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Category Archives: Recovery

Training and confused realities

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Where there is money to be made, the confusion mongers will flock. The training, or dare I say it, “fitness industry”, is no exception. These marketing vultures are “skilled” however, in their tactics and sadly, as is commonplace in the age of hyperconsumption and hedonism, people are easily suckered in to the cauldron of sugar syrup and bouncy blue balls. Let´s take a look at 5 common fallacies, many of which are becoming so mainstream, that a fish finger is in danger of being accepted as a fish. It´s time to get aware and swim against the current.

1. Functional Fitness

Whoa, baby! a world full of function, imagine that! The “idea” that seems to becoming mandatory fodder for anyone “serious” about their “workouts” is corporate corn syrup. Suddenly, an entire industry has been formed full of rubber-coated tires, pink balls, adjustable rope and expensive tape. To be really “functional”, a pair of shoes, pitch-fork and strong will power just will not do! No! you have to join an expensive gym, buy the entire kit to say you have joined the expensive gym and kit your home out with expensive rubber shit that comes with a DVD! Functional fitness, they say, means buying into so much confusion, that by the time you decide which pair of florescent shoes your next workout demands, you´re so exhausted that you decide it´s more optimal to suck on the recommended zone recovery shake, with its “active” ingredients for progressive performance.

What it ought to mean: You see, to really “function”, we need to be mobile, strong and “antifragile“, to borrow from Nassim Taleb, and know what gets in the way of being this way. Complexity may have enabled us to put a man on the moon and replace hearts, but its also made us lose sight of the actual simplicity (not ease) of training; hard work and thoughtful utilization of all your energy systems. Functional does not mean being completely overwhelmed with needless “choice”. What is “new”, is usually just rebranded “old”. If you want a living incarnation of what to do, for you, check out rosstraining.com

2. “This amazing (insert any hyped product here) takes the guesswork out of your workout, bringing your performance to new and improved levels!”

What utter garbage. Salesmanship 101. Making people “believe” that their results have stagnated, or cannot be achieved unless they buy into the “latest and greatest” tool. You see, marketing folk prey on people´s gullibility, and their propensity to want to believe. Yes, it´s a legacy of the gospel of doom. Your life will not be any “better” with your new DVD set.

What it ought to mean: Look, performance, or “results”, whether it be fat loss, strength gain, hypertrophy or even the elusive “condition”, are predicated on people working hard on following a dedicated regime of energizing their mind and body through work and recovery. Many factors play into optimal performance naturally, but stripping away the unessential, the sugar-coated packaged commercial “must-haves”, lays out a manageable, tried and tested platform to work from. No single tool you´ve been duped into signing up for is going to take the place of diligent curiosity and hard fall-down-get-back-up work. On the contrary, the more clutter you surround yourself with, the greater the odds you´ll fall back into the chair and biscuit jar.

3. By strutting about in the same multi-coloured trainers, tights and runner tops as everyone else on the Instagram #awesome, I´ll give off the vibe that I am so committed to the “fitness” lifestyle

Well, I may be cynical, but there´s an ocean of difference between those that “workout” and those that train. For the commercial interests however, they´d rather the blurred lines, and lump everything into the category “fit is fun!”. In fact, they would rather you spend more time actually kitted out in their brands and letting social media know all about it, than actually doing the work. No pair of tights will make you lift those weights, and no thought of others thinking you actually lift those weights, will make you lift those weights.

What it ought to mean: Ok, I understand the allure of a new pair of shoes, and once had a pair of tights. But at the end of the day, surely your training should be about how you feel and perform both in and out of the gym? (aesthetics usually follow if you´ve got things in order) Ironically, if your image is so important, you´d benefit more by setting aside time to get your ducks in line, and then actually reaping the benefits from your #awesome IG selfies.

4. Training should be “fun” yo!

Well, let´s step back a little here. Is life a box of roses or does it continually throw sand in your face? Sure, you can find fun times in your training (heck, you should!), but with hard work, comes tough times and a fair bit of soul searching. It´s a process, like life itself. It´s a test and a mighty big paradox. Don´t let anyone tell you otherwise. Fun is the commercial sugarline to hedonism. If it isn´t providing an instantaneous flow of gratification, dish it and try something else. Your well-being isn´t a priority here sunshine. I have actually seen players in the “industry” selling their product as providing “all the benefits of traditional training, but only fun, without the hard work”. Don´t mix things up.

What it ought to mean: Once you manage to reappraise the way your training becomes a part of your everyday existence, the fun can by all means be an integral side effect (or, you can just gauge this by your hormones). Pull up your socks and chug some RedBull, then get back to the farmers walks. There are even ways of making them fun. Do them naked.

5. But remember, “moderation” is the key to success!

Aaggghhh. Can´t stand that M word. Firstly, because it´s used as an excuse for avoiding hard, consistent, thoughtful work and secondly, it´s the darling of the corporate world who thrive on a confused, apathetic, restless, hands-in-the-sugar-bowl public. To the commercial world (gyms included) M means avoiding the gym, as the ideal GloboGym membership scenario and losing focus on consistent programs by adding in external distractions. This M word needs some serious shake-up. It implies your training lifestyle is a burden. It is not. Distraction is.

What it ought to mean: Once you work out that a healthy training lifestyle is to be enjoyed and implemented each and every day, you will reconsider what moderation means for you. It could mean, for example, spending the day after a hard metabolic session, or an 8hr mountain walk, practicing some yoga and breathing sequences, some joint mobility, some journal updates, some squats, some gardening… whatever it is! anything but the slump in the chair with a bowl of sugar-pops kind of moderation. Where did that come from, and why do people associate this with moderation? Surely, a reassessment of the M word could result in something like 2 eggs instead of 4 not 2 steps forward, 4 steps back.

