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(Grip) strength training with kettlebells – the 48kg Beast

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Kettlebells are not usually associated with pure strength training, but are so versatile that they can be used in conjunction with more traditional methods using heavy barbells, for example. Here, I list a few of my favorite exercises that can provide strength benefits when using heavier kettlebells, such as the 48kg “Beast”. Note that these relatively common and simple movements are useful for higher volume, lower weight training as well, and it’s advisable to build up a solid work capacity with lighter weights, before attempting to pick up heavier bells and focussing on strength. Start off with the 12kg or 16kg and work in a higher rep range (10-20) and gradually move up (20kg, 24kg etc) when you can complete these reps with the same form, on both hands. Don’t jump the gun with strength training, be patient, it’s a lifetime endeavor. Oh, and don’t attempt these with the 48kg until you’re completing at least 6-8 reps with the 32kg. The 48 is a wonderful tool, but doesn’t allow for any error, so be careful!

1. The 2-hand swing

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This has to be the kettlebell movement número uno and for good reason. It’s the first movement you should master, and the movement you should not let slip from you training routine. With heavier weight, really focus on holding your shoulders down and squeezed into your lats throughout the movement. Hinge at the hips, don’t dip down into a squat. Keep your spine enlongated and contract your hamstrings, glutes, abs and lower back at the bottom of the swing as you drive through with the hips. Remember, the arms should be relaxed, not locked out, as this can initiate anterior rotation of the shoulders, which isn’t good! As with any exercise using weights, the head should follow the alignment of the torso, in a neutral position, throughout the full range of movement. Never arch the chin up or dip it down. I use the 48 in sets of 10-12 reps as part of my grip strength training. Usually 5 sets. The sequence of movements is extremely important here, you need to familiarize yourself with the swing to know precisely when to incorporate tension, and when to relax. One arm heavy swings or hand to hand swings with the heavy KBs are great too, just make sure you chalk up and have strong fingers!

2. The suitcase deadlift

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Stand with feet about hip width apart and the kettlebell beside one foot. Keeping your back straight lower down with your hips and bend the knees grasping the handle. Keep the feet flat and shift your weight to the opposing foot as you drive up with your glutes and quads in one fluid move. Don’t let the lower back round. With heavy weights, you’ll need to adjust your alignment slightly to maintain balance, but aim to keep hips level. Single leg, offset strength movements are super beneficial, and very much underutilized. Remember that the body is never always following linear movements, so learn to strengthen not just your body, but your motor patterns which react to offset alignment.

3. One arm deadlift with 1-2 kettlebells

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Place both kettlebells between your legs and wrap your hand around both handles, which overlap. Squeeze tightly as you drive up using your quads and hips to a straight leg position. Keep your shoulder packed in, not allowing it to fall forward. Exhale as you come up. I find it easier to place the heaviest kettlebell underneath, in this case it’s the 48 with younger sibling, the 44. Of course this movement can be done with one kettlebell, with one or two hands.

4. One leg deadlift – contralatereal with 1-2 kettlebells

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Place the kettlebell(s) in front of your right foot with your left leg lifted off the ground behind you as a counter balance. Grip the kettlebells with your left hand and keeping your back straight, lift straight up. You may choose to lightly touch your left leg on the ground if you need the balance. But no weight is placed on the opposite leg. Note that there’s a slight knee bend but not excessive. Another version is the ipsilateral deadlift where you are standing on the right foot, and gripping with the right hand. Slightly harder, with similar challenges as the suitcase version. These single leg movements are great diagnostic indicators for imbalances, especially in the hips and ankles.

5. Racked squat

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Everyone should be squatting, not just for strength training purposes. Learn to get comfortable in a deep, rested squat by squatting in a deep rested squat position EVERY DAY!! The squat is a fundamental and natural human position that has been severely compromised by the sitting culture. Don’t contemplate, just squat! With heavy weight, ensure your back is kept straight with hips low and feel flat. Your knees should be tracking over your feet throughout the movement. You’ll need a fair bit of strength to hold the KB in one hand, so you may choose to use your opposing hand to stabilize the KB. Staying in the squat for time, is another great isometric position that will blast your grip, shoulders and thighs. Using two kettlebells in the double rack is a further progression with the squat. I like to use the weighted vest for squats, but found it tough holding the 48 in the rack!

