a long way.  I ended up scratched, bruised, exhausted and so sweaty that I needed to take a shower with my clothes on (no way could they go without a wash), but I was in such a better place emotionally and mentally.  My contributions to FYMP will continue to explore this phenomenon and hopefully help as many people as possible improve their quality of life.