Summary

What´s the key takeout here? Question any claim that tells you how to take your training to “new levels”. The problem is, most of these claims are carefully crafted to tap into the inabilities modern society has to understand the difference between the quick consumer fix and years of diligent, persistent, experimental, reflexive work. Who do people think they are! Suddenly, centuries of empiricism becomes irrelevant and a can of sugar takes its place! Aristotle would have been aghast. A successful and progressive training lifestyle need not only be a solitary affair spent out in the rain lifting items you´ve found at the dump, day after day after year after year. Well… No, it can actually be a communal endeavor, with events, actions and innovations (and Facebook groups) to make your experience even more fulfilling. Each to their own. What I´m saying, is that training, like life itself, ought to be a constant learning experience you yourself ultimately have the final say in developing. Seek out people with real life experience and see what your take out can be. Maybe nothing, maybe some small aspect you can incorporate. But be vigilant and don´t let commercial interests steal not only your hard earned cash, but the most essential asset you have: your time and health.

Think. Eliminate. Move. Practice. Enjoy.

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Contrasting measures of movement and performance

I often wonder what the point is of aiming to quantify athletic performance through sole adherence to numbers/time, if you are totally unaware of how your movement patterns and technique are progressing. It makes little sense, for the 99.9% of the population not involved in elite-level performance, to quantify performance in a numerical fashion, if the qualitative indicators of what drives mobility, strength and overall movement health are left to somehow take care of themselves. I´ll explain further what I mean, not so much as a criticism to people going hard with their training, or setting high benchmarks in their performance, but for people to think about performance and health longevity and how this relates to much of the totally wasted and often dangerous activity I see in the gym these days.

For gymnasts, martial artists, olympic weight lifters and those of us involved with girevoy sport – technique comes first. It´s mastery takes up the majority of training time, and attention to detail can seem hard to grasp for most not so well versed in the respective disciplines. The attention on harnessing tension and relaxation requires a complex combination of speed, power, timing and extraordinary mobility. Those who achieve greatness in these disciplines have a unique ability to control muscle tension through strength and power and to relax sufficiently (in the case of girevoy sport in particular) to allow speed, flexibility and endurance to be sustained whilst competing. None of this is achieved without proper training and understanding of fundamental movement patterns.

Movement however, in this modern world of instant gratification and impatience for change-driven objective results, is not a quantifiable measure of performance, as we see with time and numbers. Movement is a qualitative measure of health which cannot be reduced to a competitive exercise. Herein lies the challenge for fitness professionals working with the mainstream or in rehabilitation:

How to teach quality of movement as a performative aspiration before quantifying results through numerical benchmarks?

You see it everyday at training facilities, on the boards, on the web forums; ways to achieve quantifiable results in the quickest possible time: “My goal is a 400lb deadlift”, “I wish to run a sub-3hr marathon”, “I want to complete FRAN in under 4 minutes” etc etc. Most would not care so much how they got there, however ugly it looked. They would simply take the time and add the weight. Professional athletes are usually exceptions to this rule, as their livelihood is based around clearcut objective results. But then again, at the elite level, movement is usually of the highest level as well. But does less that 1% of the population really want to achieve  certain objective standards of performance to the detriment of movement quality or efficiency?. Do we actually think in these terms and concepts when training?. Probably not.

This is where trainers and fitness professionals (or whatever the name you choose to use) need to step up the mark and wise up. Most average people exercising for enjoyment and other health benefits it provides should be encouraged to work within parameters of proven programs that gradually increase performance through smart periodization and measurable feedback. It is simply too much to ask the amateur gym-goer to be able to adjust their training each day based on multiple variables affecting daily performance. But it must be the prerogative of trainers and gym owners to ensure a baseline of movement quality is instilled into members before starting on with pushing rep counts, loading the bar or holding the clock in your face.

We are all born with amazing flexibility and mobility, but reinforce bad habits and patterns of movement as we age. The common ankle, knee, hip and shoulder mobility issues are all too plain to see, as is poor core stability and spinal weakness. No one has a place, or will gain long term benefits by stacking plates on a bar until these essential areas of mobility are trained back to their intended function. To do this, especially if you have been hurt, poorly trained or very inactive, takes time for many, and to reinforce bad habits and certain asymmetries by loading weight only leads to certain unspecific injuries caused by inadequate foundational movement conditioning.

What happens when poor mobility is overlooked for objective gains in the weight room?. Compensatory form takes place, often unilaterally, which reinforces already bad mobility. Commonly seen in the squat, push up or press, shoulder and hip weakness makes for awful looking movement patterns, especially on those with heavily weighted bars on their backs. One overlooked solution is to teach control of movement through bodyweight training. Teach the integrative form of each movement and reinforce this until weaknesses are ironed out, strength is gained, and a platform is laid out for more specific functional progressions.

Instead of looking at your strengths, look at your weaknesses, and build upon them to integrate your body and mind into a strong unit. Isolating body parts or movements, because you are strong at them, is simply nonsensical. Kettlebells, in this regard, are outstanding aids not only for screening poor movement but for strengthening symmetrical and proprioceptive awareness throughout the entire body. Foundational movements such as the swing, Turkish get up, press and snatch cannot be performed without this “core” awareness, and balance, or you will simply fall over in a heap.

I firmly believe in the kettlebell being of huge benefit to the future of mobility awareness and injury rehabilitation for the huge proportion of the modern population who struggle to perform basic movements with ease and efficiency. Spinal shortening is all too common with the aging process and the cumulative effects of compensatory measures to counter back and hip immobility has disastrous consequences. Remember also, that our body works are an integrated unit, so structural and muscular pain, as well as a struggling metabolic state due to stress and poor nutrition has carry over effects to our mental health – an oft-overlooked causation.