6. Bottoms up clean

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One of my favorites. Handle facing forward, you line up like a normal one arm swing. The key here is to quickly engage your elbow with your lats and squeeze virtually the entire body at the top of the movement. Don’t let your arm disengage from your body, either in front or to the side. The forearm and wrist must be straight up and down and really tensed maximally. Try to hold for 2-3 seconds, then relax and let the KB drop down into the normal swing. This is a fantastic movement, really incorporating so many elements of strength, balance, timing, tension and coordination. Get used to completing 6-8 stable reps with light weight before attempting heavier. Once you’re proficient, you may want to try with two KBs, swinging either inside or outside your legs. Take your time, and learn how to bail out if you lose your grip at the top!  Another progression would be the bottoms up press. Obviously not with the 48! Or… anyone?

7. Figure 8

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With this exercise, you crouch slightly with wide stance, keeping back straight and trying to maintain a stable and solid grounding, so that the body takes the tension as it is transferred throughout the body. A great full body challenge this one, and another favorite for grip strength. You’ll note that I grip the handle in the corner, so as to make it easier in the transition behind the opposing leg. With the heavier weight, you’ll need to work hard at getting a flow on, nothing jerky. I aim for 6-8 rounds here each set. This one is surprisingly taxing on the back. So perhaps not straight after deadlifts! Great for dynamic finger strength, so major carry overs for pulling, hand balancing etc

8. Half get ups

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Ensure you have a strong overhead lockout with the kettlebell in a standing position before trying in a lying position. Bend the leg on the same side as the KB. Assist the KB up whilst lying on your back with the opposing hand. Don’t try and wrestle it into position unassisted. Not good. Once it’s stable, really engage your stomach and back and attempt to drive the KB skywards keeping your eyes locked on the KB. First come up onto elbow then hand trying to extend the distance between both hands. Hold 2-3 secs then controlled lowering back to elbow and to lying. Please use the opposite hand to lower the KB to chest, then roll to your side letting the KB to the ground. Do not lie flat and let the KB fall to the ground. Because this is a slow and controlled movement, use only 3-5 reps each arm. The locked position is maintained throughout the entire set. Once you are comfortable you can progress to the full Turkish get up.

9. Farmers walk

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Nothing more simple and more effective for strength and hypertrophy than lifting something(s) heavy and walking. Kettlebells are relatively convenient as they have nice uniform handles. I walk around the house, here with the 48/44, sometimes with a weight vest, sometimes up stairs, or just static holds for time. Sandbags, tires, barbells – use your imagination and get walking!

10. Extended range straight leg deadlifts

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I like to improvise with the stuff I have at home. Either with wide-stance straight leg deadlifts with the KB  or tire deadlifts standing on a block with reverse grip, again for extended range of movement.

Summary

These are merely a selected few staple exercises that I utilize heavier Kettlebells for strength training. There are of course many, many more, and no reason you can’t make up your own set of movements. As I mentioned at the start, work your way up to heavier weight training movements and get some help constructing a plan from someone experienced before you set out. Don’t just troll YouTube. For the majority out there, these movements can be utilized as part of a general strength and conditioning plan. For those already experienced with strength training, heavy kettlebells can be a great supplement to barbells. Personally, one of the noticeable benefits has been grip strength. Rarely does grip fail first when I lift barbells, climb trees, move tires, sandbags etc. I normally choose 3-4 of these exercises and perform 3-6 reps for 3-6 sets (per hand/leg). With the swings 10-15 reps for 5 sets and the farmers walk around the house, about 100m or 45 secs. Again, this is what works for me and my program. Your context will most likely be different. The 48kg will work for you, but treat it right. If you need a session or two with the 32 or a 24, no problem, the 48 won’t take offence. Like Bruce Lee said, take what’s useful, dish what’s not and come up with your own mojo.