The way we move and interact with our environment are fundamental parts of our integration into all forms human life. If we are forced to inhibit ourselves in any way from moving freely, it has a spinoff effect on our whole performative sense of wellbeing; physically, mentally and emotionally. Movement patterns were given to us at birth and are a primordial part of the cosmologies of us all. We owe it to ourselves to avoid dysfunctional limits that come about by lethargic modern lifestyles as well as looking too readily for quantifiable objective results that bypass fundamental movement patterns that are at the essence of true qualitative health and fitness and performance standards.

Some of the most progressive and open thinkers in the movement/health/performance industry:

www.maxwellsc.com 

www.rosstraining.com

www.8weeksout.com 

www.graycook.com

www.cathletics.com

www.ikff.com

www.mikemahler.com

www.movnat.com

 

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Kettlebell Pentathlon: Strength and Conditioning Test

Recently, whilst attending the WKC Sport Camp in Rome, I was introduced to the World Kettlebell Club Strength and Conditioning Quotient. This is an interesting test which, as it says, tests S&C, but allows for ANYONE to participate and gain a score. From there, and with a little experience with the actual test and the lifts involved, one can gain a decent appraisal of further improvements. I´ll explain how the test functions, and hope that it encourages you to give it a go. So far I´ve had 5 attempts, which I´ll tell you about later. I´ll also touch on the limitations of the test, and some suggestions for improvements.

From Valery Fedorenko, Head Coach WKC

“The philosophy of the WKC S&C test evaluates not just the general physical capacity of the athletes or personnel, but is also a test of all fitness components and a wide range of athleticism. It may be used to assess base strength and conditioning levels and then further used to test progress and other forms of strength and conditioning training”

How the test works

The test consists of 5 different batteries of exercises. Each is a 6 minute set followed by a 5 minute recovery period. Total time is 50 minutes (30 minutes lifting/20 minutes rest period). Each set has a MAXIMUM reps per minute (RPM) which cannot be exceeded (or if exceeded, will not factor in your score). Each set allows the lifter to select the weight s/he feels capable of completing the set. The lifter cannot set the kettlebell down during the set, or else the score is 0. Multiple hand shifts are allowed. So the idea is to choose a weight for each set that you feel capable of scoring the maximum points with. This is the strategy you need to use based on your condition. For some of the lifts, you may want a heavier kettlebell, or a lighter one if the lift is not your strongest.

Scoring

Each kettlebell has a quotient score which you multiple with your total number of lifts to get a final score. All 5 sets are added together for your final score. Here are the quotients:

8kg: 1

12kg: 1.5

16kg: 2

20kg: 2.5

24kg: 3

28kg: 3.5

32kg: 4

36kg: 4.5

40kg: 5

44kg: 5.5

48kg: 6

The Exercises

1. One arm clean (max. 20rpm)

2. One arm long cycle press (max. 10rpm)

3. One arm jerk (max. 20rpm)

4. One arm half snatch (max. 18rpm)

5. One arm push press (max. 20rpm)

Here is a nice video explaining the lifts with Fedorenko and the legendary Ivan Denisov, who has the world record score of an incredible 2500! (After you try this you´ll realize getting half this is some achievement!).

My first attempt, during the training camp in Rome, was rather on the conservative side, but I was mostly concerned with selecting weights which would give me the maximum score. I didn´t see the point of not aiming for the maximum number of reps, albeit with a heavier kettlebell. You can do the sums and see how this equates (higher weight=higher quotient but lower reps) or (lower weight= lower quotient but higher reps).

My first attempt: July 2011

1. Clean 20kg 121 reps (Q2.5)

2. LC Press 16kg 60 reps (Q2)

3. Jerk 20kg 112 reps (Q2.5)

4. Half snatch 16kg 112 reps (Q2)

5. Push press 24kg 110 reps (Q3)

Total score: 1246

3 further “training” attempts in August 2011, but just using a 16kg and only 1 minute rest between sets. Maximum total reps achieved each time. More pure conditioning, that S&C.

In September 2011, I tried the test with a 20kg, and again managed to gain the maximum score with that quotient, with 3 minutes rest between sets. Score 1310. Still felt like more conditioning, not really needing the full 5 minutes of rest.

Then last week, October 2011, I tried with the 24kg in lifts 1 & 5, and the 20kg in lifts 2, 3 & 4. I decided to use the full 5 minutes rest between sets as I wanted to simulate the test properly for harder things to come. I managed reasonably well, with maximum reps, albeit a few ugly left arm push presses at the end. Total score of 1430.

Having seen a few others do this test, and also on the interweb, some similar speed tests using kettlebells, I notice a lot of crappy reps and techniques, all for the sake of getting a high score. I have always been competitive, and extremely determined to improve on my performance no matter what activity I engage in, but one thing I find rather meaningless, is letting form go out the window just to hit a score, or beat the clock. Some may disagree, but that´s the way I guess things roll when you get older and performance and style seem more interesting that “busting a gut” to impress. So, I try to be sincere to my technique at least that way I have my OWN benchmark, and I guess that is what counts at the end of the day.

I have only done the test a few times, but see from the grading system that I must be doing something right, and indeed part of the fun of the test is deciding how far to push yourself before you are unable to get the max reps. I may try for a higher weight with, say, an aim of getting 80% of the reps. Maybe I can reach 1450+?