This rep/exercise scenario with the KBs I combine with more explosive exercises such as sledgehammer strikes on the tire, tire flips, sandbag cleans, push-up variations etc. You may notice the weighted vest. This can be used for pretty much all the exercises as well as hill sprints, pull-ups, push-ups etc and for resting in the squat when reading, writing. Build up your strength and stamina before strapping one of these on, but when you’re ready, they are a great addition to your training arsenal. The one I have is a 30kg adjustable from Ompu, Sweden. High quality, with 30 separate pockets each holding a 1kg block so you can harden up over time.

With so many variables involved in strength training it’s important to know that no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach exists. Many programs have consistently worked, but all share a commonality in that you must work hard and quit with excuses. I like to keep things simple, and be consistent year after year. Most fall by the wayside however, and the so-called ‘fitness industry’ is there waiting with supple, moisturized hands to sooth the tears of apathy and offer a quick fix for 3 payments of $19:99. Start with an open mind, build resilience and a steely mindset and commit for the long haul. It’s advisable to proceed slowly, gain confidence with the movements, starting off with NO WEIGHT at all, then moving up. Progressions take time, strength is a lifetime investment. Let me know what you think.

Be patient. Be smart. Be curious. Be strong.

 

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Ido Portal – keep moving

Movement nutrition: you get good at what you do, and what you don’t do

IdoHuman evolution has, and will always be, about movement. Evolution requires complexity, and complexity requires movement. Those that don’t move, tend not to evolve as well. They shit the bed. Avoiding the approach of the poop-man, we were constantly reminded, requires nurturing the freedom providing our amazing capacity to move well. Few people however, seek to move, both figuratively and literally, outside their limited zones of comfort. Ido Portal is certainly an exception. Having spent the past years travelling far and wide seeking out knowledge from some of the world’s leading trainers, in order to improve my own game as both an athlete and teacher, the chance to work under the guidance of Portal and his assistants was one I had long awaited.

In short, Ido Portal has devoted his life to exploring movement. With a background in traditional martial arts, he moved about trying to find teachers of movement, but only came across specialists, who, despite imparting knowledge, failed to solve the myriad of elements that comprise movement education – scientific, nutritional, artistic, mental, biomechanical and so on. Portal now travels the world expanding upon a culture of movement. Some short clips of the complexities explored can be found here. I joined a group in Copenhagen who, in Portal’s words, were interested in this “bigger picture”.

Joined by his 2 pupils John Sapinoso and Odelia Goldschmidt, an eager group of mainly athletes, teachers, coaches and therapists experienced first-hand the ‘Ido Portal Method’. This post won’t detail this method, but will provide an insight into the philosophy of movement. We were reminded at the start, that the weekend would provide more questions than answers. I’ve gone away from courses with this feeling before, but not in the sense Portal meant. His teachings were complex, but this is a guy who has spent his entire adult life researching, and practicing, the intricacies of human movement. Being able to perform a strict one-arm chin up is not in any sense ‘easy’. His methods were challenging, but only in the respect that he never once led anyone to believe that beautiful capacities of strength and graceful movement came without years of hard work. Processes were broken down, from the preparation of joints, to the basic building blocks of hanging and pulling, to moving on all fours – in order to convey the process and complexity of movement freedom, and, if performing a one-arm chin/handstand, of bodily super strength. Throughout the demanding series of practical segments, Portal oozed his passion for perfecting form and not allowing us to move on too fast.