UPDATE: February 2013 Managed 1455, whilst aiming for 1550. Basically, I set a goal to complete ALL reps with respectively 28kg, 20kg, 20kg, 20kg, 28kg. I missed the first set by 10 reps, stopping at 110 reps, moved easily through the 20s but decided to take the 24kg on the last push presses. 28kg seemed an unlikely proposition about then, especially as my aim is usually to take the maximum reps.

UPDATE: March 2013 Having had a year away from consistent girevoy sport training (mostly bodyweight and KB assistance work) I decided on testing some heavier sets, including the 32s on the cleans and long cycle press, and the 28s on the half snatch, jerk and push press. Surprisingly, they felt good, which I put down to consistent pull-up and grip work, but these were isolated sets, not strung together like the pentathlon test. That is the real challenge of this test, a real test of mental fortitude, as well as key physical attributes like speed from the floor and fast, strong fixations. I always like to look at Ivan´s videos to see how much concentration and correct breathing is needed to be so good, not to mention his super powers! I´d like to try the test again using just 24s and 28s, and maybe allow myself to miss a few reps, in order to bust through towards.. 1600 ?? more ??

UPDATE: May 2013 Ahead of a local event aimed at introducing this test to those interested in kettlebell sport and training, I managed a spontaneous set, due (oddly I know) to a fatigued wrist from all the towel pullups of late (my go2 exercise numero uno) which were scheduled for the day. The aim was 24s for the entire test, save either the half-snatch or pushpress, where I figured 20 would allow me to complete the reps. It went well. I maxed the rep count, wisely snatching 20kg to save some juice for the last set. Total: 1530 easily my best score without too much prep or difficulty. Some quick calculations taking 28 on the cleans and 24 for the other 4 rounds would give me 1644. The next marker. I’m not one for overt quantifiable markers as my training motivations, instead tracking how I feel at different stages of my training, and overall mind/body strength development. Move well, breathe well, feel strong, in control –  this test is a good one, it’s not easy, but who wants ease in life?

S&C Grading system

Men:

Less than 720 : Low

721-900 : Average

901-1080 : Good

1081-1260 : High

1261-1440 : Extreme

More than 1441 : Superhuman (Denisov et. al)

Women:

Less than 360 : Low

361-540 : Average

541-720 : Good

721-900 : High

901-1080 : Extreme

More than 1081 : Superhuman

Summary

For a start, the WKC has separate certification programs for both FITNESS and SPORT. This test is aimed at the general public who may have not had training and experience in traditional girevoy sport (GS). For the purists (yes, there are the odd few!), such components as multiple hand shifts, ability to choose non-competition weight kettlebells, the half snatch (where you come down from lockout to the rack position between each rep), and indeed the selection of lifts may cause the heart to bleed, but hold your horses!. GS is very specific as a sport, and not so accessible to most people mildly interested in using kettlebells as part of their training arsenal. Few GS hardliners would be interested in such a “test” of their prowess, as they would use 2 kettlebells for a specified timed set, with a RPM goal together with weight. The test involves measured strength and conditioning, with a certain degree of endurance and power needed to finish off each set strongly. There is no real way to hide weaknesses, should you aim for a high score. There are plenty of other tests available, such at the RKC Tactical Strength Challenge, but life is so intent on convincing us we need the “ultimate” measure of success, that we are too quick to criticize.

The WKC test is by no means perfect, but what is?. It may seem little complicated at first, and even a little easy for those more experienced with kettlebell training, especially with one arm lifts. But when I heard Denisov had completed the test using the 40kg, 48kg and even 56kg bell, I cannot understand why people have overlooked this as a great means of ascertaining S&C levels, for newcomers and old-timers. The test is for kettlebell fitness, and could be combined with certain bodyweight exercises such as the strict dead-hang pullup or push up. Maybe even throw in a couple of 1max-rep barbell compound lifts to make it more of an “all-round” test?. But hey, why get even more complicated?. Why the endless search for the “ultimate in everything” dude or dude-ess?. That was Superman or Captain Avenger, or Wonder Woman. They don´t exist anymore, we are all getting slightly softer in modern times and use these kinds of efforts to be “awesome all the time” which are just signs of a sad dispersal of cognitive dissonance which resonates all the way to the gym.

Enjoy improving your performance at whatever you are interested in. Do it with style and learn from those who have put in years of effort before you in dedicated training and thought to finding out just how to get good results using sensible methods. And your performance is only as good as your recovery. You can be a star in the gym, but it helps little if you´re crap in bed. If anyone wants to try this test, and lives near me, I´d be happy to keep score, and make sure your form is spot on!.

Good Luck!

 

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Ivan Denisov – “Just let the Kettlebells fly!”

Great athletes make the hardest feats look easy. They achieve results seemingly impossible to conceptualize for the majority of us who have ever tried to run fast, lift heavy, hit further or jump higher. They succeed under an enormous range of pressures; yet often look so at ease, so focussed.  I had a chance recently in Rome to meet, and be coached by, one of the greatest kettlebell lifters ever, Ivan Denisov. Current holder of absolute world records in all three competition lifts (jerk, snatch, longcycle), Denisov was in Rome with another legendary lifter, Valery Federenko, founding head of the World Kettlebell Club (WKC).

I’ve had the privilege over the years of watching incredible athletes up close compete at the top of their game. I’ll never forget Miguel Indurain, legendary Tour de France champion or Gianfranco Zola, Chelsea’s greatest player. I’ve seen Nick Faldo make the game of golf look simple and the great Sachin Tendulkar, cricket’s all time record scorer. These, and other legendary athletes share a common denomenator: The ability to find an inner calm and dominate their surrounds with such ease. There is no rush, no huffing and puffing and no look of impending collapse. Ivan Denisov shares these qualities.