A large part of the weekend was as much a lesson is how to dig deep physically to unleash the creativity and complexity of the human body through natural movement patterns, yet I found myself intrigued by the philosophical insights provided into the way freedom might be approached in these hypermodern times. A slight interlude first. I’ve spent much of the past year reading the contrasting works of Nietzsche, Schopenhauer and Kierkegaard alongside the more contemporary neorealist approaches espoused by Sloterdijk and Latour. Part of this deeper introspection has to do with long-standing questions relating to the reevaluation and questioning of the meaning and purposes of ‘being human’. Whilst travelling to Copenhagen for the course, I was reading Thus Spoke Zarathustra, my alternative to a Lonely Planet city guide. This masterpiece, however challenging it is to read, is a vision of what we all have within us to define, create, and become the masters of our own existence. Through a highly metaphorical and parabolic style, Nietzsche asks why an encroaching spirit of nihilism has led the world into a state of crisis, an emptying of human meaning, purpose and essential value? The ‘free spirit’ or the Übermensch is a vision of overcoming the passive nature of an unreflective humanity – decomposing (as today) in a blur of YouTube, androgyny and high fructose corn syrup. This free spirit, and will to cross the bridges retaining the anthropos in this hot-tub of sugar-laced apathy, need not dwell in the mind but ought to resonate within the physical being.

For most philosophers, and indeed I must delegate this lack of motion to fellow anthropologists, the investigation into (post) humanism, past and present, has lacked any sense of an active, performative oomph. But, perhaps my diligent return to German thought (a mere aside I thought from the French poststructuralist hold upon my weary reading eyes of recent years) was meant to direct me to Peter Sloterdijk. Very briefly, this brilliant mind, in all his roguishness (Socrates was right – ‘wisdom-roughlook’ – ‘cheese&ham’) sees this transcendence of man Nietzsche prophetically called for, as taking place through training, work, physicality and performance. In other words, practice becomes the ‘athleticism of the incredible’ a repetition of exercises that shape a world in which we take responsibility for self-actualizing our potentials and freedoms, away from the temptations to continue to base life on a Facebook ‘like’ or a belly full of frozen spam (and the $19.99 solution). My reading may have a slight bias, but essentially, philosophers who remind us that we are products of what we do, and don’t do, are welcome downloads to this movers’ library.

Step up Ido Portal.

Ido2Marketing yourself as a proponent of ‘movement culture’ takes some follow up. Not like one who espouses his/her skills as a specialist (Yoga, Zumba, aqua-jogging, Nordic walking etc). Portal had clearly gone beyond the ‘course handbook, monthly newsletter and periodic group class’ mandate of many of today’s ‘trainers’ in the world of ‘fitness’. In fact, the detail and variety of insight into the body he provided, was beyond what I had expected. Again, I’m not sure some trainers dumb down their schpeel for ease of flow, or out of pure necessity. I found the anatomy and physiology detail extremely useful, not only in a practical sense, but in the way cognitive processes rely on various ques that one may or may not be aware of. I for one, like to know what’s happening (or not) with my body beyond feeling ‘ok’ or ‘crap’ and small details to concentrate on when standing upside down, or up on the rings are crucial to the process of mastering certain movements. Many fallacies were put to the test, in straightforward, no bullshit ways. Ideas about stretching, nutrition, deloading, programming, safety, intensity to name but a few were presented in ways that I’m sure the majority of the participants wouldn’t have come across before. I certainly found it refreshing to hear a coach talking about the resilience and creativity of both the body and mind, in regards to injuries, complexity and intelligence. Anecdotes were given from athletes and trainers to accentuate ideas, refute others. I appreciated hearing, as an undercurrent to most of the instruction, that it was our own responsibility to find out what works for us as individuals, as opposed to the constant ‘one size fits all’ approach commonly force fed in the boxed-in commercially-driven ‘fitness world’. These ideas were for people who wanted to train, not exercise. I’m just glad nobody asked the fateful question relating to ‘but is it still ok if we eat shit and don’t train much on weekends’? I can only imagine what the response would have been.

For those who have followed Portal on the interweb over the years, you can’t help but notice the air of confidence/arrogance in the way he responds to (mostly) cyberwarrior comments and questions. This could just be an Israeli thing I thought. On the contrary, I found Portal affable, humorous and fully geared to imparting understanding built up over years of research and practice.  To justify the fees and the almost ‘exclusivity’ of his services would require this, but like few others I’ve had the pleasure to work with (Steve Cotter immediately springs to mind) the level of professionalism and the take-out for me personally entirely justifies Portal as being someone you ought to seek out if you’re interested in the ‘bigger picture’ relating to movement. Like a number of the philosophers, stretching as far back at the Stoics through the Renaissance, the revolutionary 19th century, Enlightenment’s secularism and through to the critics of modernity today, Ido Portal seeks to confront the fear of possible freedom, and the instinct for growth, independence and durability. His movement culture, or ‘method’ may be seen as a new realm of physical perspectivism, one seeking to overcome the limits of dualistic thought between the mind and body. We may not all have the desire to move as beautifully as the human is capable of, or even reflect upon the destructive forces of inactivity and acquiescence to external forces. Yet, the perspective Portal gives is based upon movement, and the creativity and joy it can bring. The world is knowable, but conditional to certain interests – if we can place movement at the forefront of a new set of values for the human being, then Portal, like Nietzsche and his prophet Zarathustra before him, will have played his part in the creation of what we might become.

 

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Sexual selection (part 1)

Sexual selection: It does all seem to get over analyzed, with the general confusing over how much the social/external influence directs our evolutionary makeup. Less than we realize I reckon. This post** outlines how some of this confusion has got us through to today´s uncertain times regarding mate selection. In anthropology, 20th century theory was dominated by forms of functionalist thinking which saw social behavior reflecting or sustaining social order or collectivity, with less weight (understanding) placed upon legitimate biological practicalities of evolution.

Two competing, yet comparative instincts humans have evolved through their increased complexity are the sexual instincts that drive copulation (finding a partner to mate with) and the way we create, expose and decorate our bodies to apparently achieve such results. Both factors (one, we could crudely call biological, the other social) are part of sexual selection and, whilst not mutually inclusive, are fundamental to understanding the modern commercial preoccupation for “the ideal body” (whatever that is…I just heard about this reading high-end lit. in the dentists waiting room last week).

For the male, I think it is unquestionable that evolution has favored toughness those with hard to hide expressions of physical condition. Size, energy, loudness etc have been selected ahead of feebleness. But for the female, physical signs have not been allowed such scope of outward diversity due to the demanding task of pregnancy and motherhood. It would make sense to think that a female with a large arse and thighs (vs. skinny one) would indicate too much processed food breeding potential and proficiency as carrying potential genes forward. But then again, not all females are like that, so there are other factors. One that has become popular with evolutionary psychologists is the idea of “developmental stability”. Not just the arse then. This relates to the ability to change outward expression of fertility and health by aiming for symmetry in appearance, even if the genes and environment select against this. This is related to these odd studies you read about whereby people look at faces of all sorts of individuals and pick the ones they are most/least attracted to based upon nose/cheek/eye/chin lines etc.

Bodily symmetry has of course been a major factor in aesthetical expression of the human form throughout our history. But whatever the size and shape, these factors are biologically important to mate selection. So the question may be asked for today´s male or female out to find a partner or a one night liaison:

  • “What are these developmental symmetries that can help me out here?!”
  • “Never mind your evolutionary ranting, I just want to know how to get laid, and whether or not it is the bodily characteristics me or her I should be concerned about!”

Well, if I knew the answer, I would be like Tucker Max pretends to be. There is no answer of course, other than the fact that sexual selection a mutual choice (mostly). And that mutual choice is based upon a hugely broad variation of indicators of what fitness entails. It can be be boiled down to the level of tradeoff one places upon a certain category versus the other, which again is vastly diverse. If sexual fitness was biologically determined to favour certain factors like breast size, hip width or height, then we would all be the same. We are not, which is an indicator that humans get what they can use strategic selection based upon whatever they can get  a combination of socially and biologically influenced understandings of fertility and health. Big, or perhaps solid and meaty arses have long been a feature of the developmental success of our species, and the trend today towards stripping away the flesh to reveal bony, flat rumps is in fact more of a reversal of the evolutionary path back to our tree-dwelling days (minus all the hair). As far as breasts go, size has usually been linked to nutritional wellbeing in terms of fat reserves being stored there, but also as an indicator of fertility. In this sense, we would expect large breasts in affluent societies but the huge variation in size is perhaps an indicator of too much pointless aerobic exercise of other more influential factors in male selection, like brains.