As a great champion, Denisov is perhaps on his way out of top competition and moving more into his role as a full-time coach, although he was coy about this when I asked him, and he still posts world class numbers. With limited, yet improving grasp of the English language, Federenko adopted the role of Denisov’s translator, and had a more sidelined role during the training camp. He took us through the small details of the GS competition lifts with continual emphasis on efficiency and easy of movement. While I was struggling to refine my technique with the 20kg bell, Denisov was snatching and jerking the 32 as if it were a toy. Try pressing or snatching a 32 and you’ll see it is certainly not a toy!.

During the breaks, I was interested to observe Denisov and was struck but his calmness and focus. He’d politely answer my questions about his training methods, his diet, his secrets to achieving such amazing numbers. There was certainly a presence about him, he was after all 190cm and almost 110kg, yet not in the imposing way I would imagine a heavyweight boxer or an American football linebacker. On day 2, Federenko informed me that Denisov would be demonstrating a snatch set after lunch. Stripping off into his competition suit and lifting shoes, Denisov made his way to a side room to the gym we were training in and began a breathing sequence, no doubt Russian “systema” technique. He found his solace, and prepared in the most relaxed way for a 5 minute set with the 32 using only his right hand. The set was almost perfectly timed at 20rpm, for a total of 102 reps. No fuss, no stress. The breathing and technique were even throughout, and there was no visible fatique afterwards. A simple 3264kg of lifting with one arm in 5 minutes.

Denisov later completed the WKC strength and conditioning test (5 sets of 6mins) with a maximum score using the 32. Strangely there were no heavier bells, as he had previously negotiated the 48 to set the highest ever score recorded in the test. Again, no stress, no panic. Time and time again during my attempts to nail the technical aspects of the snatch, Denisov commented that I need to relax more, breath and “let the bells fly”. I realized quickly that masters of their respective games are able to find a zone whereby their efficiency equates to power output at a level few others come close to achieving. I often wondered during my rugby career, and even as a footballer, why coaches seem to think that whipping players up into a frenzy of blood boiling tension is suppost to help performance. I never went along with that theory, even whilst I was in the changing room squeezed up against these sweating guys who seemed to have expended much of their energy before the match had begun!.

I’ve noticed professional athletes off the field too, are skilled at relaxation. They talk of sleep, of unwinding with movies, PlayStation, swims or walking. Maybe this is the way the best performers save their energy for the times it really counts. I have a sneaking suspicion the majority of amateur competitors, regardless of their sport, fail to see this connection. Performance is as much about the ability to turn up on the day and win the match, dominate your set or your opponent, as it is the ability to stay calm and relax. Too often I see the strain of tension intervening with correct and safe form during training or competition. Few people seem to think about the importance of breathing, or of mental focus and visualization.

This summer, I’ve had the pleasure of training with Steve Maxwell, Steve Cotter, Ivan Denisov and Valery Fedorenko. Different guys with different backgrounds. Each great coaches and champions in their own right. The commonality though is an important one, and one that I hope to install in my game as a coach and amateur competitor:

Performance comes through being able to master your body/mind connection. Most of us will never be world class athletes, but all of us have amazing potential to become so much better. Performance is not something we save for our thrice weekly visit to the gym. It is not something we turn off as we open the fridge and take out a packet of junk. It is not something apart from our daily life, Performance is our whole way of living, and the interconnectedness is lost on the majority. We must seize the opportunities that are in front of us on an everyday basis to improve our game, and not compartmentalize physical condition. Denisov told me of his love for family time, for games of basketball with friends and for reading. The ability to relax takes many forms, and is inextricably bound up in the ability to harness strength, mobility and power in athletic performance. I had this reinforced to me this summer by guys that know. Take your time, chill out, feel your performances grow.

 

 

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6 reasons your training has stagnated (and ways ahead)

“It’s not the daily increase but daily decrease. Hack away at the unessential”.
Bruce Lee
One of the pleasures about training, as a component of life, is the constant learning process. No one routine seems the same, the body and mind responds differently, you try new movements, you hit peaks, you plateau you make small adjustments, you learn from others, you ask questions, you focus on the job at hand, you see results. Many however, get tired and dissolusioned with the effort required to make progress, and it is more often a result of being overwhelmed by external factors that overcomplicate the simple internal factors.

As someone passionate about the nature of human evolution and cognition and especially how it relates to physical training, I adopt a holistic approach to helping people achieve their potentials which is often met with a confused look. People seem conditioned to expect defeat with the myriad of excuses society provides to delay progression, or reward mediocracy. But we all have within us the ability to change, it just requires awareness of the factors of interference, and the courage to step beyond their constraints.

The Deadlift

Gym Scenario

“But I just wanna get big”, dude says.

Fair enough, you´re a young guy, I was there once as well and we all know a little more naturally induced testosterone in today´s paisley shirt and skinny jeans society is no bad thing.

“Tell me about what you eat, how much you train, what kind of programme you follow and how much you sleep”, I say.

Errrrrm,(throws odd look) I train 5 or 6 days a week at the moment, plus I play indoor soccer on Monday night. On the weekends sometimes I don´t train because I usually go out. I don´t sleep or eat so well on the weekends. I eat lots of pasta and chicken, but I hate cooking, so usually just carry protein powder around with me. Always after training. I´m pretty bad with the sleep, always up late with friends on the PS3. But when I train, I hit it hard. Currently following Starting Strength every second day, but I don´t reckon that´s enough, so I do extra bench, leg press, lat pull downs and stuff on the other days. I heard the 5×5 programme is good though, so I might try that. Weekends are a bit of a mess, but, you know, student life and that”, says dude.

So your goal is to get bigger. And I assume stronger too. But it sounds like you don´t have much of a routine with your lifestyle. Pretty inconsistent stuff happening there mate. How much do you want to improve?”, I respond.

I really want to make changes, but it seems hard at the moment. I´m training most days, but don´t seem to be getting anywhere!”, says dude.

    • 1. Your nutrition is not dialled in

Eat me

    There is no way your training will move forward if you don´t adopt an understanding and appreciation of the importance of a sound nutritional plan. Time and time again, I see young guys at the gym chugging down protein drinks post-workout. If they were used in ADDITION to a proper nutrient rich dietary plan, fair enough. Fast metabolizing carbs and protein for rapid restoration of hormonal balance, controlling the cortisol increase and spiking insulin levels. Muscle gain 101 for the young gym rats. But I suspect these shakes are being used as substitutes for proper solid food.
The more I experiment over the years with my training, the more important nutrition becomes. To get big, you need to eat big. It really is that simple. But the caveats are numerous, and I won´t go into them here, suffice to say that the nutritional (macro-ratio) requirements for Mr. average body composition looking to stay in shape, Mr. slightly porky looking to lean out, Mr. skinny looking to bulk up, Mr. Crossfitter looking to improve WOD numbers etc are different.
You need to work out a nutritional plan that is right for YOU and your goals. Your metabolic typing is directly related to your various homeostatic control systems, and if your balance is not optimal, your health will not be either. BUT, the foods that make up your diet need to come from natural sources, NOT man-made ones. Once your body has eliminated the main sources of inflammation and hormonal disturbance (from sugars, gluten and plant oils) you will be in a much healthier metabolic condition to play with macronutrient ratios according to your body composition, goals and training intensities.
The great thing about the Paleo-style way of eating, is the simplicity and the seasonal adaptability. Remove the (year round) crap, eat natural foods (when in season). There is NO excuse if you are serious about your training, to be a lazy-ass when it comes to nutrition. Don´t waste money on powders and expensive supplements looking for a miracle boost or a shortcut. Only consider tweaks when you are already healthy. Eating naturally cannot be commercialized, eating man-made processed chemicals can, which is why supermarkets are 90% toxic. Be clear about this when you open your pie hole. FEEL guilty if your diet is not dialled into a natural food based regime. It´s why you feel like crap and half the reason why your training has stalled. Learn to appreciate and cook nutrient dense food, after all, it is THE building block for a healthy, strong you.

    • 2. You over-rationalize your training plans

Learn about your body

      Keep it simple. There are hundreds of training plans out there, some are even gullible enough to pay to read them, but most over complicate things. I´m not paid to recommend a certain program, and even if I was, if it didn´t include classic

Compound exercises

      like the deadlift, military press, dips, pull-ups, squats and bench press, I´d be dishing my morality. Joint strength, coordination and stabilization are essential for a healthy functional body. No matter what function you wish to perform. Add power and speed through

Olympic lifts

      like the snatch and clean and jerk. Include

Kettlebell training

    for all of the above, and especially to prepare your body for the kind of intensity you´ll need to make real progress. Kettlebells will ensure your mobility (in the hips especially) and grip strength will allow you to lift cleaner, heavier and more efficiently, which is key in bulking phases.
“But what about isolation exercises?“. I read in the…..
Mate, you probably get enough isolation exercise in the comfort of your bedroom reading those FLEX mags. Try using the other hand, in the meantime, stick with what works. Learn proper technique for how to shift heavy weight. If in doubt, ask. There are plenty of people who know about this at the gym. If you feel you are not stressing the whole body enough doing these classic movements and you are not responding as an integrated unit, then you are either not lifting heavy enough, or you need to refresh technique”.
Stick with what has been tried and tested to WORK AND GET RESULTS. Get mobile, learn to use your bodyweight. Lift heavy and simple. Don´t over rationalize things. If it´s not working, cut the surrounding crap out, ask, make it work. Save the reverse cable incline suplex pull for your late night keyboard warrior session.
      • 3. You over train and don’t rest

Overtraining (source: nw conditioning)

              “But isn’t it a good thing that I train like the pros?”
              “Bro, you are not a pro. If you were, we wouldn’t be speaking like this. The set up for a pro athlete is based around their specific skill set and the optimal way to maximize their performance.”
                I’ve written about this in a previous blog on sleep. In short, if you are stressing your body on a consistent basis (through whatever source) you need to allow it time to recover. But unless you have been through a period of over training, this concept is hard to drum into some young guy full of energy and intent written across his protein shaker.
            I’ve been there, suffered moderate to severe symptoms of adrenal fatigue and wondered why my training results were not only stagnating, but dipping. It may take time, but experience tells me that LESS is indeed the new MORE.I’m starting more and more to get the nutrition and rest message across, before starting talk of sets, weights and numbers. There are many resources out there telling you how to train, but less so, those telling you how to recover. I guess you can’t make money on the latter.

Cycle your training intensities and qualities

          Some refer to this as periodization. Even if your goal is hypertrophy, DO NOT lose sight of strength endurance, flexibility, mobility, power and speed. Throw in the odd metabolic conditioning routine, stretch, swing kettlebells and keep your body guessing. You cannot skip phases and expect gains without building up strength and intensity requires to shift heavy weights and utilize speed and power.

Charles Poliquin is a guru when it comes to these ideas. Bottom line: You want your body to be primed for each training session. If it is fatigued, it will underperform. Work in cycles, say 3-6 weeks, shifting focus to prevent injury and stagnation, adding a backoff week, ascertaining your progress in relation to your lifestyle. Be prepared to MAKE ADJUSTMENTS, but not to the detriment of your long term goals. Work hard for sure, but focus on quality rest in between.