The human body has successfully evolved to survive. We don´t have to worry too much about selecting a mate who may not have the capacity to survive, with few exceptions. Sexual selection has become more complex as our brains have developed, and as our societies have expanded. No longer do we have to make do with the odd new mate appearing on the horizon, unless we live in the Arctic. No longer do we have to use violence. No longer do we have to grunt better than the other hairy dude living in the next cave. We have language, we have the cognitive skills and intuition to make wrong choices and get divorced make the selective process a lottery more nuanced, more interesting and broader than that of our ancestors. But we still focus on tits ´n arses, girls still check out the shoulders, arms and hips. What´s up then?. The more we are told that aesthetic composition is the key to successful mating, the less we seem to adhere to the factors that have played a pivotal role over the course of our life histories.

Humans get sexually aroused rather quickly, and this is our downfall usually precedes the time it takes for emotional connection, which, in most cases is the determinant factor in (long-term) mate selection. How many times do you hear, see or think “he´s in it for the body” or “that has to be to suit the image”?. Like it or not, we are rather plastic beneath our cloak of egalitarianism and humility. We wish society well, and believe personality is the key to harmonious relations and coherence in life, yet still we are genetically programmed to display our (perceived) sexual prowess and select mates who fill these desires. Be truthful now!. Science does not usually lie, it is as objective as we allow ourselves to believe it ahead of the subjectivity that allows our ideological meandering to think we are an advanced monogamous species.

So, what the hell has this to do with modern consumer society trying desperately how to change our genetic tendencies?. We are perhaps guided by moralities and try our best to adhere to principles of good faith, family bonds and unity. But we find our modern complexities in constant flux regarding social, psychological, biological and physical frailties and the need to place more or less weight on the factors (they say, we say, we feel etc) that initiate our selection choice for partners.

It is only the media and commercial interests that profit from telling us how we need to manipulate our bodies and buy shit we don´t need through diet and exercise in order to make ourselves more attractive. Save yourself time and think of “being healthy” not as some aspect of social conformity, but as a possibility we have to fulfill our evolutionary potential. Mates will come and go, hearts will be broken, that is just my human nature. The less we stress about it the better. If we think of selection like we think of an episode of Seinfeld, then we understand the blurred nature of reality and entertainment. Just how we “know” what we are attracted to and why is part of our epistemological evolution that is in constant flux, and in constant battle with the pressures we allow ourselves to be influenced by in modern society.

Intelligence, warmth, compassion, humility, humor and lifting kettlebells so on are all parts of physical attractiveness. These qualities are displayed in various ways and will forever be debated through trial and error. Body image through the media and social commentary is part of the objectification of self that is so pervasive in today´s society. But we are reflexive in our mind´s appearance and habituate a body every day in many ways, thus have a capacity to act in non-cognitive ways. Our bodies are in constant motion and move freely beyond the boundaries prescribed by the the subject-object dichotomy that causes so much self-doubt about body image. It is the space we occupy and interact with that determines our consciousness wellbeing, not a static time zone. Sexual selection has many forces at play, but still, take it as a compliment if someone tells you you´ve got a nice arse. I´m sure it´s well meant.

**based upon years of trial and error and the realization that George was smarter than Jerry and Elaine

 

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Steve Cotter – How coaching ought to be

Steve Cotter is a busy coach. But one that has time. Time to observe, time to learn, time to build upon an already impressive capacity to impart knowledge about the human body, its mechanics, its shortcomings and ultimately its huge potential. You see, Cotter isn’t just your average coach who has had a decent career, picked up a few skills along the way and found a way to impart some of that experience to others. Most coaches follow that line, some are succesful, some less so, yet most find a niche where they stick to what works, and take few chances. Sound familiar? Well, that’s generally the way most cats rock in the health business.