4. You are too eager for quick results

Slow things down bro!

Things take time. We live in a world where we expect instant results with everything we do. All in the name of self-gratification and we are unwilling to put the time and effort required to make the changes really happen. We want to be bigger, stronger, leaner, healthier, wealthier, have more friends, have more crap about the house. We lose touch with reality, and the gym is often a place where this can be observed. To gain the body you desire, to optimize your health, to learn new skills, to become more empathetic or to see results from a course of action TAKES TIME.

If you really are determined to make changes and achieve certain goals in the gym or in your personal life, you must fight the desire for instant gratification. From an evolutionary point of view, this is not easy. We have evolved to survive, and expect results from our hunt or our escape. This is survival instinct. But these days, at least in Western societies, food is readily available, and we are not being chased by predators. Yet we still run on this instinctual system, and we are less than happy as a consequence.

Every great thing in history has taken time to develop, and those you see at the gym with impressive physiques have most likely invested considerable time and commitment into making themselves that way. And I’m not talking about the puffed-up walnut bollocked steroid brigade. Find a training program that feels good, one that is easy to understand, one that has proven to work, listen to the signals your body tells you, rest when it says rest, and work like heck when it says work!. Don’t skip days, don’t load your body with crap, don’t make constant comparisons with the guys beside you. They have their gig to attend, you have yours. Nothing brings more gratification than results from hard work. It WILL come.

5. You are making excuses

Get on with things

“Yeah, but it’s hard not to join in when the guys are going out drinking”

“I’ve been so busy with school lately…”

“It’s hard for me to train consistently with shift work”

“I have bad knees, so I can’t really do squats or kettlebell swings”

“I can’t afford to eat so much meat and vegetables. It’s cheaper to buy pasta and bread”

“I don’t want to lose my endurance for the soccer. That’s why I back down sometimes on the hard strength days”

Bla bla bla bla bla bla bla bla bla…. Excuses are excuses. Just that. We are conditioned to look for excuses. It’s a stress-relief mechanism that social psychologists have long been fascinated by. As a defensive mechanism for dealing with conflicting ideas about what it is we are faced with, we rewire our behaviour, our actions and even our beliefs. Smokers do it, people in bad relationships or jobs do it, and indeed budding gym-buffs do it when straight-out-of-the-block results dwindle.

There are ALWAYS excuses for not achieving what you set out to achieve. Make it a conscious decision to not look for excuses. Face the challenges HEAD ON. Don’t run away and hide out of the fear that what you might experience (but haven’t) may (or may not) be bad. Don’t give up wondering.

6. You think of training as an isolated goal

The master

Training for success involves fine tuning ALL elements of your life, introducing positive mental and physical stimuli, and eliminating the external distractions as best you can. Sounds easy?. Well, of course it is not. We need to pay our way, we have obligations, we have ups and downs. But in reality, those out there you admire for their fortitude, their boldness, their sheer will to make things happen are not so different to you and me. They merely set out a plan of action and get to work. Inevitably you will come across hurdles and certainly detractors. Learn to overcome these EXTERNAL factors and change your tactics in dealing with INTERNAL struggles.

Training is a part of life, even if it’s a daily walk, morning calisthenics, or wrestling with your partner. The more integrated your routines become, the better you are at reading the feedback that comes along in various ways, and making the adjustments that are the key for optimizing your efforts. We all have different desires and have different paths we take getting there. Find YOUR way by sticking to a plan for a while to see if it works. If it doesn’t, make the adjustments required, and if need be, ask for assistance. Knowledge comes from being aware and open to change. Wisdom, said Socrates, comes from wonder. When you find your way, and you put it into practice, you reveal the TRUE virtues that are within you.

 

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“Go to bed now!” (actually, I mean that!)

“Sleep that knits up the ravelled sleeve of care
The death of each day’s life, sore labour’s bath
Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course,
Chief nourisher in life’s feast.”
William Shakespeare

Human biological clock

One of the many curiosities about my time in Solomon Islands over the past years has been the way locals relate to sleep. I have been raised to think of sleep as a necessity obviously, and something done at night when not much else is happening. I have thought of weekends as a chance to alter routines by staying up later, sleeping longer (or “catching up” whatever that means), then by the time monday rolls around, look to more of a routine-esque sleep pattern if I want to keep the work/study/training/social/domestic gig alive. I knew that a lack of sleep made me perform poorly at school, work, the gym etc, but I never really pondered upon how sleep patterns work, and whether or not they are socially, biologically, environmentally or hormonally conditioned.

Solomon Islanders don´t seem to have set routines when it comes to sleep. For that matter, when they eat and are physically active either. It took me some time before I realized that the linear routine of the common Western way of living does not apply to this Melanesian archipelago. Food and sleep and exertion occurs when it occurs. It seemed to me that if I was to survive in rural areas, my body would have to assimilate its natural rhythms to local time as best it could. This meant being hungry, over satiated, so well rested to become stiff, exhausted from random bouts of paddling, trekking, football, bored and over stimulated. In other words, my comfort zones were put to the test every day, by not being able to precisely judge what was about to happen. It was never drastic however. Mostly, locals rested, stayed out of the heat, chatted, chewed betel nut, and left the running about for the kids. I was an anomaly for many reasons, not the least, because I found it hard to rest so much, always on the move for more ethnographic knowledge.

I wondered how Western society has become so agitated, so excuse-orientated, so dissatisfied with its lot?. I know this is a multi-facited dilemma, but the way we look at sleep, and the way Solomon Islanders do, made me search for a deeper understanding of this massive part of our lives.

1. How does lack of sleep affect our physiological/mental/metabolic performance?

2. Is sleep a universal requirement for mankind, or are we quick to adapt to different ´lifestyles´?

3. How does light affect sleep? What about the huge changes in daylight from Northern/Southern hemisphere to equatorial regions?

4. Why am I tired in the winter months, but awake in the summer months? Are we like bears or bats?

Robb Wolf is a guy whose advice seems to resonate on many levels with sensibility and logic. Often talking about the importance of sleep, Wolf advocates getting as much as possible short of getting divorced or fired, and in terms of training, weight control, hormonal balance, cortisol levels and insulin intolerance to name but a few factors, sleep is an obvious component of a healthy lifestyle. But still, I needed to know more about circadian rhythms and environmental factors that have selected us to become tired and awake in different ways at different times of the year. After all, modern man only recently ventured away from equatorial regions out to the extremities, and surely our genetic makeup has allowed for adaptability, but not adaption?. I suspected that sleep was another factor that was being manipulated by modern life, trying to con the physiology of our natural life cycles to fight the need to rest.

I read “Lights Out: Sleep, sugar and survival” by Wiley and Formby (2001) on Robb Wolf’s recommendation. Good read indeed, despite the mediocre reviews. I found their argument about seasonal changes effecting not only our dietary requirements, but our need for more or less sleep relating to light and energy zones very much standard evolutionary theory, but sleep specific, in that we cannot speak of optimal health by preferencing one factor (diet, lifestyle, rest, movement) over the other. In this sense, it strikes accord with a paleo-like way of thinking, if not in a more extreme context. To suggest that summertime (obviously this is a Northern hemisphere bias book) is party-time, stay up late, eat, drink and be merry type gig, viz-a-viz wintertime, where we should hybernate like a bear, and live in darkness is more to highlight our misguided lifestyles, than a doctrine to be strictly abided by. Despite the somewhat sloppy writing style (having just finished Gary Taubes’ excellent Why we get fat: And what to do about it) the message appears clear:

  • Sleep more, in order to recover
  • Avoid sugar, grains and excessive carbohydrates
  • Listen to your body as it is trying to be in tune with the seasons
  • Excessive artificial light in winter and sleep deprivation screws your hormonal balance, and exacerbates carb addiction

Lack of sleep blunts human growth hormone response, raises cortisol levels and causes insulin resistance. Not good, unless you want to soften out.

Anthropology, as the great bastion of holistic social sciences, has strangely remained quiet on the issue of sleep. Professor Carol M. Worthman, a leading researcher on the social ecology of sleep and hormone related developmental issues at Emory University, Atlanta, has crucially shown that the majority of clinical research and trials on sleep related disorders and habits are based on Western societies where sleep patterns are drastically different from societies where artificial light sources are infrequently available, and seasonal changes are minimal. The comparative field of evolutionary medicine is one branch of anthropological research that can be useful cross-comparatively in determining the extent of sleep variation in cultures with a focus on certain variables that point to deterioration of physical and mental health. As yet, no long-term cross-cultural epidemiological studies have been carried out that allow us to ascertain the effects of sleep deprivation, and lead us to a better understanding of the ideal way our biological sleep temporality effects our wellbeing, regardless of locality.

A better understanding of the history of sleep practices is needed so the social and physiological constraints that allow sleep to become inextricable linked to circadian patterns of consciousness, which are both phylogenetically and ontogenetically determined, become slightly more demystified. After all, to confuse this matter further, or at least my curiosity as to why Solomon Islanders slept so randomly, is the fact that circadian rhythms, and the hormonal action that takes place regulating our biological makeup, occur whilst awake AND asleep. It has the makings of something sci-fi this sleep thing. We are sleeping less and less, have more and more clutter and stress and fake-food surrounding us, and even try to alter our physical and genetic makeup by synthetic interventions – that perhaps humanity is trying to out-wit biology and attempt not just to stay up late, but stay up forever?.

I recently stumbled upon the work of A. Roger Ekirch, historian, and author of the fascinating “At Day´s close: Night in Times Past” (2005). Taking us back to the medieval days of the 16th-18th centuries, before the advent of electric lighting, Ekirch reveals the common segmented sleep patterns broken up into “first sleep” (dead sleep) and “second sleep” (morning sleep) and all the interesting nocturnal events that went on in between. Lights, he reveals, eliminated this pattern of semi-consciousness, where people would often have sex, pray and reflect. For me this is a startling find, and made me think of the way Solomon Islanders seemed half-awake, but never fully able to function in full consciousness. Often I would hear conversations, when all appeared quiet. Biphasic sleepers?.

Sleep cycle comparisons

Maybe, by looking back at our polyphasic sleep patterns from an historical perspective, comparing that with our monophasic tendencies nowadays, we are denying our evolutionary part in the animal spectrum once again?. An interesting article on biphasic sleep written by psychiatrist Thomas A. Wehr on a study about photoperiodicity (circadian rhythms) seems to confirm our tendencies to sleep in 2 periods (biphasic) of roughly 8 hours, but that artificial lighting and social norms have made us monophasic sleepers, which is not in accordance to our natural biology. To really start to geek-out on this, try this PubMed article on the evidence for a biological dawn. I also found paleohacks a goldmine of information on this issue, and as a bonus, stumbled upon this great thread for sleep hacking. Must give Tim Ferris a big High5 for getting me inspired.

I feel the need to do some more research though, and self-experimentation. Maybe my biological clock will tell me when it is time for that. I trust that clock, for it has made us a perfect species for adaptability to so much modern life presents to us, but we need sleep, and a good deal more than we are getting. That we cannot deny.

 

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