Cotter on the other hand, seeks to push the boundaries of sports science in an ever reaching search for new and unexposed knowledge about not only human physical performance, but ways in which we can improve our game by adopting a holistic perspective of the human body and mind. You see, we are an integrated species. We are immersed in an evolving connection with our environment, and our mental, physiological, spiritual and athletic makeup cannot be seen in any other way as a performative organism which requires constant nourishment in order to reach its potential. Few dwell upon this connectivity, and live lives of compartmentalized units wondering why they suffer from stress, illness, boredom or dwindling mobility and performance. Cotter sees this link, and luckily for those who have had the privilege of being coached by him, many other will as well.

I first met Steve in London during an IKFF Kettlebell certification. Being an amateur scholar of all things physical, I knew Steve through his exploits posted on Youtube and various reviews in the kettlebell world who recommended him as one of the most innovative trainers around. The 2 days spent in London were the start of my passion for Girevoy sport, but also for the search for ways to integrate different methods into my coaching game, in order to give others an advantage. Steve had time for everyone, and had the ability to impart knowledege in various ways, given the diversity of people’s cognition levels. As I’ve learn in the academic game, people respond in varying ways to knowledge acquisition, and it takes a certain level of skill and spontaneity to be able to get your points across. Some like to be shown, some like to hear, some like to watch. A good teacher understands this and usually acquires new knowledge in all three ways.

I had the pleasure of bringing Steve to my home town of Bergen where he conducted a workshop at Crossfit Bergen and won many admirers. Following that, I attended the IKFF level 2 CKT in Frankfurt on the back of Steve’s time spend in St. Petersburg with the IKSFA. I was blown away by the new knowledge presented and the way Steve managed to integrate it into his coaching game so fast. The level was high, the intensity was higher. For 3 days, we immersed ourselves in GS and came away better athletes. Steve could, within all his rights, have stopped at the establishment of his own company, the IKFF, and continued a successful career holding seminars, certifying instructors and travelling the world spreading the word on kettlebells. But Steve, with a long background in martial arts, also views kettlebell sport as an art form. He sees his role as moving through developmental stages, acquiring new knowledge and understanding along the way, and applying it to his own game, and that of his students.

As an athlete, Steve certainly walks the walk. One only has to look on Youtube to see the jumping pistol , double get up  or 112kg windmill to see that his power is immense. This is often showcased by certain coaches who are perhaps less than confident in their own technical abilities, but for Steve, these are merely specific skills that can be learnt and performed, rather than benchmark features of a skilled athlete. Just as you can never trust a skinny cook or a fat coach, Steve’s info CAN be backed up!. In recent years however, and for me the most interesting aspect not only of kettlebell sport, but for my own philosophy of training, has been Steve’s transition to focussing more on movement quality and efficiency through simplicity. For Girevoy Sport, the Russians have proven that efficiency builds work capacity in a very different way than that of traditional resistance training. It requires breathing mastery, mental stability and a biomechanical awareness few sports take as seriously.

Training with kettlebells allows different energy systems to be worked in ways that have great carry over potential to other sports, especially martial arts and boxing where the winners are usually those who can sustain striking or takedown power over a long period. The ability to stay calm and focus whilst occupying your anerobic threshold is a key feature of elite athletes, as is the ability to manouver in efficient and powerful ways when in disadvantaged positions. Steve is of the humble nature, which I have found is a unique quality across the kettlebell environment, which champions their sport and the potentials it has, yet doesn’t waste time slagging off other disciplines or coaching philosophies. Again, many coaches seek refuge in their specialist ball of knowledge, fearing exposure of their lack of insight into alternative methods.

The kettlebell is perhaps the greatest complimentary training tool I have found. It compliments those who search for bodily mastery using their own weight, and it can add a platform and finishing edge to a specific skill base for many sports. It has given my own training a new lease of life in recent years by allowing me to discover my center of mass, and develop a base that has projected outwards in suprising ways. Martial artists have long known this, and being able to maintain power and control and stability is what gives one the advantage. The ballistic nature of the movements along with an emphasis on neutral wrist alignment leads to strength and stability in the spine and abdomen as well as the posterial structure often overlooked in convential training methods.

Those who slag off kettlebells are perhaps those who view sporting performance, health and longevity as a narrow pathway. Good on those though. Let them do their thing. Lets just hope they don’t make coaches. Steve Cotter is perhaps representative of a new breed of elite coaches who sees himself as a student as much as a teacher. Perhaps he is lucky to find himself outside mainstream sport, where the confines of tradition and skepticism to new methods reigns. It would be hard to see a coach with Steve’s mindset leading a Premier League football club or an NFL team.

Being a good coach, a leader or a teacher requires a large technical skillset or knowledge of the game or field. Many have this. Being a great coach or leader requires much more. One needs to have a compassion for the students and their individual needs and the ability to adjust their gameplan to suit changing circumstances. One needs to learn from mistakes, and adopt new strategies should things not go according to plan. Leading by example, a great coach must be disciplined on and off the field, in and out of the class room. Most of all, a great coach must be humble to the infinite capacity the world provides for new and inventive ways of combining the old knowledge with new. Steve Cotter ticks many boxes, and will no doubt improve his skillset during the next phase of his career, all in a chilled out and compassionate manner.

 

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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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Self improvement is masturbation. Now self destruction…?

Self-destruction!

It´s not just about the sofa or the fucking khaki trousers. It´s about the way we think. It´s the way we mediate our gym time, our mealtimes, our image and our future plans. We are scared, because that is how society has conditioned us. We are stressed; we lock ourselves up and surround ourselves with shit from Ikea. We pretend to maintain an identity and self-esteem that we carve out based upon a gag of materialism and social norms. We seek false gratification out of the fear of breaking down the fake comforts that can lead us to our true primal self.

I say, chill the fuck out. Things are NOT that complicated, we just choose to follow the path of turmoil and fear, and make excuses for not doing what we need to do to get out of the way of the friggin bus. It´s called cognitive dissonance, in psychological realms, but I wont dwell on the head spin now. Later maybe. In short, we rationalize when we are stressed and faced with conflicting emotions and impulses. We may know what should be done to break free from the armpits of modernity, but we crawl back to the comfortable illusion of the dehumanized striped sofa. Aaaagghhhh.

What do we learn from the twisted world of Tyler Durden?. Not to give a shit?. To let go of everything around us that makes our identity what it is?. Maybe the lesson to take from this epic movie is to reconsider dissonance. Stop making excuses in order to protect your egocentric motivations that are cultivated by the crap surrounding you. Self-destruction, for Durden, need not be so extreme as to warrant being ostracized from modern life, your job or your family. No, but you can let down your guard and be exposed to fear, emptiness, or a path not ventured. Only then can we realize our true morality, which is not bound up in our self-improving masturbatory hand of superficiality.

Tyler Durden is Jack´s consciousness. Jack is fighting the urge to remove his dissonance. He wants to improve himself, but needs to realize that who we are runs deeper than the image we portray at the gym or the other externalized reflections we prop ourselves up upon…..Our strength on the outside pails into comparison with the drive we have internally to make changes that only a truly free self can obtain. Beyond the reach of the naysayer, or the rationaliser.

Jack: “You could take him”

Tyler Durden: “The trick is not to care”

Masturbation, Ikea crap and other material junk we surround ourselves with offer a false sense of self-improvement. Not that those momentary pleasures, in the Stoic sense, are forbidden, but that we need to realize that a kind of destruction, or massive change in discipline, is what modern society needs to open up our souls for the possibility of a return to our primal selves. What are we really trying to achieve by plastering up a broken wall in the name of self improvement?. Why do we criticize those who seek to push the boundaries of societal norms, thinking that we are broadening our horizons by conforming to superficiality?.

Imperfect action is better than perfect inaction, Truman once said. Life is not about finding excuses, tolerating the effects of stress, acquiescing to self-improvement through external influence. It is about realizing there are no limits, only those we choose to surround ourselves in. We can optimize our lives by being aware, being active, being true to ourselves and those around us. It may take severe action, clearing out a lot of crap, facing your fears and nurturing your survival instincts.

“It’s only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything.”

Right on Tyler. Fuck the khaki trousers, go nude and self-destruct!

 

 
 

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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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